If anyone in history has actually managed to return from a trip to Italy without gaining five pounds, I commend you. Alas, for I it is a sad inevitability. For a land so rich in gastronomic treasures it would be rude, nay criminal, not to indulge in their every morsel the moment one sets foot on its shores. From sumptuous gelato in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo to the buttery sage ravioli at my best friend’s wedding breakfast amongst the vineyards of Chianti, the best octopus I’ve ever tasted on a quiet terrace overlooking the harbour in Palinuro and the feasts I shall undoubtedly partake in on my tour of the Amalfi coast next summer, Italian cuisine always has and always will have my heart.
For those who aren’t so greedily inclined, I’m sure there are alternative destinations to spend your money and precious annual leave on, though I’m not sure where they may be. If, however, you take the same view as me that a holiday should mostly be spent exploring local towns and sampling as much of the local food and wine as your waistband will allow, then you may with to look into the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa a look in for your next foodie fiesta.
Less than 50 miles from Pisa, nestled atop a hill overlooking the rolling mists of the Serchio Valley, the resort offers a year-round menu of tantalising trips sure to tickle even the most refined tastebuds. Situated between the Apuan Alps on one side and the Appennine Alps on the other, it’s a fascinating part of Italy begging to be explored and one quite different from the Tuscan landscapes you may be familiar with. While it is possible to reach the area via Italy’s always superb train network (the nearest station being around four miles away) and arrange transfers with the resort, with the local area so rich in things to discover, you’ll probably want to pick up a car at the airport for the duration of your trip.
Built in 1956 and renovated in 2011, the resort features 180 rooms as well as a wellness centre, two restaurants, beauty spa and a brand new outdoor pool. With views from its balconied rooms stretching out for miles across the valley to the snow-tinged peaks beyond, it’s clear to believe that in summer it’s at full capacity with visitors eager to discover the delicious offerings of the region and make the most of the baking Italian sunshines next to the pool. It’s during the low season months however that areas like this really come into their own, with the opportunity to discover the natural beauty of the changing seasons and the rich culinary treats they bring.
Our visit was originally timed to coincide November’s mushroom picking season, but weeks of bad weather throwing the annual harvest off course unfortunately put paid to that before we arrived. The region produces some of the most exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts in Italy and with the right conditions it’s possible to spend a morning in the local woodlands just yards from the hotel, foraging yourself for what are some of the most sought after culinary delights of the region, not to mention an essential part of autumnal Italian cooking given their presence in so many traditional recipes. Nevertheless, despite that part of the trip not quite working out as planned, we certainly made up for it in our other culinary endeavours, making the most of the year round schedule of foodie experiences the hotel offers.
A transfer from Pisa airport was arranged by the hotel, with the approximately 90 minute drive taking us past the city itself - with a distant glimpse of its famous tower - through Lucca and beyond to winding valley roads, past sleepy postcard villages peppered with plumes of woodsmoke from their chimneys. Arriving at the resort, the drive up its steep hill reveals more of a glimpse of its spectacular view with each hairpin bend, before the trees finally clear and you’re left with a vista that really will take your breath away. Our balcony overlooked the Serchio Valley, with the ever-changing weather providing something of a living landscape that you could quite easily get lost in watching all day.
Down in the valley less than two miles from the resort, Podere Concori was our first port of call, where Gabriele farms his nine hectares of vineyards by hand, with the help of a small team of family and friends. A tour of the land shows the work that goes in to every one of the 12-15,000 bottles that are produced each year, with three varieties of red and one white that are sold across the country to bars and restaurants as well as direct to the consumer. With the youngest vines just 15 years old, the land was previously used to great vegetables for what was previously the on-site restaurant, before Gabriele changed it to vineyards and began farming biodynamically, in accordance with the cycles of the moon, creating different harvests at different times of the year. Visit in September and guests will be invited to take part in the harvest, traditionally stomping the grapes beneath bare feet. You don’t need me to tell you that the views were stunning, and after a tour of the vineyard we settled down to a delicious lunch, handmade by Gabriele’s wife in their farmhouse kitchen. Different regions of the vineyard lend their qualities to each variety, with distinct flavours paired perfectly with the dishes presented us. Fear not, if travelling with hand luggage only it can be shipped home for an additional fee.
Post-lunch and retiring to the wellness centre was really the only option. An afternoon spent drifting between pool, sauna, steam room and lounger is always one well spent and given the addition of the relaxation lounge, with tea always at hand and a valley view with the Alps in the distance, it was difficult to tear ourselves away. The beauty spa has 12 cabins for treatments, including the Suite Cabin for those wishing to indulge in a couple, a private Turkish steam bath, jacuzzi suite and pedicure room. With a menu of treatments from indulgent massages to private hammams and mud wraps, a winter visit need not be spent yearning for the outdoor pool and sunshine; it’s perfectly possible to while away the afternoon in the spa.
If you’ve ever dreamt of learning real Italian cooking from a real Italian chef in a real Italian kitchen, Il Ciocco’s culinary experiences are not to be missed. With options ranging from a cooking lesson and tasting to a full day with the chef, shopping for your own ingredients and creating a personalised menu, for a hands-on experience it takes some beating. If you’re lucky enough to be there for a Wednesday or Thursday, you can enjoy a trip to the local market in Barga, the quaint medieval village a few miles from the resort, where you will handpick your ingredients with the chef for you own personal feast. Though we were there on a Monday, we took the ride down the hill with chef Stefano where we visited the local alimentari or grocer, something of an institution and run by the same family for some 104 years. Despite it being barely 10am, the owner Agostino poured glasses of red to accompany the wafer thin slivers of prosciutto and hunks of sheep’s cheese he presented us, as Stefano ordered a bag of chestnut flour for the pasta we would turn our hands to making that afternoon. A visit to the butcher for the beef and all ingredients were in hand, ready for an afternoon in the kitchen. Had it not been pouring with rain, a morning of exploring Barga’s cobbled lanes would have beckoned, given that it is an immaculate village of small piazzas, ageless shops and galleries, narrow streets and historic monuments, untouched by mass tourism and blessed with an impressive duomo, as well as the internationally famous Caffe Capretz.
What followed was our one to one cooking class with Stefano, where we learnt some secrets of traditional Italian cooking and created three classic dishes that would later become our dinner. The menu comprised homemade macaroni - made with the heady chestnut flour we picked up earlier - served with a ragu sauce, followed by a beef and olive stew served with polenta and finally, a booze-laced creamy ricotta and chocolate dessert. Despite being a novice pasta maker, the final result was surprisingly edible and while we didn’t quite turn our hands to the crispy parmesan bowls our dinner would be served in, we did witness the other chefs having a practice session on how to create them. Being something of a baker, the dessert was of course my favourite, moulding pastry into its cup and piping in a deliciously decadent (not that we tried it…) mixture of ricotta, eggs, chocolate chips and a fairly potent liqueur. The whole experience was accompanied by samples of local wines and a tasting plate of homemade bruschetta, salami and cheese, ensuring our hunger was sated whilst cooking took place, before our creations were presented to us later that evening, although I do suspect with a few additional tweaks from Stefano. Waddling back upstairs to exchange jeans for elasticated pyjamas and enjoy a post-prandial lie down, I was certainly thankful that our room was mere metres away.
The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco may be a buzzing holiday hub in the summer months, but these quieter seasons are the time to visit for an almost private encounter, an opportunity to relax your soul, revive your mind and indulge your tastebuds without disturbance. The perfect place to create your own epicurean adventure.
Room prices start at €102 per night with room packages starting from €143. Culinary experiences start from €160 per person.
Find out more at www.renaissancetuscany.com