Thanksgiving in Tuscany: A Treasured Travel Memory

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.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Scenery-024

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.

cameron-italy-tuscany-cretaiole-021

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.

Finally, at the end of the week, we did a little “Black Friday” shopping in Tuscan hill towns, and enjoyed the first of Italy’s holiday lights.

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!

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-001

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.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-003

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-004

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.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-006

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.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-007

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?

12 Replies to “Thanksgiving in Tuscany: A Treasured Travel Memory”

  1. Thanks for the memories. Our memorable Thanksgiving dinners abroad were salmon at Fortum and Mason in London and Duck at a restaurant, the name of which I have forgotten, in Paris with a view of the back side of Notra Dame (before the fire of course. A domestic Thanksgiving memory was the earthquake in the Central Valley of California that shook our dinner table in our rental home In Monterey. I was attending the Navy’s post graduate school and we had a classmate and his wife join us. Our table was a small round shaky little thing just big enough fo four place settings. The house was on a hillside overlooking the blue Pacific. We give thanks today for our good fortunes and all past travels. And thanks for your fine travel writing and the memories it brings.

  2. In 2014 my daughter and I took a Rick Steve’s tour to Venice, Florence, and Rome. We were on the bus from Florence to Rome on Thanksgiving. When we arrived we toured the Pantheon, and then had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant, with not a turkey in sight. I mostly remember the soup, the Spaghetti Carbonara, and the potato chips. It was a memorable Thanksgiving.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful memory. We have been to il Cretaiole in three seasons and it has been wonderful each time. A favorite was Halloween time. Firecrackers and warm chestnuts in Pienza. We were scheduled to visit in May but had to cancel. We look forward to when we can travel again.

  4. My best memory was a week in the tiny town of Montisi to celebrate my 70th birthday. We rented the Villa Maddalena with a front door on the main street, and a back garden overlooking olive trees and a long view to the south. The villa was filled with family and friends. Alessandro Piccinini, the Tuscan chef, made us the perfect birthday celebration, and on another night he taught us all to create a fabulous meal. And, of course, we went on several tours led by Antonella Piredda–the best guide!

  5. In 2007 my husband and I were in Paris on a 7 Days in Paris Rick Steves’ tour. We arrived at our Hotel Londres Eiffel a week early and ate down the street at La Varangue (an RS recommendation). We had a boeuf bourguinon feast! On the actual day of Thanksgiving, we toured the Louvre. Wonderful memories.

  6. This was fun for me to read, because one of my most memorable and enjoyable Thanksgivings was in 2003, while studying in Rome, Italy. With 24 other architecture students and 5 faculty, I was part of a 3-month long esteemed Architecture in Rome program at the University of Washington, located on Campo de Fiori in the Palazzo Pio building. This program changed my life and opened my eyes to the wonders of Europe, as we lived like locals and toured Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, and greater Rome. Towards the end of the quarter the three (American) schools using the Pio held an enormous Thanksgiving feast for the group. Our professors paraded the many turkeys back and forth to the Forno bakery on the Campo for roasting. Exquisite side dishes were prepared with flavorful Italian ingredients and we feasted like the emperors of ancient Rome. I will never forget this unique and deeply enjoyable Thanksgiving abroad in the heart of Rome’s historical center. What I wouldn’t give to be back at there now! Thanks for this wonderful story of your Tuscan Thanksgiving, Cameron. I needed this.

  7. Great review Cameron, thank you for sharing. I spent 2018 and 2019 at Cretaiole for Thanksgiving. You have captured the essence of the experience well in your post! I met your friends, the Sefcik’s, in 2018. What a lovely family! We had plan on all returning together this year, but it wasn’t meant to be. Hopeful for 2021.

  8. I loved my Thanksgivings in Italy. Being a vegetarian and not wanting to sit with stepfamily around a big dead bird. I found it wonderful to visit the land of my ancestors. Next stop Ireland for Irish heritage! I love using your guidebooks.

  9. For Thanksgiving 2018 we went to Naples and Sorrento on the Amalfi coast and toured Pompeii which we had almost to ourselves since most of the crowds and tourists were gone. Beautiful weather, on Black Friday we took one of the last boat tours of the season to the Isle of Capri, so lovely and uncrowded. On the way back we saw dolphins in the water!

  10. Thanksgiving ahhh la festa di ringraziemento. Raviola con zucca salvia, burro, amaretto.
    Fresh green beans in beschamel con funghi porcini
    I stuffed la tachina with an earthy blend of pane,porcini, and chestnuts.
    patate puree.
    My fatherinlaw could never understand the stuffing in the cuhlo of the turkey.
    We lived in a hilly wine producing area in Lombardy. Memoria bellissima. Grazie infinite for your delectable story. For 12 years we celebrated this way at our Italian table. The tabkes have turned…dunque It’s a movable feast regardless.

  11. For five years we have prepared the traditional shukranissima feast here in Cairo. One year at Thanksgiving I traveled instead with my Egyptian students to the Red Sea and Bedouins cooked a fine simple meal of rice and roasted lamb in the desert under a gazillion stars…no vino, but excellent Bedu chai tea and a Sufi entertained us all after with his whirling to Oriental music…altogether enchanting.The feast again moved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *