For at least half a millennium, Tuscany has been a magnet for tourists, who arrive starry-eyed, in love with art, food, wine, and olive oil, and hoping to share however briefly in life alla italiana. I know I've been drawn there—several times—lured simply by the undeniable beauty and variety of the inestimable Tuscan landscape and its historic villas and gardens. But, with the advent of organic travel, or folks trying to participate in rather than just observe the life of the locale, increasingly visitors seek out the region's rural heart by staying at Tuscany's highly regarded farmhouse hotels, part of the government-supported agriturismo properties located across Italy.
Poggio Alloro is one such farm; a family-run operation that is, as many on the agriturismo circuit are, 100 percent organic and fully integrated. Its proper name is Fattoria ("farm") Poggio Alloro, referring to its agricultural production of wine (some 200,000 bottles and eight different varieties, three white and five red), organic olive oil, cereal crops, and cattle. These all generate organic waste, which is used to produce the compost that sustains the horticultural activities of the Fioroni family, who, in typical Tuscan style, cultivate a large kitchen garden, or orto, to supply the farmhouse kitchen—and fill the stomachs of hungry guests.
Early in the morning, heading southwest toward Poggio Alloro, you leave the monuments, traffic, and tourists that already are crowding the streets of Florence. The autostrada (A1) takes you toward another of Tuscany's historic medieval cities,
the many-towered, hilltop town of San Gimignano. Drop down from the main road into the country lanes that wind through the softly undulating hill country of the region; in the distance the outline of San Gimignano atop its hill points the direction, and with that the red tile rooftop of Poggio Alloro comes into view. On arrival, Sarah Fioroni and her mother and father are waiting with a warm welcome: a chilled glass of their award-winning organic Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a mellow white wine of the region.
The headquarters of the farm is the 250-year-old house, and from its wide, welcoming terrace, San Gimignano is in plain view, a perfect backdrop to Poggio Alloro's pastoral scene of organic vineyards, olive groves, and fields. The farm's historic white Chianina cattle, a rare breed that was once found on every farm in Tuscany, are making their way back to the farm from their distant grazing fields. They are bred for their beef (the foundation of the classic bistecca chianina), and their diet is supplemented by Poggio Alloro's organically raised grain. The farm's operation is a perfect example of integrated organic horticulture and agriculture: a contained system in which each element supports the others. Animals are rotated throughout the fields and gardens; their manure adds organic matter, which is trodden into the soil. After the animals are moved to the next sector, the field is tilled and then sown, harvested, and, when appropriate, left fallow, in a holistic sequence that maintains soil fertility and structure.
In the kitchen, Sarah introduces her guests for the evening to her relatives and parents: her mother, Rosa, and aunt, Giannina, are preparing fresh pasta to be served with a rustic sauce composed simply of fresh tomatoes, basil, and a breathtaking amount of olive oil. I've attended Sarah's cookery classes at Central Market in Austin, Texas, and as she scoops salt by the handful into the pasta water and ladles copious amounts of olive oil into the saucepan to sauté the vegetables, the group oohs and aahs in awe and wonder—we American cooks measure our oil in teaspoons and pinch at the salt. But Sarah is quick to point out that she does not add olive oil to the pasta water. "Why is it necessary?" she asks, incredulous at our strange American take on Tuscan cooking. "If the pasta is fresh enough—even the dried sort—it won't benefit from oil in the water." The takeaway message here is that good olive oil belongs on the pasta to eat it, not in the cooking water!