Experience Tuscany: Have a “Zero-Kilometer” Meal on a Farm

“Farm-to-table” was a thing in Tuscany centuries before it became trendy among 21st-century American foodies. Tuscans are keenly, fundamentally aware that the “same” produce can taste quite different, depending on the specific conditions in which it’s grown — soil, sun exposure, micro-climate, and so on. And an Italian gourmand will tell you that the best possible meal is a zero-kilometer meal, meaning that all of the ingredients are sourced from within less than a kilometer of where they’re eaten. To fully — and deliciously — grasp this concept, make a point to visit a Tuscan farm, get to know the farmer…and then sit down for a zero-kilometer meal.

Gianluca Terzuoli’s family has worked the Santa Giulia farm for 70 years, since his grandfather was a young man. Today, Gianluca and his wife, Kae, produce Brunello di Montalcino wine, prosciutto and other cured meats, extra virgin olive oil, and pecorino cheese, and invite curious travelers for a lesson in down-home Tuscan farming and hospitality.

I arrive on a sunny early-summer day and am warmly greeted by Gianluca, who’s just driven his shiny new tractor in from the fields. While his farm fills a broad, flat valley that’s not particularly scenic by Tuscan standards, it’s bursting with produce and enjoys a view of the wine-crazy town of Montalcino, which teeters on a distant ridge.

Proud yet modest, and a little shy, Gianluca shows me around his farm — explaining how he produces each of his delicacies.

First, the cured meats — most importantly, prosciutto. Gianluca gestures to a forest at the edge of the property, where his pigs run free. He explains that each night, they stable and feed the pigs, but by day, they’re free-range…rooting around in the woods, munching on acorns that fall from the trees. The pigs have a much better life than factory-farmed pigs, but it takes much longer for them to reach full size: around 18 months, compared to about 10 months for industrial hogs. But the results in a starkly better quality of meat.

Around Christmastime — when it’s cold outside, and there are no flies to interfere with the work — Gianluca’s father slaughters and butchers the pigs, then prepares the meat. The ham hocks are covered in salt for about three weeks. Then they’re rinsed in a combination of vinegar, garlic, and rosemary. A few days later, they coat the ham hocks in crushed pepper and hang them in the drying hut, where they ever-so-gradually cure over the course of at least 12 months.

Stepping into the drying hut, Gianluca points out how the special louvred windows are designed to let fresh air pass through — blowing in from the sea, about 50 miles away. I clarify that, unlike American ham, this meat is never smoked. “No, no,” Gianluca says. “Never cooked, never smoked. Just salt, pepper, and air.”

It’s hard to imagine the prosciutto living up to all this build-up. But when I pop a delicate slice into my mouth, it explodes with tender salt-and-umami flavor, then gradually vaporizes on my tongue…like the most delicious communion wafer you can imagine. In an instant, Gianluca’s prosciutto — which qualifies as a near-religious experience — transforms the way I think about cured meats…setting a new high bar that, I’m certain, will never be surpassed. When I rave about how tender it is, Gianluca grins and agrees: “You don’t need fork and knife!”

Gobsmacked, I try to understand how Gianluca’s creation can so far exceed every other prosciutto I’ve tasted. He shrugs modestly and recaps: Happy, free-range pigs that eat acorns from the forest floor. Time-tested preparation. And lots and lots of patience. Gianluca points out that the invariably, chewy, stringy “prosciutto” I’ve had in the States, by contrast, comes from factory-farmed pigs that are kept in small cages and prematurely plumped with vitamins and chemicals. Then the meat ages for a few months in refrigerators…rather than being slowly, naturally cured by the salty Tuscan sea air. Even understanding this, the difference is staggering.

Gianluca also produces capocollo, pork that is prepared similarly but comes from the pig’s neck. It’s equally tender and equally delicious as the prosciutto, but it’s embedded with dried fennel seeds, which explode with peppery flavor. Gianluca also produces salami and sausage, all of which hang alongside the ham hocks in his drying hut.

Gianluca explains that his prosciutto and other meats can taste different, from year to year, depending on the specific weather conditions, which affect what his pigs eat. But he sees this variation as a feature, not as a bug: He wants his food to taste different, because in the zero-kilometer world, that’s a benchmark of quality. Again I’m struck by the contrast between this rustic farm and an American supermarket, which aspires for complete, predictable — and boring — consistency.

Next we move on to the wine and the oil — which are the yin and yang of Gianluca’s farm. While they’re grown side-by-side, and harvested at the same time, they’re handled very differently: Wine must be aged to achieve perfection, while olive oil is best when just pressed.

First, the wine — and specifically, Brunello di Montalcino, one of the most sought-after of all Italian wines. Like all government-protected foods in Italy, Brunello di Montalcino is made according to exacting standards. To be called a “Brunello di Montalcino,” it must be produced in the area immediately surrounding he town of Montalcino (which you can see from Gianluca’s driveway), and it must be made of 100 percent Sangiovese grapes (evocatively named for “the blood of Jupiter”). The wine ages for two years in Slovenian oak barrels, then at least another five years once bottled, in a cellar. And only then does it qualify as a Brunello di Montalcino.

I ask Gianluca to describe the characteristics of this wine. He explains that Sangiovese grapes have fruity notes of plum and cherry. But the oak barrels infuse the wine with complexity: notes of vanilla, tobacco, pepper, and leather. “It’s not a very easy wine,” he admits — it’s hearty and complex. And it’s designed to be paired with food. A good Brunello goes perfectly with steak, grilled meat, and aged pecorino. It’s not intended to be drunk on its own.

“So,” I ask him, “if it’s five o’clock and you’re out relaxing on the terrace, you wouldn’t kick back with a glass of Brunello?” He recoils — as politely as someone can recoil — and says, “Um, no. We have another wine for that.” They save only the best grapes for Brunello. The lesser grapes are processed in a similar way, but without the barrel or bottle aging — creating a lighter, less robust table wine called Rosso di Montalcino.

Next up: olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, to be exact. Gianluca’s olive groves contain three different types of olives, which are carefully hand-picked in late October or November. They take the olives to the community olive-oil press, where the vivid-green, grassy-smelling liquid languidly dribbles out into metal cans for storage. (It’s interesting to see how modern technology does — and does not — work its way into Tuscan traditions. While pressing the olives with modern machinery produces a better-quality oil, no machine can carry out the gentle task of picking the olives — which is still done, stubbornly, by hand.)

Gianluca emphasizes that, unlike wine, olive oil is a fresh product. Extra virgin olive oil is at its very best the moment it’s pressed. In Tuscany, you use fresh olive oil for salad dressings, finishing dishes, and other situations where you really want to taste the oil. After just a few short months, as the oil begins to lose its flavor, you switch to use it for cooking. And after about a year — a year and a half, tops — you simply throw out any unused olive oil. Or, if you’re unscrupulous, you bottle it up in opaque bottles with schlocky Tuscan-scenery paintings and sell it to gullible tourists. (If this seems draconian to you, make a point to taste fresh olive oil and year-old olive oil during your time in Tuscany. Old olive oil will never again touch your lips.)

Hearing persistent bleating, I turn my eyes to where a flock of sheep graze on a grassy, steep hill. Gianluca explains that his neighbor makes another Tuscan staple: pecorino cheese. Named for the ewes (pecora) that produce it, pecorino is versatile. When young (fresco), it’s soft, creamy, and mild. But it ages to hard, salty, pungent perfection. When it comes to grating on pasta, pecorino stagionato is a suitable substitute for parmigiano reggiano.

Gianluca explains that they purchase little wheels of pecorino fresco as soon as their neighbors produce it — often in the month of May. (The late springtime — when the earth is bursting with a cornucopia of fresh grass and herbs, and livestock are feeding their babies — is the best time to make cheese. In fact, that’s the origin of the Italian word for “cheese”: formaggio is formed in the month of Maggio.) Then Gianluca ages the pecorino himself, gently covering it with walnut leaves. Over several months, as the cheese hardens, concentrates, and becomes salty and crumbly, it also absorbs earthy, nutty notes from the walnut leaves — rounding out its complex flavor.

“When you eat this food, you want to really taste the animal,” Gianluca says. Asking for clarification, I’m told this is an Italian saying. You know that ingredients — whether prosciutto or pecorino — are top-quality when the flavors linger in your mouth for a long time. This is a clue that it was produced according to traditional methods, like Gianluca’s. Processed prosciutto and pecorino are less complex and are overly salted for preservation and to boost the flavor. But this just makes saliva wash away the faint flavors immediately. Proper produce sticks around in your mouth for a long, long time.

After seeing how everything is made, the highlight of a visit to Gianluca’s farm is tasting how it all comes together on the plate. We sit down at a table laden with everything the farm produces. While each item — prosciutto, Brunello di Montalcino, olive oil, salami, aged pecorino cheese, veggies from the pea patch — is delicious in isolation, when eaten together they crescendo into a harmonious concert for the taste buds. It’s an interplay of earthy flavors, where the taste of each item enhances, and is enhanced by, the taste of every other item. At a zero-kilometer meal, you’re not just eating food. You are, in effect, eating a very specific place.

Explaining the concept of “zero-kilometer” — or, he explains sweetly, “for you Americans it would be ‘zero-mile'” — Gianluca emphasizes that everything comes from right here. Looking out from the covered terrace where we sit, we can see the neat rows of vines and the olive groves, which stand right next to each other. Forget “kilometer” — these are centimeters apart. When I press him on the point of whether it’s all truly local, Gianluca sheepishly waves a hand toward the woods and says, “well, the pigs free-range over there…500 meters away.” “Yes, but that’s still within a kilometer,” I point out. Gianluca beams in agreement.

I ask Gianluca about the similar French concept of terrior — from terre, earth — meaning that food is shaped by the specific conditions in which it’s grown. Gianluca smiles kindly, but seems to be fighting the urge to say something impolite about the French. He recovers quickly and simply chuckles. “Yes, I know this word. It’s a similar idea. But we don’t have this word here.” Apparently, Tuscan farmers don’t need a fancy word to understand this concept in their bones. It’s just common sense.

To be entirely fair, one thing on the table may not be produced right here: the bread. And if you’ve been to Tuscany, you know that the only fault to be found with Tuscan food is that the bread is unsalted. Gianluca explains that the origins of this go way back, but likely have to do with ancient tax laws. In any event, today’s Tuscans have acclimated to their bland bread, and have come to see it as an asset.

Turning philosophical, Gianluca suggests that Tuscany’s unsalted bread allows the region’s top-quality ingredients to take center stage. Just like a Brunello di Montalcino should never be drunk on its own, Tuscans never eat bread by itself. They always eat it with food, and who wants the bread to upstage or overpower the food? It’s a starch, not seasoning — like white rice in Asian cuisines. And rice isn’t salted, is it?

Savoring one of the best meals I’ve ever had, I can only heartily agree. Dining with Gianluca, it’s clear I’m in the hands of a master. And who am I to question the master? Nope, I’ll keep quiet…and ask Gianluca to pass the prosciutto.

Santa Giulia is just one of many farms that invite curious visitors for a tour and a meal. Several others are recommended in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook. Or ask when you’re booking your accommodations. Hoteliers in this area tend to be well-connected, and can easily set up an experience like this for you.

Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.

Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including a farm-to-table feast.

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