I have had a dream to visit Tuscany ever since watching my favorite films, Life is Beautiful & Gladiator. Both films using the scenery of the Tuscan landscape to create their brilliantly emotive, story lines. The picture in my mind of what I expected to see after all these years of dreaming was finally before me when my family and I recently visited Tuscany’s Chianti region. The fields were starting to turn their Autumn hues, with the leaves turning pale shades of orange and yellow. The greenery was still alive in the olive trees, where bunches of plump and ready to harvest olives sat hidden amongst their silvery green leaves. Stone villas scattered amongst this romantic, natural landscape, accentuate the regions’ historic and rustic charm.
Whilst the imagery had already surpassed my expectations, I was not expecting to later be overcome with immense love for the area and for the people who call it home. Among these people were the beautiful Arianna, Alessio and Michael (and Layla the dog) of Villa Montrogoli Holiday house, whom also run the slow travel, tour company, KM Zero Tours. Upon arriving at their historic villa, we knew from the beginning that this adventure was bound to be wonderfully special. The villa was Arianna’s family home as a child and where she continues to live the passionate Chianti way of life with Alessio. Her father, Giovanni Cini was an architect and bought the house from the famous Antinori family in 1986. The house is composed of the main villa with a gothic tower and also a thirteenth century cellar, where Arianna and Alessio store a selection of beautiful wines for guests to select from. I loved listening to Ariannas stories about where she would run around and hide in her family home as a child, all the while our children were planning their own games of mischief. One of her hiding spots was on the roof overlooking the stunning vista outside her bathroom window. As scary the thought was, I was totally sold to her idea! I love how this home had so much history and that we were able to create our own new memories within it too. Without a doubt, I was beginning to feel, even for a brief moment, authentically Tuscan.
Arianna is a passionate host and qualified travel guide, her love, Alessio is a qualified sommelier, pastry chef and incredible cook. Michael, is Alessio’s cheeky and charismatic brother whom assists them during the harvest season and with daily tour operations. The tour company is doing incredible things showcasing Tuscany’s ancient traditions through developing relationships with authentic local producers. Their philosophy is undoubtably passionate and one which they are willingly sharing with those who are seeking to appreciate their authentic, ‘farm to table’ approach to life in Chianti.
You cannot visit Tuscany without devouring their local cuisine and famous wines. Arianna and Alessio kindly treated us to a Tuscan feast on our second night at Montrogoli. Alessio showcased not only traditional, local dishes, but also infused them with influences from his home town of Abruzzo. Throughout the meal, he shared his knowledge of selected regional wines with us. Appetizers included ‘Cecina’ (chickpea flat bread), involtini with bresaola, caprino cheese and rocket, not to forget the moreish crostini made two ways, one with Italian sausage and stracchino cheese, and the other with cavolo nero (Tuscan cabbage) and scamorza cheese. I think it was fair to say that by this point in the evening, I was pretty full! However this is most certainly NOT something to admit when eating with locals in Italy. 😉
The first course was homemade ravioli, filled with ricotta cheese and chestnuts followed by the main course of pork meat, slow cooked in milk. A stunning side dish was an ancient Tuscan recipe called ‘Ceci al Coccio’ – slow cooked chickpeas in a homemade broth, seasoned simply with salt, pepper and fresh rosemary. Simple but so hearty and delicious, I could eat it for days! When there really was no more room to possibly eat for a whole other day, we finished with a traditional Tuscan sweet made with chestnut flour and enriched with raisins, pine nuts, and rosemary called’ Castagnaccio’. This was most certainly a meal we will never forget and which also gave a whole new meaning to the words, ‘I’m full!’
Another culinary feast we got stuck right in to was on one evening where the children got to make pizzas with Alessio in the property’s outdoor, wood fire, pizza oven. This night was an absolute hit as each boy got to roll, shape and top their own pizza. Each of them were so proud of their own masterpieces and devoured them with gusto. Needless to say they finished the whole bowl of olives for themselves! Alessio made me a ‘surprise’ pizza of his choice which was a beautiful, thick crust pizza, topped with zucchini flowers, tomato and fresh local goats cheese. So delicious!!!
The central location of the Villa, meant that we were able to visit nearby towns of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, Luca and Greve in Chianti within one hour by car. In between our day trips to these outside towns, we spent a few days and evenings appreciating just some of the beautiful tours that KM Zero Tours offers to guests and anyone looking for a personally tailored tour of the region.
One afternoon, we had the privilege of visiting two wonderful, local craftsman. The first being a talented local – artisan woodturner, Giorgio Romani. Giorgio is predominantly self-taught in his craft and clearly has the most beautiful love and eye for what he does. Upon visiting his workshop, you could see the piles of wood varieties stacked around the property, waiting to be transformed by Giorgio’s vision of the day. Walking into his workshop, my little boys (and husband) were immediately transfixed. A beautiful old, green, semi rusted, lathe sat in the middle of the room with large piles of wood shavings bordering it like the prettiest picture. I could see that all the children wanted to do was to jump into these big clouds of wood shavings 😉
Giorgio was typically everything I pictured of a local craftsman – relaxed, humble and generous. He so kindly made the boys their own wooden spinning tops out of small cubes of olive wood. As he so precisely carved away on the lathe, shavings flew everywhere and we all stood and watched in awe. The children especially, were unusually quiet as can be, sitting in the arms of their new best buddies, Alessio and Michael. Giorgio then showed us into his studio where he displays a variety of his unique works of art. We could not leave without ordering a couple of treasured pieces for ourselves of course. It was on this visit, that I really understood the philosophy that drives Arianna and Alessio. To witness a craft in its most rustic and authentic form, really adds a whole other level of enjoyment and appreciation of a region.
Upon leaving Giorgio’s workshop, we ventured a short walk away, to visit another local craftsman – An intimate tour of the Cigliano Winery and its sixteenth century adjoining villa. Situated in the territory of Chianti Classico, this stunning estate continues to be owned and run by descendants of the Antinori family. The sixty hectares of farm land produces some of the regions most exquisite wines and olive oil. We were honoured to be shown around the estate by Anna, the lovely lady of the house and a descendant of the estate. Anna explained to us the continuous work involved in maintaining aspects of the villa in order to keep them as reflective of their original form as possible. While the interior preserves its renaissance style, the exterior courtyard is a baroque influenced design, with a stunning pool, reflecting the villas charming facade.
Located underneath the villa are the historic wine cellars where all their precious wine production is stored for aging. You need not know much about wine to be entranced by the intimate history of this estate. We felt as though we were enjoying a real taste of Tuscan regality, something wonderfully special.
As the sun set over the gardens in its true, Tuscan beauty, we made ourselves comfortable in the ‘sun room’ of the villa and enjoyed a wine tasting from their production. The winery produces, DOCG Chianti Classico, DOCG Chianti Classico Reserve, “Suganella” (IGT Tuscan red), “Demodé” (IGT Tuscan Rosè), Vinsanto and extra virgin olive oil. Having a huge sweet tooth, my favorite was Niccolò’s newest wine, Demode (‘out of fashion’) Rosè.
Returning to the villa that evening, we sat in front of the giant wood fire, with a bottle of Chianti wine, reflecting on how lucky we were to witness such beauty and authenticity. One thing I do know is that we most certainly felt like we wanted to be a part of this ‘family’ and even contemplated ways in which we could make it happen. I am sure there will be moments in the future where we will certainly be dreaming about living the ‘Chianti life’ again.
Visiting in October meant that we were right in the middle of olive harvest season. During our stay, Alessio and Michael harvested four hundred kilograms of olives for their first of three visits to the oil mill. My three little, busy boys claimed to have picked, a very proud, large, bucketful – and maybe squashed another bucketful in the process! No matter how tight their schedule, Alessio and Michael would hold the boys up on their shoulders whilst they tried with all their might to scrape off as many olives as possible. While the children might not remember all of what they did, I do hope they remember how fun it was and how much they loved it AND the kind men who gave them so much of their time.
As the boys took to the fields to gather the last lot of olives before visiting the oil mill, I volunteered to cook up a ‘harvest’ feast for lunch, as my skills are really much more useful in the kitchen than on the land. 😉 For first course I made my favorite Italian dish, ‘Pasta e Ceci’. Second course followed with a roast chicken stuffed with lemon and herbed butter and sides included crispy, roasted potatoes, garlic beans and a garden salad. For dessert I made a giant bowl of my mum’s delicious tiramisu. Arianna prepared the outdoor table in the courtyard, which overlooks the magical Tuscan country side. It really was such a special way to toast the first olive harvest of the season, with our new Tuscan family. Cheers to the new oil!
Once the first batch of olives were ready, we travelled with Alessio and Arianna, to visit the historic, Pruneti, oil mill. Here we watched Villa Montrogoli’s olives being pressed into their delicious extra virgin olive oil. This historic, nineteenth century, family run, oil mill is now run by two young and dedicated brothers, Gionni and Paolo Pruneti. Passionate about their craft and quality produce, they also press their own olives and offer advice for local growers and companies in and around Tuscany. After watching our glorious oil being pressed and bottled we were given an olive oil taste testing where we learnt so much about the wonderful world of olive oil!
That evening, Arianna and Alessio invited us to the most delicious sampling of Montrogoli’s glorious, ‘olio nuovo’ (new oil) in their home. Paired with a selection of local goats cheeses, home-baked Tuscan bread and freshly picked Tuscan greens from the garden. Of course it was so perfectly complimented with a beautiful local wine and even better company.
I am a firm believer that, you may not remember everything that you are taught in an experience, instead, it is the feelings created in those moments, that will stick with you forever. Feelings and emotions become the strings that keep your heart attached to those special memories in your life. The memories we made in this beautiful place will most certainly stick with us forever and something you too can experience with your loved ones.
The biggest thanks to Arianna, Alessio and Michael for making us feel like family. The memories we keep from this experience are truly priceless. It was difficult to pick a favorite experience as I was so humbled by everything we got to see and do, so, I asked my children what their favorite was and unanimously they said… “ALL OF IT!”