Living La Dolce Vita at Borgo Pignano, Volterra, Italy

Ever wish you could live as if the Downton Abbey lifestyle were transplanted to a Tuscan estate for the warmth of the Italian soul and sun and delicious, home grown food and wine? Well I got to experience this and more, if “only” staying in the farmhouse — not the five star villa —  with a band of merry yogis on a week-long retreat.

Riding from Florence to our lodgings in the back of a VW van, suitcases piled high in the way back and beside me in the third row, careening along narrow, winding, hilly roads with our ebullient hostess Camille (also known as Pushpa from her days as a child in India) was, shall we say, unforgettable. The landscape was breathtaking.

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The farmhouse where our group was staying had a beautiful common room dominated by a huge dining table and french doors looking out across a pond.  The kitchen was ours to use as well, which we took advantage of when our chef Lennie was not around:

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We rose each morning at 7 in time to make our own cappucino, gnosh on baked goods left for us in the cupboard, and walk to the yoga studio about a quarter of a mile away near the main house:IMG_0557

After morning yoga we trundled down the hill to a feast of a breakfast provided by Lennie.  What a challenge he had! Some guests had gluten intolerance, the week was vegetarian even for those who were normally carnivores, and some of us had random food allergies such as mine regarding pine nuts, unfortunately often a staple of pesto genovese — boo 😦 . Everyone agreed that our meals were outstanding.  There was plenty of variety in the unbelievably fresh produce, the bread and cakes and cookies were to die for and the presentation was always a combination of down home and carefully plated:

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Our afternoons were never the same twice. We had a tour of the estate with Pushpa, who delighted in telling us about the history of the place, built on Etruscan ruins and added on to throughout the centuries,most notably in the nineteenth century by two feuding family members who literally divided the home in half:

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Pushpa is deservedly proud of the green way in which the estate is currently being managed. Solar panels provide hot water, heirloom varieties and authentic milling and processing practices contribute to the sense one has of really experiencing what this soil and climate have to offer. All animals range free, the honey used is from the villa’s own hives, herbs and aromatics are made into salves, potpourri, and soaps:

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We did get a peek at the accommodations in the main house, with my favorites being this bathroom and Pushpa’s domain — the bakery:

IMG_0685IMG_0674We were also treated to a pizza night at the outdoor area adjacent to the ancient Etruscan walls:

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Afternoon trips to Siena, Volterra and a hot springs spa, as well as the grape harvesting described in the previous post helped to whet our appetites for the delicious dinners Lennie prepared, sometimes with tutorials for those interested, and always with organic, private reserve red wine from the neighboring vineyard.  We began dinner preparations and socializing at sunset, dined for several hours as the moon rose, and went to bed, grateful to have been alive and together in this beautiful place. Namaste!

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Stay tuned for capsule summaries of the rest of our trip in the days ahead.

Grape Harvesting in Tuscany

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Next to Borgo Pignano, the estate where we are staying, is a limited production “boutique” winery owned by relatives of our yoga teacher. We had a once in a lifetime experience yesterday, harvesting grapes and learning about the production process at MonteRosola Winery.

The weather was beautiful, with a crisp Volterra sky, just enough heat and sun to warm the bones. I could not just understand but feel how important the quality of this sunlight is to the vines and the grapes they bear. Row upon row of specific clones graced a hillside, dripping with clusters of deep purple fruit ready to be harvested.

A family operation, two tow-headed preschoolers skedaddled about, clippers in hand, at one with the Tuscan earth and ready to participate in the harvest. Two enormous labradors padded about, pausing to nuzzle each other or sniff out ripe olives to lap up from the chalky soil. A robotic lawn mower meandered about the lawn in front of the residence while our host explained to us our task and the process of turning grapes into award winning red wines.

I am no oenophile. In fact, I cannot drink red wine due to its tannins and oak barrel aging. But picking and then eating three varieties of organic grapes — cabernet, shiraz, and the local Italian specialty, sangiovese — even I could discern a clear difference in taste and even feel in the mouth depending upon the variety.

We were tasked with cutting and then perusing sangiovese grapes, looking especially for mold, but also being attentive to overripe, already fermenting grapes. These were to be selected out, tossed on the ground and allowed to return to the soil from whence they came. Several hours later the baskets of grapes we had selected would be put through a destemmer, sorted on a small conveyor belt to select out any remaining imperfect specimens, and then crushed, flowing into gigantic oak barrels where they would be tended like delicate hothouse flowers, with minute temperature adjustments and coddling, but with no additives or artificial acceleration of fermentation permitted.

Because the winery operates completely organically, rose bushes at the end of each row signal the presence of insect pests, which are treated with concentrated chamomile. Grape clusters often had spiders within, and the occasional yellow jacket buzzed drunkenly about, feasting on the fallen overripe  grapes.

It will be several years before the grapes we picked will end up in bottles in some lucky person’s wine cellar, but many more years than that before this unforgettable experience fades from my memory.

You can read more about MonteRosola here.