With the coveted white truffle now in season just in time to grace the tables of the most discerning gourmets, it's the perfect time to visit Tuscany. I firmly believe this delicacy tastes even better when you hunt for it yourself, which is what I set out to do during my recent visit to Borgo Pignano.
Sitting in the heart of Tuscany on a hilltop between two fertile valleys in the Val d’Elsa region, this 750-acre country estate is a unique combination of a luxury resort with a beautifully restored 18th century mansion at its center surrounded by eco farmland and woods, which allows the hotel to be almost fully self-contained.
The term ‘borgo’ (‘hamlet’ in Italian) dates back to Etruscan times. Former farm workers lived in cottages (some of which have been restored and now serve as accommodation for bigger groups of guests or families) whereas couples and singles stay in the main mansion.
The resort is within easy driving distance from the historical towns of Volterra and San Gimignano and is located about 40km north of Siena. We flew into Bologna and, as we didn’t hire a car, took the train to another pretty medieval town called Poggibonsi and then a taxi from there, which we discovered was a wise choice because the road is winding and the sign posting isn’t all that great, so unless you have a GPS you might get lost!
As soon as we set off, we were enchanted by the woods and the gorgeous countryside views. The resort’s entrance is marked by an impressive arch, which sets the scene for grandeur.
Upon arrival, our rooms weren’t ready, so we were led through the vast, immaculate gardens to a terrace overlooking a rock pool, which guests were swimming in – even in October! From next year on, the pool will be heated, for those who aren’t as brave.
While we waited, we were treated to our first taste of Tuscan cuisine with delicious products produced entirely on the farm and in the greenhouses, including a hearty barley soup topped with grated cheese and a sprinkling of white truffle.
The ground floor houses the reception and an adjacent cozy courtyard, the dining room, living room and - a great highlight - a library with hundreds of books in several languages. As the charming general manager, Oriol, explained, Borgo Pignano wants its guest to enjoy tranquility and nature, avoiding modern gadgets wherever possible. Hence there is no TV and no key cards for the rooms. Hot water and heating are provided by solar cells and the only nod towards modern day communication is the availability of fast WiFi. So, if you’re looking to get away from it all, this is the place.
The rooms are vast and beautifully furnished, with wooden floors, antique rugs and a bathroom with a rain shower and a great variety of goodies, all made in ‘laboratories’ on the premises.
After we had settled in, we were treated to a tour of the estate and were amazed to see how much more there is to Borgo Pignano than just a luxury hotel. We viewed the rolling fields and the green houses, the beehives where their own honey is produced, six pigs in a huge enclosure in the woods happily snuffling away and horses, ponies and chickens. We also stopped by the aforementioned laboratories to see honey making, production of scented candles and creams and even the grinding of flour for the home baked bread, much of which is made by hand.
For dinner guests have a choice between a private table in the fine dining restaurant or, for those who like to mingle with other guests, a communal table in a beautiful dining room with a vast fireplace. In the summer al fresco dining is arranged in the garden.
Above: Communal Dining in the Medieval room. Below: Villa Pignano restaurant.
Truffle hunting at Borgo Pignano
The next day we embarked on the adventure we had come for - truffle hunting. We were met by two professional and licensed truffle hunters, Daniele and Alessio and, most importantly, their cute truffle dog Pato.
Off we went into the woods, over fallen trees, roots and slippery leaves and after only a few minutes, Pato became excited, starting to scrabble, with his snout under the roots of a chestnut tree. Lo and behold, he had found a truffle! At a command of Daniele, he immediately stopped and turned away, so he could dig out the white gold with his hands and a special instrument called vanghino. We were warned that we might not find any truffles, but luck was with us and within the two hours we spent in the woods, we collected no less than five truffles.
In the evening in the communal dining room we enjoyed our bounty, shaved over a rich risotto prepared by chef Vincenzo Martella who revealed his favorite truffle dish is fried eggs and mashed potatoes with shaved truffles and then mixed with the half liquid yolk. He even recommends adding truffles to desserts such as tiramisu or zabaglione.
If you can’t make it during the truffle season, which ends on 15 November when the resort closes, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy including horseback riding (for all levels), a midnight picnic (when there is a full moon), hiking in the woods or indulging in a treatment in the spa.
Venturing further afield
Excursions to other Tuscan treasures such as Florence, Volterra, San Gimignano and the ochre city of Siena are easily within reach. If you don’t have a rental car, the resort is happy to arrange cars and drivers on your behalf.
We couldn’t think of a more relaxing and luxurious venue for a taste of an authentic Tuscan heaven.
Rates start at €310 per night based on a double room including breakfast. Prices vary based on room selection and season. Children are welcome at the resort. Dogs are also welcome, however, they’re only allowed in the villas, not in the main mansion or in the dining rooms, gardens or pool areas. Bicycles and Nordic walking sticks are available upon request.
A summary of our stay at Borgo Pignano
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As I boarded the plane for my flight to Pisa on the way to the stunning Castello del Nero, in Chianti, I couldn't help but reminisce about the last time I was in Tuscany, which was for my wedding at Villa Nozzole (near Greve in Chianti) nearly four years ago.
For those who haven’t had the fortune of visiting Tuscany, I’d definitely put it on your bucket list of ‘must-visit’ destinations. Boasting rich cultural heritage, verdant rolling hills, the infamous Tuscan sun and the remarkably delicious cuisine (and not to mention, world-class wines), all of these factors combined make it the ideal destination for culture vultures and foodies alike. Add to this a generous helping of Tuscan hospitality, and you have all the essential ingredients for a truly memorable holiday.
Castello del Nero is everything you’d hope for in a ‘wow-factor’ accommodation – and then some. I’m now a firm believer that all rooms should come with frescoes as standard. Let’s just say the bar has been seriously raised.
The 5-star deluxe hotel (the first of its kind in Tuscany upon its opening 10 years ago) has 50 luxurious rooms (comprised of 18 lavish suites), two restaurants (La Taverna and 1-Michelin star restaurant La Torre), a bar, a 20 metre outdoor swimming pool, a 1,000 sq metre ESPA spa, a private chapel from the 1700s, and two tranquil lakes, giving one everything they need for a bit of R&R.
Up until 1986 the hotel was a private residence for the Torrigiani family. Rumour has it that the beautiful Cyprus trees that surround the property were planted by Mrs Torrigiani, who didn’t want the servants to see her when she visited her vegetable garden.
The hotel has been sensitively refurbished, ensuring that each room at Castello del Nero is unique, while retaining its natural character. Vaulted ceilings, frescoes and original fireplaces feature throughout the accommodation.
My favourite room in the property was Room 122, which featured Dutch blue and white floral décor, a small sitting room with views of the countryside and a gorgeous bedroom, which is entered via a striking arched doorway.
No trip to Castello del Nero is complete without experiencing its restaurant offering. Whether you enjoy a casual, poolside lunch at La Taverno or a more formal dining affair at 1 Michelin Star La Torre, you won’t be disappointed. The service is impeccable and the authentic cuisine prepared by Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro is divine. If you’re just looking for a bog-standard meal, then this isn’t your place, but if you’re looking for a sensational gastronomic experience, then you might want to stay a bit longer...
The wine cellar
One of the highlights of my visit was enjoying a wine tasting in the wine cellar with their friendly and highly skilled sommelier, Roberto. Up to eight guests can enjoy a tasting at the tasting table, which is a real treat and a unique experience that’s both educational and enjoyable.
During the tasting, we learned a wealth of information about Tuscan wines as we tasted several grape varietals, which we enjoyed with a selection of meats and cheeses. While the Chianti Classico, the region’s most famous wine, was great, my favourite wine was the Tignanello, a Super Tuscan wine that’s been produced in the area since 1952. Comprised of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Cabernet Franc, the Tignanello is a complex wine with balsamic vinaigrette flavours. Other wines that are worth checking out include Sangiovese (of which there are 600 varieties in Tuscany) and the Brunello di Montalcino, a rich, ripe wine with jammy flavours, which has a strong maritime influence thanks to the sea, which is only 1.5 hours away.
The largest spa in Tuscany, the ESPA spa is a great place to unwind during your stay. The spa includes a vitality pool and relaxation areas to ensure a restful experience. The staff were incredibly friendly and committed to ensuring that you have an enjoyable experience. During my visit, I enjoyed the Signature Spa Treatment that they had created for the 10th anniversary, a 75-minute treatment, which included a welcome foot ritual, a back scrub with Castello del Nero’s olive oil and a head massage.
If you're feeling really lazy, you can simply flop on a wooden sun lounger by the pool with a good book and an Aperol Spritz, in true Italian style, as I did and would highly recommend. In fact, one of my favourite memories was simply gazing over the vineyards in awe of the natural beauty of the landscape. As I took it all in, I thought to myself ‘If I were a grape, I’d be very happy indeed in these conditions!’.
The Italian Garden
Gardening enthusiasts will fall in love with the perfectly manicured Italian gardens, with a handful of bistro tables scattered throughout. I felt exceptionally relaxed sitting in the garden and feeling the sun on my face, showing that it really is the simplest pleasures that can make all the difference.
Activities one can partake in during their visit (for an additional cost) include bicycle rides, horse trekking, hot air balloon rides, truffle hunting, wine tasting in the wine cellar and spa treatments at the ESPA spa. For those who want to try their hand at Italian cuisine, you can also join a pasta making class, which was jolly good fun, despite me being a hopeless pasta chef. Although I love pasta, my experience is generally in eating it, not making it, so I was excited to get stuck in making ravioli, tagliatelle and my personal favourite, tortellini.
To ensure no one rested on their laurels, we were quickly put to work assisting with stirring the Bolognese sauce (made with chicken stock, celery, carrots and onions – who knew?) and cutting the pasta. The chef was sensible enough not to give us free reign with the pasta machine, which looked like a giant and slightly dangerous looking toaster, which you feed the dough through to press it into a long, thin sheet. I was assured that I wouldn’t lose any fingers in the process, but nonetheless I entrusted this step of the process with my fellow pasta makers.
Day trips from Castello del Nero
For those wishing to venture further afield, Castello del Nero provides its guests with a complimentary shuttle service for day trips to a variety locations including San Gimignano, famous for its towers on the hills and gorgeous vistas, and the equally fabulous cities of Florence and Pisa, which are also easily within reach. There is also the option to hire a vintage Fiat 500 (similar to the Castello del Nero branded 1971 model that guests will notice sitting outside of the hotel), for those who want a more authentic driving experience.
After a long weekend at Castello del Nero, I felt totally relaxed, which is testament to the transformative powers of a bit of sun, sensational cuisine and being immersed in stunning natural surroundings, all while indulging in a slower pace of life. I believe I’ve found the perfect tonic for a peaceful existence.
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