I am relaxing in the middle of Florence. A rare feeling, to be sure, in Tuscany’s most populous city, one that’s best experienced while floating gently down the Arno River. As tourists line the streets for a peek at Michelangelo’s “David” or a photo op on the Ponte Vecchio, my friends and I are enjoying a casual history lesson, generous glasses of prosecco in hand.
“There are only four of these traditional Florentine boats left,” says Paolo, one of the two boatmen taking my small group out on this serene excursion. The barchetto is a bit like a Venetian gondola, propelled in the shallow waters by large poles rather than oars. Yet unlike on Florence’s famous neighbour’s canals, there are no tour groups on the river with us, no water taxis, no overcrowded party boats drowning us out with dance music. The closest we come to company is a young member of an elite rowing club training downriver against a backdrop of palaces right out of the Renaissance.
“The thing about Tuscany is, what you see now is what you will see 100 years from now,” says Bart Spoorenberg, general manager at Il Salviatino, as we drive back to the 15th-century villa-turned-hotel in the nearby Fiesole hills. But what preserves the region, from river to vineyard, can also be frustrating – after a painstaking restoration, the hotel still gets regular inspections to make sure things are done according to tradition, down to the last blooming rose. It can also mean that what you put on your bucket list (and Instagram feed) can look an awful lot like other people’s Italian getaways, right down to the selfies.
When I get to my room I sit in the window and gaze out at the city, basilicas to bell towers to the majestic Duomo Cathedral in the distance, lavender bushes and birdsong below. It is then that I decide: I’m on the hunt for the simplicity in Tuscany.
Forest to table
To really get down-to-earth, I must leave the safety of Il Salviatino’s manicured gardens for the surrounding forest – the property sits on about 4.5 hectares of land – where my friends and I are warmly greeted by Giulio Benuzzi. He sports a blue utility vest and waves a vanghetto, a slender shovel designed for digging up truffles. But more important than any tool is Eda, the Lagotto Romagnolo-breed dog wagging her tail at his side.
If this is a hunt for hidden Tuscany, then we’re in good company.
“For the dog, it is all a game,” says Benuzzi as we start off behind the lively mop of brown and beige curls. In between feeding her bits of dog food from his pocket and instructing her in Italian – “Vieni qua! Come here, check again!” – he answers all the burning questions I have about my favourite ingredient in the whole world: No, they no longer use pigs – their burrowing can ruin trees’ roots. Yes, competition can get fierce – sometimes he’ll switch cars to throw off other hunters. No, I can’t teach my eight-year-old dachshund to do it – training must begin early and be consistent.
For the dog, hunting truffles is a game.” Giulio Benuzzi, truffle hunter
When I inquire about obtaining one of the 1,000 licences awarded to truffle hunters in Tuscany, Benuzzi says it can be done, but warns that he himself had a difficult time getting started. “Generally, in Italy and France, the techniques are passed down as a family secret,” he explains, before noting dryly, “Unfortunately, my father was an engineer.”
As we navigate our way through brambles and bushes, Benuzzi kindly explains the training process in greater depth, often speaking about himself in the third person, of “Giulio and Eda,” as if he were telling a tale about their adventures. First, you must place a piece of truffle inside a special ball and prepare yourself for endless games of fetch. Then, one day, you bury a truffle in the garden and only pretend to throw the ball. “The time it takes the dog to find the truffle will tell you if she is a champion,” says Benuzzi before breaking into a wide grin. “For Giulio, Eda took only 10 seconds!”
Benuzzi scoffs when asked if he ever gets sick of the gourmet ingredient. He claims to have gone no more than a week without eating truffles, and reveals with a bashful smile that he’s written an ode to each of the six types that grow in the region. If any delicacy deserves poetry more than truffles, I haven’t found it. Not champagne, not caviar, not sea urchin nor Wagyu beef holds such enduring appeal, a simplicity belying its value to chefs and auctioneers. (For a taste: A record-setting 1.9-kilogram Italian white truffle sold last year for about $80,000.)
Then it happens. Eda’s ears twitch and we pick up the pace. Andiamo! Benuzzi approaches her, stops, crouches down and stands back up, proudly displaying a craggy black orb in his palm. It’s a summer truffle, tuber aestivum, about the size of a tennis ball and covered in dirt.
Before any of us can snap a photo, it happens again. And again. It’s a bit like fishing – one bite and we’re on a roll, nabbing five truffles in total, not counting one lost to Eda’s appetite and our distracted conversation. Though summer truffles are less fragrant (and pricey) than other varieties, especially white, Benuzzi is clearly as impressed as we are by today’s combination of luck, skill and animal instinct.
At dinner, the bounty is thinly sliced and served atop spinach gnudi pasta and, even though it’s relatively mild, the garnish still hints at everything a truffle can be at its best – earthy, pungent, savoury, sweet – as complex as the finest perfume, and a vital part of the ideal Tuscan holiday.
With the grain
Ask anyone back from Tuscany about their most memorable meal and chances are their response will be heavy on superlatives but short on ingredients. Whether you’re churning gelato or cooking up spaghetti, the secret to Italian cuisine is beginning with a quality base.
For this, my friends and I say arrivederci to Il Salviatino and drive north toward its sister property, Palazzo Victoria, in Verona. From there we make our way through vineyards and along canal-lined roads to Riseria Ferron. Though I’m eager to taste the riso the family has been producing for five generations, some of us have our doubts about the farm’s appeal as a day-trip destination. (We are swiftly, and happily, proven wrong.)
We are welcomed by one of the owners, Gabriele Ferron, a jovial man in a gingham shirt and kerchief who leads us through a row of poplar trees to a square, green paddy. We’re told of the mondine women who would hunch over, inspecting every grain of rice, ankle-deep in water, singing operatic songs to get them through the day, then of the modern workers who manage entire fields on their own, with a little help from technology. We continue on to the small historical mill, which doubles as a museum, where antique pistoni hull rice. When it was first imported to Italy, rice was used for medicine and beauty treatments, considered a gift from the gods and only later used as a cooking ingredient (and given to newlywed couples – in a cup, that is, not scattered in the air).
Next, we tour the small farm and organic garden, Ferron chattering in Italian while picking ingredients for our lunch (wild fennel, sage, hops) and arranging them delicately in a basket before handing us each a white lily to tuck behind our ears. O come sei gentile! As he brings us past the gift shop – with rice pasta and baked goods, it’s a gluten-free-dieter’s dream – and up to the demonstration kitchen, I see we’re not the only ones here for a cooking lesson. In a large open hall, students of seven or eight on a field trip don aprons and paper hats before standing dutifully behind a hot plate, prompting someone in our group to murmur, “Only in Italy.”
To call Ferron an ambassador for Italian rice is hardly hyperbole. The private dining room is lined with clippings and photos of him preparing risotto around the world, from Dubai to Beijing – where he cooked rice on the Great Wall of China. Perhaps most importantly, he rids me of my belief that good risotto means standing over the stove, stirring (and stirring, and stirring).
“How long, exactly, should it cook?” I inquire, pen in hand.
But he refuses to divulge a round number, instead telling us, in Italian, that cooking rice is akin to making love, adding: “You shouldn’t have to look at your watch.”
Cooking rice is like making love. You shouldn’t have to look at your watch.” Gabriele Ferron, rice ambassador
Before our eyes, Ferron first toasts each grain of rice using minimal olive oil (not butter, which can burn), then adds the warm broth, covers everything and lets it cook for barely 15 minutes. (So no ignoring the dinner guests.) Ingredients like white asparagus come last, and a vigorous stirring only at the very end ensures a perfectly chewy, creamy mass. I can’t believe something so indulgent can be this unassuming, like finding a truffle beneath my very feet.
After a last grazie mille, we make our way down a poppy-lined country lane and back into the city. It’s abundantly clear that Tuscany is rich with simple treasures – as long as you’re willing to dig a little.
Hotels – Tuscany
Built in the 15th century by a banker intent on outdoing the Medici family, this villa was later taken over by the Salviati family, welcoming everyone from popes to opera stars before being turned into housing for Stanford University. Bought in 2007 in a state of neglect, it was reopened complete with 45 rooms, red-carpeted hallways, restored mosaics and aroma-filled alcoves care of famed Florentine perfumer Dr. Paolo Vranjes. (Modern indulgences include televisions hidden in the bedroom mirrors.) Get a room facing the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (a.k.a. the Duomo) for a heavenly wake-up call, and reserve at least one lazy afternoon for a spa treatment. Dine alfresco on the front terrace, and don’t skip breakfast – it’s a communal experience, with meats, fruit and local yogurt delivered on an oversize tray. Ask at the front desk for experiences, including truffle hunting and boat tours.
As much a hangout for locals as a resting spot for visitors to Verona, this hypermodern hotel in the heart of the ancient city opened in 2012 with 74 rooms that pair old and new, from original frescoes to oversize white leather couches and Meret Oppenheim’s iconic bird-leg tables. Find the Porta Borsari – which dates back to 1 AD – outside the hotel lobby; the balcony of Giulietta Capuleti and an impressive Roman amphitheatre are a short walk away. But you needn’t leave the hotel to go back in time: Sections of the main floor are clear, offering glimpses of the Roman ruins below. Book a table at Borsari 36 for modern Italian care of chef Carmine Calò (his Michelin-starred track record includes Milan’s Joia, the only vegetarian restaurant to earn a star), and stay up to sip Aperol spritz and watch live jazz in the bar. Ask at the front desk for tours of wine country and Riseria Ferron.