In the US, the vast majority of food & grocery shopping is done in supermarkets. We cook with canned beans or tomatoes, pre-butchered meats, and shrink-wrapped cold cuts – or consume industrially prepared foods – rarely stopping to consider where exactly these things come from. One item could be fresh from a nearby farm, another from halfway across the world. While many Americans are becoming increasingly aware of how and where their food is produced, there is still a sense of detachment between the food we eat and its origins. Recently, however, following an eye-opening Italian dining experience at La Petraia – in Tuscany’s Chianti region – I was inspired to rethink how I purchase, prepare, and consume food.
La Petraia, owned by Canadian expats Susan and Michael Grant and located just outside Radda in Chianti, is what is known as an agriturismo: literally, the meeting of agriculture and tourism. From the moment you arrive at the property, you know you are somewhere special: perched on a hillside, the main house is surrounded by vineyards, lavender fields, cultivated gardens, and a wild chestnut forest – not to mention breathtaking views. A self-proclaimed “restaurant with rooms,” La Petraia has 4 luxurious guest rooms, and the restaurant boasts a menu composed of items hailing almost exclusively from the surrounding property. Earlier this year, they played host to Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma) who, in collaboration with La Petraia, gave the first of a series of Petraia Sessions – several days of good food, good wine, and good discussion. And recently, during a stay not far away (at our Capriolo villa), I myself was fortunate enough to able to try La Petraia for dinner with a friend one evening.
Driving up, we were immediately impressed as the gate opened to let our car up a driveway flanked on either side by thick fields of lavender. As it was late summer, they were not in full bloom, but I can only begin to imagine how intensely beautiful they must be at the height of the season.
We were welcomed by Susan and Marco and handed an aperitif of prosecco and blackberry liqueur, a homegrown blackberry at the bottom of each flute. Susan returned inside to finish preparing the meal – she is not only an owner but also executive chef – while Marco gave us, along with the other guests for that evening, a leisurely walking tour of the property surrounding the house. Followed by the friendly pets – one cat, one dog – we saw squash & zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and much more.
We were then led to an area of the property separated by a fence, which we learned was home to their three Cinta Senese pigs – a local semi-wild variety that was at one time near extinction. They came wandering over to investigate us as Marco gave us a bit of background information. The tour continued down a slight incline, where we walked past the grapevines and then wound back up through a small orchard where they grow pears, figs, peaches, plums, and other fruits. Finally – it was time for the meal!
Dinner itself was a parade of distinct flavors and beautiful, minimalist presentation, served with the option of white or red wine produced by a local winemaker. On the table when we were seated was a selection of homemade chips & crackers served with two purées: one eggplant, one chickpea. Reminiscent of baba ghanoush and hummus, the dips were flavorful and amazingly fresh – unsurprising, given the ingredients came from the garden just steps away!
We moved on to a whimsically presented course of various greens picked from the property – some cultivated, others wild – and a smooth carrot purée that contradicted my usual ambivalence toward carrots.
Wild salad similar to the one we were served. Photo Michael Grant.
The courses that followed included a prosciutto made from one of the Cinta Senese pigs and served with melon sorbet; sausage and a pork steak made from the same animal; a beet risotto that got better and better with each bite and was probably one of the best dishes I have ever tasted; a fresh ravioli that tasted of summer. And dessert – lavender meringue followed by a few intense bites of perfumed chocolate & biscotti, these two served not with wine but with mead, an ancient alcohol made from honey and water. It all concluded with the requisite Italian espresso, over which we pondered the meal we had just enjoyed, noting that even the service had been top notch.
When the time came to leave and drive home, we were sorry not to be staying in one of La Petraia’s beautiful guest rooms. We did however get to take a peek into one – it was peaceful and comfortable, with original photographs done by Susan’s husband Michael. The attention to detail was impeccable, even down to the latch on the bathroom door. For those who do stay the night, they are rewarded with complimentary breakfast, also consisting entirely of products originating from the property.
For me, the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – it challenged the way I think about food and even now, back in the US, I am trying to shop and eat differently. I would urge anyone spending time in Tuscany to give it a try.
The menu we enjoyed during our evening at La Petraia; click image to enlarge.
For more information on La Petraia and its accommodations, restaurant, and cooking and foraging classes, see their informative website at www.lapetraia.com.