by Jennifer Fontaine – Driving south from Milan’s Malpensa Airport, husband at the helm, our little rental car wound through the lush green of Italy’s interior, allowing us a view of every quaint hamlet, ancient mountain tunnel, and roadside espresso stand. This first leg of our inaugural Italian family road trip, around 250 miles, would eventually deposit us at our agriturismo in the Chianti region deep in the heart of Tuscany, but at the moment it was all about staring at scenery.
Spellbound, we observed a heavy mist as it slowly evaporated to reveal the trademark pencil-thin cypress trees we had been romantically imagining for 20 years. As our daughter sang along to the Mamma Mia soundtrack on repeat in the CD player, my husband and I grinned knowingly at each other, finally smack-dab in the middle of our dream.
The Birth of the Agriturismo
Spanning the verdure between Florence and Siena, Tuscany is blanketed with a tapestry of medieval villages, vineyards and family farms that tell the story of another world, an old world, where community is still king. Italians pride themselves on supporting small-scale production of food, choosing to buy local whenever possible. But when agricultural subsidies not covering traditional Mediterranean products such as olives, tomatoes, lemons and oranges were introduced in the 1950’s, the playing field skewed toward larger, industrialized farms.
With a radical decline in profits, family farmers were forced to go looking for alternative opportunities to stay viable. Out of necessity, a movement began as small farms began to open their rustic, stone homes to visitors, and the rich custom of agriturismo was born. Our family has booked unique alternative lodging numerous times on Booking.com. They guarantee the best prices for any type of property and no booking fees (yes, please!).
In sharp contrast to popular tour itineraries that have vacationers hopping from one booming metropolis to another, I was in search of a true Tuscan encounter. I yearned for an experience where my family could bond with another, enjoying moments of broken Italian next to the warmth of the hearth, helping with a harvest, learning customs and farming methods that differed greatly from our home in California. What I didn’t expect was for all of it to actually happen. Enter Duccio, Paola, Mariasole, baby Giovanni, and their 12 donkeys.
Living the I Veroni Agriturismo Dream
I had been in touch with this Italian family whose small farm, Podere I Lastri, was located an hour outside Florence. They invited our family out for a hike, if we “happened to be in the area” during our trip, but somehow that hike turned into four incredible days of pure, Tuscan immersion and a hosted stay at a breathtaking agriturismo.
These misty hills of Pontassieve, Italy are best known for Chianti Rufina, and lucky for us, Duccio’s wife Paola was the general manager of I Veroni, an award-winning winery and agriturismo whose history dates back to the Middle Ages. After hours spent in the car listening to a toddler enthusiastically sing Abba at the top of her lungs, we were rewarded kindly with a full tour of the winery and the promise of tastings over a three-course dinner that very evening.
Agriturismo Experiences Get Local
As the sun set with a layer of rosy pinks and indigos over the Chianti hills, a faint rap on the door of our three bedroom agriturismo cottage brought Duccio’s oldest daughter Mariasole, a curious, doe-eyed five-year-old. Hands overflowing with art supplies, books and a huge bag of verna, the family’s signature flour milled just down the road, the gifts represented everything travel means to me, connecting with people, partaking in their rituals, and breaking bread, literally.
We popped open the flour bag with a “pouf” of white dust and added it to a mixing bowl along with yeast, salt, water, olive oil and fresh rosemary from the agriturismo garden to create an incredibly simple and delicious recipe for focaccia, the local bread of this region. While loaves rose in a warm oven, chef Duccio prepared a feast of traditional peasant dishes, including braised beef, polenta, Tuscan kale, and white beans, all ingredients proudly plucked straight from his farm’s fields.
The three courses, each more delicious than the next, were accompanied by a never-ending fountain of distinctly different Chianti wines. Cheeks aching with laughter, we occasionally stole glances at the children snuggled up together by the fire, bonding over glitter markers and fresh olives until well past their bedtimes.
Exploring the Agriturismo Agriculture
The next morning, we set out on foot to get a better lay of the agriturismo’s agricultural architecture. With Duccio as our guide and his trusty companion Sharon the Donkey offering our daughter the best seat in the house, we started down the gentle, rolling hills. As we walked, he explained there is much concern for keeping close the traditions in the eastern part of Florence province due to an introduction of industrialized processing and harmful pesticides.
As ongoing evidence gathered by area farmers points to alterations of the delicate ecosystem, the region’s citizens banded together to form a coalition, The Foresta Modello de le Montagne Fiorentine, aiming to balance development of environmental, economic and social sustainability of the territory. In cooperation with provincial government, the group is creating cultural and educational programs that teach tourists and locals the value of stewardship and the importance of preservation.
As we rested under the shade of a primitive oak, waiting for Sharon the Donkey to finish snacking on wild fennel, thunderous footsteps turned our heads uphill. Awe-struck, we all stood in silence as a pack of wild boar jumped effortlessly through row after row of grape vines. In that moment, we witnessed harmony of the land. Connecting my daughter to her environment is a valuable lesson, even at a young age, and an opportunity to become an active participant of Earth’s global village. The next generation, after all, can only become stewards through our thoughtful teaching.
Book your family’s dream Italian experience now, and get the traditional Tuscan recipes below.
Rosemary Focaccia Bread Recipe
500 grams (2 cups) flour
30 grams (2 Tbs) yeast
10 grams (2 tsp) sugar
10 grams (2 tsp) olive oil
300 ml (10 oz) warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons rosemary
Sift the flour in to a mixing bowl, add yeast. Make a little mountain with a hole on the top. Into the hole, add the olive oil, sugar, salt and rosemary. Mix all of the ingredients with a fork, adding hot water little by little until the mixture becomes the consistency of paste, but not sticky. If it becomes sticky, simply add a touch more flour.
On a flat surface, spread a thin layer of flour and place the dough on top. Knead the dough for 10 minutes. Put the dough back into the mixing bowl covered with a moist towel and let it rest for 1 hour in a warm place. Evenly spread flour on the bottom of a baking pan, making sure to fully cover its surface, and then lay the dough inside. Ensure the dough is evenly spread out with a 2 cm thickness. With your finger, poke little holes on the surface of the dough.
Allow dough to rest, covered, for another hour then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle a bit of sea salt on top. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 -20 minutes until golden brown.
Apertif: Iveroniros (100% Sangiovese grape). This rose is very fresh on the palate, well balanced, soft tannins with intense flavors of aromatic red fruits, violets and roses.
Entre: Chianti Rufina Riserva DOCG (100% Sangiovese grape). A medium to full bodied wine, this red has a silky taste with balance tannins and long lasting after-taste. This wine offers very intense scents of blackberries and ripe red fruits. Its spices and tobacco aromas are combined with a gentle touch of oak.
Dessert: Vin Santo del Chanti Rufina (Malvasia Toscana (60%), Trebbiano (30%), Sangiovese (10%)) Creamy and oily on the palate, this ancient dessert wine strikes long-lasting, intense, rich flavors of honey, nuts, resin and chestnuts.
Jennifer Fontaine is founder of Outdoor Families Magazine, and publisher of Mommy Hiker Community. She and her family live in California.