Up at 5:30 AM, I slid my feet into foot duvets. Silently dragging myself out of the cottage, and not waking my partner, Chad, I crossed a walkway between the cottage and the villa to enter a large kitchen. Starting a fire in the 300-year-old hearth, I prepared coffee. This morning was special. It was the first day of La Raccolta, the annual olive harvest at Il Rifugio (The Refuge). For the past three years, I have baked my Grandma’s Sticky Buns as a “good luck” start to a successful harvest. This year was no different.
Il Rifugio is a 17th-Century stone villa situated on the edge of a centuries-old terraced olive grove above the village of Montanare in the community of Cortona in Tuscany. Il Rifugio is surrounded by more than 500 olive trees, some 300 to 400 years old.
Each fall, eight to ten people travel to Il Rifugio to help pick olives during the first week of November. Picking at the beginning of November produces a high-grade extra virgin olive oil with a peppery kick.
The owners of Il Rifugio, Chuck and Shirley Ofria, asked me to be the chef for their olive harvest. They were specific: breakfast at 7:30 AM, so the harvesters would be in the olive groves by 8 AM; lunch at 1 PM, so they could return to the olive groves by 2 PM. The sun goes down around 5:30 PM, so I would have wine and a snack ready when the day is over. As this is Italy, supper isn’t served until at least 7:30 or 8 PM.
I spent a good deal of time preparing the menu for the week. Once in Italy, I purchased groceries in the nearby town of Camucia at the Coop (pronounced “coup”), and visited the local farmer’s markets in Cortona on Saturday and Camucia on Thursday.
The produce of the season is phenomenal: fennel, savory cabbage, eggplant, tomatoes, artichokes, figs, and cardoon (my favorite). It belongs to the artichoke family, but looks like celery on steroids topped by thistles. After a good washing and removal of the larger fibers, I cut the cardoon into five-to-six-inch pieces, then blanch, place in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and finish by covering with a grating of fresh Parmesan cheese. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, and a simple but flavorful side dish is ready.
Shopping for groceries is an event. You need to know Italian; recognize the denominations of Euros, especially coinage; and know the metric system. Order a “pound of prosciutto,” and you will receive strange looks. Order “uno mezzo kilo proscuitto,” and you’re in business.
La Raccolta meals are hearty and robust. I serve soups for lunch, such as Ribolitta (Twice Boiled). It is a wonderful Tuscan bread soup. The first day, it is a vegetable soup filled with carrots, celery, kale, Swiss chard, onions, tomatoes, and cannelloni beans. The next day, I find crusty, day-old ciabatta or Tuscan bread. I toast slices, and rub garlic on one side. Layering the bottom of a large bowl or soup tureen with the bread, I ladle the soup over it. I add another layer of bread and more soup. Letting it sit for 20 minutes, I serve in soup bowls, passing fresh extra virgin olive oil for drizzling, along with freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheeses.
Fresh pasta and meat dishes are also part of the menu, such as Pumpkin Ravioli, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and Steak alla Puttanesca (steak with capers, olives, anchovies, and oregano in a tomato sauce). “Puttanesca” actually translates “prostitute-style,” because the recipe is so easy.
Fine olive oil in decorative bottles for $25 to $45 only should be used to drizzle on soups and salad, or as fine dipping oil for bread and crudités. Inexpensive olive oils that retail for $6.99 to $10.99 a bottle should be used for cooking. Using the more expensive olive oil for cooking only will break it down to the structure of your more inexpensive types.
Storage is important in keeping the structure of your olive oil intact. Sunlight and heat destroy olive oil. I bring home several liters of olive oil each year, and store in cans in a cupboard away from any heat. This has helped me keep my olive oils for up to two years in perfect condition.
When the olive harvest is over, Il Rifugio is rented by groups of friends or family members by the week. Many groups rent for two to three weeks. They use it as a home base, while visiting other hill towns or major attractions. Il Rifugio is a second home to Chad and me for many weeks each year. I cannot wait to return to bake my Grandma’s Sticky Buns at next year’s La Raccolta.
IL Rifugio—Private Rental or Workshops
Ribollita (Twic Boiled Vegetable Soup)
Tuscany’s most famous bread soup is so-called because it is always reboiled before being served the first time and is often saved for the next day and boiled yet again. Although officially a soup, ribollita is often thick enough to eat with a fork.
8 cups (64 fluid ounces/2 liters) leftover Zuppa di verdure (Vegetable Soup)
8 thin slices country-style bread
1 clove garlic, unpeeled, cut in half
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to pass
1. Heat the leftover zuppa di verdure to simmering. Grill the bread slices until they are toasted brown, and rub each slice on one side with the cut clove of garlic. Place 4 of the slices in the bottom of a soup tureen and drizzle on about 1 tablespoon of oil. Ladle half the soup over them. Top with the remaining bread slices and remaining oil, and cover with the rest of the soup. Let rest for a few minutes in a warm place (a turned-off oven is fine) so that the bread can absorb the soup, then serve immediately, passing more oil so that each person can add as much or as little as desired. Or set the soup aside in a cool pantry to serve at room temperature, a nice thing to do in the summertime.
Zuppa di Verdure (Vegetable Soup)
3 cups (12 ounces/375 grams) cooked beans plus 2 cups (6 ounces/250 grams) cooking liquid
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeped and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely sliced
2 medium carrots, scraped and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned and finely sliced
4 fresh ripe flavorful tomatoes, peeled (or 1 cup canned tomatoes with juice)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in small chucks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch green chard, finely sliced
1 small Savoy cabbage (cavolo), finely sliced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1. Drain the cooked beans, reserving the liquid in which they cooked.
2. In a heavy soup kettle or stockpot, heat the oil. Add the onion, chopped garlic, celery, carrots, and leek and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Chop the tomatoes coarsely and ad them and their juice to the vegetables. Stir in the potatoes and add 1 ½ cups boiling water. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. Cook, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the potatoes just start to soften.
3. If you are using large leaves of chard or cabbage, remove the thick stalks and discard them, then sliver the greens. Together with the slivered cabbage, you should have 4 to 5 cups of greens. After the potatoes have started to soften, add the greens, beans, and thyme, stirring to incorporate everything well.
4. Lower the heat to low, cover the kettle, and cook at a bare simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, or until the vegetables are very soft. Add boiling water from time to time as necessary to prevent the beans from sticking to the kettle.
5. Serve as is or over toasted slices of garlic-rubbed bread. Drizzle each serving with al little extra virgin olive oil. Serves 10.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at LavenderMagazine.com.