Ciao Bella

I spent over a glorious month in the sunshine of aromatic Tuscany at an Olive and Wine Fattoria in Pontassieve last year. The little town is 15 minutes train ride from Firenze (Florence) had 3 Pizzerias, a Gelatoria and a population count of approximately 500 (or so it seemed).

I became a member of an Organisation which provides you with the names and contact details of all types of organic farms in Italy, and in exchange you offer your services in their fields for food and board.
Some of the farms are huge and rambling dotted with goats and sinewy olive trees, and others are built high on the steep hills of a vineyard, buried somewhere in the middle of Italy.

At first I was sceptical of just how things would work. Would I be stuck in a country with people I didn't know and couldn't speak to, herding goats for a month? Or would I be worked to the death by some Italian mob boss who owned a grape vineyard on the side? I decided to throw caution to the wind and booked my flight to Pisa, hoping that the romantic view of what could happen would be the one that did happen.
I was lucky enough to stay with a family of relatively bilingual wine farmers.
And just like their legendary hospitality they opened their arms to a disshevelled group of students and middle aged folk from all walks of life and from 6 different nationalities.
The average day was dependant on the weather. We started with picking the sweet white Sangiovese grapes, leaving two bunches per vine for the later harvest of Santo Vino. When we moved on to the dark red Caniolo grapes we encountered a bit of a hiccup. It was then that I witnessed my first full onItalian argument... Salvatore, said the grapes were not ready, that the wine expert was an idiot and Francesca should not listen to him. Francesca said the grapes were ready, and they could not waste our time, they needed to be picked and that Salvatore was being a stubborn old man! The wine expert just shrugged his shoulders and continued to eat his spaghetti. We picked the grapes three days later... They were still unripe.

I will never forget the 88 year old olive farmer known affectionately as Zucchini, who greeted us every morning with a torrent of Italian that only he understood. For most of my stay I gestured passionately with the odd word of Italian thrown in with my "Englitalian", and towards the end of my trip I could string sentences together like, Ciao Salvatore, dove vai? and "Basta!" when hanging on for dear life on the "tractoria".

Italy was definitely as romantic as I had pictured. The people were amazing the pasta was manifico, the scenery bellissima, but most of all despite the very hard work and being exhausted every day from trekking heavy red cassetti of grapes up a hill and barely recognisible from stings bites and scratches (they call them Tiger mosquitos for a reason!) it was an adventure of a lifetime.

Pasta. The bread and butter of the Italians:
Not surprisingly there are more than 600 shapes of regional sub-varieties of pasta in Italy alone. The origin of Pasta is sketchy. Originally thought to be brought back from China by Marco Polo, but eaten by Romans way before then. It was eaten mainly in Southern Italy or Sicily. To cut a very long story short, pasta is amazing. Its tasty, its good for you, and if they say "Grazie Mama, la pasta e bellissimo" then you have done a good job. Be like the Italians and eat a lot of it, making sure the sauces you don on top of it are made with lovely olive oil and fresh ingredients.

Butternut and Ricotta ravioli with fresh sage and Black Olive Tapenade. (feeds 4)

For the Tapenade
100 g de stoned black olives (Mission or Calamata)
15 ml capers
3 anchovies (the best you can get)
50 ml good extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
salt to taste

Blend above ingredients together and season to taste.
Spoon into a jar, and cover with a thin layer of Olive Oil.
Store in the fridge.

Butternut and Ricotta ravioli
400 g raw butternut, peeled.
150 g Ricotta cheese
* 5 whole cloves of garlic
7 small fresh sage leaves
Olive Oil.

Preheat the oven to 160°C.
Cut the butternut into 2cm peices. Place the peeled (whole) garlic cloves and the butternut onto a baking tray. Glug some olive oil over, and season with salt.

Cook in the oven for 45 minutes, making sure that it doesn't brown, as you don't want crispy bits in your ravioli.

*before you say to me, WHAT? 5 cloves of garlic, are you mad? Trust me, leave the cloves whole and you will be amazed at the end result. When they are cooked slowly and at a low temperature, they become soft and deliciously sweet. Taste a little peice when it is out of the oven, you will be convinced!*

Remove from the oven, and mash the garlic and butternut together. Add more salt to taste and add the finely sliced sage leaves. Add a splash of olive oil as well, and mix in the Ricotta, stirring well.
Leave to cool in the fridge.

For the pasta:
3 (extra large) eggs
300 g cake or bread flour
a pinch of salt

Sieve the flour onto a wooden table or surface. make a well, and into the centre, crack the eggs.
Mix from the inside out, until it starts to come together. It will resemble a sandy crumbly sort of dough. Dont panic if it doesnt look like its working. It is meant to be a firm dough, otherwise it will crack when it is stretched through the pasta machine.

Flour the pasta machine.
Flatten a quarter of the dough and pass through the machine in setting 1.
Repeat through settings 2 to 6. Rolling through 6 twice.
Place on floured surface an cut out equal amounts of circles with a circular cutter.
Place 1 to 2 teaspoons of filling (dependant on the size of the circle) in the middle of one circle. Dip a finger in water, and run it around the rim of the pasta. Stick another circle on top, sealing well.

To serve:
Cook the pasta for 5 to 7 mins in boiling salted water.
Gently heat some Olive Oil, and just before smoking hot, add 15 sage leaves. Fry for a few seconds until crispy.
Take off the heat and add some tapenade to the pan. Mix it around and spoon over the ravioli. Serve up and enjoy!


  1. Wow Lara...this could be in a magazine write so well!

  2. Thanks Erin :) Had a ball in Italy...