There are many special ingredients that make Tuscany such a unique and appealing region. The things that Tuscany is best known for include its wine, truffles, olive oil and food. It’s certainly worth learning about one or two of these specialities whilst in Tuscany by booking some fascinating experiences.
Growing in the Tuscan countryside, you will find the Tuscan white Truffle. Truffles are one of the most sought after and expensive cooking ingredients, they add a delicious strong flavour to dishes, as well as a touch of class.
Tuscany is also famous for the high quality Olive Oil it produces, which is made using a very specific and skilled process. Make sure you buy some to take home with you. Then of course there’s the world renowned wines that are made in Tuscany, this region is known for producing red wines that are smooth, spicy and of a medium body. Browse through the sections below to learn more about Tuscan specialities.
Truffle-hunting in Tuscany
Tuscany’s lush green hills, interlaced with vineyards, olive groves and pine forests, bears many culinary fruits. The most treasured of all is the truffle – and we’re not talking about the chocolate variety.
The Romans adored truffles for their aphrodisiac qualities. Today, cooks across the world use their distinctive flavours and to add a touch of class to their dishes. These gourmet delicacies are so precious some are even worth their weight in gold.
The most famous white truffle is most found in the Piedmont region of Italy, near the city of Alba. Every autumn the warty treats are plucked from between the roots of oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees and sold at the truffle markets during the International White Truffle Festival of Alba. It is partly thanks to this festival – and partly due to clever marketing – that Alba truffle has become the most revered truffle worldwide.
However, many believe the Tuscan white truffle, found around Siena and Pisa, is just as flavoursome and much better value for money. For this reason, an increasing number of truffle lovers make a beeline for Tuscany during the autumn months for a truffle experience in a more intimate and less commercial atmosphere, to try, buy and even hunt for truffles.
The truffle hunters, or Trifolau, keep their finds and locations a closely guarded secret and generally hunt for truffles at night. But these covert operations aren’t just timed to cover the hunter’s movements, it’s said the scent of the truffle is stronger at night, making it easier for the truffle dogs to find.
Originally, truffles were hunted with female pigs because it was thought that the scent from the truffles resembled the pheromone of the male pig. Unfortunately, pigs are partial to truffles, so many of these fungi never got as far as the kitchen. Also, as one hunter told us: “It’s much easier to get a dog in the back of the car!”
The dogs are trained from a young age with pieces of strong-smelling cheese, which are buried for them to find. Eventually, the cheese is swapped for small truffles to sniff out. Alternatively, a promising dog will be sent to truffle-hunting school. It’s a long process, taking around four years for a dog to become fully trained.
A good hunting dog is invaluable, and each year there are reports of experienced hounds being poisoned by rival hunters. Once the dog indicates a possible find, the Trifolau uses a narrow spade to dig up the truffle without damaging it, and then returns the earth to the hole so that truffles can regrow for another year. All attempts to grow truffles in artificial environments or from seed have so far failed. It would seem Mother Nature knows her stuff and is not prepared to give up her secrets so easily.
The dedicated hunt for truffles almost all year round. From January to March, they seek out the dark winter truffles,. From March to April they hunt for the tan truffle or bianchetto (which have been known to fool the inexperienced into thinking they are the more expensive prized white truffles). From June to November the more common black or summer truffle can be unearthed, and in September the first of the prized tartufo bianco, or white truffles, can be found.
This is the high point in the truffle hunters’ year, and there are a number of festivals in Tuscany that celebrate this expensive delicacy. Among the most important are the festivals at San Giovanni d’Asso and San Miniato, where the quality of the truffles is on a par with those sold in Alba but the prices are not as high. San Giovanni d’Asso also has a museum dedicated to the truffle.
To get a sense of the atmosphere, take a look at Adrian Fletcher’s terrific pictures of a truffle hunt in San Giovanni d’Asso at paradoxplace and this video by Graeme Robertson of The Guardian:
We recently hosted CNN journalist Maureen O’Hare on a truffle-hunt in San Miniato. She and To Tuscany’s proprietor Sean Caulfield were offered a glimpse of the truffle-hunter’s skill by Massimo Cucchiara, whose family has been involved with the precious tuber for many years. You can read Maureen’s article here If you want to meet Massimo and try this ancient and fascinating hunt for yourself, visit Truffle in TuscanyAnd one of the best places to taste this delicacy is at chef and TV personality Gilberto Rossi’s restaurant, Pepenero, in San Miniato. Check out Truffle in Tuscany for special packages combining the hunt, a cooking class and the tasting experience with Gilberto and his team.
To Tuscany has plenty of accommodation ideally located to make the most of the truffle season, such as cosy Il Gallo, which has two properties, suitable for couples and small families, or Il Rattoppo, a charming house sleeping two with private pool. There is also the small hamlet of Fattoria Armena which has three apartments for four to seven people, each with its own private garden set in beautiful grounds surrounded by forest and olive groves. Alternatively, take a look at To Tuscany’s villas in Pisa
Having bought your truffle, what to do with it?
If you have purchased a tartufo blanco (white truffle), eat it as soon as possible because it won’t keep for very long. Slice it very finely or grate it over baked or fried eggs, or plain pasta. Avoid cooking a white truffle, which will dull its taste. However, the opposite is true of the black truffle, which needs to be sautéed in butter to bring out the flavour. It’s best served with plain pasta.bring out the best flavour, again this is best served with plain pasta.
Finally, if you find a truffle but are not entirely sure it is one, check with someone who knows. Remember it is also the mushroom season and f you’re inexperienced it’s easy to get them confused.
For further information about truffle hunters and truffle hunting, contact the Association of Truffle Hunters of Siena, Via XX Settembre, 41, 53020 San Giovanni d’Asso (SI). (+39 0577 803213).
Tuscany’s Olive Oil
Italy is renowned for the high quality of its olive oil, and rightly so. Some of the best comes from Tuscany, with single-estate bottled oil being the most highly prized ¬– and the most expensive.
The soil, type of tree, amount of sunshine and the amount of rain that falls during the growing season all play their part in determining the flavour of the oil. A variety of olive trees are grown in Italy, each of which has its own particular characteristics. Most of the olive trees grown in Tuscany are Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolio, Maurino, Moraiolo and Taggiasca.
The best type of soil to plant the trees in is clay or good loamy soil with plenty of drainage. Although olive trees can thrive in difficult conditions, there is no guarantee of a reliable crop each year. It is essential that the trees have good irrigation throughout the growing season to maximise their yield. Olives are produced on the previous year's growth; therefore, annual pruning is essential for maintaining the health of the tree, ensuring an annual crop and encouraging an even fruit set.
Olives are picked by hand to minimise damage to the fruit and then washed to remove any dirt and dust. Within 24 to 48 hours of being harvested, the olives, including the skin and stones, are crushed into a pulp by a stone mill or metal grinder. This pulp is then pressed using a traditional wooden or modern hydraulic press. This is the first pressing and strict guidelines must be adhered to during this process. In order to label a bottle “first cold pressing”, or in the case of an industrial process “cold extraction”, EU guidelines state that the olives must be pressed at a temperature below 27C.
Perhaps the most skilled part of the process, is deciding when to harvest the olives, because this determines the flavour and taste. Pick too soon or too late and the acidity of the fruit will affect the quality and flavour of the oil detrimentally. Extra-virgin olive oil must have an acidity level of less than 1 per cent. The Italian government has introduced protected designation of origin labels for its olive oils’ DOP. In addition, olive oil from the Chianti region has a special quality-assurance label of denomination of controlled origin DOC.
It is quite normal for an extra-virgin olive oil to have some sediment at the bottom of the bottle; this is because many of the oils are not filtered after pressing to retain maximum flavour. Once bottled, the oil should be stored away from direct sunlight and should not be exposed to extremes of temperature – a cool pantry or cellar is ideal. Once opened, the oil should be used within a year or by the consume-by date on the label– it’s so delicious it is unlikely to last that long anyway.
Olive oil, in particular the pure extra-virgin olive oil, is a powerful antioxidant, containing monounsaturated fats, beneficial fats that help reduce cholesterol levels, good for our hearts and our general wellbeing. Olive oil is also widely used in cosmetics, mixed with essential oils in moisturisers and used in high-quality soaps.
Fancy joining in the olive harvest or witnessing it first hand? Ask when booking where this is possible and we’ll be happy to advise. The harvest takes place on your doorstep, if you stay in a villa at Montebuoni or Montefiorile. We pick the olives growing in and around both of these hamlets, then take them to our neighbours at the vineyard Casanuova di Ama, who have them cold pressed in Volterra, after which the oil is bottled.
“Tuscany, as regards wines, has no equal the world over, thanks to a most felicitous nature, and to a civilization of the grapevine and of wine that has been decanted and refined over the centuries.”
Zeffito Cuiffoletti - Historian
Tuscany has a rich history of viticulture. Its rolling hills and Mediterranean climate provide the perfect conditions for the production of good-quality wines. The region is particularly renowned for its red wines, most of which are produced from Sangiovese grapes. These reds are generally spicy, with good acid levels, smooth texture and medium body.
The most exclusive Sangiovese wine is the high-quality Brunello di Montalcino, from a fortress town south of Siena. It is one of Italy’s most expensive wines and is now issued under more than 100 different labels. This wine is produced solely from Sangiovese grapes and takes at least 10 years to reach maturity. Other Sangiovese wines include Chianti and Chianti Classico. But unlike Brunello di Montalcino, these also contain a small amount (between 10 and 15 per cent) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes.
Chianti Classico comes from the vineyards that lie between Florence and Siena, with the towns of Greve, Radda and Castellina forming a triangle in the very heart of the Chianti area. Most of these wines belong to the Classico’s marketing consortium and bear the Gallo Nero symbol, a black rooster, the symbol of an authentic bottle of Chianti Classico. Two kinds of Chianti Classico are available, Standard and Riserva. Standard is labelled with a Gallo Nero surrounded by a red border, whereas Riserva is labelled with a Gallo Nero surrounded by a gold border. Riservas are produced from some of the finest grapes and aged for a minimum of 27 months to provide an additional full-bodied flavour.
Many Chianti wines also hold the DOC/DOCG (Dominazione di Origine Controllato/ Dominazione di Origine Controllato e Guarantita) status. This Italian quality-assurance label was introduced in 1963 by the Italian government and amended in 1992 by the EU law for the Protected Designation of Origin. To meet the DOC/DOCG requirements wines must be produced within the specified region using defined methods and must also meet a defined quality standard.
Other important Sangiovese-based red wines that hold the DOC/DOCG status include Tignanello and Sassicaia, with prices and popularity on a similar scale to Brunello di Montalcino. Others include Montepulciano, Montalcino, Bolgheri, Carmignano and Maremma.
Since the 1970s more modern wines have emerged, made from international grape varieties and using French barriques, or barrels. These are the Super Tuscans. Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were introduced and mixed with the classic Sangiovese to produce other high-quality wines but at a much lower cost due to modern techniques. But these avant garde methods did not fit the new DOC/DOCG laws and the wines were forced to take the humble label of Vini da Tavola, or table wine. Over time, these wines have gained a reputation as some of the finest ever made in Italy and their prices are well above those charged for an ordinary table wine.
Tuscany also produces a small amount of white wines. Most, however, have not gained the prestige of the reds because until relatively recently they were produced from the workaday Trebbiano grape and tended to have quite a dull taste. One exception is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the Vernaccia grape, a well-made crisp and dry white, one of the first to be awarded the DOC status. Nowadays, however, many good whites are produced in Tuscany, including the international variety of Chardonnays, Sauvignons, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio, together with more traditional whites such as Pomino and Vin Santo.
And last, but not least, there’s Grappa.Grappa, or grape stalk, is a grape-based pomace brandy (between 37.5 and 60 per cent alcohol) made from grape seeds, stalks and stems left over from winemaking after pressing. This by-product of Italian wine can either be taken on its own or added as a shot to an espresso coffee, generally taken after meals to aid digestion.
Coffee in Italy
Coffee! Most of us start our day with an aromatic cup of coffee at breakfast to wake up, regular coffee that is. No misunderstanding here, we order a cappuccino when out for a nice dinner or when we are on holiday in Italy. Sometimes we drink an espresso, or a caffe latte. When we drink coffee or what kind of coffee we drink, all is fine, we just enjoy!
This is different in Tuscany and the rest of Italy. Coffee is an important part of the Italian culture.
Organic Biodynamic Food
Great views, great music, great wine. This vineyard near Montalcino has a surprising and unique approach to growing grapes. Speakers have been installed along the vines, through which music by Mozart is played day and night. The owners say studies have shown that the music makes the plants grow stronger and more able to ward off parasites and disease, minimising the need to use chemicals. It seems the Universities of Florence and Pisa, which support this project, agree.
Experience an official tuscany tour with
Cinque Terre Hiking Day Trip from Florence
Join the only tour that takes you to the Cinque Terre on a one-day hiking trip from Florence. Hiking is the only way to truly experience the magic of the Cinque Terre. Take a break from the bustle of the city and hike this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. It's a unique and memorable experience, exploring the only unspoilt survivor of the genuine Italian Riviera.from 99,74 US Dollar
Pisa and Piazza dei Miracoli Half-Day Tour from Florence
Visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Square of Miracles, where the tower, the cathedral and baptistery form the city's main attraction. You'll be guided around the Cathedral, with all its secrets. Pisa is most famous for its Leaning Tower. You can walk in Galileo's footsteps and climb up the Leaning Tower for a city view.from 49,87 US Dollar
Chianti Half-Day Private Wine Tour
This half-day tour takes you along the Chianti Route, crossing hills designed by vineyards of exceptional beauty. The tour will stop at Radda in Chianti and then visit an historical wine estate.from 98,64 US Dollar
Classic Self-Drive Vintage Vespa Tour
Tour the Renaissance capital in a perfectly Italian way with this 2.5-hour Vespa tour of Florence. Enjoy a safe and fun ride through the Tuscan hills outside the city center, driving your own scooter and zipping along the open roads while you take in the gorgeous views.from 85 US Dollar