Vacation days are so very precious. As the travel brochures are fanned across the dining room table and the endless vacation specials fill our computer's in-box, the decision can get daunting. Where should we go?
TUSCAN WOMEN COOK INTERVIEWS KAREN NOREEN
In 2009, Karen Noreen discovered Tuscan Women Cook in a moment of kismet combined with a touch of insomnia. She describes it as one of those "meant-to-be" moments. "I woke up in the middle of the night having fallen asleep with the TV on and saw the very end of a commercial that showed lovely, older ladies cooking and then
flashed on the screen. I wondered what in the world that was so I got up and wrote down the website address, knowing I would never remember it in the morning. I checked it out the next day and immediately thought, 'I am doing this.'" Karen adds, "I'm so glad I did."
This summer, Karen made her vacation decision with ease. She had such a joyful, memorable experience visiting the charming Tuscan village of Montefollonico with her friend Sue in 2009 as a Tuscan Women Cook guest, she decided to return again, this time with her friend Mark, another world traveler and foodie. Her 2009 trip left an indelible impression. It was a vacation that remained vivid in her memory, helped her reconnect to her Italian heritage, and gave her pause for personal reflection. "Why didn't I pay more attention to my very own Italian
nonna (grandmother) as she made all my favorite dishes from scratch? I love this food. I love this country."
Karen and Mark
live in different cities in the states so they flew independently to Frankfurt and together traveled to Florence for the first three days of their Italian getaway. From there, they took the scenic train ride to Chuisi and settled into Montefollonico for a week with Tuscan Women Cook. Two more days in Siena rounded out their two weeks of precious vacation days, the "perfect vacation length," sighs Karen.
The trip almost didn't happen. Karen injured her leg shortly before she was scheduled to leave so she aggressively sought treatments to relieve some of the pain and increase her mobility. Nothing was going to stop this determined traveler and lover of everything Italian.
"I've been to Italy 6 or 7 times in my life, and of all my Italy visits I have to say the Tuscan Women Cook trips were the most life changing. I live a frenzied life and the beautiful idyllic town of Montefollonico is simply rejuvenating. Despite my injury, I am so glad I decided to come back. Rhonda and Coleen took such good care of me and made special accommodations that always made me feel comfortable and a part of every class and every excursion. I definitely made the right decision," said Karen.
When she first heard Tuscan Women Cook was for sale, Karen wondered who would buy it, and if the experience would change. She had fond memories of original owners Bill Sutherland leading the group in the morning cooking classes while his wife Patty led the afternoon excursions. "I really like the blend of old and new with the new owners Rhonda and Coleen," Karen enthused. "They kept much of the original itinerary but added impressive new experiences, like our spectacular dinner at
Ristorante Walter Redaelli
and cooking classes at the
Agritourismo Belagaggio." Karen confided, "To tell you the truth if it had been the exactly the same, I would have been happy."
Like many travelers, Karen isn't a fan of group trips. "The fact that I booked this twice says something about the experience of Tuscan Women Cook." She mentioned that
Tuscan Women Cook attracts a certain kind of clientele she is naturally drawn to. Karen believes that, "People who are attracted to cooking and eating are usually warm, outgoing, and fun to be around."
The cooking classes reinforced Karen's love of Italian cuisine and she now confidently prepares many dishes she learned how to make in Montefollonico."I now make fresh pasta, and ribbolita soup is my all time favorite thing to make," said Karen. "I'll definitely make the eggplant Parmesan. It was so light. I was amazed. The first thing I made when I came home from my first trip was the stuffed squash blossoms. Karen sentimentally recalls that some of the pizza, chicken, and pasta dishes she prepared on her most recent trip were reminiscent of her Italian grandmother's recipes.
Of all the local people Karen met through her travels with Tuscan Women Cook, she holds a special place in her heart for a humble vintner named Vittorio. She enjoyed visiting his residence for wine tasting during both visits. "I loved his wines, especially his vin santo. I loved watching him appear and disappear as we tasted. No ego, 'no look at me', just 'enjoy my wine, enjoy my view and enjoy each other'. I couldn't wait to buy a bottle of his vin santo this trip. I kicked myself for not buying the wine in 2009. He even autographed my bottle!
I almost melted. I'm such a fan."
The biggest impact Tuscan Women Cook had on Karen was making the conscious choice to change her pace upon her return to her life in California. The Italian lifestyle, and the appreciation for the simple things in life, was not lost on Karen. "I had a wonderful experience and I am working hard to keep that appreciation in my mind as I contemplate retirement. I want that attitude and that pace to be part of the next chapter of my life. Life doesn't have to be elaborate to be grand. I'm going to keep it fresh and simple."
TUSCAN WOMEN COOK INTERVIEWS MEL & SUZANNE DEFRIN
"There is no bad meal in Italy!" proclaims Mel Defrin and his wife Suzanne laughs and agrees. They made this delicious discovery after their memorable week with Tuscan Women Cook.
Their mission: celebrate Suzanne's birthday and their 49th wedding anniversary on a culinary trip somewhere in Europe. They scanned websites promoting trips in France as well as Italy, but when they came upon the Tuscan Women Cook website, and read the stellar reviews on TripAdvisor, they agreed they had found the perfect celebration vacation.
The itinerary was set. They would spend three nights in Rome and then head to Montefollonico. It had been twenty years since they visited Tuscany together when their daughter studied abroad in Milan. But they had not found Montefollonico during that trip. As soon as they arrived, they fell instantly in love with this charming village. "It's everything you dream about-like a Tuscan postcard come to life. A little town with a few hundred people and three great restaurants. What more do you need?" chuckled Mel.
As soon as they arrived to La Chuisa, manager Manuela greeted Mel and Suzanne warmly as if they were long, lost friends. Suzanne recalls, "She showed us to our room, which overlooked a breathtaking view of the mountains surrounding Montefollonico. Once we settled in, our hosts Rhonda and Coleen greeted us and I knew right away that we were in great hands and that they would be taking care of every detail of our week together."
La Chuisa's chef Dania and host Marco welcomed us every morning. "Marco was such a wonderful host, such a gracious man," said Mel and Suzanne. "He told us 'My house is your home' and we could feel how much he meant it." They enjoyed a daily breakfast buffet that included hand-squeezed blood orange juice and super-fresh eggs of a similar hue. "Funny," Suzanne recalls, "with all the cooking and dining we did during the day and the wonderful dinners we enjoyed at night, I still looked forward to my breakfast at La Chiusa every morning."
When asked about their favorite meal while at Tuscan Women Cook, they both sighed in exasperation. "It's so hard to pick!" said Mel. Suzanne loved dining at
Ristorante Walter Redaelli
. "The grounds, the olive oil tasting and the food-just fabulous." Mel fondly recalled, "Oh, the first night at Ristorante 13 Gobbi, just up the road from La Chiusa. I'll remember every little bite and the mixing of the pasta in the Pecorino cheese wheel and the strawberry
for dessert, scooped out of a Tupperware container by the owner. Nothing fancy, but everything was delicious!" Suzanne chimed in with another one of her favorites. "Osteria La Botte Piena in the little wine shop. The food was amazing. It was just extraordinary. The young chef was so creative. You felt like her world revolved around food and wine."
They loved the experience of going into the restaurants every night and not looking at a menu. "It was like greeting family members who you knew were going to take great care of you," said Mel. And Suzanne recalled that it was the same with shopkeepers. "Everyone was so warm."
Both commented about Rhonda and Coleen's inside knowledge of the villages they visited. "There were so many little shops we would have never have found without Rhonda and Coleen," said Suzanne. "The tiny watercolor shop at the top of the hill in
was a spot we would never have discovered on our own. They worked very hard. Rhonda and Coleen were terrific people. It was a joy to be with them."
One of the highlights of the week for Mel and Suzanne was spending the day in Siena. Walking through the Duomo with Cristina, the Tuscan Women Cook translator and guide, shed light on every aspect of the city. "She knew extraordinary details about everything," enthused Mel. "Every religious symbol. Every piece of art."
Suzanne loved the shopping in the Siena central market. "I have been to markets in France and in England, but this was the largest I had ever seen. And what really impressed me was that the prices were very reasonable, because that's where the locals shop."
The cooking lessons exceeded their expectations. "We were hands on the whole week," Mel admitted. "I was a little intimidated. Suzanne does most of the cooking in our home." Suzanne laughed, "Mel, with what you have learned now you can do the cooking!" They thought nonne (grandmothers) were great and were so impressed at how they spoke through their food. "Cristina the translator was a big help at every cooking lesson, but the food ultimately spoke for itself," shared Mel.
Mel and Suzanne appreciated the two wine tastings and remarked at how different each one was. "We bought bottles in both places. Sitting in Vittorio's backyard, enjoying the view and drinking his wine, was so personal and so different than any other wine tasting experience we'd ever had," said Mel. The other vineyard featured food pairings with each wine and magnificent views of their expansive vineyard.
Spending 24/7 such a long way from home might be a challenge for some couples, but not Mel and Suzanne. "We had a great time on this trip. We learned we could do a lot of things together, like cooking, that we hadn't done before," said Mel. Suzanne commented on how flexible Mel was about the accommodations. "We often stay in fancy hotels. Staying in La Chiusa was a departure for us. It was rustic and simple but we both admitted that we actually liked that more. It really gave us the feeling that we were truly part of this charming town."
Pasta is good for your diet! Researchers analyzed data on thousands of Italians and found moderate pasta consumption seems linked to lower chances of general obesity. The results were published online in the
Nutrition & Diabetes
July 4, 2016
. Bravo for bucatini!
MANGIAMO! PRENOTA ORA!