A secluded Tuscan villa with its own vineyard was the perfect foodie getaway to learn the basics of Italian cooking, finds author Sara Sheridan
Ispent most of my summer holidays as a child in Tuscany in the tiny seaside town of Forte dei Marmi. Its most famous occasional resident is Giorgio Armani and my cousins and I spent balmy summer evenings sneaking around hoping to catch sight of Mr Armani and scoffing pizza. Italy for me has only good memories, so when the opportunity came up to return, it was a no-brainer. Tuscany, after all, was called “that most beautiful of lands” by Anne Rice and so, with memories of ice cream on tap, I plumped for a foodie break, learning to cook in a private villa.
I love cooking. I don’t cook enough. I don’t take enough holidays either. People envision novelists hanging around coffee shops and lounging on sofas and this is, indeed, part of my job, but it’s a full-time job. It’s busy and on top of the lounging there is a very active research schedule and a summer timetable of book festivals and events which you need to be in training to achieve. I have two books out this year and I’ll be writing two more. I miss the glory days of stopping at 4pm and putting on an apron. Leisure, I was advised only a couple of weeks before I left, is in. So I decided to reclaim some and I booked a week away on an all-inclusive trip.
I flew to Pisa and was met by a cheery driver who scooped me up from the arrivals hall along with four other people and drove us into the hills. The villa was only half an hour from the airport, situated in between Pisa and Florence. Best of all, it was surrounded by its own vineyard. It’s a working estate that was originally owned by the Piaggi family who designed the Vespa and put it into production.
For motor enthusiasts, the villa houses a (very cool) private collection of vintage Vespas. It also had a pool with a spectacular view set in lovely formal gardens.
I’m urban by nature, but this was marvellous. It felt like coming home but, in my case, tidier.
At the front door, we were met by our cook, Sunshine, and our host, Livia, who had already cracked open a couple of bottles of prosecco for us and we sat on the verandah overlooking the view and feeling, in my case, rather smug. This was adult Italy – Mr Armani would have been proud. I hadn’t been sure what it would be like sharing a private villa with (in the end) seven other people, but it was very laid back. Over several days, I lounged by the pool, dipping in and out of conversations and the cookery lessons provided a great focus for everyone to get to know each other in a relaxed way. Many people were also travelling on their own and it turned out we had all been anxious about booking the trip but we made friends easily. The holiday company didn’t charge a single supplement and we all had our own rooms in recently restored Tuscan farmhouses near to the main villa, apart from a mother and daughter who were enjoying spending a bit of time together – who shared a room. It might sound slightly solitary but the smell of cooking often tempted us back into the kitchen (like all good parties, some holidays end up in the kitchen) as well as to the dining table. Walking around the estate was beautiful, especially in the evening after a hard day’s cookery and lots of chat.
So, yes, the cookery. There were lessons every day, based on authentic, classic Tuscan dishes. Sunshine, who has just published his own cookbook, guided us through the recipes – some of them from his own family. I loved the ravioli stuffed with ricotta and truffles. The chicken a la cacciotore was also pretty good and I had great fun rolling out cantucci biscuits to dip in Vin Santo. It was so much more satisfying than just opening a packet. I dreamed nightly of impressive dinner parties back in Edinburgh for my expectant friends. It wasn’t all cookery, though. We had a private wine tasting laid on for us one afternoon at the estate’s winery. I love red wine and there are some cracking super Tuscan reds to savour. I enjoyed chatting to the estate’s sommelier who filled us all in on the production methods. They also make olive oil and I bought a few bottles of that to bring home – a sneaky wee flavour of the sun.
It was only a short break but for one day we headed to Florence where Livia guided us round the market in and out of different stalls manned by enthusiastic locals proferring everything from wild boar to pecorino cheese and insisting that we taste the lot. We really didn’t need lunch afterwards, but we went anyway.
Livia had sorted out a local trattoria that features slow food from the region after which we were set loose to explore Florence on our own. I nipped into the Uffizi.
I had pre-booked a ticket online so I skipped the queue. Afterwards, I found a brilliant leather shop that sold gloves and belts and I bought a pair of amazing fur-lined winter gloves for back at home. Livia rounded us all up at 5pm and we had a Negroni cocktail before heading back to the villa.
It was great to get away from work and a boon to fly direct from Edinburgh. That doesn’t mean I didn’t indulge my passion for books. I packed the first Montalbano book, The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri, E M Forster’s A Room With a View, Silk by Alessandro Baricco and I picked up Vogue Italia at the airport. I got through that pretty quickly and one of the other guests lent me a copy she’d brought of a crime series set in Florence, which was fun because there was a scene in the market where we’d been the previous day. I had quite a bit in common with other guests which meant we formed ourselves into a kind of group, which was fun in the evenings after dinner – a book group!
I arrived home with a sun tan to beat the band, a bag full of interesting condiments, olive oil and other ingredients, and big ambitions for sharing what I had learned. It was particularly nice to have picked up new skills (biscuit and pasta-based skills – always useful). I intend to go back. Italian cookery is a generic term and Italy is regional. I’m excited by the idea of going to Puglia – which is definitely on my list of Top Italian Food Destinations – think of the Primativo wines and the fantastic seafood. Sunshine talked a lot about Tuscany having “la cucina povera” – it’s poor people’s food. But it was delicious and simple and just what I needed after a few laps in the pool. I have had a couple of dinner parties since I got home and I think my friends agree.
• Operation Goodwood by Sara Sheridan is out now, published by Constable and Robinson at £19.99. Sara visited Tuscany with Flavours of Italy, www.flavoursholidays.co.uk