“We have many sensibilities for interpreting nature, and we must first listen and understand its wants and needs. Nature rules.” I watch Maurizio’s deep blue eyes alight at something in the distance as he speaks about Casamora, his mouth always slightly curved upwards, his expression therefore always delighted by his profound thoughts, and I am always delighted to hear them. To spend three minutes with Maurizio and Matilde, the husband and wife team behind the exquisite Fattoria Casamora in Tuscany’s Valdarno, is to know, admire, and adore them. The couple are innate creators; she with fabrics and he with architecture, but they allow nature to lead the way on their property, half luxury ‘agriturismo’ and half olive oil mill.
Nature indeed reigns supreme throughout the property; Maurizio has designed a sustainable stone compound with a balance of Tuscan charm and modern, clean lines. The library and theater wouldn’t be out of place at an ivy league university campus, and indeed there is a feint ‘studious’ ambiance, with the endless books throughout the property, the awards for Casamora’s renowned oil, and sketches and mock-ups of Maurizio’s past architecture projects.
The oil is a life project in itself; Maurizio has studied how nature affects the olive trees and thus his award winning oil, as well as the orto where they grow all of the produce for the property. There is a divine sense of remoteness here, yet the property is a terribly convenient 40 minute drive from Florence, and centrally located for drives to Cortona, Arezzo, and even as far south as Siena. We can describe the pool and the cooking all the live long day, but certainly it is not possible to transcend the sensations that one feels when walking around the cobble stones, admiring the light that hits the yellowed house with its ancient patina, the sound of Michelangelo trotting into the dinner room towards the end of dessert, only to find his spot on Maurizio’s lap just in time to lick the gelato bowl.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been a hot topic for years. Many of us unknowingly purchase low quality olive oil that is labeled to be Tuscan or otherwise Italian but actually helms from Tunisia. The origin of the olives is the most important; one can have a Tuscan mill but the olives can travel from Puglia or Africa. Having one’s own private oil mill is also of great importance. At a private mill, the olives can be picked and immediately be put through the system with the utmost control. Maurizio takes us on a tour of the Fattoria Casamora olive mill which he designed himself. His passion and joy for each step of the process leaves us all in a state of fascination. We edge closer to him with every word, as if he is a riveting movie and we are at the edge of our seats. “You can be a dreamer and you can have imagination,” Maurizio says, separating the two in his hands. “As an architect, I need imagination. With this, I can realize my projects.”
The olive mill originally belonged to his father. When he passed, Maurizio took over the business at the ripe age of 53. The thought of being in charge of a product that goes into someone’s mouth was not taken lightly; he felt obligated to go back to school and to study every last detail of the science of olive oil and its production.
Maurizio is an architect with oil as well. He has crafted three varieties which we taste slowly in a room that seems to be set up for school lessons. Indeed Maurizio teaches at the university in Rome; can you imagine this man as your professor? I wouldn’t dare miss a lesson. He refuses to accept payment for his lessons, however, as it is his joy to spread passion and knowledge about his craft. ‘For an artist, Rome is the best. To shape an artist, there is no place better than Rome. The Roman soul is big. You want to learn art; you want to improve your skill. Go to Rome,’ Maurizio tells us.
The kitchen is as good a place as any to begin the discovery of Casamora. Our small group is here to ‘watch’ and ‘do’ with the aid and instruction of one of the country’s most talented chefs, Stefania Barzini and her catering partner and sister-in-law, Paola. One of the founders of Gambero Rosso, ‘Stefi,’ as Paola calls her, has done everything from television and books to events at cultural institutes and even her own culinary school.
Local ricotta, pecorino, and sage leaves bigger than my palm meld to her recipes within moments. Our little group feels quite humble in her presence, although immediately upon meeting this incredibly warm-hearted, energetic half-Roman, half-Sicilian, we feel relaxed and ready to roll. Stefania’s passion is contagious, and her knowledge base is endless. We shoot off question after question about various recipes and regional cuisine, and Stefania replies with patience, vigor, and enthusiasm. Our group is the first of many cooking workshops that Stefania will hold at Fattoria Casamora. Certainly participants will have the opportunity to work with one of Casamora’s incredible products: the zolfini bean. This creamy, delicate white bean grows on the property and actually has an association devoted to its preservation, as well as support from the Slow Food movement. Just like Parmigiano Reggiano, it can only be grown in certain zones.
Beyond Stefania’s workshops, the cooking at Casamora is as marvelous, or perhaps more-so, than any upscale restaurant one might find in a city center or Relais & Chateaux property. A feeling of being at home is constant, for no matter how elegant the service and the plating, Maurizio and Matilde are the most friendly and relaxed hosts that one could wish for. Their home is your home; there’s more divine calamaretti served in a tomato and fish sauce if you want seconds and thirds, and don’t be shy about their Casamora vin santo, light as air and as easily digestible as tisane.
One afternoon we sit down to an English countryside fairytale picnic in the shade. Wide, short pasta with pistachio and basil pesto is waiting for us on the metal tables set with the property’s fabulously rustic-chic linens. I devour mine in moments; Maurizio has only just finished serving the wine. He likes to be on his feet, in constant motion, taking part in each moment and doting on everyone, making each person laugh and smile and create beautiful memories.
After the picnic, Michelangelo is pooped from all of the excitement and has found a resting position with one eye on Maurizio and one eye on the leftover figs sitting on their bellies. I watch the thick cascades of wild flowers become tipsy in the breeze as Maurizio philosophizes about nature for an hour or two more, telling me also about the Casamora honey which I cannot help but over-indulge in at breakfast. Before I know it, it is early evening and I have to change for our next cooking lesson.
One evening before dinner, I find him in the outstanding theater listening to Bach. He explains that Bach’s metrics are like caffeine to him while working. “Energy. Curiosity. Passion. These things are possible to spread. You need to be near someone with these characteristics. You need to be near someone with energy and the want to know things. In life and in work. Then you will be energized. Then you will want to know things. Life is like this,” says Maurizio, blue eyes gazing into the distance, then finding mine. He places his hand on my wrist. “Andiamo.” We go down to dinner, Bach marking our every step.
It is bittersweet to leave this magical property and this exceptionally talented and loving family. Casamora is a property to be cherished, to be held deeply, and to be experienced con calma. Grazie tanto to Maurizio, Matilde, and Michelangelo for such a wonderful week in Tuscany. Grazie tanto to Stefania and Paola for feeding us so well. For those lucky enough to experience Stefania’s cooking workshops at Casamora, call me when lunch is ready. I’ll be waiting under the ancient weeping willows in the garden.
Folle Casseroula: Stefania Barzini’s Cooking School