As I happily devoured a homemade brownie topped with yogurt, honey and delicate white elder flowers, Pamelia did some math. "Of our last nine waking hours,” she reported, “we've been eating for nearly seven of them.” No shame in that; this was Italy. We were sitting at a long table with 26 other people finishing the sixth and final course of a revelatory herbs-and-weeds-themed, slow-food-movement lunch at Tenuta di Spannoccia, an 1,100-acre organic farm and educational center near Siena. The four-hour feast of creative local cuisine was the most memorable meal of our two weeks of art, nature and exploration in Tuscany, though it was just one of many highlights, culinary and otherwise, from which I've prepared what chefs might call a reduction: The Naturalist's Notebook's best-of-our-trip list.
1) Spannocchia. We spent eight nights at this sublimely beautiful, nearly 1,000-year-old agricultural estate, which has been named one of the world's top 10 eco-resorts. It's not really a "resort”—it's something better than that, more natural, more homey, more soul-nurturing. Run by Francesca Cinelli, husband Randall Stratton and the nonprofit Spannocchia Foundation (based in Portland, Maine), the hilltop complex is a working farm dedicated to the principles of sustainability and traditional farming. It has endangered-breed pigs as well as cows, horses, donkeys, chickens, an olive grove (the farm presses its own oil), a vineyard (the farm makes its own wine) and a prolific garden that produces fresh vegetables and herbs for the three fabulous meals a day served to guests by an engaging and environmentally-minded crew of college interns. To awaken in a centuries-old villa to the chirps of swallows and Italian sparrows, then sip great coffee while strolling past cypress and lemon trees to a wisteria-draped art studio overlooking a Tuscan valley—well, there aren't many better ways to start a day. And the nightly wine-at-sunset gathering on the patio is not a bad way to end one. Put this on your own list of places to visit. (For a schedule of Spannocchia-hosted workshops on subjects from art to writing to cooking to hiking to yoga, or to check on rates to stay in the villa or rent a guest cottage on your own, go to http://www.spannocchia.org.)
2) Margaret's Krug's Seeing and Drawing program. Two pieces of wisdom I've gained from 30 years and hundreds of thousands of miles of globetrotting: Don't spend all your vacations lying on a beach, and go outside your comfort zone. This eight-day workshop at Spannocchia was the centerpiece of our trip, and it pushed me—an occasional sketcher at best—into a new, challenging and hugely enjoyable realm. Margaret, the author of An Artist's Handbook and a superb teacher, artist and art historian, guided the six of us in the program (the five others were true artists) through the use of a wide range of drawing media, papers, techniques, perspectives and styles. Her kind and encouraging personality (mirrored by the rest of the group) carried me through blunders like trying to draw with the tip of my indigo-ink pen upside down and doing silver-point sketches that turned out to be invisible. Our sketching trips to gorgeous sites like the walled town of San Gimignano, the abandoned abbey of San Galgano and the piazza del Campo in Siena added historical context to our work. Margaret, who will likely be coming up from New York to demonstrate art techniques at The Naturalist's Notebook this summer, runs both a late-summer painting program and the spring drawing workshop at Spannocchia; for more information, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3) The food. Had we eaten only the daily fare at Spannocchia—preposterously good onion tarts, risotto with artichokes, homemade pastas of all sorts, beef stuffed with mushrooms, swiss chard pie, succulent turkey breast and roast pork, salads, brick-oven pizza and so much more, all made with local ingredients and served with unlimited red wine made on the premises—we would have gone home thrilled. Spannocchia's food is so good that Bon Appetit did a spread on it in 2008. But the slow-food lunch added yet another dimension. Put on by Cavolfiori a Merenda, a traveling crew of college-age friends from the Piedmont region, the meal reflected Italy's role at the heart of the slow-food movement, which emphasizes fresh, local, organic ingredients and an appreciation for what you eat. I dare not give away the menu (we might want to try surprising guests with some of the dishes, including the most amazing presentation of radishes ever invented), but suffice it to say that the meal made use of, among other things, borage leaves and flowers, poppies, mallow leaves, dandelion leaves, Moroccan-style pickled lemons, spelt (or was it farro?), leeks, broad beans, pork, mint, rosemary, sage, clover, ricotta, potatoes, eggs and shaved asparagus.
4) La Specola. Florence was once one of the world's great centers of scientific advancement, and this hidden gem—Europe's oldest natural history museum—drew us back for three visits during our two-day stay in that city. The museum has more than 3 million zoological specimens and an observatory tower (specola means observatory) with historic telescopes, an ingenious solar calendar and a stunning 360-degree view of Florence. The specimens on display include birds with horns sprouting from their heads, 497 types of mollusks from Somalia alone and a stuffed hippo that was once a Medici family pet. We'll have more on these creatures at the Notebook this summer.
5) Strolling in Florence at day's end. After visits to the renowned Uffizi art gallery, La Specola and the medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge, Pamelia and I meandered to dinner as scullers rowed up the Arno River in the late afternoon light. On our way back to the lovely Borghese Palace Art Hotel, we circled the city's dominant landmark, the Duomo, and felt we were back in another century.
6) Isla Burgess, wild and medicinal plant conservationist. O.K., so she's not Italian. She's a New Zealander. But the former director of the International College of Herbal Medicine spent part of an afternoon at Spannocchia teaching us about edible wild plants and their medicinal qualities—a field that holds vast potential for the future as long as the plants aren't wiped out by pollution, overdevelopment and climate change. We tasted each plant as we went, chewing half a pinky fingernail's worth between our front teeth. (Rule One when testing whether a plant might be edible: taste, don't swallow.) I wasn't so crazy about geranium leaves but chickweed was sweet, almost like lettuce. I learned that in World War II soldiers in Italy chewed yarrow and spit it onto a wound as an astringent, earning it the nickname the "soldier's herb."
7) The Cathedral of Siena. I will let the photo speak for itself.
8) Cats and dogs. Spannocchia has a small population of felines and happy, lumbering canines that wander the grounds, provide comic interludes, occasionally tangle with each other and make any visiting pet-lover feel at home. In fact, we nearly made a deal with Randall and Francesca to bring a really friendly young cat—my Spannocchia buddy—back to Maine.
9) Pigs. The Cinta Senese breed, a Tuscan heirloom, was nearly extinct when Spannocchia began its herd. Now more than 200 Italian farms raise the black-with-a-white-stripe hogs, which (alas, vegetarians) are exceptionally tasty. The Cinta Seneses are a reminder that many other varieties of livestock, fruits and vegetables have been lost forever in the quest for supermarket-friendly, shrink-wrapped food.
10) Fields of rapeseed. I thought the brilliant yellow expanses that lined the roads were mustard plants, and they are in fact part of that family. But nature's most unfortunately dubbed species (the name comes from the Latin word for turnip, which rapeseed resembles) fills its own niche, providing animal feed, rapeseed and canola oils and biodiesel fuel. By summer it fades from the Tuscan spotlight, replaced by even larger and showier fields of seven-foot-tall sunflowers. I'll have to wait for a future visit to see those.