It all began with an email from a friend in early 2017. I was in cold, rainy Antwerp when I received it, my kids and I having traveled there to visit my husband at work in Belgium for a stretch that winter and spring. My cousin’s wife’s sister—who also happens to be a dear friend—reached out to see how her organization, Cambridge-based Go Ahead Tours, and Edible Boston could work together to bring our readers to Europe and elsewhere for an exploration of other cultures’ traditional food. Nothing sounded better at that dreary moment than a group tour to sunny Italy, my happy place, where like-minded readers and I would taste our way from region to region, dropping into artisans’ workshops, visiting festivals and marketplaces, traversing vine-covered hillsides and city squares. We started work as soon as I got home, and after a year and a half of planning and perfecting the first itinerary, it was a finally a reality.
Eleven Edible readers—all women—along with my husband, Chris, and his parents, set off with me on October 11th, 2018 en route to Torino for the beginning of a ten-day tour; we traveled from Piedmont through Emilia-Romagna and ended up on a farm property in the rolling Chianti hills outside of Florence. Our group was made up of incredibly interesting and talented people—many photographers and artists and true Italophiles—and we were expertly guided by Antonio Cappella, Tour Director extraordinaire. With Go Ahead’s exceptional pre-tour framework complete, Antonio’s role was to guide our group and make my unique itinerary possible, handling all the details and personalities and various challenges we encountered along the way. A better match for this particular tour I could not imagine: An expert on olive oil and wine and fluent in 6(?) languages, Antonio brought a sense of humor, patience and ingenuity that made this trip what it was. And he can really spin a good yarn. I know we’ll all want to travel with him again and again.
One of our travelers, the marvelous Mimi Winkler of Philadelphia, sent us this lovely watercolor graphic she painted when she got home, describing exactly what we saw and ate and where we did it; see what I mean when I say we had some serious talent on board?
Below is a photographic rundown of this inaugural tour, shot mostly on my iPhone and Chris’, interspersed here and there with a few pics courtesy of Lynn Osborn, Mimi’s sister, who quietly shot the tour like an experienced photojournalist. How lucky we were to have all of you! Mimi, Lynn, Pat, Nancy, Kathy, Joanne, Becky, Carol, Mary, Debbie, Suzanne, Karen and Gregg: Thank you for coming, thank you for trusting me with this first tour and thank you for the laughs! I hope we travel far and wide together.
Day 1: Thursday October 11, 2018
Flight to Italy
Day 2: Friday October 12, 2018
Arrival in Torino, Welcome Dinner
After a mid-afternoon arrival in Torino, we refreshed and met up for group introductions, glasses of prosecco and some crispy nibbles in the American Bar at our lovely hotel, the Grand Hotel Sitea. We then followed Antonio on a leisurely city walk, peeking into courtyards and stopping to admire the architecture and vast public squares of this incredible city en route to the Circolo dei Lettori, a restaurant housed deep inside a 19th-century palazzo in an artists’ portrait gallery. There we were treated to a welcome dinner of traditional Piemontese specialties, like tortellini al plin, Brasato al Barolo and whipped, soft torrone with chocolate budino for dessert. A wonderful “get-to-know-you” day, preparing us for the whirlwind to come.
Day 3: Saturday October 13, 2018
Walking Tour of Torino; Chocolate Tour of Torino
Our expert city guide, Matteo (in red) met us bright and early to head out on foot around Torino teaching us about the city’s history, both food-wise and not. He showed us the birthplace of vermouth, described the culture of aperitivo and apericena, took us through the bustling Mercato di Porta Palazzo (directing us to the section housing the small local farmers and food artisans), and brought us to Al Bicerin, home to Torino’s famed coffee drink. He then set us free for lunch before rejoining us in the evening for a second walking tour dedicated to the chocolate culture of Torino, including a visit to one of the oldest chocolatiers in Europe, ending with an aperitivo in a grand caffé under one of the city’s famed arcaded walkways.
Day 4: Sunday October 14, 2018
Truffle Hunt, Alba White Truffle Festival
Another early start, but this time for an excursion outside of town. Ernesto, our motor coach driver, guided his enormous bus through the rural country roads of the Langhe hills just south of the city and delivered us to a little park at the crest of a hill near a hamlet east of Alba. There we met Carlo, head of the Associazione Trifulau Colline di Langhe (Truffle Hunters’ Association), and his two dogs, Rocky and Jimmy. With Antonio as translator, Carlo explained how dogs are a trifulau’s most valuable tool when tracking down the elusive white truffle, native to the nearby hills. We followed them through a chestnut forest to an area Carlo knew well, having found truffles there in seasons past, deep beneath the roots of oak trees. This was an experience like no other: Rocky and Jimmy dug two black truffles and one white, and Chris found some porcini-adjacent mushrooms hidden in the leaves. We left Carlo with the spoils of the hunt and made our way to the city of Alba to the annual White Truffle Festival (along with most of the rest of Piedmont, it seemed). The streets were packed with families and the festival itself was a throng of truffle enthusiasts looking for a few tastes of truffle products, to buy whole white and black truffles and sample an extensive array of Langhe wines. We returned to the city for dinner at one of Torino’s oldest restaurants, Porto di Savona.
Day 5: Monday October 15, 2018
Barolo Tasting at Marchesi di Barolo; Hazelnut Farm Visit at Azienda Agricola Gala
Another day, another early start. This time we headed back towards the Langhe and the Castello di Grinzane Cavour, a 15th-century castle that now houses a museum dedicated to the specialties of the region: white truffles and Barolo wine. Then it was on to the village of Barolo itself and the estate of the Marchesi di Barolo where we were given a tour of the cellars, a lesson on the production of the three strains of local wine (Barolo, Nebbiolo and Barbaresco) and a luncheon of egg tart, red wine risotto and Langhe cheeses chosen carefully to highlight each wine’s particular characteristics. From Barolo we headed back into the hills to a rural, family-run hazelnut farm, Azienda Agricola Gala, where we were shown the trees, learned how hazelnuts are harvested (gathered with a vacuum from the orchard floor!), saw the value-added production of the nuts and given a tasting of their specialties: gianduja, torta di nocciolo, baci di dama. On Matteo’s recommendation, we made our way that evening to Ristorante Tre Galline, one of Torino’s oldest and best restaurants located just on the outskirts of the Porta Palazzo market; we ate stunning local vegetables with housemade sheep ricotta, shaved truffles on minced raw veal with golden egg yolk and a heavy portion of bollito misto: mixed market meats served steaming hot with briny bright sauces on the side. The cheese cart, laden with local varieties never seen outside of Piedmont, was the perfect dessert.
Day 6: Tuesday October 16, 2018
Transfer to Emilia-Romagna; Caseificio Ugolotti; Acetaia Gambigliani Zoccoli; Palazzo di Varignana Resort + Spa
We said goodbye to Torino and Piemonte and headed south on the Autostrada with Ernesto at the helm. First stop was Parma where we were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at how Parmigiano Reggiano, King of Cheeses, is made at a small, family-run caseificio called Ugolotti. We tasted different wheels of different ages, paired with Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine of the region. From there we continued on through the flat plains of Emilia-Romagna to Modena where we visited a family balsamic vinegar estate, Acetaia Gambigliani Zoccoli, and learned about the painstaking production of the aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P., then enjoyed a gorgeous luncheon in the family home: mixed sliced salumi, vegetable and egg tart, Parmigiano Reggiano, homemade gnocco fritto (fried doughy bread) and a perfect, plain white risotto served as the base for dribbles of the aged vinegar. We climbed the stairs to the attic and saw where the vinegar ages, 20 years or more, transferred from barrel to barrel as it reduces over time, by way of evaporation and seasonal temperature fluctuation. The final stop of the day was our next hotel—a spa property set high in the hills outside Bologna surrounded by olive groves, fruit trees and kitchen gardens, replete with a labyrinth of persimmons, indoor thermal pools and treatment rooms. After a little rainy outdoor exploration on the hotel grounds, we steamed, swam and “took the waters” before bed.
Day 7: Wednesday October 17, 2018
Market Tour of Bologna; Pasta Class at Podere San Giuliano
A short drive to central Bologna and we were in the heart of the red city, the perfect place for our only day of rain on the entire tour. It’s as if Bologna were built for rainy days—the entire city is connected via arcaded sidewalks, so you’re almost always covered. We met our walking guide in the central piazza and promptly made our way to the University, the world’s longest operating institution of higher learning, founded in 1088. We sat on wooden benches in the anatomical theatre, perused the ancient law library and admired the family coats of arms decorating the courtyard of the Archiginnasio, the university’s oldest building. Then it was off to the market district a short stroll away, where we poked our heads into produce shops, butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers, along with bakeries, tavole calde (“hot tables," or cafeterias) and fresh pasta shops. We split for lunch (and nearly all of us found a steaming plate of lasagne Bolognese) then enjoyed free time at the hotel before going back down the hill to our cooking class at the Podere San Giuliano. This beautiful farm property, owned by the lovely Federica Frattini, is where she taught us to make fresh egg pasta dough, to roll it by hand with a pin and cut it into tagliatelle—we also learned to stuff and pinch pumpkin tortellini and Federica demonstrated her family’s ragù Bolognese recipe in her kitchen before serving it all to us for supper. Another incredibly educational day brought to us by passionate people who generously shared their techniques and the traditions they represent in their region.
Day 8: Thursday October 18, 2018
Transfer to Toscana; Pruneti and Antica Maccelleria Falorni, Greve in Chianti
The weather cleared and we headed further south to the Chianti region just outside of Florence. But first, a stop in the village of Greve in Chianti where Antonio led us on an impromptu olive oil tasting at the new shop of his favorite Tuscan frantoio, Pruneti. We got to taste the new oil of the season, and learned to cup and warm the oil in our palms before slurping to get the maximum peppery burn at the back of our throats—the sign of a good, fresh, green oil. We walked on into the center of the village for a private tour at Antica Maccelleria Falorni, one of the region’s oldest saulmerie and butcher shops. Here we learned about wild boar salumi, the prized beef that comes only from rare chianina cattle and the aging techniques for hard sausages. We meandered around the sunny town in 75° weather before heading back to Ernesto’s coach to traverse the Chiantigiana, the scenic road tying Florence to Siena and all the wine estates in between. We arrived at our hotel, the Agriturismo Salvadonica, a village-like property set deep in the heart of wine-and-olive country, just in time for a sunset walk and a welcome dinner of local charcuterie, fresh pasta and wines produced on site.
Day 9: Friday October 19, 2018
Culinary Walking Tour of Florence
On a spectacularly warm and cloudless day, we headed into Florence—along with the rest of the world. I lived there when I was a student in the late ‘90s and I had never seen so many people in the streets. But I’d planned our itinerary to tour the real locals’ market, the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, instead of the more touristed Mercato Centrale, and that decision could not have been more prescient. We met our local guide in the eastern neighborhood of Santa Croce and walked to the market to take in the smells and sights of autumn produce (mushrooms, pears, chestnuts) and wild game, seafood, cheeses and meats. With the afternoon left for free time, some in our group visited the Uffizi Gallery, while others just wandered, absorbed, experienced and shopped; Chris and I made our way to Ristorante del Fagioli for a grilled bistecca alla Fiorentina, a plate of white beans and some braised dark greens with plenty of garlic. We walked it off with a quick zoom around old haunts, then hit the Piazzale Michelangelo with the group to catch the sunset from the best scenic overlook in all of Florence. Returning to the quiet of the countryside agriturismo was heaven after the hectic crowds of the day!
Day 10: Saturday October 20, 2018
Free Day in Chianti
Salvadonica provided us with an extensive list of activities to choose from for our free day in the Chianti region, and everyone did something a little bit different. There was a plein air watercolor painting class; a few ladies got therapeutic massages; three in our group took a bike ride through the hills; and Chris and I chose the vespa rental for a thrilling ride to San Gimignano for lunch. We all returned back for a farewell dinner at the agriturismo of local salumi and cheese, garden greens and a platter of grigliata mista, garlic-and-rosemary infused mixed meats (chicken, sausage and pork ribs) grilled over live fire and served with new olive oil and lots of napkins. We exchanged contact information, said goodbye to Antonio and vowed to do it all again next year. And we are! Get ready for Puglia in spring 2020. Info to come!
Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, soccer mom, Italophile and managing editor at Edible Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.