The egg yolk glistened, a capstone to a hillock of flour mounded on the rustic wooden table. Early morning light filtered through lace curtains, casting filigreed shadows across the floor—the pasta making session was about to begin…
Our car’s headlamps were a poor match for the dark of a Tuscan night. The riotous cicadas sang louder than Pavarotti on our car stereo and the abundance of stars overhead did little to guide us to our final destination. We were lost on a dusty country lane somewhere in Tuscany just outside Montepulciano.
Enthusiastic foodies, we came to Italy in search of the original farm to table tradition—a tradition that had slowly been gaining popularity and had finally become part of the zeitgeist in the United States. And, we couldn’t think of a better way to experience it than by staying at an agriturismo. We also had an “in,” as one of our group—a food stylist—had met the owner at a food show, where she learned about her farm, Poggio Etrusco.
What is an agriturismo you might be wondering? Well, the many agriturismi (plural of agriturismo), scattered across Tuscany in particular and Italy in general, provide the opportunity for families or groups of friends to vacation at working farms across the country.
Accommodations range from the rustic to the refined and sometimes offer amenities like pools and bicycle rentals. The food served is typically prepared of the freshest ingredients from the farm itself or sourced nearby.
Agriturismi came about as a result of the decline in small-scale farming following World War II. New inventions allowing for big farming certainly contributed to the farmers inability to keep their operations profitable. The key factor in their eventual collapse, however, was the abolishment of the mezzadria system in the 1950s.
This feudal system of sharecropping had existed in Italy since the Renaissance and promised the sharecropper a home, tools and seed in return for 50% of his crop and livestock yield. The nobleman or landowner always took the best the farmer produced and this unequal system went a long way in keeping the peasant farmers from ever getting ahead.
The landowner also failed to reinvest in the farms, leaving many of them in dire need of repair. It’s no wonder the farmers left for higher paying jobs in the city. By the 1980s, the number of abandoned farms across Italy had increased dramatically.
In 1985, the Italian government finally settled on a solution to stem the loss. The creation of agritourism and the legal definition of agriturismo prevented the complete loss of small-scale production items, like olive oil, cheese, and wine.
This decision allowed small farmers the opportunity to continue on with their age-old farm traditions by offering visitors a place to stay. The farm stays provided a way for the farmers to offset their costs and offered the guest a window into rural Italian life—it was a win-win.
Our first day at Poggio Etrusco dawned bright and hot and we were excited to take in the full scope of our accommodations. Home to American cookbook author, Pamela Sheldon Johns, and her artist husband, Johnny Johns, their ivy-twined stone farmhouse was the center of a working 15-acre organic olive farm and there was a lot to take in.
At the foot of the stairs leading to our door, we found an outdoor pizza oven and small patio we totally missed the night before. There were terra cotta pots overflowing with geraniums and herbs, and cafe tables on tiled patios with great views of the surrounding hills.
There were fig trees ripe for the picking and a pool beckoned through a copse of trees. We plucked a few figs on our way to investigate and enjoyed their split-skin ripeness—our feet dangling in the aqua blue water.
Each of the suites carved out of the rambling 16th-century structure were named for flowers and our suite—Girasole or sunflower—was as delightful as the flower it was named for.
It featured a brick fireplace situated beneath a wooden staircase, a full, modern kitchen, private bathrooms and two large bedrooms—one tucked under the eaves with twin iron beds and the second with an antique double bed. With its picture perfect views and traditional furnishings—old armadio, rush-bottomed chairs, and embroidered linens—the apartment felt very Italian.
Breakfast was served daily in a charming room located off the farm’s original entrance and consisted of pastries, homemade bread, jams and jellies, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, coffee and juice. We had the opportunity to interact with our host each morning and were even given a tour of the home she shared with her family.
During our tour of their living quarters, we learned Poggio Etrusco had been home to generations of a peasant family before the collapse of the mezzadria system. The space the Johns’ called home was actually located in the foundations of the structure in the former barn. Pamela’s book-strewn office still contained the stone troughs the animals once ate from, as well as the iron rings they’d been tethered to.
In addition to their hospitality, Pamela and Johnny were kind enough to recommend a few of their favorite restaurants and markets in their corner of Tuscany. We followed their advice on several occasions, exploring Montepulicano’s weekly markets and discovering local restaurants with traditional dishes, including nearby Tre Stelle.
Located where the country lane met the local road, the ristorante’s pizza crust crisps were a revelation and the homemade gnocchi with truffles was divine. We also enjoyed our after dinner Limoncello digestif presented to us with great enthusiasm by the restaurant owner. Enjoyed al fresco beneath a sky filled with a succession of café lights and stars, our meal was so memorable we went back a second time.
Poggio Etrusco’s location proved ideal for exploring Tuscany with its hilltop villages, fields of nodding sunflowers, and winding, cypress-lined lanes—all within easy drives of no more than 40 minutes. With our small, but mighty rental car (necessary if you want to get around with ease), we were able to make it up some very steep hills and visit several towns and villages over a few days.
We explored Montepulciano—home of the world famous Vino Nobile wines and San Biagio; Pienza—home of Piccolomini and pecorino; Montalcino—home of the famed Brunello di Montalcino wines and great gelato; Montereggioni—home of a set of surprisingly intact 13th-century defensive walls; and Chiusi—home of a fine Etruscan museum with access to Etruscan tomba (which I happily descended into). Much to my chagrin, we never made it to Cortona, where I had hoped to drive by Bramasole, Frances Mayes’ villa, or to Bagno Vignoni, whose village center is dominated by a 16th-century thermal pool fed by an underground aquifer.
Though images of Tuscany have become quite commonplace in today’s overly saturated digital world, an image, no matter how evocative, is no substitute for the real thing. It was so rewarding to just sit outside a cafe sipping a cappuccino in the morning or an espresso in the afternoon as the rhythms of Tuscan life unfurled around you.
Images of brown-robed friars riding bicycles up steep hills, of Italian men back-lit by the setting sun whiling away the afternoon, or of a trio of plump, housedress clad nonninas comically stuffed into an Ape are etched in my mind forever.
And, who can forget the smells: the sharp smell of pecorino; the musty smell of fermenting grapes; or the smell of fresh garlic and simmering tomatoes wafting on an evening breeze? And, the sounds: the ever-present church bells marking the hours of the day or the sound of the steam escaping as the barista pulls the best espresso you’ve ever had?
Tuscany is definitely an experience for the senses, best savored—not consumed. It is an alchemical elixir of light and air—and a visit allows you to unwind and just be if you’ll let it. My favorite motto, “How beautiful it is to do nothing and to rest afterwards,” certainly rang true here, as nowhere else. Enjoying the simple things, like an espresso, a glass of wine, your meal, or the evening passeggiata, is raised to an art form—the very act of living is a celebration.
While we chose Poggio Etrusco as our base to explore Tuscany, the farm also offers the opportunity to learn about growing and harvesting olives and how the olive oil they sell is made. You can also explore the markets and hill towns with your host, where you’ll have the opportunity to sample Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Pecorino Toscano, Prosciutto di Cinta Senese, and much more. She also offers customizable and one-day cooking classes, where you’ll learn the secrets to making perfect homemade pasta, the perfect sauce—you name it.
Though this region of Italy has become more crowded, it isn’t quite as crowded as Florence and offers so much to discover. When it comes to desirability, Italy does seem to have it all and a visit to Tuscany promises great food, wine, and culture in abundance. So, when it’s safe again to travel, Poggio Etrusco is the perfect place to unwind and discover what an agriturismo has to offer—the farm to table tradition firsthand.
With flowers, food and travel on her mind, she has decided to combine her three loves and put together a tour centered at Poggio Etrusco focused on flowers, food and culture.
Intrigued? Send Tammy an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
And now for a real treat, Pamela Sheldon Johns has shared her recipe for her signature olive oil cake. Enjoy!
Poggio Etrusco Olive Oil Cake
2 1/2 cups of sugar
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups of milk
zest of 3 oranges
2 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the olive oil, milk and zest; mix well.
- In another bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add to egg mixture, stirring just to blend. Do not overmix.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Serves 12
Note: Pamela and her husband are always creating, follow this LINK to their online shop, Tuscan Flavors, to experience their Tuscan-made products in your home.
To experience more of Italy’s food treasures with Pamela, read on:
In addition to owning and managing Poggio Etrusco, Pamela Sheldon Johns also conducts culinary workshops in Tuscany & beyond. Drawing on her 25 years of experience cooking, writing about cooking and living in Italy, she has put together an incredible array of tours in several key culinary regions across Italy.
To read about her Tuscan workshops, follow this link to her website – Food Artisans: Culinary Workshops.
To learn more about her culinary tours in other regions of Italy, read on:
- Campania – Although we could spend much longer, we have just a few days to explore the culinary treasures of Campania. We will be spending our time in three key areas: the colorful city of Naples, the central part of Campania, famous for mozzarella, and the romantic Amalfi coast… Follow this link to read more…
- Tuscany – Reaching south from Florence, the province of Siena ripples with the gentle forested hills of Chianti into the rich valleys of the Chiana and Orcia Rivers. The area bubbles with the earthly pleasures of hot mineral waters and agricultural wonders. It is a region of contrasts. Depending on the season, travelers are treated to the visual splendors of the blazing colors of reddened grape leaves or cheery sunflowers, soothed by billowing fields of wheat. Follow this link to read more…
- Piemonte – “Truffles and Risotto” is held only one week each year, in the height of Italy’s famous white truffle season. Enjoy visits to a twelfth-century Cistercian abbey where premium rice has been grown for centuries and take part in a cooking class and luncheon with a Contessa. Explore the charming cosmopolitan Torino and the quaint town of Alba. Experience the the heady discovery of the fragrant white truffle while hunting in the woods. Some of Italy’s best wines are from this region, to be sampled in a wine country visit to Barolo and Barbera. Follow this link to read more…
- Emilio-Romagna – Famed for its cuisine, we will discover the ‘Passions of Emilio-Romagna’ by exploring Bologna and Modena, where we’ll experience the region’ s traditional products, the proper way to make balsamic vinegar, and the secret to the to die-for Parmigiano-Reggiano – the Vacche Rosse cow. Follow this link to read more…
- Puglia – Puglia, Italy’s “heel of the boot,” is a unique region strategically placed in the Mediterranean on the historic path to vanquish new lands. This narrow peninsula has seen waves of conquerors from the Greeks of Magna Graecia, ancient Romans, and Byzantines to the Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, the Spanish, and Ottoman Turks. This has created a colorful tapestry of culture, which we’ll see in the amazing baroque architecture of Lecce, the curious stone trulli of Alberobello (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and the Castello del Monte (also UNESCO), a true fusion of Arabic, medieval European, and eastern features. Follow this link to read more…
- Sicily – From Palermo to Catania, we’ll crisscross the island, experiencing the long history and influences on Sicily’s amazing food, wine, and cultural scene. Starting in Palermo, we’ll sample Sicilian street foods in the colorful streets of the Capo – the city’s historic market. Follow this link to read more…
- Cinque Terra – Our home base is in Levanto, a Slow Food City, which means they care a lot about good food and wine! The Levanto Valley has 70 kms of footpaths linking 18 medieval hamlets, including the National Park and protected marine reserve of the Cinque Terre. “The Five Lands” of the Cinque Terre are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These tiny, remote fishing villages are strung along the coast northwest of La Spezia, connected only by boat, rail, and footpaths…no cars. We will have daily walks with a professional walking and historic guide. The level of exercise is moderate, always with an option not to participate. Follow this link to read more…