The wonders of Tuscia, a hidden gem up north Rome and in the south of Tuscany

PLUS A RECIPE FOR “HAY” PASTA WITH CRUNCHY GUANCIALE, HAZELNUTS AND PEARS

This post is in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Viterbo and Italian Stories that took us on a blog tour in October 2018.

WHY “SLOW” TRAVEL IS NECESSARY

If Italy has been in your travel radar lately, or if you’re a resident in Italy with tourism in your radar, you might have come upon some articles in the recent months inviting you to go beyond Chianti, or anywhere in Tuscany when organizing your next holidays in this beautiful country. The truth is that while responsible and well dosed tourism helps keeping communities alive, flourishing local economies and revitalizing the otherwise vanishing cultures, irresponsible fast tourism does the exact opposite; in other words it destroys our favorite, beautiful spots on earth.

It’s time we looked beyond the old classics. Not because they no longer have wonders to offer us, but because in order to preserve those wonders, we need to cherish the treasures of other less know places. Equity; this is the concept of our era, and the tourism industry has neglected it for too far.

THE TUSCIA EXPERIENCE; CULTURE, ART, FOOD

When I first traveled to Tuscia last October, I never imagined to encounter this much richness in history, culture, craftsmanship, art and food. Why did I know so little about a land so close to where I have called home for the past decade (Tuscia is only a two hour drive in the north of Rome, right before the borders of Tuscany)?

The land was home to the ancient Etruscans who ruled in central Italy before (and partly contemporarily with) the Romans. This trail is still visible in the supreme art of ceramics of Tuscia. Many centuries later, the Pope would choose this area for both vacation, and necessary refuge, when he was not safe in Rome. What’s more, Tuscia is also on the last track of Via Francigena; an ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome and Apulia, where there were the ports of embarkation for the Holy Land.

The powerful and wealthy Farnese family — contemporary rivals of the Florentine Medici family during the renaissance — have left breathtakingly beautiful villas and palazzi in the Tuscia area, as well as Rome and beyond. Palazzo Farnese and Villa Lante are two perfect examples of their mind-blowing glory and sophistication.

The Tuscia Experience (which you might remember from my highlighted Stories on Instagram) is a collection of activities and workshops you can do directly with many artisan producers and craftsmen. You can engage in anything from cheese making to bookbinding to ceramic decorations in ancient Etruscan style to ham making workshops and much more. I am leaving the PDF brochure here to download.

PORK, WHEAT, CHEESE AND “MAGIC HERBS”, EATING AND DRINKING TUSCIA

It’s a fascinating experience to visit how the irreplaceably famous cured meats of Italy are made. From prosciutto (which is made in a couple of different ways), to salami, to guanciale, the cured pork cheek so beloved to Romans, and the quintessential ingredient to Roman classics such as Amatriciana and Carbonara.

Regional products of Tuscia

Simonetta and her sister run the Coccia Sesto Prosciuttificio, the ham making factory their father founded decades ago, that now they have successfully expanded. You can visit the process, shop their products and have lunch all at the same place. Apart from their own cured meats, they also serve cheese and other specialities (I was the only one brave enough to try pork’s ears, cooked under a porchetta).

Antonio Brizi runs Il Fiocchino, a sheep cheese making factory somewhere near lake Bolsena. The sheep milk he uses is from the Tuscia area near his factory and in his own words that, plus natural lamb rennet, enzymes, salt and time are the secret ingredient for one of the best pecorino cheeses I have ever tasted.

The fieno pasta is very popular in the town of Canepina, in Tuscia. Fieno literally means hay in Italian, which indicates the thinness and the yellow color of this delicate egg pasta. Not to be confused with paglia e fieno (straw and hay), thick ribbons of pasta similar to tagliatelle that come in two colors of green and yellow. The other name for this typical Canepinese pasta, is maccarone, which is equally curious and should not be confused with maccherone, the thick tubes of pasta made in most of southern regions of Italy.

Guido Fanelli runs a small pasta making factory, and is well known for his exceptionally good fieno pasta, among all the other types. The fieno he brings to restaurants comes in large, delicate packages, as if it was a bridal box holding precious handmade lace.

Antonella runs a farmhouse called Sapori di Ieri, which translates to the taste of the past. She cultivates organic vegetables, fruit and herbs, then turns them into sauces, jams and “magical” mixes. Hazelnuts and chestnuts are that grow abundantly in this area are among her special products.

The Itineris brewery, where master Brewer Claudia makes his craft beer, used to be ceramic factory. Here Claudio has created a small paradise of intese yet sophisticated flavors marry in dark bottles of his many types of craft beer.

Marco Camilli, a for pharmacists, runs a legume farm where he cultivates organic pulses. Surpassingly, Marco does not come from a family of farmers, he chose to change careers and started experimenting with agricultural techniques.


FIENO PASTA WITH CRUNCHY GUANCIALE, PEARS AND HAZELNUTS

This is not what you would call an “authentic” dish, but its ingredients are. The producers I mentioned above kindly provided me with them, and asked me to develop a recipe inspired by the simple, yet intense of flavors of Tuscia. I am quite proud of the result (so proud I ate ALL the pasta I cooked for the shooting in one go).

The fieno pasta on itself is surprisingly flavorful. The fatty touch and crunch of guanciale, beautifully contrasts the sweetness of the sautéed pears. Toasted and crushed hazelnuts bring a pleasant chewy texture to delicate pasta. Everything comes together with sharpness of extra-aged pecorino cheese, and then is brightened by the fresh aroma of the “magic” herbs.

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{Retreat} The Old School Kitchen: From the Etruscan Table to the Roman Banquet, June 30 – July 6, Tuscany

A CULINARY RETREAT INSPIRED BY ARCHAEOLOGY AND ART

I am excited and honored beyond words to tell you that I have joined archaeologist and food writer Farrell Monaco to offer you what I’d shamelessly call the dream workshop for food and history geeks and Italy lovers with a side of science and eye for art.

I first discovered Farrell last year quite by chance, and I was blown away by her archaeological research in the food of ancient Romans (particularly her fascinating excavations in Pompeii), and her recreation of many ancient Roman recipes. We met, and many emails and calls later, I am delighted to announce this summer we will take you to a castle in the midst of the Tuscan countryside for a culinary retreat inspired by archaeology and art.

Read on for the full program.

The Old School Kitchen: From the Etruscan Table to the Roman Banquet

culinary retreat in tuscany roman and etruscan food

Join food archaeologist, Farrell Monaco, and food photographer, Saghar Setareh, for a 5-day live-in edible archaeology master class at a palatial medieval castle hidden in a valley in the Tuscan countryside as they explore the food history of Etruria and Rome from 800 BC to the Imperial Roman Era (AD 476).  June 30 to July 6, 2019 – Monte Amiata (Tuscany), Italy.

About the Retreat

The master class will be comprised of 10 sessions held at the iconic Castello di Potentino, a restored medieval castle, that is situated in the heart of an ancient Etruscan valley in Tuscany, Italy. Originally a medieval castle built over an Etruscan settlement, the towering castle boasts three kitchens, two dining rooms, 11 large guest rooms, a pool, an olive grove, a wine cellar, and a vineyard that produces award winning wines. In the surrounding area are Etruscan archaeological remains that take us back 2,500 years in time to a place that is pre-Roman but that is key to the development of Roman food culture and the Roman civilization itself.

Courtesy of Castello di Potentino

Your hosts pride themselves in providing a culinary experience that is authentic and based on legitimate historical data. Daily workshops will begin with a lecture in the medieval chapel adjacent to the castle followed by hands-on cooking, the use of ancient food preparation technologies, ancient meal preparation and bread-making lessons, the use of ancient herbs and spices, food-styling workshops, food photography lessons, and a session on staging Roman food frescoes for the camera. Lessons and recipes will be compiled using authentic sources and peer-reviewed research from the Etruscan, Greek and Roman archaeological, written and pictorial records.

Participants will also enjoy a foraging trip into the countryside with a local resident who will teach us how to identify and prepare edible wild herbs and fungi that are indigenous to the valley and have been used for culinary purposes for millenia.

Left: Panis Quadratus by Farrell Monaco, Right: Panis Quadratus fresco in Pompeii

About your hosts

Left: Farrell Monaco (Photo by Ash Naylor), Right: Saghar Setareh

Farrell Monaco is an archaeologist and food-writer whose research centres on foodways, food preparation, and food-related ceramics in the Roman Mediterranean. Farrell is well known for her experimental archaeology projects where she painstakingly recreates Roman recipes using instruction, ingredients, and technologies sourced from the archaeological, written and pictorial records. Her blog, Tavola Mediterranea, was nominated for a Saveur Blog Award (2018) and her work has been featured on Atlas ObscuraRadio New ZealandMade in Pompei and the BBC. Farrell’s current research is centred ancient Roman bakeries and breads. She is a member of EXARC, the Archaeological Institute of America, and she sits on the media relations committee of the Society for American Archeology

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Saghar Setareh is an Iranian food photographer and writer based in Rome, where she discovered her love for the culinary arts of all forms. Her blog Lab Noon, which was nominated for Saveur Blog Awards (2015 and 2017) and Corriere della Sera Cucina Blog Awards (2017 and 2018), celebrates Persian and Italian recipes. Her work has been published on Italian and Anglo-Saxon websites and publications. She also collaborates with restaurants, chefs and food brands regarding their digital communication and food photography and teaches cooking, styling and photography workshops. 

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Saghar’s food photography & food styling

About the Venue

A Bathroom at one of the guest rooms at Castello di Potentino

Castello di Potentino is an ancient castle built on an Etruscan site. It lies in a secret valley in one of the last undiscovered corners of Tuscany – Monte Amiata.  The medieval building is surrounded by unspoilt countryside, dotted with the vines and the ancient olive trees used for the estate’s small production of high quality wine, grappa and olive oil. Agriculture and viticulture are about growing and living, so eating and drinking well are an important element in the Potentino ethos which is concerned with the sustainability of how we inhabit a place and relate to it physically and mentally.

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10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy, Pt. II

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon

This is the second part of a previous post about my 10 food striking memories from more than a decade of living in Italy that you can read here.

As I said, not only was I not a foodie when I came to Rome in 2007, I wasn’t aware nor interested in particular ingredients or recipes either. I had had limited experience with some food on one hand — pork and alcohol, due to the restrictions in Iran — on the other, I still had the culinary taste of child, on some levels. I didn’t eat most of the vegetables, I hated fish in every form and way. All this changed forever when I started eating my way through Italy. 

Join me on the rest of this journey though food and drinks that made the best part of my twenties (and early thirties). There’s no recipe in this post, and photos don’t necessarily represent the dish I have written about.

6. His Majesty the Pork; Porchetta and Salumi

All the pork I had tasted back in Iran came in the shape of a few varieties of cold cuts. That is to say just some ham, and maybe some sausages that on very rare occasions we bought (illegally) from the Armenian’s shop, or that someone had smuggled in from abroad. 

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon

Once in Rome, soon enough I was introduced to porchetta, the pork marvel rolled with tons of herbs, then roasted in its own skin until very crispy. I would ask the lady in the sandwich shop near Campo de’ Fiori to fill my sandwich (in a Roman ciabatta bread), with sun dried tomatoes and grilled eggplants. The tiny grocery shop right under my house on the other hand, would sell cheap pork steak. The fatty meat tasted divine to me, or better to say, it was a delicious sin I had never made.

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon

Once I discovered the glorious world of salumi — the Italian cold cuts, there was no going back. One slice of prosciutto crudo and I was sold. Fatty salame used to be my favorite, capocollo, and mortadella came next. My heavy consume of these cold cuts was at its peak when we used to go to very inelegant evening picnics to the hills just next to roads, packed with a couple of supermarket baguettes, some cold cuts and a bottle or two of wine that we would share. No cutlery, no glasses, pure joy.

7. Seafood

It is no secret that I used to absolutely hate fish. It took me a couple of years in Italy to transform that dislike to love and curiosity. I came to the realization that fish has an adult flavor, meaning you can’t really appreciate it until you’re fully grown up. My first ever pasta with fish, was with smoked salmon and cream. I spat out that first mouthful my friends insisted I tried.

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon

Later my friend Gianni suggested he would make me shellfish pasta “the Sicilian way”, which consisted in topping the pasta with heaps of a mixture of slightly toasted bread crumbs with finely chopped garlic and parsley, soaked in a generous amount  of olive oil. Bread on pasta? Why not! Just another lovely, Italian carb on carb. 

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon

My romance with seafood may have started from the readymade frozen shellfish sauces from the super market, but it has gone a long way from there. I’ve learned to cherish and absolutely love seafood thanks to the Italian way with fish, to the point that now it’s among my favorite dishes. Not a summer passes by without many cones of fried little fish (baby octopus, anchovies and calamari), and I have mastered the art of perfect spaghetti alle vongole veraci — clam spaghetti, which is now one of my most favorites pastas ever.

10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon
10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy by Saghar Setareh | Lab Noon
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