There are lessons to be learned about simplicity, wholesomeness, and sharing with friends. We glimpsed a few in the Tuscan countryside.
About 7 years ago, my wife and I had the chance to visit Italy and to tour the Tuscan countryside. It was an experience we’ll never forget. Our trip came about in part because a few years earlier we had hosted a young Italian foreign exchange student. That experience proved to be one of the most enjoyable, eye-opening, and heartwarming events in our lives. And, it was our good fortune to be able to again see Giacomo, the young man we once hosted, when we visited his native Scansano province. We also got to meet and stay with his parents, who in addition to other endeavors, manage a small agriturismo. (An agriturismo is a kind of an “out in the country bed and breakfast” where harried city dwellers can retreat to reconnect with traditions and culture the Italians and other Europeans tend to cherish and preserve more than Americans.)
During our Tuscan stay, we were not only welcomed as family, treated like royalty, and afforded unbelievable hospitality, but we also learned some very valuable lessons about the truly finer things in life. I vividly recall arriving at our destination quite a bit later than expected because we had initially taken the wrong route out of Rome. We were tired and very hungry, but because of the late hour we did not expect the welcome we received. To say that our hosts put out a spread fit for a king or queen would be an understatement. We, talked, reminisced, and boy, did we eat! We knew from the outset we were in for a special experience.
Now, I love to cook almost as much as I like to eat. So, I’m always taking mental notes when a new dish is particularly enjoyable. And I remember very well our first appetizer, which was something new to me then, although I’ve enjoyed it many times since as it has become very popular almost everywhere. It was a bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes and fresh herbs. One could argue that it tasted so good because we were so road-weary and hungry. But the truth is more profound than that.
One of the greatest lessons we learned in life came from the land itself and the people we met in Tuscany. A simple walk among olive groves can be exhilarating. Strolling on centuries-old stone pavements can help ground and connect you to the bigger realities of life. And biting into a simple but perfectly toasted piece of bread, rubbed with fresh garlic, and topped with various vegetables can be a most heavenly experience. The key is not the sophistication of the recipe. It’s the simplicity of it all combined with the care of preparation. Tomatoes really aren’t just for pureeing into a sauce to help complete a good pizza pie. When they’re fresh and just the right ripeness, they can explode in your mouth with incomparable flavor all on their own. Natural, sweet, simple — and yes, immensely satisfying.
A few days ago, I was walking through our downtown farmer’s market. I spied a hefty, perfectly ripe but still firm tomato. I harvested some sweet basil, oregano, and rosemary from my herb garden. My wife grilled slices of bread she’d bought from an old world bakery just outside town and rubbed it with some of our own garlic. We feasted not once but twice. Our first feast was the incomparable enjoyment of the simple but genuine delicacy we first discovered in Tuscany. Our second feast was on the memories we retain of our wonderful trip — the people we met, the experiences we shared, and the lessons we learned from the land. I hope we always remember them: prepare the things you want to experience with care; be sure the ingredients are fresh and ready for use; treasure the simple and timeless; savor the natural flavors of life; and above all, be sure to share them with friends.