There’s something about a toasted slice of Tuscan bread and a single raw garlic clove that gets my heart beating a little faster. Farm-style bruschetta is one of my favorite foods, especially during autumn, when the olive oil is hours-old and bread is toasted over a roaring hearth. But this is July, one of the hottest I can remember in the past few summers that I’ve spent in the hills of southern Tuscany.
I was invited to join the farmer’s family next door for Sunday lunch, a multi-course weekly feast shared by three generations, close friends and the occasional visitor. This is a regular thing for me, as is the artful practice of inviting myself over for other meals during the week.
What made this lunch different was that it caught me somewhat off guard.
I arrived breathless – straight off of highway A1 from Rome, a 200km drive. For the past two weeks I’ve been on a full-on foodie mission: four boats, three airplanes and over 1200km in my car. My travels took me to the Dalmatian Coast and Croatia’s outlying islands, Berlin and Rome. I’ve slept in blistering heat, on sofas, on pull-out couches and hotels. I was finally coming home — to the Tuscan countryside — to relax and write.
I didn’t expect to have my culinary mind blown.
When I saw the tiny bowls of raw garlic cloves on the table, my brain did a happy foodie dance. The farmers next door are oil farmers, and the bruschetta on my plate meant that my tastebuds would be swimming in their special reserve oil, stored in old terracotta barrels. We rub the cloves of garlic over the toasted bread until there’s nothing left, douse the slice in thick, golden olive oil and sprinkle it with salt. Imagine absolute taste perfection.
A giant pasta bowl is place in front of me. It’s spaghetti al sugo, homemade meat sauce, a typical dish in this area of southern Tuscany. In general, Italians don’t use a lot of sauce on their pasta, but the sauce is so flavorful that it permeates each strand of the spaghetti.
I shovel a snowy mountain of fresh-grated pecorino – a sheep’s milk cheese from nearby Pienza – onto my pasta. When my bowl is clean, I’m urged to take a second helping, and I oblige.
The main course at this luncheon is the real culinary masterpiece: home-raised pigeon with rosemary roasted potatoes. There’s also some turkey meat on the platter. At the farmer’s house, the second “main” course is usually a mix of different meats, sometimes roasted, sometimes grilled. A goose or chicken from the farm will often make its way onto the lunch table. Sometimes we have spare ribs, sausage and steak. Pigeon is a rare treat.
The birds are teeny tiny, served sliced in half. You’ve got to use your hands if you want to get anywhere with the dish. The skin is golden-brown, crispy and greasy (in a good way) and slathered with salt and rosemary. The meat itself is dark, like squab or quail. The flavor is bold enough to stand up to the rosemary potatoes, picked straight out of the farmer’s garden.
My excitement escalated with every bite, my fingers and lips covered in salty grease. I exclaimed, “This is the best meal I’ve eaten in two weeks!” except I said it in Italian.
I couldn’t believe it myself. I’d made a two-week culinary pilgrimage, and yes, I ate amazing food – especially one meal in Split, Croatia – but nothing compared to this home-cooked, home-raised farmer’s meal in rural Tuscany.
A single thought kept running through my mind, “I feel like I’m tasting food for the first time.”
Dessert was procured at a local pastry shop: fruit tarts, blueberry tiramisu, custard cream puffs. Although I’m not a big fan of sweets, I always make an exception when custard cream is involved. The pastries are followed by bright red slices of watermelon, plucked from the family garden. My salty lips turn sweet and sticky. Jugs of homemade red wine give way to bottles of sweet vin santo and house made grappa.
Sometimes the best meals are the most simple ones. For me, this was more than a lunch with locals in rural Tuscany; it was a culinary homecoming.