If anyone in history has managed to return from a trip to Italy without gaining five pounds, I commend you. For a land so rich in gastronomic treasures, it would be criminal not to indulge in every morsel. From sumptuous gelato in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo to the buttery sage ravioli at my best friend’s wedding breakfast amongst the vineyards of Chianti, to the best octopus I’ve ever tasted on a quiet terrace overlooking the harbor in Palinuro and the feasts I shall undoubtedly partake in on my tour of the Amalfi coast next summer, Italian cuisine always has and always will have my heart.
For those who aren’t so greedily inclined, I’m sure there are alternative destinations to spend your money and precious annual leave on. If, however, you share my view that a holiday should mostly be spent exploring local towns and sampling as much of the local food and wine as your waistband will allow, then you'll love the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
The hotel is a scenic 90-minute drive from Pisa airport along winding valley roads that traverse through sleepy picture-postcard villages peppered with plumes of wood smoke from chimneys.
Less than 50 miles from Pisa, nestled atop a hill overlooking the rolling mists of the Serchio Valley, the resort offers a year-round menu of tantalising options sure to tickle even the most refined taste buds. Situated between the Apuan Alps on one side and the Appennine Alps on the other, it’s a fascinating part of Italy that's begging to be explored and is quite different from the Tuscan landscapes you may be familiar with. While it is possible to reach the area via Italy’s superb train network (the nearest station being around four miles away), hiring a car will allow you to make the most of this area so rich in things to discover.
A room with a breathtaking view
Our balcony overlooked the Serchio Valley, with the ever-changing weather providing a living landscape that you could easily watch all day. A welcome tray of handmade biscotti was gratefully received after our morning’s travels and was hastily consumed with a coffee while taking in the view (the accompanying bottle of local red wine being saved for later), before a swift freshen up before our first excursion.
The amenities at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Built in 1956 and renovated in 2011, the resort features 180 rooms, a wellness centre, two restaurants, a spa and a new outdoor pool. With views from its balconied rooms stretching out for miles across the valley to the snow-tinged peaks beyond, it’s easy to see why the hotel is so popular. While many visit Tuscany during the summer months, it's during the low season that the area really comes into its own, thanks to the natural beauty of the changing seasons and the rich culinary treats they bring.
A holiday fit for foodies
The hotel has an ongoing seasonal programme of activities designed to give guests a behind-the-scenes view of culinary delights, including tasting sessions with the local vintner, shopping at the local markets and a private cookery class led by the head chef.
I visited in mid-November, which proved the perfect time for a long weekend of autumnal feasting, spent eating our way through traditional Tuscan dishes and turning a hand in the kitchen to learn how to prepare Italian delicacies.
For the love of mushrooms
The region produces some of the most exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts in Italy and with the right conditions, it’s possible to spend a morning foraging in the local woodlands just yards from the hotel, for some of the most sought after culinary delights of the region, not to mention an essential part of autumnal Italian cooking given their presence in so many traditional recipes.
For the love of the wine - Podere Concori Winery, Tuscany
Down in the valley less than two miles from the resort lies the Podere Concori winery, where owner Gabriele da Prato farms nine hectares of vineyards by hand, with the help of a small team of family and friends. A tour of the land shows the work that goes in to every one of the 12-15,000 bottles that are produced each year, with three varieties of red and one white that are sold across the country to bars and restaurants as well as direct to the consumer. With the youngest vines just 15 years old, the land was previously used to grow vegetables for what was previously the on-site restaurant, before Gabriele changed it to a vineyard and began farming biodynamically (to create different harvests at different times of the year in accordance with the cycles of the moon). Guests who visit in September can partake in the harvest, stomping the grapes beneath bare feet, though be warned; only ladies are allowed as they are deemed 'more delicate of step' than the gentlemen.
The views were stunning, and after a tour of the vineyard, we settled down to a delicious lunch, handmade by Gabriele’s wife in their farmhouse kitchen. Local charcuterie, cheeses and Tuscan antipasti were followed by a wholesome bowl of tomato-drenched pasta, with each course accompanied by their award-winning wines. Different regions of the vineyard lend their qualities to each variety, with distinct flavours paired perfectly with the dishes presented us. Fear not, if travelling with hand luggage only, you can have wine shipped home for an additional fee.
The spa at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Post-lunch retiring to the wellness centre was really the only option. An afternoon spent drifting between pool, sauna, steam room and lounger is always one well spent and given the addition of the relaxation lounge, with tea always at hand and a valley view with the Alps in the distance, it was difficult to tear ourselves away. The beauty spa has 12 cabins for treatments, including the Suite Cabin for those wishing to indulge in a couple, a private Turkish steam bath, jacuzzi suite and pedicure room. With a menu of treatments from indulgent massages to private hammams and mud wraps, a winter visit need not be spent yearning for the outdoor pool and sunshine; it’s perfectly possible to while away the afternoon in the spa.
The cuisine at La Verandah restaurant at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Of course, dinner is always going to be big news at such a food-focused resort and with the menu at La Verandah rich in Tuscan favourites and local dishes cooked to perfection, you’ll be hard pressed not to order three courses. Night one and our choices included a rich and creamy ricotta cheese and truffle timbale with pecorino fondue and a melt-in-the-mouth marinated beef carpaccio served with artichoke salad and a crispy Parmesan basket. A tender braised leg of duck with orange sauce was served with rosemary roast potatoes and the T-Bone steak, while not for the fainthearted, was a deliciously juicy cut that was met with much satisfaction. The local cheeses presented for dessert, a mix of cow, sheep and goat, were heavenly, accompanied with chutney and honey and washed down with a very pleasant bottle of the Maremma Toscana Rosso from the organic Capalbio Fattoria vineyard.
The next morning after we rose to a fine mist blanketing the valley, we headed down for breakfast, a classic continental buffet with the added option of ordering a la carte; I can concur that both the pancakes and Il Ciocco’s eggs benedict are delicious, though with such a food-filled day ahead, it would have been wise to tread lightly where breakfast was concerned.
Italian cookery lessons at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
If you’ve ever dreamt of learning real Italian cooking from a real Italian chef in a real Italian kitchen, Il Ciocco’s culinary experiences are not to be missed. With options ranging from a cooking lesson and tasting to a full day with the chef, shopping for your own ingredients and creating a personalised menu, it's hard to beat when it comes to hands-on experience. If you’re lucky enough to stay at the hotel on a Wednesday or Thursday, you can enjoy a trip to the local market in Barga, a quaint medieval village a few miles from the resort, where the chef will join you to handpick the ingredients for your own personal feast.
Though we stayed on a Monday, we took the ride down the hill with chef Stefano where we visited the local alimentari or grocer, something of an institution and run by the same family for some 104 years. Despite it being barely 10am, the owner Agostino poured glasses of red to accompany the wafer-thin slivers of prosciutto and hunks of sheep’s cheese he presented us, as Stefano ordered a bag of chestnut flour for the pasta we would turn our hands to making that afternoon. A visit to the butcher for the beef and all ingredients were in hand, ready for an afternoon in the kitchen. Had it not been pouring with rain, a morning of exploring Barga’s cobbled lanes would have beckoned, given that it is an immaculate village of small piazzas, ageless shops and galleries, narrow streets and historic monuments, untouched by mass tourism and blessed with an impressive duomo, as well as the internationally famous Caffe Capretz.
What followed was our one-to-one cooking class with Stefano in the hotel’s kitchen, where we learnt some secrets of traditional Italian cooking and created three classic dishes that would later become our dinner.
The menu comprised homemade macaroni - made with the heady chestnut flour we picked up earlier - served with a ragu sauce, followed by a beef and olive stew served with polenta and finally, a booze-laced creamy ricotta and chocolate dessert. Despite being a novice pasta maker, the result was surprisingly edible and while we didn’t quite turn our hands to the crispy Parmesan bowls our dinner would be served in, we did witness the other chefs having a practice session on how to create them.
Being a keen baker, I enjoyed making the dessert the most, as I moulded pastry into its cup and piped in a deliciously decadent (not that we tried it…) mixture of ricotta, eggs, chocolate chips and a fairly potent liqueur. The whole experience was accompanied by samples of local wines and a tasting plate of homemade bruschetta, salami and cheese, ensuring our hunger was sated while the cooking took place, before our creations were presented to us later that evening, although I do suspect with a few additional tweaks from Stefano. Waddling back upstairs to exchange jeans for elasticated pyjamas and enjoy a post-prandial lie down, I was thankful that our room was mere metres away.
Travelling further afield - A day trip to Treppignana
Our final morning in Tuscany dawned bright, crisp and clear, the perfect opportunity to head out on one of one of the walks suggested by the hotel, a return trip to the nearby hilltop village of Treppignana. Deserted woodland paths gave way to roads surrounded by meadows with utterly sublime views of snowy alpine mountaintops in the distance. We passed but one other soul on our journey, a gentleman pruning his roadside olive trees, and even upon arrival in Treppignana we were met with an eerie stillness, a village totally silent with not a soul in sight, but a panorama that was worth the climb.
One final luscious luncheon in front of the log fire in the Nour Lounge, overlooking the sun-drenched, and it was time to say our goodbyes. After three days of feasting on the finest Tuscan treats it’s no surprise we were sad to leave. The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco may be a buzzing holiday hub in the summer months, but these quieter seasons are the time to visit for an almost private encounter, an opportunity to relax your soul, revive your mind and indulge your taste buds without disturbance. The perfect place to create your own epicurean adventure.
Room prices start at €102 per night with room packages starting from €143. Culinary experiences start from €160 per person.
Via Giovanni Pascoli
55051 Barga LU
*During my visit I was hosted by the lovely team at Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa. All views are my own.
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