I sit and write this column at 10:15 p.m. in a one thousand-year old converted barn while 14 weary Americans have just retired for the evening after a very long and full day of eating our way through the Tuscan countryside. It is quiet in Villa il Santo, but there is still an amazing energy in this room which is situated next to a one thousand-year old tower. The two are connected by a glass loggia that is only a decade or so old.
A couple of rolling hills, and two medieval towns away— but only a few miles as the magpie flies— my friend, business partner, and co-collaborator, Wyatt Waters is settling down in his villa with 11 Americans just as drained as the ones in my villa.
Today was the first full day of the Palate to Palette Tuscan Road Trip 2018. We started the day on a small family sheep farm where our friends Marco and Christina showed our guests how pecorino cheese is made. We left a multi-course cheese tasting and went immediately into the town of Tavernelle where our friend Paolo and his mother Giuliana served up a fine multi-course lunch, which included the best minestrone on the planet. After a tour with our friend Marina through the medieval town of San Gimignano, we took our guests to our favorite pizza place for the thinnest crust pizza I have ever tasted. No one picked the truffles off of the pizza this time, so we considered the entire day a huge success.
We have become accidental tour guides.
In my wildest dreams, it’s nothing I ever imagined myself doing. But, like most things in my life, it just happened. It is something that I feel very comfortable with. From an early age I have always enjoyed turning people on to people, places, food, music, and restaurants I have discovered. It’s why I have continued to write this weekly column for the past two decades.
Several years ago, I took a spiritual gifts test at my church. Actually, I’ve taken three such tests over the years. Each time the result was that I had the spiritual gift of “hospitality.” I didn’t even know hospitality would be included on a list of spiritual gifts.
Granted, hospitality doesn’t really rank high on most spiritual gifts’ lists— certainly nowhere near the gifts of exhortation, healing, miracles, prophecy, and service. But it does always remind me that I chose the correct career path when I was 19-years old.
This tour thing has been a blast for Waters and me, but as I stated earlier, we never planned on it. In 2011 he and I were in Italy for 10 weeks while working on our book, “An Italian Palate.” I wrote this weekly column from wherever we were in Italy during that stint, and Waters posted his paintings every day on his social medial platforms. In those 10 weeks, he finished an amazing 128 watercolors— a Herculean task considering that seven of those 70 days were travel days. It was his best work to date.
We were on the promotional tour for the book and people who had seen his social media posts, or had read this column began saying, “We would love to go to Italy with the two of you, and go and see all of those places you painted, and all of the restaurants you visited.”
At first, we thought it was just the small talk one makes while their book is being signed. But after hearing it over and over, I called the artist and said, “I think people really do want us to take them to Italy.” We made one Facebook post and filled the tour in one afternoon. The waiting list grew larger and so we added another week a few months later. Seven trips and 175 people later, here we sit. There are seven more trips on the schedule for the coming months.
The trips have been so productive for Waters, and so informative for me, that we have another Italian book in the works that we should finish before next fall. He’s completed over 100 new watercolors— with more to come— and I have spent time gather local, authentic Italian recipes that my staff and I will convert into recipes that can be easily replicated in the American kitchen. Again, the new book is nothing we planned, just another project that organically grew out of another project, that sprouted out of an earlier project, well you get the picture.
We cram two weeks’ worth of Italy into one week. It’s busy, but it’s a blast. When Waters and I started these tours, we knew a few things were certain— we knew that we would enjoy traveling through Italy again, we knew our guests would enjoy discovering all of the people, places, and dishes we had fallen in love with, but we never expected that we would make such good friends with the people who travelled with us. That has been a pleasant surprise. That has been the icing on the cake that have made these trips worthwhile.
Porcini Mushroom Soup
3 quarts Mushroom stock, heated
8 TB Unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup All-purpose flour
1/4 lb Dry porcini mushrooms (soaked and reserved from the mushroom stock recipe)
1/2 cup Shallots, minced
2 TB Brandy
2 TB Kosher salt, divided
1/2 TB Ground white pepper
1 TB Fresh thyme, chopped
2 TB Sherry vinegar
In a one-gallon stock pot, melt 4 TB of the butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and whisk constantly to combine thoroughly and prevent scorching, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the heated mushroom stock 1 cup at a time, combining thoroughly each time until all the stock has been added. Continue to heat this on medium-low, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced to 2 quarts.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 4 TB of butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and stir until softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, 1 TB salt, white pepper and thyme and continue cooking for 6 minutes. Deglaze with the brandy and continue stirring until brandy has cooked out completely, about 3-4 minutes.
Transfer this mixture to a food processor and pulse for 1-2 minutes. Return to the pot with the reduced stock and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Puree this mixture until smooth with a stick blender or in the food processor. Finish with remaining 1 TB salt and the sherry vinegar.
Yield: 1 gallon
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.