by Kimberly Wainscoat
I spent a glorious time in Tuscany this last autumn in the hilltop village of Radicondoli, a place nearly untouched by time and swathed in the kind of beauty you usually only find in paintings by 14th century Italian masters.
Living the good life is effortless here, especially when Marlane Miriello comes to town and guides you through her sumptuous cooking school set in an extreme Tuscan landscape dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Like many visitors who’ve spent weeks exploring the obligatory sights of Italy, it was time to have doors opened for us in order to see the inner workings of Italian life. Before Marlane arrived with the Il Campo agenda, we let the days stretch out into wandering, lingering and relaxing. We are do it yourselfers and frankly, didn’t know what else she and her school could contribute to an already remarkable trip. Oh how wrong we were!
With Marlane we are now aiming toward a particular cooking activity each day, in local kitchens with vegetable and herb gardens out the back door, and the kind of people you wish you were related to. Each morning we rise in our welcoming and warm Tuscan villa, awakened by the sounds of roosters and sheep bells off in the distance. This alone was nearly worth the participation in Il Campo. But my walks through a dewy countryside, from one farm villa to another, was enough to make my days spent at her school some of the most beautiful of my life.
Marlane and her partner at Il Campo, Giovanna Hipting, tend to seek out stunningly beautiful locales that draw you in and convince you (as if you weren’t already convinced) that you are one very lucky soul to be circling in their gorgeous universe. All you really have to do is sit back and let the 500-year-old ambience and these ladies’ expertise in creating remarkable experiences transport you to a time before cars and fast food.
The first afternoon we met in the kitchen of an ornate yet homey Tuscan villa and held court in the professional kitchen with a Michelin ranked chef who took us amateurs through the making of a chicken dish, humorously called Chicken Roasted to Death.After learning several more dishes, including a Semifreddo Torrone (to die for, a half frozen dessert made of zabaglione, whipped cream and nougat candy), Crespelle Fiorentine (crepes filled with ricotta and Swiss chard from the villa’s garden) and the simple but lovely Ginestrata (egg and Vin Santo soup), our small group convened in the lovely dining room and let the cool opulence of the countryside wash over us as we grazed over our meal with the chef’s family and friends. This was not something I could have arranged for myself, and the splendid job Marlane had done creating this first day had us all raising our glasses of locally made Chianti to her.
The next morning I woke up again to the sheep bells, rising gently from the distance and making me wish I never, ever had to leave this place. I dressed, had a latte and was out the door and along a country path to a neighboring farm. On my arrival, I was pretty sure I had been transported to a novel set in Italy and written by a revered classic English author that somehow captured the soft morning light and the fresh smells of the damp autumn earth. I literally had to pinch myself. Marco and Emanuela, a beautiful and warm couple of Podere La Fonte, opened their villa door to me. I was met with a roaring fire in the giant stone hearth, a sumptuously set table and a cup of Emanuela’s tea—a mint and licorice concoction that nearly made me swoon. On the hearth was a large steaming pot of water in which we were going to cook a soup called Acqua Cotta. In a hand-woven basket gracing the long country table was an artistic display of country mushrooms, of all shapes and sizes, freshly picked by Marco early that morning.
The rest of the class soon showed up, great ladies who let loose and had a lot of fun, and we spent half the day making three kinds of pasta, three sauces, bread, a savory tart, lasagna and biscotti, as well as observing Emanuela in her own kitchen and seeing how an Italian mama cooks with her garlic and olive oil (upon my arrival home in the US, I threw away my garlic crusher… no wonder my tomato sauces were so bitter!.) I had the feeling our group of women had been dropped into some magical place that simply embraced us, fed us and taught us how to live and cook and eat. It was a life changing experience, Il Campo Cucina. Amidst my three-month Italian holiday I never expected that the most magical part would be spent in a matter of days and in the care of an American guide. It was possibly the finest week of my Italian experience. So fabulous that it obviously deserves another trip next year.
Kimberly Wainscoat lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and her favorite travel moments include riding an elephant through the Thai jungle, celebrating Buddha’s birthday in South Korea and drinking Rosano’s wine and Pasquale’s limoncello in Tuscany.