By Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo
© Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
Spannocchia, at last. In the hills of rural Tuscany southwest of Siena, this sprawling tenuta or organic estate has already worked its magic on one of my traveling companions, who declares the Tuscan landscape so beautiful, “I have goose bumps!”
We are here for Spannocchia’s first symposium on food, landscape and community in Tuscany and New England. Our first meeting is in an old stone barn. Despite mild jetlag, I am thrilled to be here and to meet other symposium participants — farmers, academics, policy makers, landscape architects, students and chefs from both New England and Tuscany. As the space fills, I glance up at the ceiling and see a painted angel sitting on a cloud wearing wings and a slightly daffy expression. She is holding a fluttering banner that reads, “Benvenuti a Spannocchia,” welcome to Spannocchia.
Our welcome lunch takes place in an open dining room with a wood fire at one end and busy kitchen at the other. We enjoy a simple but hearty vegetable soup, crusty bread and distinctive green-blue olive oil pressed from Spannochia’s own olives. Heaven.
Green and Growing
On Spannocchia’s 1,100 acres grow hundreds of olive trees, extensive vegetable gardens, fields, woods and vineyards. Most of the meat, eggs, grains, vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine consumed on the farm come directly from the estate and its self-sustaining, cyclical system of agriculture. The estate’s carefully managed forests and hiking trails are dedicated to preservation of the region’s cultural and agricultural legacy. Even the wood that is burned for heat is harvested sustainably.
“Crops feed the animals, the animals produce manure to fertilize the fields, the animals and crops feed human residents and visitors, and the humans provide the labor necessary to make it all work.” — Erin Cinelli, Spannocchia Foundation Director – Portland, Maine and Chiusdino, Italy
Conservation is the central theme and direction of all activities on the estate. Spannocchia’s “Noah’s Ark” project raises threatened heritage breeds of Tuscan farm animals, including sheep, cows, ponies, donkeys, and the distinctive Cinta Senese pigs. The enormous “belted” pigs root for chestnuts in the surrounding fields and forests and produce the wonderful prosciutto, lardo, mortadella and other cured meats created here.
Out and About
A walk is planned after lunch to the Giardino Segreto, or secret garden. Sunny and muddy in equal parts, our hike takes us across the fields, through the woods and around the Cinta Senese pig pens. Like foodie boy scouts, my fellow hikers, Sam Hayward, chef at Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Chris Colson of New Leaf Farm in Durham, Amy Trubek, professor of food and culture at University of Vermont, Brian Donahue, professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University, and Russell Libby, director of the Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association (MOFGA), identify and sniff herbs, trees and berries. They trade pruning techniques. The numerous chestnut trees in the Spannocchia woods inspire a heated discussion of the return of this beautiful tree to New England. Brian Donahue then describes the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the story is oddly riveting. It dawns on me that these stories give meaning and history to something we do every day and many take for granted: producing and consuming food. Suddenly the subject of sustainability has drama and mystery, and is surprisingly compelling.
Taste and Smell
The outdoor smells of trampled grass, moss-covered stone walls and wild sage are replaced by the rich indoor smells of baking cheese and fennel from the Spannocchia kitchen. As we wait for dinner to be served, estate-made wines, red and white, are poured into short glasses and passed around to guests and symposium participants. Dinner is served family style, and is always savory and filling. One night we have penne Bolognese, the next day for lunch there is a delicious fennel and cheese tart. We enjoy a green bean and cheese frittata, and a beautiful blood orange and fennel salad, roast pork and potatoes. Bread, butter and sunny apricot jam are served at breakfast, along with yogurt, granola and hard-boiled eggs.
There are also traditional Tuscan cookies and desserts, my favorite being the chestnut-flour rosemary cake. Served with Spannocchia’s own Vin Santo, it was delicious.
Decidedly no-frills, the rooms at Spannocchia are spare but comfortable, restored to rustic simplicity with wood-beamed ceilings and wrought-iron beds. There are public rooms with big fireplaces and comfy chairs. One of the fireplaces serves as the main cooking fireplace for the estate and is large enough to walk into. Our large room is furnished with an enormous wooden wardrobe, dresser with marble top, simple writing desk and incongruous upholstered Ikea chair. Our window looks out into the sun-filled stone courtyard, where there are several yellow striped cats, and an enormous, friendly sheepdog named Lapo.
After a long afternoon of tromping around the woods and fields, I am ready to unwrap my many layers and enjoy a little “down time” in a quiet corner. My search for warmth and solitude doesn’t last long; at Spannocchia, there are plenty of places to lose yourself in a daydream or a book, or just gaze out the window at the fading yellow light as it creeps across the Tuscan countryside.
A “Green” Destination
Several small farmhouses on the estate have also been converted for vacationers, with kitchen, living, dining, bed and bath — and incredible views. Since it is a “green” destination, guests are expected to compost and recycle. Housekeeping and other nonessential, posh services are limited or nonexistent.
Activities include cooking classes taught by Loredana Betti who has cooked at Spannocchia for over 20 years. She shares her passionate cooking techniques and recipe secrets for homemade pasta – ravioli, tagiatelle or gnocchi — pizza, salads, vegetables and soups using the estate’s organic meat and produce. During lessons, participants relax with a glass of wine and an appetizer. Buon appetito!
Spannocchia also offers courses and workshops in art, architecture, ceramics, historic gardening, wild herbs, nature, ecology, writing and yoga. “At Spannocchia, there is something for everybody. We don’t force anyone to engage in activities, but there is plenty to do and participate in,” says Erin Cinelli.
Spannocchia also serves as an excellent base for exploring the Tuscan Hills. We took a day trip to a nearby family farm and vineyard in Poggio Alloro , where we toured the processing rooms for wine and olive oil, and the barns for cows . Many of us purchased the specialty white wine, Vernaccia, as well as their grappa and olive oil. The farm overlooks the hills of San Gimignano, and we were blown away by the view.
We also visited the organic winery “Columbaia” in Mensanello, where we enjoyed a wine tour and tasting with owner Dante Lomazzi. I thought his “Convivio” wine delicious, and a perfect choice for this lovely week among new friends.
A visit to Siena brought us to the beautiful center piazza, among the most lovely I have ever seen. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening at the Ristorante Grotta di Santa Caterina in Siena, where chef “Bogoga,” another symposium participant, prepared a spectacular meal of traditional Tuscan cuisine. His papardelle, wide ribbons of pasta with spicy wild boar sauce, were delicious.
A Learning Vacation
“For families or for individuals, this is the best kind of vacation. We offer an atmosphere of relaxed comfort, plenty of blue sky, rolling hills, nature walks, a sunny terrace and lots of friendly people. It’s your hard-earned time and your hard-earned money. Our working farm offers an authentic Tuscan experience.” — Erin Cinelli
Spannocchia was a perfect place for this symposium, which lasted four fascinating days. The estate’s beautiful surroundings reflected the meeting’s goals as well as the farm’s mission and philosophy. The ideas expressed during the symposium were as inspiring as the views of the Tuscan countryside. The whole experience felt rich, convivial and above all, authentic.
So if you’re in the mood for a learning vacation, an exciting family experience, a meaningful farm internship, or tips on preparing a great meal, check out our Tuscan cousins at http://www.Spannocchia.org.