I grew up in Tuscany in the typical Italian family. My mum would say things like "We don't eat until your father is at the table," and TV during dinner was banned since "it kills the conversation." Long before the organic movement and the paleo diet, we had a 100% Mediterranean diet, which included a lot of pasta, massive amounts of veggies, local meat, gelato and homemade cakes. No packaged food or snacks. Just thinking about it as I eat pad thai out of a box in my NYC apartment makes me long for home.
I was in the middle of leading a camping trip in Bryce Canyon when I learned I was soon going to lead an Active Gourmet trip in Tuscany, my very own backyard! My mum's and grandma's reactions over the phone were boisterous--"You're coming home! And you're bringing Americans... they're going to love it! Make sure they try ribollita, cacciucco, cinghiale..." What followed was half an hour of naming every single masterpiece of Tuscan cuisine. Thank goodness for free Skype calling.
Eight weeks later I embarked on this great adventure to share my love and passion for Tuscany. On my very first day, as I was tasting extra virgin olive oil with our wonderful local friend Roberta, I stopped for a moment, looked at the breathtaking landscape, and felt that inexplicable warmth you can only feel when you are home.
A half hour later Roberta was just like everyone's aunt, warning us about the dangers of subpar olive oil and explaining the meaning of the different labels. (Do your homework by taking a look here.) "Only buy extra virgin" quickly became our religion, a mantra everyone repeated over and over again.
We hiked through the legendary strade bianche, the white gravel roads running among vineyards and olive groves where the historic L'Eroica vintage bike race takes place every year. A magical amber light colored the sky above the cypress rows outside of Mimma's house in the Tuscan countryside, where we were welcomed just like family members for our first hilarious hands-on culinary adventure!
Mimma and her cousin Lele call themselves "The Mammas"--The Mothers. Mums in Italy are the real bosses, sublime incarnations of our values. Generous, devoted and... irritable! Believe it or not, The Mammas have an app where you can download their special homemade recipes. The two cousins shared all their secrets and didn't miss the chance for some friendly scolding. "You don't know how to shop! That's the problem," Mimma admonished. "You need to buy what's local and only what's in season. You can't have strawberries in December."
We also visited Dario, a butcher-philosopher with his very own manifesto of sustainable, respectful consumption of meat. How often do you get to talk philosophy with your butcher while listening to AC/DC? The whole week was a festival of food, laughter, wine, mind-blowing landscapes and authentic culinary experiences.
We always think of traveling as a way to discover the world and to learn about different cultures. For me, travelling is also about returning to my roots and rediscovering who I am. Leading the Active Gourmet trip in Tuscany is a chance to see my homeland through the eyes of our guests and to learn new things about myself. After all, food and wine are just catalysts. In Italy it's all about sharing. And talking. Very loudly!