Eight months later, our world remains upside-down. And it’s becoming clear that nobody will (or should) be going anywhere this winter. If we ever want to “get back to normal” and travel again, it’s time to hunker down and relive favorite memories. For me, that means reminiscing about one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever…spent in beautiful Tuscany. I hope this little bit of armchair travel helps you get through another gloomy day, and reminds you of the fun that awaits us all on the other side of this pandemic.
A few years ago at this time, I was getting ready to head to Tuscany for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. The trip created some of the most vivid travel memories of my life: rolling hills, pretty as a painting, tufted with sprigs of vivid-green winter wheat; stony hill towns, normally jammed with tourists, instead buzzing with bundled-up Italians; amazing meals — featuring chestnuts, mushrooms, and persimmons — that redefined my sense of seasonal Italian cuisine.
We stayed a full week at Agriturismo Cretaiole, perched on a ridge just outside of Pienza and wonderfully run by Isabella and Carlo. Isabella has a knack for understanding what her American clientele are looking for in a trip to Tuscany. So she set up three entirely different — and equally enjoyable — cooking classes: preparing a blowout feast in an Italian mama’s house; shadowing a Michelin chef in his restaurant’s kitchen; and rolling our own pasta back home at our agriturismo. (Meanwhile, Carlo’s dad, Luciano, kept us well-lubricated with nightly doses of grappa and Vin Santo.)
Montepulciano — my favorite Tuscan hill town — was quieter than usual, giving us a chance to linger over visits with its colorful cast of craftsmen: Adamo, who’s evangelical about the local red wine; Cesare, a coppersmith who takes more joy these days in getting to know tourists than he does in creating pots and pans; and Guilio, whose steakhouse turns a chunk of beef into a work of art.
We also ventured into the autumnal countryside. Brown leaves crunching underfoot, we followed a talented dog as she sniffed out truffles. And then we had a truffle feast at a nearby restaurant.
And, in general, we fully enjoyed being in the foodie paradise of Tuscany.
The high point of our week was Thanksgiving dinner. When I tell people I was in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, their first question is — with a note of concern — “Did you have turkey?”
Americans love their Thanksgiving dinner. And many of us simply can’t fathom counting our blessings without an oversized portion of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Our agriturismo host, Isabella, understands this, so very early in the planning stages she reassured her nervous American guests: “And of course we will celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving meal — one with a Tuscan twist.” Well, phew!
In typically thoughtful fashion, Isabella had arranged a fantastic feast, which happened to be at one of my favorite restaurants in the region (Ristorante Daria, in the tiny hill town of Monticchiello). Months before, Isabella had conspired with the owner/chef, Daria, over a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And the gang at the restaurant had come up with a delicious mashup of American and Tuscan.
The first two courses were the most Tuscan, but cleverly informed by “our” Thanksgiving ingredients: a delicate pumpkin soufflé, topped with creamy pecorino cheese sauce and fresh-grated truffle. And a dish of pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, gently nestled in a subtle citrus cream. Both dishes were, at once, explosively flavorful and intensely comforting. I would not mind seeing either of these on my Thanksgiving table for many years to come.
Then it was time for the main event. The waitstaff loaded all of the turkey onto a tray and ceremonially paraded it through the restaurant, like proud hunters with their kill. Then they took it back into the kitchen and re-emerged with beautiful — and very traditional — plates of turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes…with, in a delicious Italian twist, a trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil.
They also brought out some fantastic gravy and surprisingly traditional cranberry sauce. Daria explained that she’d asked some American friends to ship her some cranberries, which are completely unknown in Italy. (Pretend for a moment you’re an acclaimed Italian chef. And imagine your shock — and maybe disgust — upon taking your first-ever bite into a raw cranberry: sour and astringent, wrapped in a tough little shell and infused with a blood-red dye. How on earth do Americans eat this stuff? The answer: Lots and lots and lots of sugar. Even on her first try, Daria nailed it.)
Things are different for the holidays this year. And they were different that year, too. But one thing I’ve learned from that Thanksgiving in Tuscany — and other holidays that found me in unusual places — is that, while traditions have their place, the really memorable holidays are the ones that are different. We’re all exhausted from trying to find a positive spin on these trying times. But perhaps you can forge some new traditions and make some new memories this year. It might not be sweet potato gnocchi, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never forget it.
What are some of your favorite European memories to get through this long, dark winter?