So why Tuscany?
The better question would be, why the hell not? We love this area of Italy (both for pasta and the enormous steaks) and we had an early autumn invite that we couldn't resist.
Where did you stay?
We stayed in the Rennaisance Tuscany Il Ciocco, just a few minutes outside Barga. It's a large resort and spa that's embedded on one of the hilltops above Barga. And, due to its location, has one of the most jawdropping views of the valley. This is amped up further first thing in the morning when the valley floor below is covered in clouds - it's quite spectacular (you can see them clearing above).
The hotel also has a wonderful outside pool - again overlooking the valley. It is, however, not heated so this is mainly for summer season (alas, it had closed for winter the day before we arrived) but it does catch the sun for almost the entire day. And fear not, if you need to work off the food and drink you'll have here, there is a small heated indoor pool in the spa too.
If you're staying, the key rooms to book are the ones overlooking the valley. Yes, they are pricier but well worth it for that superb view in the morning.
And what's the food like?
There are a few options. The most prominent of these is the main restaurant La Veranda, which we think is strongest at lunchtimes - particularly if you can sit outside gazing at the valley. The dishes we had there were all excellent. Alternatively, you can have snacks and small plates in the lounge.
But the best option by far is taking matters into your own hands with the cookery school at La Salette.
Wait, so Le Salette means you make lunch yourself?
It's a lot more than that. The hotel's head chef, Alessandro drives you into the local town to buy ingredients, then brings you back to prepare them. Once that's done, the kitchen team put in the final effort to get everything on the table, while you can relax and enjoy the fruit of your efforts.
First off, you need to get the ingredients. For this, you have a couple of options - either head into nearby Barga or try the market at Castelnuovo Garfagnana. We think the former is the best idea (and it was recommended by Alessandro as having the best produce). You'll want to go into Barga at some point anyway, but this means you're brought into the town by a local, which is by far the best introduction to the town.
The shop he took us into that we particularly loved was Alimentari Caproni. This small shop has excellent ham and cheese (we took home some pecorino and aged Parmesan along with wonderful prosciutto - all vacuum packed) as well as one of the warmest welcomes we've had. Whether you're on the Le Salette course or not, we think a trip here is an absolute must.
Not only is this hillside town a beautiful spot to wander - make sure you look into the 12th-century cathedral - but Barga also has significant connections to Scotland, it's often referred to as "the most Scottish town in Italy".
So what exactly do you learn how to make?
Back at the hotel, we went straight to the kitchen at Le Salette to get everything ready. Alessandro took us through the ingredients that we purchased, outlined the lunch menu and then told us to get cracking.
Our particular session had us making fresh ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta to be served with a sage and butter sauce, tagliatelle to go with the fresh porcini Alessandro had bought down in Barga, and the Tuscan classic peasant soup ribollita made with cavolo nero that he'd also spotted at a grocer's in the town.
We've left this whole process feeling a lot more confident about our pasta making skills, for sure. And once that's all done, it was out to the terrace of Le Veranda, while the main kitchen's staff will cook everything up for you. Here are the final results - not bad even if we say so ourselves.
What about if we fancy heading out for dinner, what's nearby?
As we've mentioned, if you're staying at Il Ciocco, then a trip into Barga is a must. In addition to the (we feel) mandatory trip to Alimenteri, there are plenty of restaurants to try and it is a truly beautiful town.
We had dinner at Elisa bar and restaurant which, when we visited had only been open a few weeks. It's by former Brooklyn chef Elisa da Prato, who recently returned to the area, where her family originates from. And the move to Tuscany has brought with it a mix of influences - meshing together Brooklyn and Tuscany. Da Prato runs the venture with partner Arley Marks of NYC honey wine producer Enlightenment Wine. We'd definitely recommend a trip here for something unique in the area.
Also recommended is L'Osteria di Ricardo Negri - a lively trattoria which, on the night we popped by, had only just opened a brand new wine bar next door. So that could be worth starting your night out at.
Anything else nearby?
A must-visit is the nearby biodynamic vineyard of Podere Concori, about a 10-minute drive from the hotel, which organises tours. There you'll get a quick look around the boutique winery (which includes saying hello to Pietro the resident donkey which has its own Instagram account) followed by a short lunch paired with their wine.
The food is excellent - we loved the pasta with tomato and basil sauce from tomatoes grown on the vineyard alongside the vines - and the wine is pretty damned good too. We particularly enjoyed their Premier Cru, Vigna Piezza. If you want to order more than a bottle to put in your suitcase, they'll arrange delivery for you back to the UK.
Hot Dinners stayed as guests of Rennaisance Tuscany Il Ciocco.
More about Il Ciocco
Where is it? Via Giovanni Pascoli, 55051 Castelvecchio Pascoli LU, Italy
How much to stay? Rooms start at £250 a night.
How to get there? We travelled into Pisa airport (Ryanair, Easyjet and BA travel there) and from there it's about an hour by car to Il Ciocco.
Find out more: Visit their website.
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