Return to nature at La Petraia, an organic farm in rural Italy where guests can stay in the lovingly restored farmhouse and dine on fresh ingredients…
The aroma of wild lavender eddies through the car as we turn onto the forest road outside Radda in Chianti. We’re following the innkeeper’s directions – such as they are – yet as each sharp turn brings the thrill of rowdier terrain we begin to wonder if this could possibly be the right route to the well-appointed lodge and its promised erudite dinner.
Just as our phone signals shrink to a terrifying trickle, we see a manicured courtyard occupied by a mildly curious canine and her two-legged companion, Michael Grant, who swings open a pair of iron gates in welcome to La Petraia.
For Italian gourmands this sort of circuitous drive down an unpaved ‘white road’ is part of the anticipatory run-up to an epicurean meal at a countryside agriturismo (the meeting ground of agriculture and tourism). But to us, encountering early medieval farm buildings restored with handcrafted 18th century furnishings so deep in the woods is as astounding as stumbling upon the five-star Four Seasons Tented Camp in a remote comer of Thailand.
At La Petraia, Michael and his wife, the successful software entrepreneur turned chef, Susan McKenna Grant, celebrate this isolation by raising nearly everything on the dinner table in surrounding fields.
The Grants go further than creating a kitchen garden of fennel and cardoons, beyond olive trees and beehives oozing herb-flavoured honey.
Susan and Michael, a film producer turned hedge fund manager, are also taking on the demanding task of raising heirloom livestock.
“The hardest part is actually making them taste good,” asserts Susan, who after training at Le Cordon Bleu, Alain Ducasse and Len6tre in Paris is devoted to recovering the fundamental flavour of every ingredient in her farmstead larder.
If many chefs bake bread, Susan mills her own flour to extract the rye’s explosively sour tang. There’s an extravagance to this kind of ‘field to table’ cuisine that trumps even the priciest urban haunts, she maintains.
“At harvest time I can use a case of tomatoes for just a few servings of consomm6 and pick borage flowers seconds before they go on the plate,” Susan marvels. “That’s something you rarely see outside Michelin 3 star restaurants because they cost a fortune and have absolutely no shelf life.”
“So much of what we’re doing doesn’t make economic sense,” adds Michael. “But each part is one spoke of a wheel: the grape vines, the agriturismo, the culinary interns. None could exist independently,” he confesses, “but all together the place is designed to sustain itself.”
Only a few establishments in the world are attempting accommodation and farm-based cuisine on this level note the Grants. “Our challenge,” Michael avows, “is to put the ‘culture’ back in ‘agriculture’.”
The Grants arrived here after high-pressure careers in Los Angeles and Toronto, looking for a place with a powerful architectural identity where they could live off the land. In the fall of 2000, after exploring rural comers of Canada, Southern France and California, they found themselves at the end of a three-kilometre dirt road in Tuscany. “This is where most people ask me to turn back,” the real estate agent told them when they were halfway there.
For the Grants, however, the barren meadows of this feudal estate with ravishing views of the Amo River Valley was just what they were seeking: “The soil was rich and full of hope,” recalls Susan, who was certain the high altitude and long abandoned meadows, free of late 20′ century pesticides, would be ideal for her organic farm.
“La Petraia was shameless and brazen in her seduction,” Susan declares. And so the Grants surrendered: moving in with a mattress and a light bulb to embark upon more than six years of restoration.
They began by rebuilding the flagstone piazzale, garden walls and terraces from the property’s own rock – La Petraia means “place of stone” – and hand forging the wrought iron gates. To be certain they were replanting authentic trees in their 55-hectare forest, the Grants commissioned an environmental study of the land and referenced Renaissance paintings.
Only then did they launch the most difficult task: raising old Tuscan breeds such as the gallo nero black rooster, symbol of Chianti wines, and the white-belted Cinta Senese pigs, now nearly extinct due to their costly habit of foraging for food.
Yet the expense and the heartbreak of raising these fragile animals have their rewards at the table. “Their diet of chestnuts and acorns makes the Cinta’s flesh so rich in the same oleic acid as olive oil, I call these pigs ‘olive trees on four legs’,” Susan laughs.
Transforming the centuries-old farm buildings into four stylish cottages was nearly as tricky. To preserve their true nature, the Grants tapped local Carrara marble carvers, weavers from the nearby Apennines for Merino wool blankets, and the linen artisans at Busatti, whose 19″ century carding machines and shuttle looms produce sheets so fine the Grants launder them in-house to avoid damage from commercial chemicals.
To presage their nascent vineyard, the Grants have installed a cellar under the floor of Gelso suite. “There’s a secret to getting it open; like a hidden staircase,” Michael advises as we gaze longingly at the rare bottles. “if you discover it, you can drink the wine.”
Finally, in spring 2007 the Grants opened La Petraia to guests, an odyssey Susan chronicles in her award-winning book, Piano Piano Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm, or in person if you catch her in a rare moment of repose before the fire over a Prosecco cordial flecked with homegrown blackberries.
Yet for all their forbearance in working through Italy’s near-Byzantine bureaucracy, the Grants have yet to garner La Petraia’s restaurant license.
So with characteristic ingenuity they’ve classified the inn as a ‘tasting house’ to display products from the farm. Of course to the Grants, this ‘sampling’ is a three-hour wine-besotted feast with dishes including an antipasto of Cinta Senese salumi and a pasta course of hand pressed lasagna embossed with herbs.
And how many ‘farm tastings’ offer a lemon and fennel sorbet palate cleanser before the smoky pheasant in Parmesan foam and duck breast with porcini and truffle honey?
The Grants have travelled a long road bringing La Petraia to life, a journey that has changed these two fast-track North Americans to the core. “We had to unlearn many things from our first careers,” admits Susan as she smacks a knob of bread dough down on the counter.
“In cooking, the most flavourful loaf comes from a cool, slow rise, which is really a metaphor for life here in Tuscany,” she observes.
“At home we would have approached this restoration by getting everything done right away in the most efficient manner. Here,” she smiles, “that’s impossible. People look a long way back before they take a step forward. The lesson of rural Tuscany is that you can also get the job done by going slowly, one step at a time.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Le Petraia is approximately three hours drive from Rome, for driving directions and more information: www.lapetraia.com
WHERE TO STAY
Prices at La Petraia 225 Euros per person per night with breakfast and dinner. You can choose from four different rooms: Gelso: Named for its proximity to the ancient gelsi or mulberry trees that once provided La Petraia with silk.
Forno: This two room suite has a private entrance and a small ‘stone terrace with an expansive view of La Petraia’s vineyards and Siena in the distance.
Piazza: This former laundry room has a Tom Dixon ‘S’ Chair, contemporary Contardi lighting and a claw-foot tub in the bathroom.
Lavanda: This room has the best view of Radda, the medieval village perched atop a wooded hill 10 kilometres away.
What You Can Also Do: Check out the rest of the country side and experience more of the wine fields in Tuscany by taking a wine tour of the region.
Susan also runs cooking classes that begin in the garden, orchards and barnyards, and leads forays through the 400 year old chestnut forest where the reveals the secrets of foraging succulent berries, herbs, salad greens and mushrooms.
Tel: +39 0577 738 582, www.lapetraia.com