Lessons and recipes from a retreat in the Tuscan countryside

‘No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers’.

-Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking

Despite leaving Tuscany just over two weeks ago, I can still feel the presence of six lovely people (Giulia, Tommaso, Regula, Sarka, Rachel and Shirley) I was lucky enough to meet as part of the Three Acres Creative Retreat. On this particular Friday, I am alone in my torinese kitchen, rolling nests of pici and assembling the layers for my zuppa inglese. With TP at work and TT at daycare, my mind wanders back to the meadow sage and black locust flowers blossoming around Giulia’s Tuscan home and many a long conversation had about food, photography and working as a ‘creative’.

There’s Giulia’s nonna‘s superstition about making the pastry cream or crema pasticcera needed for the aforementioned zuppa steeped in myth and pink-hued alcohol: ‘If you make crema pasticcera when you have your period, you will end up with scrambled eggs’. This time round, Aunt Flo is not paying a visit. I do, however, end up making a slightly greater amount of chocolate-based cream after not taking enough care to divide my mixture evenly. My punishment perhaps for not following another one of nonna‘s instructions: only use an old-school wooden spoon when mixing your crema. Instead, I had used a whisk to ensure no lumps were formed.

There’s our evening visit to Siena and our laughs about the day we’ve had over wine and a truly wonderful four-course senese dinner at La Sosta di Violante. Noa, Giulia’s Maremman sheep dog eating the zuppa inglese we were supposed to style and photograph. Buying 50 euro worth of provolone at the market in Colle Val d’Elsa. Finally being among people who have no qualms if you stand on their kitchen chairs to get the perfect ‘flat lay’ food photograph. Our love-hate relationship with Instagram and other social media.

Cheese-grater in hand now, I’m thinking of those three days devoted to the variety of diverse, yet, in the context of this unique retreat, related tutorials: a tour of our farm-stay accommodation or agriturismo Tenuta di Mensanello; sourdough baking with Manuela; using Lightroom with Lorenzo; making natural cosmetics with Claudia: arranging flowers with Irene; food-writing with Tessa. I grate the piece of the year-aged pecorino that remains from our market visit in Colle Val d’Elsa. When I realise how little of it remains, I curse myself for not buying the 50 euros worth my husband wishes I had. In on the joke, I send a message to my retreat hosts and fellow participants voicing my regret. Laughing emoticons on Whatapp ensue. United in memories with six generous and creative souls, I am not and never will be alone in the kitchen.

I learnt so many lessons during this three-day retreat, lessons people close to me have been trying of late to remind me of, but that I have failed to heed. In my desire to grow my blog and establish myself as a food writer, I’ve been guilty of wishing my present life away on many an occasion. I’ve ignored TP and TT while I am measuring flour on my kitchen scales to test a recipe for the umpteenth time, typing furiously away on my computer or standing up on one of our kitchen chairs so I can get that perfect ‘flat-lay’ shot. ‘All they want to do is chat about their day or play doctor with me’, I say to myself whenever I am in one of my creative trances but continue on regardless.

Most glaringly though, I realised that I’m failing to embrace the journey to my ultimate goals. Perhaps it’s due to fear of taking the odd risk or sacrificing a couple of perks in my life to reach my objectives. The relative financial security of my current day job. My mediocre knife skills. All the expenses and permits involved in starting your own food business. The accountant you’ll need come tax time. All just a few of the many excuses I’ve made to myself not to do what I really want to do.

Now that I’ve finally resolved to do what I really want (watch this space!), I’ve accepted that the road ahead will not be straightforward. But that’s ok. When some of the more trying moments in my journey occur (and they no doubt will), I’ll retreat to the kitchen, like I often do now, minus the self-pity. Instead, I’ll make the following two recipes, both treasured memories of my time with my three hosts who had to make similar life-career choices, and remind myself to take everything along the way – successes, setbacks, failures – in my stride…

Pici con le briciole
I’d actually been lucky enough to discover these long, hand-rolled noodles, made in Siena and the surrounding Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana. while Giulia was in the writing and recipe-testing phase for her recently-published book, La cucina dei mercati in Toscana. My mother and I were quickly won over by the simplicity of Giulia’s recipe, and we’ve made them on and off ever since. Made with four ingredients – stone-milled flour, water, olive oil and a bit of salt – pici really are one of the easiest varieties of fresh pasta you can make. I’ve even managed to get TT involved in making them! During the retreat, Giulia made a cacio e pepe sauce to go with the pici Shirley, Rachel and I rolled and arranged into nidi or nests. Since I bought a regretfully small amount of pecorino though (you do need a lot of pecorino for this dish) back from my Tuscan trip, I opted to make her pici with another common condiment, toasted breadcrumbs, instead.

Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter)

For the pici

  • 250 g water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • a pinch of salt
  • 500 g stonemilled flour, plus extra for dusting
  • Coarse semolina or polenta, for coating

For the toasted breadcrumbs

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • 150 g coarse, homemade breadcrumbs
  • salt, to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pour water in a large mixing bowl. Add olive oil and salt. Start adding flour in slow, steady stream using a fork or wooden spoon to bring the ingredients together. Transfer to a clean, lightly dusted work surface. Knead the dough until smooth. Leave the dough to rest for at least half an hour, covered by the mixing bowl.

Roll out the dough to a thickness of about half a centimetre. Brush the top of the rolled out dough with olive oil to prevent it from drying. Cut the dough into strips about half a centimetre wide. Using the palms of your hands, roll the flat strips from the centre outwards, until you have long noodles slightly thicker than spaghetti strands. Dust inside a bowl containing semolina or polenta flour and arrange into nests on a tray or wooden board.

To prepare the breadcrumbs, heat the olive oil in a pan with a clove of garlic. Add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper to taste, Set aside.

Cook the pici in salted boiling water for 5-6 minutes. Serve tossed with the toasted breadcrumbs and some freshly grated pecorino cheese.

Zuppa inglese
So many legends abound about the origins of zuppa inglese, the dessert Giulia’s nonna would prepare as an afternoon snack or merenda for her and her younger sister Claudia when they were growing up. And, with its striking resemblance to the trifle and the literal translation of its  name (‘English soup’), it’s easy to see why many Italians are keen to ascribe this dessert a British origin or connection. My personal opinion though is that the resemblance between these two boozy, layered dolci is a case of sweet coincidence and that zuppa inglese is a home-grown Italian dolce. For some of the more probable explanations regarding its foreign-sounding moniker, check out my recent Italy Magazine article at this link here.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

For the pastry creams

  • 500mL whole milk
  • grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • 40g corn starch
  • 100 – 125 g sugar
  • 50 g dark chocolate, plus extra for garnish

For the assembly

  • ladyfinger biscuits, as needed
  • Alchermes liqueur, as needed

To make the pastry creams, heat the milk and grated lemon zest in a saucepan until it starts simmering. Remove from heat. In a separate stainless steel saucepan, whisk the eggs with the sugar and cornstarch, taking care to remove any lumps that may form. Continue to whisk while adding the heated milk in a slow and steady stream. Place saucepan on a low-flame and stir continuously until the cream thickens (about 5 – 10 minutes). Remove saucepan from heat and divide the cream into two bowls. Combine 50 g of the dark chocolate into one of the bowls. Stir until the chocolate has melted and is perfectly combined.

To assemble the zuppa inglese, take one bowl (measuring 18 cm in diameter and 9 cm in height) or 6 individual drinking glasses. Pour half a cup of Alchermes and half a cup of water into a bowl (N.B. the bowl may need to be refilled depending on how much liquid you soak your ladyfingers in). One by one, dip the biscuits (N.B. you will need to cut these in half if using individual glasses) into the diluted liqueur and place side by side at the bottom of your bowl or glasses. Cover layer of ladyfingers with the chocolate pastry cream, followed by another layer of soaked ladyfingers and to finish, the plain pastry cream. Grate some dark chocolate for the garnish on top. Alternately, you can reverse the position of your pastry creams and use the chocolate one as your top layer instead. If doing so, garnish with some crumbled ladyfingers instead. Cover and chill in the fridge for two hours or overnight before serving.

Buon appetito!

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    Thank YOU for being such an amazing host and for providing us with such a wonderful experience! Look forward to coming down your way again in the not too distant future. xo

    This is such a beautifully written post, so honest and heartwarming. Your gorgeous photos and words brought back many wonderful memories. Thank you for being part of our little gathering. x

    Sarka, thank you for teaching me so many things! Looking forward to making my way down to Tuscany again in Autumn for a catch up with you, Regula, Tommaso and Giulia. xo

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