A visit to Castello del Nero in Tuscany is to relearn everything you thought you knew about Italian food. You never have spaghetti with a ragu Bolognese: it is always served with tagliatelle. You definitely do NOT put garlic in that ragu sauce, only onions; and amaretto, or alcohol of any kind, has no place in a tiramisu.
Tuscans are so serious about food and wine that it feels on a par with their respect for religious figures and great artists, and at Castello del Nero, a 12th century castle-turned-hotel in the heart of the Chianti region, you can feast like a queen while learning about why they love the products of their land so much.
Eat, drink, pray
“Eating, drinking and praying,” is one of general manager Fabio’s mantras, and he calls the Castello’s wine cellar his ‘chapel’, where we spend an hour on our first night. (The Castello also has its own real chapel, built for the Del Nero family in the late 1700s, and services are still held there.) The wine cellar is made up of two brick and stone rooms lined with 800 bottles from Tuscany and beyond, and the hotel runs various tasting sessions.
Most of the wine here is made from the red Sangiovese grape, including a fruity and delicious Tignanello 2012 from Antinori, one of the first ‘super Tuscan’ producers, and a smoother Chianti Classico, from Castello di Ama, about half an hour away. You can also sip grassy-smelling extra virgin olive oil directly from the glass, apparently the best way to get its full flavour.
After a hearty dinner at the hotel’s rustic La Taverna restaurant, topped off by a perfectly crumbly torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake) we roll to our rooms. All have terracotta floors (those on the ground and first floors are the original cotto tiles) and mine has high beamed ceilings yet still manages to feel cosy.
The next morning, after breakfast at La Torre restaurant overlooking the hotel’s sun terrace and the olive groves beyond, we head out to meet Giulio the truffle hunter and his dog Edd, at nearby Badia a Passignano, a stunning monastery. Giulio puts his finger to his lips as we follow behind him into the surrounding woods so Edd can concentrate on sniffing out the delicate fungus at the bottom of the trees.
It’s a business that requires dedication: dogs are trained for two years to search for the fungus, and Giulio says he then spent more than a year trying to find his first truffle.
But it’s worth it because the black autumn truffles found in the Tuscan woods go for around €800/kg. Edd finds five or six, and we eat them shaved over pasta at Ristoro L’Antica Scuderia opposite the monastery.
Our gastronomic education isn’t over for the day: dinner that night is at the Castello’s La Torre fine dining restaurant, managed by Michelin-starred chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro. We eat scallops with a citrus and honey emulsion, foie gras risotto, roast turbot with porcini mushrooms and a ‘seduction’ dessert of white chocolate and hazelnut sauce.
The next day we get down to the serious business of pasta-making. My experience with pasta is largely one of not having anything else in the cupboard to eat, but I keep this to myself as I watch chef Di Pirro make dough from flour, eggs, olive oil and salt, whisking them together with a fork on a marble table-top.
This looks like the fun part, and I want to have a go myself, but we do get to put the pasta through a machine to roll it out and then cut it into strips of (very uneven, in my case) tagilatelle, then cut out circles to make ravioli and tortellini.
The chef also show us how to make tiramisu (no cream or alcohol – only mascarpone cheese, eggs and sugar make up the creamy part of the dish) as well as ragu Bolognese, and we get a cookery certificate and recipes to take away. Finally, we sit down to eat it all at La Taverna, and it is delicious. It’s been an indulgent trip.
Three things we loved
1. The surrounding countryside. Castello del Nero has 300 hectares of olive groves and woods, and you can hike through them with spectacular views of the hotel. Maps are provided, and I went for a couple of morning runs along the tracks.
2. All 50 rooms and suites are different, and some have original frescoes. Mine was on the top floor in the former servants’ quarters and overlooked the 400 year-old Lebanon cedar tree at the front of the hotel.
3. Even though the Castello is very roomy and centuries-old, it still feels warm and friendly. The bar at La Taverna does an excellent Aperol Spritz and you can cosy up by the fire there in colder months.
High50 insider tips
• The village of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa is about a 20-minute walk down a quiet road, but you need a car to explore further afield. The hotel has a free shuttle bus to Florence and Siena, both around 30 minutes away, or you can hire the hotel’s own original Fiat 500.
• Castello del Nero has a lovely spa and I had a great ESPA facial. It’s pricey though, with treatments starting from €145 for 55 minutes. For something easier on the pocket, the hotel has a signature Tuscan salt and rosemary body exfoliation for €75, and express ESPA treatments are available from the same price.
• The cooking class is more of a demonstration, so if you do want to get more involved in making the food yourself, ask.
Lucy Handley was a guest of Castello del Nero. Superior rooms are available from €430 per night, including buffet breakfast. A two-night gourmand package including a cookery lesson, wine class and four-course dinner at La Torre restaurant is from €1980 including breakfast.
Lucy Handley is lifestyle editor at High50, responsible for life, love, business and money content. She reports on careers and culture. Twitter: @lucyhandley