This post my second part in a series on slow travel in Tuscany. I was very fortunate to travel in this style with the amazing team behind Km Zero Tours, where anyone can experience slow travel. In this article I will share our experience chasing Maremmane cows in the forest. For more articles see the links at the end of this post.
Slow travel in Tuscany and Slow food in Tenuta di Paganico
Tenuta di Paganico is a large country farm in the Maremma region of Tuscany, near the 13th century Medieval town of Paganico. It encompasses 1,500 hectares of land, with 400 hectares of farm land and the rest covered with wild forests. The farm breeds saddleback pigs, the black wild pigs that roam freely and have a white stripe on their backs, and three breeds of cows, Maremmana, Limousine and Ciannina, all of which are local to the Tuscan region. Seeing the cows in the wild of the forests was the reason why we were coming to Tenuta di Paganico. And to taste their wonderful meats, something that one misses very much in Singapore.
Maria Novella took over Tenuta di Paganico in 1999 because she decided that she wanted to come back home from Florence, and retake the farm her family owned. She was born and raised in Florence and studied at the American school. When she graduated, she started working in HR but her job was not fulfilling. One day she realised that she wanted to get back to the land. “Mental freedom”, she tells us, is the most important value she now enjoys.
Her parents owned the land, but were not farming, instead selling the farm piece by piece. When she arrived there was no clear view of the future for the property. The carer was very old and he was had some very old Maremmane cows and some Chianina whose meat was being sold to the large supermarket chain for practically no money. There was no sign of the model being sustainable. She followed her instinct and decided to go organic and the farm is certified since 2002.
The decision was taken in an optimistic time, but Maria Novella confessed that the organic certification is not as strict as she expected. The controls in place to ensure organic certification are based on documentation but there is no check on what is really done so farmers could do anyway. In recent times, the organic institutions have reintroduced some chemical treatments used to fight worms and other plagues which are very bad for the land. Maria Novella believes not only in being organic, but also sustainable. Tenuta di Paganico is managed in a way that the environment and the eco-system is enriched and improved with time not depleted of its wealth.
Interestingly enough, Maria Novella is vegetarian herself, she was already before she decided to return to the land. From the very beginning, she wanted the farm to be a closed and self-sustainable eco-system that could feed the animals from the grass and grains produced by the land without having to feed the animals with any processed food. Tenuta di Paganico’s animals feed on what they find and grace during the spring time. When the grass is too dry for the animals to graze, their diet is supplemented by the hay and grain that the arable land inside the property produces. This puts a limit on the number of animals that can be fed as three quarters of the land is covered by forests and cannot produce any food for the animals
Maria Novella believes that in order to ensure the happiness and wellness of the animals they need to eat well. The size of the property therefore limits the number of animals to only 150. If she wanted to have more, she would have to start sourcing food for them. Keeping the numbers small also means that she can make sure that her animals are healthy and have no diseases. When she tried to bring in animals from other farms she realised that many of the animals were bred for their meat and not to roam freely in the forest. This caused some of the bulls not being able to jump on the cows to reproduce or for the pigs to run around looking for food. Chianina cows were originally bred for working in the fields, to pull carts, therefore they wanted animals that were strong at the front and skinny at the back, but when you want meat, the expensive cuts are on the back. These animals bred for working were not only not good for their meat but also had terrible problems to walk because their back parts were not strong enough. Most of the cows that are bred to live in a closed space had no horns but if they live in the countryside, the horns help them navigate the forests.
The Maremmana and Chianina cows and the Cinta Senese pigs
Maremmane cows were endemic and were therefore well adapted to the terrain. Their horns helped them walk through the thick bush, they were used to the environment and could perfectly survive the winter weather and the nature. They could easily live outside, free range, and survive the wetlands that used to cover the Maremma region. Chianina will be familiar to many as the main meat for the Florentine steak but were historically working animals. Understanding the environment and what naturally fit in it was key for Maria Novella.
Aside from the cows, Cinta Senese pigs also roam the property. They are black, with a characteristic white stripe on their backs, and they are as cute as they are adorable. They hard large ears, which fall in front of their eyes not allowing them to see, and funny faces that make strange noises.
A generational gap and a renewed interest in Slow travel
Maria Novella talked to us about a generational gap. People her parent’s age slowly departed the land. Opportunities were in the city and so they chased them. This gap was a recurrent situation we saw across all the producers we met in our time enjoying Slow Travel in Tuscany. Most farmers are good at one part only but it is very hard for them to make a living in the agricultural world and understand all the documentation and bureaucracy that is required around agricultural businesses. Historically, people were born in the countryside, they were born in the job and never questioned it.
Thanks to the success of the Tuscan region as a tourism destination there is a renewed interested in preserving the land and that is giving opportunities to those who want, to come back and leverage the new tourism numbers to get back to the hills of postcards. Today, the younger generations are returning because they have experienced what good food tastes like and are curious to understand where and how things were done. Being a farmer is however, a 360 integrated way of life, you have to think about everything and this is what Maria Novella has tried to do from the beginning.
To capitalise on that opportunity and contribute to preserving the farmhouse and the buildings, Maria Novella also opened a small Agriturismo business where visitors interested in slow travel in Tuscany can rent comfortable rooms and also have a real farm experience.
Montecucco wine, beyond cows and pigs
Tenuta di Paganico also makes wine, olive oil and other products from what is available in the fields, from lavender essence to jams. Tenuta di Paganico is in the wine region of Montecucco, a new wine region created in 1998 when the local grape growers realised that most of their grapes were being used to produce the very expensive Brunello di Montalcino whereas they were getting nothing. The name of the DOC came from a farm that was at the top of the hill. Maremma area is home to many endemic varieties of fruit, animals and plants and Montecucco wines often contain Ciliegiolo, a very unique type of grape not found elsewhere.
The olive oil was also excellent, as it had been everywhere else in Tuscany, and we enjoyed it once again with the usual bland Tuscan bread.
Chasing Maremmana cows
We arrived at Tenuta di Paganico ready to look for the Maremmane and Chianina cows. However, the night before our visit, ten calves had decided to leave their enclosure and Filippo, the main animal carer, had to go out to look for them. Filippo knows the territory better than anyone but as the cows are free range, they can often be hard to find.
We jumped on the cars and drove to a farm building a bit farther into the property. There, we left the car and jumped on Barbara’s van to head into the wild. Normally, we would have done this with Filippo, in his 4×4 Jeep, but he was using it to look for the calves. Driving through the forest had been described by Arianna as a Jurassic park experience. We would be going up and down in the rough path crossing thick forestry and overgrown vegetation. She was not very far from reality, but when the minivan couldn’t drive anymore on the muddy terrain, we parked and continued on foot.
I was unfortunately not prepared for the muddy walk but it was funny to try to find a drier path to walk in. The forest smelled of wet moss and nature, the rays of sun occasionally creeping through the foliage and the shinning on the rain drops. It was beautiful to walk and be in synch with nature while we listened to Barbara’s stories and commentary.
But we were not lucky on our endeavor. Despite Barbara’s Sherlock abilities, we didn’t manage to find the cows anywhere where they could be properly watched. At one point, when we were already losing hope of sighting this magnificent animal, as if n a safari looking for the elusive leopard, we finally saw them, far in the distance, among the tall trees and the green buses, but they were quickly walking away from us, as if they wanted to hide from my powerful zoom lens. Even without the cows, the walk in the forest was still beautiful.
Back at the farm, we were luckier with the pigs. Friendly, funny and cute, the Cinta Senese pigs came running when Barbara called their names, as if she had called a dog. From the distance, laying on the green fields, they stood up and run uphill to where we were standing, by the fence. She told us they were probably expecting to be fed, but they were equally happy to get some tree branches as a snack and sniff our hands through the large hols on the fence. They were adorable, pretty clean smelling pigs.
Feasting on the produce from Tenuta di Paganico
Our tour of the forest, trying hunting for the very shy cows, helped us grow an appetite which was satiated by the amazing creations from Mirelle, the chef, who used only what is in season to create her amazing dishes. Mirelle has always cooked with what was in seasons. In the country, people only buy what they can find in the market which used to sell what was grown in the surrounding fields. Importing ingredients or using food that was not in season was unthinkable.
Lunch consisted of local meats from the farm and incredible pasta. Pepper, artichoke and liver pate crostini kicked off the feast. The cold cuts included pork belly with rosemary, seasoned, salted and cured for three months. There were also three different cold cuts, some cooked, some cured and some raw. All parts of the pig were on display. Some of the cold cuts were fermented too. The seasoning is what made them taste great. I will admit that, at first, although I am a meat eater and also grew up in a cured meat world, some of the parts of the animal that were in the meats were not my preference. I tried them and was surprised at how great they tasted.
The cold cuts were followed by a cheese board including three types of cheese accompanied by home made jams. Pasta made an appearance as a main. We had tortelo Maremmani filled with wild herbs resembling spinach that had been hand-picked from the garden, organic cheese and hand made from organic flour. The tortelo were giant, therefore why they were called Maremmane, like the cows, and were covered in a delicious lamb ragou sauce. Mirelle made all the pasta by hand, without the use of any of the typical machines used to flatten the pasta.
Lunch was served with a selection of local wines, including the red I Bandi organi wine made at Tenuta di Paganico. And for dessert? You guesses it, strawberries, which were in season and were the common ending to a meal we indulged on in our slow travel in Tuscany trip.