Morning mist floats over vine-covered valleys and the plaintive peal of the country church bell just metres away from our villa heralds the arrival of another dawn in the Tuscan countryside. Some days hot air balloons drift silently by, hovering in the still air like giant jewels suspended in gossamer.
It's easy to leap out of bed on magical mornings like this when you're on a food and culture tour of Italy. Organised by tour operator Emily Tassone of Avanti Italy, this two-week adventure is hosted by Mildurabased restaurateur Stefano de Pieri and is the first of what is planned as regular forays back to the celebrity chef 's homeland.
We are a small group of five couples– all Australians, all well-travelled and all lovers of good food and wine. Home for the first week is a rustic villa in the small 1000-year-old hamlet of Palazzuolo comprising just four families, that is an easy half-hour drive by comfortable mini-bus southwest of Florence; for the second week, we'll be ensconced in a luxury 18th century villa high above the picturesque town of Positano on the luxe Amalfi Coast.
Welcome Aperol and prosecco drinks on Day One set the culinary tone with a spread of antipasti that could easily have done us for dinner: fresh figs with prosciutto, chicken livers on crostini, finocchiona or fennel sausage, melon and ham, estate-grown olives and crisp pane croccante. But no, Stefano has prepared a further feast – a traditional Tuscan dinner of sliced fresh porcini topped with two-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil and parsley, risotto of wild mushrooms followed by thick-cut bifsteck alla fiorentina from Chianina stock for which the region is famous served with a simple rocket salad and baked potatoes accompanied by estate-grown wines.
There are visits to museums and art galleries, meals at welcoming restaurants, wine tastings and generous samplings of local regional produce interspersed by visits to nearby historic towns. At the villa, Stefano creates home-style or cucina povera dishes that often turn into impromptu cooking classes – boning and stuffing rabbits, steaming mussels, stuffing baby peppers with anchovies and making pasta of all shapes and sizes.
As we drive into the countryside, roadside stalls sell boxes of wild mushrooms, olive trees are laden with fruit and pencil pines line hilltops in iconic Tuscan fashion. Newly ploughed rolling fields are ready for planting wheat, corn or sunflowers in the coming season. We make day tours to Siena – home of the famed Palio horse race held each July and August, to San Gimignano with its numerous towers, to pretty Pienza, home of Pope Pius II and visit the Fattoria dei Barbi winery in Montalcino for wine-tasting and lunch in the cellar's restaurant.
Early one evening we venture out for a cooking class with two of the Mammas of Tutti-a-tavola – sisters Mimma and Franca. It's a hands-on affair – educative and highly entertaining as we help prepare insalata of cipolle and rucola (caramelized onions and rocket salad), lasagna salsiccia e radicchio, arrosto arrotolato al prosciutto crudo (prosciutto-wrapped ricotta and meat
roll), peperonata and a white yoghurt cream dessert with fresh fruit – washed down with quality wines from Franca's family winery.
Although it's early autumn, the weather holds unseasonally warm for our venture south to Positano. We arrive in time for the Festa della Madonna del Rosario. It's a community affair and the 20-strong village band strikes up the Radetzky March and the like as it winds its way through town from early morning. From our lofty villa above the village, we follow its progress
throughout the day navigating its way along the festively-lit one-way zigzag street until it reaches the church in the centre of town.
We watch the procession in town and then dash up hundreds of steps home just in time to take in the display of fireworks that fills the night sky. When the final red, white and green sunburst dissipates, it's met with a hearty round of applause from appreciative observers that echoes around the hills.
And after a broadcast mass in the little church, an emotive rendition of Ave Maria that can be heard far and wide receives a similar response from listeners from their homes. It's a beautiful reaction and warms the soul to know that this often over-touristy coastal resort beats with a good and sensitive heart.
One day we make an excursion further south along the Cilento Coast visiting a state-of-the-art buffalo mozzarella factory, with intimate lunch and wine-tasting at a vineyard cellar. We make a guided visit to the little-known but astonishingly intact Greek temples of Paestum that date from 6BC and later in tiny Minori taste the region's signature tipple – limoncello made from the sfusato Amalfi ano lemons that proliferate in terrace gardens that cover steep hillsides along the coast.
Another day, we cruise romantically by private boat to the beautiful and ultra chic Isle of Capri where taxis with canvas sunroofs are waiting to whisk us up to the island's main square for lunch. En route we don bathers and dive overboard for an invigorating dip followed by a refreshing beer while others contemplate visiting the Blue Grotto.
But the unexpected highlight here is lunch in the private home of Australian Anne-Maree Costa and her Italian husband, Andrea Pellegrino, at Scala, with balcony views across to the hilltop town of Ravello. Having lived here for seven years, Anne-Maree has become attuned to the seasons and creates a wonderful menu of local dishes and seasonal treats starting with glasses of refreshing prosecco and antipasti on the balcony.
She has invited Francesco Franzesi, an active member of the local Slow Food Movement to make assorted sourdough breads for lunch: walnut with wholemeal flour, polenta with fennel and orange with chestnuts. They are delicious and round out the meal of tagliatelle pasta gratin with smoked mozzarella, peas
and ham, local fennel sausages in tomato sauce and bitter broccoli, roasted potatoes with rosemary and fennel, roasted eggplant with tomatoes and fresh basil, and local peppers with hand-made breadcrumbs.
But it's the desserts that leave us wanting more: Andrea's mother's potato-based light-as-air zeppola or doughnuts that are traditionally made at Christmas, and a still-warm shortcrust chestnut pie. We finish like locals with shots of limoncello, cicerenella (made from orange and fennel), lemon cream liqueur and grappa before heading home.
And we go home feeling like locals too, having blended into this small, intimate coastal community for a week – absorbing all its natural beauty and warm conviviality. It's the stuff of memories, we decide, some of us putting our hands up for another helping of Italy with Stefano next year.
COUPLES WILL LOVE:
Early morning walks in the blissful Tuscan countryside before villagers wake, quiet moments by the pool at dusk; and once on the Amalfi Coast enjoying a glass of crisp rosé together from your spacious villa terrace in Positano as the lights of the steep-sided village come on below – simply breathtaking.
Sitting together on the bow of the private yacht while cruising along the Amalfi Coast admiring cliff-hugging luxury villas and then on to the Isle of Capri sailing via the Faragliono di Mezzo arch – just wide enough for the boat to pass through.
WHEN YOU'VE HAD YOUR FILL:
(Where to go and what to do outside the food and wine options) Make the most of free time to go shopping in Florence for quality leather ware, silverware and the latest European fashions; or you can break away from the others and enjoy your very own memorable adventure.
FOR A SPECIAL SOUVENIR:
Have a pair of Capritouch sandals custom-made at the fabulous Mariorita concept store adjacent to the beautiful Capri Palace Hotel & Spa in Anacapri. They take just minutes with your initials stamped on the inner-sole. Every time you slip them on, you'll feel like you're still tripping around Italy.
Cathay Pacific flies more than 70 times a week from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide and Perth to Hong Kong, with excellent same day connections to Europe; phone 13 17 47.
Italy with Stefano dates for 2014 are: in Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, May 10-24; and a new one in Veneto and Sicily regions, October 4-18. The all-inclusive price per person twin share is $12,900. Visit the website for more information.