Right in the middle of the magic triangle made up of Siena, Grosseto and Perugia, stands a castle from the 12th Century, Vicarello. And, just like in a classic fairy tales, the castle is inhabited by a lovely couple, Aurora and Carlo Baccheschi Berti together with their three splendid sons. All that’s missing to complete the enchanted scene is a ghost to haunt the castle.
We’re in a special part of Tuscany called Maremma Grossetana, a corner of land a few dozen kilometres from the sea. The allure isn’t limited to only the 20 hectares of green or the surrounding vineyards, awaiting visitors (14 maximum) are beautifully-appointed suites, two swimming pools – one facing out over the valley and the other in the Italian-style garden.
This is a place where you can get away from it all, and the most recent person to do just that was Colin Firth, who just left a few days ago. At Vicarello, one learns the secrets of Tuscan cooking, and since that’s what we’re here to do, let’s head straight to the kitchens.
And the truth is, the food headquarters is not a room but a kind of cellar – although well-lighted and large. The stoves are under the vaulted ceiling that comes together in the centre, the stone walls contrast with a fiery-red Berkel (the Rolls Royce of meat cutters) and a selection of modern kitchen appliances: the entire effect is a harmonious, country chic style that can also be found in the castle’s living rooms, but here really reaches its peak.
At the centre of the kitchen, a Triplex from the ‘50s commands attention, a rare piece that the owners found at closed-down elderly home: it’s a gas stove with four burners and an oven – Aurora claims that breads and cakes come out better in this than in anything else, no matter how new or technological. It had gone unused for years while they waited for missing parts to arrive, but now the Triplex operates in full swing – overshadowing all the other furnishings with the appeal of pieces that have lead a long life. Aurora is from Lombardy but has been living in Tuscany since 1996. «We produce wine and oil and our kitchen offers Tuscan dishes based on local, seasonal ingredients, products that for the most part, come from our own vegetable garden. I love cooking and so the idea of offering classes seemed to be a natural step. The cooking classes are formed spontaneously and there are always requests. The guests ask, when they arrive, if they can enroll in a class and then together they decide what they want to learn,» explains the owner.
September is a particularly inviting month: tomatoes are still at their flavour peak, there’s an abundance of figs and breakfast comes with vanilla-flavoured grapes. The end of the summer brings with it a bounty of fruits and vegetables from the garden, and the estate prepares for the hunting season. Carlo is a passionate hunter and possesses commercial hunting grounds of 780 acres of hilly terrain called Valle di Buriano, in the province of Grosseto but towards the coast, near Castiglione della Pescaia. Boars are hunted there all winter long and then reappear on the tables of Vicarello in the form of rich stews.
Some English guests ask to learn how to cook Tuscan dishes and beneath the arbour we flip through Aurora’s recipe book to get some ideas. Together we decide what to learn: Annie wants to learn how to bake the bread that gets made her daily, in both the white and whole-grain version. Vegas won’t leave until she learns how to make the maremmani tortelli with ricotta and spinach. During the summer evenings, fish is served: Carlo heads to the coast in the mornings in time to make the rounds of the ice-covered market counters.
A basket full of tender chard arrives on the table, which will be used along with the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta in the filling for the tortelli. While the written recipe calls for spinach, in this season it’s better to use the young, fresh chard grown at Vicarello. Vegas already knows how to use the rolling pin and her movements reveal a certain familiarity with pasta dough; then it’s Annie’s turn to try: after a few awkward attempts, she opts to instead mix the filling with a fork. It’s time for the secret ingredient, a pinch of cinnamon – Aurora smiles, pleased. The pasta gets filled, we cut the dough into thick square shapes: it won’t be long now until we head to the table. We’re in luck as well – for dinner, Carlo arrives with a silvery bream fish weighing about 2 kilos. First it’s time to taste the tortelli that we all prepared earlier. The dough is perfect, the filling is soft and it smells delicious.
We’re tired but happy, and the satisfaction is well worth the effort. This is the positive effect of cooking, especially when you add a pinch of love.