The Tuscan touch

A culinary adventure with chef Silvia Baracchi in the Tuscan town of Cortona.

May 23, 2013 14:28
4 minute read.
Silvia Baracchi.

Silvia Baracchi 370. (photo credit: Ilan Evyatar)

Silvia Baracchi marches confidently through the marketplace in the Tuscan town of Cortona, leading us, a group of Israeli journalists, through the pungent aromas of prosciutto, salsiccia, salami, pecorino and other local delicacies hung up and laid out on a dozen or so stalls along a narrow alley not far from the main square. She is on home turf and knows every stall, every delicacy. “No, no, buy the pecorino tartufo from Francesco, try this sausage, it’s the best in Tuscany.”

At the vegetable market she stands in a sea of resonant colors amid the local produce from the rich Tuscan soil formed from the former swamplands that were once under the sea. Blood-rich oranges, artichokes with a powerful purple hue, fat spring onions and a splendid array of green beans.She examines the produce with precision, picking out vine tomatoes which she will use later in the day to make a tomato sauce during a cooking class back at the Baracchi estate where, together with her husband Riccardo, she runs a chateau, Il Falcionere (“the falconer”), and a Michelin-starred restaurant under the same name.

Silvia learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen starting from the age of eight, and worked at her restaurant, Locanda del Molino, located in an old olive mill in the village of Montanare that lies in a valley nestled between Cortona and Il Falcionere in the boundaries of the village of San Martino.

At Locanda, Silvia learnt the Tuscan cuisine her mother cooked there for close to 40 years. She still oversees the restaurant there, where traditional dishes such as pici, a thick local version of freshly-made spaghetti with a rabbit ragout; crostini neri, croutons served with minced sausage and chicken livers; stuffed courgette flowers and gnocchi are served.

Silvia’s mother didn’t want her to be a cook, but when she married Riccardo Baracchi they decided to open a hotel and restaurant on the estate, built in 1650 and that has been in his family since the mid-19th century.

In 2001, 12 years after opening the restaurant, without any formal culinary education, and after having given up hope, she received a Michelin star.

The Il Falcionere restaurant is anything but traditional.

“Cooking the same dishes all the time can be boring,” says Silvia. “I love to change my menu often using seasonal local produce.” At the end of a long day that began in the Cortona marketplace and continued with a cooking class (see box) Silvia served us a sixcourse meal, a kosher version of which she will be serving at the Hilton Tel Aviv throughout June.

OUR MEAL started off with marinated red mullet with passion fruit, hazelnut and beetroots, followed by beef tartar with Tuscan spices, melon and herbs, stuffed rings with duck on a bed of chickpea soup flavored with rosemary, tuna in a crust of aromatic herbs with green tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil, veal stuffed with a tapenade of black olives and orange zests, and for desert caramelized pineapple and rum ice cream.

All the courses were accompanied by wines produced on the Baracchi estate, which has 22 hectares of vineyards at an altitude of about 300 meters, producing some 100,000 bottles a year with a wide variety of grapes: Sangiovese, Syrah, Trebbiano, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia.

The jewel in the crown of the Baracchi wines was perhaps the Ardito, a heavy-bodied and fruity, intense red, with hints of vanilla and black pepper – which was served with the veal – produced from a mix of Syrah and Cabernet, harvested at different times of the year and aged for 20 months in oak barrels and then for a year in the bottle.

The menu at Il Falcionere, with its ultramodern presentation and technique, while sophisticated and delicious, does not immediately strike one as “Tuscan,” so sitting down in the drawing room the next day we ask Silvia what makes her cooking Tuscan and what characterizes Tuscan cuisine.

She explains that simplicity is central to Tuscan cuisine, which she describes as full of flavors, using lots of local produce and herbs and olive oil, much like what she expects to encounter in Israel. The South of Italy, she adds, uses much more spices, while the North, which borders France, Switzerland and Austria uses a lot of cheeses and butter.

As for what makes her cooking Tuscan, Silvia simply says that the use of regional products, local fish, beef, fruits and vegetables, and her background in traditional cuisine, make her a Tuscan cook.

As we prepare to leave Il Falcionere, Silvia poses with her falcon and her hunting dog.

Riccardo is a passionate hunter and in the winter Silvia loves to cook his catch of game such as woodcock and wild boar, “which eat all the best things.” Hunting is a pastime that, like most things in Tuscany it seems, is steeped in tradition. Like the falcon, for which the estate is named, Silvia Baracchi seeks to break free and soar to new heights.

The writer was a guest of Hilton hotels.

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