A Day at Podere La Fonte: Cooking at the Source

One gorgeous afternoon last October, six American visitors eager to explore the undiscovered places of Tuscany and cook some authentic, rustic Tuscan dishes, arrived at Podere La Fonte for their third day of cooking with Il Campo Cucina.  A cloudburst had just passed through the valley and set the gray-green leaves of the olive grove shimmering in soft sunlight.

Podere means “farm” and La Fonte means “the source,” a fitting name for a farm that produces its own food and cooks old Tuscan dishes with antique implements just as the ancients of this land once did. Emanuela or Marco would be quick to explain that actually, the name refers to an old spring that once was part of the farm, but which now belongs to the property next door. Never mind. La Fonte is The Source–to me they are one and the same.

Emanuela Giua and Marco Garosi have owned their whimsically beautiful organic farm, which is nestled in the hillside just below Radicondoli, since the early 1970s and tended their sixty-some acres of vineyards, olive groves, heirloom wheat, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens with loving care and devotion. In addition, Emanuela is well versed in the local flora and makes teas, unguents and soaps with wild herbs she forages from the woodlands that surround their property, as well as from  the abundance of sage, rosemary, lavender and countless other herbs and plants that are cultivated on their land.

Podere La Fonte, an agriturismo, teaching farm (podere didattica) and member of WWOOF –the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms–is a place where travelers can experience life as it was once lived in Tuscany, but with the comforts of modern living to ease the way.  As a WWOOF farm, La Fonte takes in travelers willing to work for room and board, and teach them the old techniques that Marco and Emanuela learned from the elders of the village when they first arrived as teenagers from Rome. Depending on the season, WWOOFers may find themselves making elderberry blossom, cherry, apricot, fig, pear, apple or quince jams and juices, harvesting wheat or grapes or olives and helping Marco produce his fabulous wine and outstanding emerald green olive oil. As guests of the agriturismo, for a modest sum you can rent out one of the farm’s comfortable, antique furnished apartments and either walk up to the village at mealtime, cook in your own kitchen with vegetables you found in the garden, or have your dinners cooked for you by Emanuela.

When Il Campo Cucina guests go to La Fonte for a lesson, they make all vegetarian organic  dishes with whatever is growing in the garden at the time, supplemented with cheeses and other ingredients from local farms or the market. Typically we will make a pasta dish or two, a savory tart, a variety of vegetable dishes including Marco’s scrumptious eggplant parmesan (see Recipes for details), and rustic cookies like cantucci di prato or ciambelline di vino (ring-shaped wine cookies).

On the day our last fall group of 2014 arrived, Marco had just harvested and crushed the grapes for the beginning of fermentation, and he let the visitors climb up a ladder to peer into the vats to see what this beginning stage of the  wine making process looks like. Then we took a brief tour of the grounds and went into the grand rustic dining room for a cup of herbal tea or homemade juice, before donning aprons and rolling up our sleeves to cook.

Today, Emanuela had a special new dish in store for us: walnut lasagna (see “Recipes” for details). In addition, we made a tomato lasagna, eggplant parmesan, pappa al pomodoro, boiled chicory (for digestion, Emanuela wisely explained) fried green tomatoes, bruschetta grilled over the fire and drenched in the farm’s magnificent olive oil, and for dessert, cantucci di prato. It’s the sort of menu that sounds alarmingly, well, huge, until you see the dishes and taste them, then it all goes down effortlessly and you find yourself shamelessly reaching for seconds. At least that has been my experience!

Today was no exception. The guests rolled out their own handmade egg pasta, and while the lasagna sheets were resting, Emanuela showed them how to make bechamel, the white sauce Catherine di Medici is said to have introduced to French cuisine, and which is used in a wide variety of Tuscan classic dishes. She mixed the cantucci with her own hands, which is a sticky, gooey process but makes for a more tender cookie in the end than my Kitchenaid mixer with its metal paddle does. Somehow, in only three hours we were all sitting down to partake in a meal that would have taken me days to prepare.

Marco had set out bottles of his outstanding red and white wines and set the table, in between turning over slabs of Tuscan bread that were slowly toasting over the coals in the grand fireplace, and frying slices of eggplant for the melanzana parmigiana in the kitchen.

Then we sat down to eat, and we were so happy to have helped cooked the meal which tasted all the more delicious for our part in its creation.

I am eternally grateful to Emanuela and Marco for maintaining their beautiful jewel of land that graces the view below my own house in the village, where the impossible labors of two people and a few WWOOFers passing through somehow make  a cornucopia of high quality, organic products that awaken the tastebuds to the true meaning of life–eat, drink, be happy. If you are ever in the village, stop by their cantina and buy any products you can find on the shelves. You will never taste better quality, no matter where you might shop.

And if you haven’t made your vacation plans yet for this fall, join us for a week of amazing experiences such as this one, and discover the goodness of the true Italian life in off-the-beaten path Tuscany.