Carnevale… enlivening the Tuscan winter.

Fritelle di riso – fluffy doughnut holes made with rice – a specialty in Tuscany before Carnival

In the winter I realize how much of my social life in Tuscany depends on good weather: the passeggiata, or evening stroll through town; a chat over gelato as the kids act out imaginary battles in the playground; dinners in the piazza with friends (as our rambunctious kids run around the pedestrian square); hikes and picnics with friends in the woods and hills while on the hunt for wild mushrooms, asparagus or greens. I realize this in the winter because it is usually too rainy, windy or cold to do any of this… and so we fall into the routine of being homebound and watching too much TV, with boredom staved off by the occasional board game, science or kitchen experiment. All of this comes to a climax after the Befana (January 6th), that a nursery rhyme reminds us “tutte le feste porta via”, as it is the last of the Christmas holidays.

And this is why Carnival is so important. Come February, when spring is not yet around the corner, I find that we all need an escape from the humdrum of winter life. Now Valentine’s day does help, but it is too often filled with expectations about our lives and relationships that can’t be or simply aren’t met… sort of a bittersweet holiday that excludes a lot of people from its happiness.

On Fat Tuesday children in Tuscany go to school in their Carnival costumes

But Carnival is for everyone, and it is full of the colors, clamor and mischief coming at the exact moment of the year when you need them most. There is fun for people of all ages (and it gets you out of the house!). This is when kids in Tuscany dress up in creative costumes like Americans would do at Halloween, they throw confetti (coriandoli) all over town, they make noise with every imaginable whistle and horn, and they are altogether rowdy, mischievous… and happy. And everyone laughs, sometimes they grumble a bit for all the chaos, but they let them be… it’s Carnival after all! As an American this utter confusion seemed just wrong to me at first, but over the years as a parent I’ve learned how cathartic it can be just to let go, be permissive, and have a good laugh too.

The other reason I love Carnival? The sweets. By mid-January, every bakery and grocery store in town lays out tempting trays of Carnival delights that are simply irressistible.  My favorite are the fritelle di riso, lightly fried balls of fluffy dough made with rice that are just barely sweet on the inside, but dusted with sugar. The other standard are fritelle farcite con crema, that are made with a dough similar to that of doughnuts and stuffed with custard. And last but not least are the cenci (literally “rags”) that are crunchy little rectangles of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar that crumble in your mouth.

And while I imagine that all of these sweets are part of the tradition of excess before Lent… I honestly have never met a Tuscan who has fasted for Lent. I suppose life’s too short to not enjoy the good things in life every single day and season!

Good morning!

It’s a surprisingly warm October. It would be delightful if it weren’t for the fact that this comes on the tail of a treacherously hot and dry summer.

But looking on the bright side, it’s Sunday morning, my first work-free day in ages, and a beautiful day to go take a walk in the woods with my children. Perhaps, notwithstanding the drought, we might find some chestnuts or even mushrooms…

I woke up, the first to rise, made myself an espresso, fed the cats and fish, then walked in front of the house to see this… it’s already a magnificent day! 

A view that never ceases to amaze…

Wherever I go in my travels, whether to nearby wonders of the world that I am blessed to now call my “backyard” such as Florence, Siena, or even Venice, Genova, Naples or Puglia…. or farther afield to Burgundy, Seville, Thailand or Ireland…no matter how incredibly gorgeous and unique each place (and it’s people) may be, I’ve found I inevitably think the same things each time I return to Volterra:

I am so lucky to call this place home.

Truffles, Dogs, Friends, Good Food & Great Fun

Today I took an American family to spend a day with a Tuscan family on their farm. We began with a truffle hunt, following Viola, a 3 year-old Lagotto pup, through mud and late-summer grass as she excitedly dug up four scorzone truffles. It’s impossible to describe how magical and delicate the relationship is between the dog and her proud truffle hunter… an amazing thing to see.


Mud on our shoes and truffles in our hands, we headed uphill to the Bernini family home where we were given a warm and genuine welcome by Alessio and his mother Ila. Ila is the quintessence of the warm, but no-nonsense, never-stopping, all-doing Tuscan Mommy.


Ila watching the “newbies” knead pasta dough.

Ila gave us a demonstration of how she makes her rustic homemade pasta and it all looks quite simple – 600 g. of flour, 6 eggs, mix them up and knead it all together. But like with so many “simple” recipes from the Tuscan kitchen, we all found it a bit more complex than she made it seem. There’s that magic touch and know-how that comes with 50 years of experience that simply can’t be fully explained…. But when it was all done, and we’d learned the “kneading dance”, rocking from our heels to toes as we worked the dough, our pasta came out just fine… equally deserving of a quick boil, and a toss with homemade truffle butter and a shaving our treasured black truffles found earlier that morning.


After kneading our hearts out, Alessio brought a delicious reward: fondue of a soft and creamy local sort of gorgonzola, the Muffone blue cheese made with ewe milk by Giuseppe Carai,  the local artisinal cheesemaker, with a shaving of black truffles to top it off.

To accompany the fondue, Alessio uncorked a bottle of his 2015 Cosimino wine, an incredibly fresh and genuine red wine made from sangiovese grapes aged only in stainless steel. His one-man operation micro winery is extraordinary, producing only a few thousand bottles each year. In fact he almost always runs out of his wine before the next vintage is ready, selling (and pouring) almost exclusively from his farm. This truly natural wine gives simple “organic” a run for it’s money.



Following the fondue, we headed back to the kitchen and helped make quail eggs pan-fried in truffle butter and the farm’s own organic extra-virgin olive oil. The eggs are placed atop truffle croutons, a dish as simple as it is divine…this is one those delicacies where you can most definitely… not…eat…just…one!

The eggs were followed by one of the best truffle pastas I’ve ever had that focused on the true essence of truffles (truffles, butter, and a bit of grana padano cheese, nothing else)

And to top off the day of indulgence, Ila taught us how to make homemade egg custard. With a twist… saffron!


intensely flavored and colored saffron custard

Before adding it to the scalded milk  that we later slowly stirred into the beaten egg yolks & sugar, Alessio showed us how to properly prepare saffron: you toast the pistils in a dry pan until your fingers find the pan too hot to stir the saffron, then put them on a small sheet of parchment, fold it over the pistils, and crush them into a fine powder using the back of a teaspoon.

People are often surprised to learn that saffron crocus are one of the most historic crops for Tuscany – originally used more as a textile dye than as a spice. Today Alessio has a few fields dedicated to saffron, each October picking these magically potent crimson strings from the flowers in the wee hours of the morning, and toasting them by a wood fire… and like with everything that the Bernini family do, they take pride in doing this “the right way… just as it’s always been done”.



Blackberries and Oregano

There are few things I look forward to more than the late-summer ritual of a meandering car ride with my husband and kids along the dusty Tuscan roads to hunt for drooping branches of wild blackberries and flowering wild oregano.

There is no jam quite like the one made with wild blackberries, especially in the cold and flavorless fruit months of winter. And there no homemade pizza tastes right without the intense flavor of wild-oregano flowers.

So, yes, it’s about the food and the flavor, but more than anything it’s about sharing these rare moments of “the simple life”, of roadside foraging amidst thorn pricks, stained fingers, dust-filled nostrils and laughs with my family. That’s what it’s all about.

Mourning for “le mura” in Volterra: a tract of 13th c. walls collapsed last night

Last night, following days of intense rain, a 20 to 30 yard stretch of Volterra’s Medieval walls collapsed. When I woke up this morning and turned on RaiNews 24 one of the headlines was “Bad Weather in Tuscany: the Arno River is threatening to flood, schools closed in Pisa and 30-meters of Medieval wall have fallen down in Volterra”.

After dropping the kids off at school (safely located far from the walls…) we walked up to Piazzetta dei Fornelli to discover that together with the walls went part of the road “Via Lungo le Mura” that lay just inside the walls. The void that once gave people vertigo as they looked over the walls towards the Cecina Valley now reaches the foundations of the homes. There is no road, no sidewalk, no way to get into your home or store, all the way to the panoramic terrace that is just beneath the covered staircase called “Vicolo degli Abbandonati”. The terrace is still there… but just barely.



About 100 yards downhill from this road and stretch of walls “that-were” you reach Volterra’s great Etruscan monument – the 4th c. B.C. Porta all’Arco. I feel ill thinking, wondering, fearing that this landslide could in any way compromise its structural integrity. If you have been to Volterra and seen this stone gate, if you know its history, you will understand the emotional involvement that Volterrans have with it. The Porta all’Arco is a part of them.

The loss of these 13th-century walls is enough, and I pray that the damage stops there (the forecasts say we should expect another 6 days of non-stop rain). How could they have stood so mightily for 800 years, enduring endless sieges under the Florentines, a mistaken attack by the Allied troops in WWII, and then give up now? I perhaps shouldn’t give fault to the walls, be angry with them… but if not them, who? Surely there is something we have done wrong to let this happen…

As I walked away from the scene this morning, I realized the void was more than physical as a tear slid down my cheek.