Tuscany in June, it turns out, is a mixed bag of weather. One minute it’s thundering and pouring rain, the next the sun is shining hot and bright. Coming from California, where our farmers would dance a merry jig with multiple downpours, it’s interesting to hear a different point of view from the farmer in charge of the vegetable gardens at Spannocchia, a working organic farm and lodging not far from Siena.
Carmen, a beatific, expressive, salt of the earth type, who apologizes in perfect English for her lack of good English – really it’s excellente – is touring us through the areas she farms at Spannochia before we take a cooking class in the kitchen where we’ll prepare a typical Tuscan meal. We gather on the grassy terrace lined with poplars, next to the gorgeous stone manor house.
In front of us are huge terracotta pots, planted with limone trees where a few straggling lemons still cling to the branches. Behind us, a wonderful, lofty limonaia, with huge glass doors and high ceilings. This is where the lemon trees live in the winter – it’s too cold for them to stay outside so they are hoisted with tractors and kept from freezing. In the summer, the space is dedicated to visiting art students. Whether you’re a lemon tree or an art student, it seems like a pretty awesome place to hang out.
Our group, a friendly bunch who quickly reveal their knowledge of organic gardening—it’s clear if you find yourself at Spannochia, you have some kind of affinity for slow, real food—is guided by Carmen through a well-worn gate. “Please close the gate behind you!” she sings out. Apparently, there are all sorts of animals who roam around from cinghale – wild boar – to deer, who are only too happy to feast on the produce being grown in the terraced garden.
Carmen explains that Tuscan soil and terrain isn’t really conducive to growing vegetables in quantity, which no doubt explains why the hillsides are covered in hardy, tough olive trees and grape vines. However, she does her best to grow enough produce to supply the kitchen, so they can feed the farm’s staff and its guests throughout the year. She explains that there are many crops grown to store for the winter months, from beans, which are dried, to butternut squash, which can last for months after harvesting.
During the spring and summer, she plants staples like lettuce, carrots, peppers, zucchini and potatoes on a rolling 20-day basis – always rotating their location to ensure the soil isn’t depleted. The schedule means there’s always a fresh supply of fare available for the kitchen. She tells us, “I meet with the cooking staff each Monday to share what I think will be in ready to harvest over the coming days. That way they can prepare their menus.” This is seasonal cooking at its very best.
The garden is gorgeous, although Carmen tells us that it’s hard to work here because of the way it’s organized. The two levels, arranged on a hill, with Tuscan stone retaining walls, no doubt make it challenging to bring in tools and haul out debris. But to the casual observer it seems like a heavenly place to be. Wild capers grow out of the walls.
Flowers – from purple lavender to burgundy snap dragons, and red poppies to dahlias, are planted among the rows to attract bees and butterflies, who show up in abundance. The rows are neat, the soil is moist and looks rich, and the overall setting is bucolic. Walnut trees, Tuscan hills, chickens clucking. Paradiso.
Except, back to that weather, apparently so much moisture is not typical and items like the garlic, which is about ready to be pulled, and should be drying out now, are prone to mold instead.
We make our way back through the courtyard, spying a swallow’s nest complete with baby birds on the way, and head to the other garden – a larger flatter space, bounded by an olive grove. Here one of the farm’s interns is putting up the trellis for the tomato plants and peas are being picked. We taste them. Small, tender and oh, so sweet.
The farm maintains its own composting system, which after seven months of being lovingly tended to, produces a rich, dark compost to die-for, which is used to feed the plants. Here is a complete cycle in action. And if you’re lucky enough to stay here, you’ll be given a box of farm produce to cook for yourself.