You’ll love the romantic châteaus, grand villas, and ravishing terrain. But the best reason to visit southern France and northern Italy is the heavenly food.
In Provence and Tuscany, agriculture looks different than it does in the United States, where, for the most part, sprawling industrial farms manufacture something called “ag.” The emphasis in Europe’s two culinary capitals—regional redoubts of la cuisine and la cucina—is definitely on the “culture.”
Whether you are admiring chanterelles the size of sunflowers in Aix-en-Provence or revering the radiant radicchio at an open-air market in Florence, the finery produced by regional farms sparkles like jewelry in rustic baskets and bins.
Food isn’t the only reason to go to Tuscany or Provence—or both—but it tops my personal list. I was on a Trafalgar tour peppered with culinary delights, including a cold pressing of olive oil under the Tuscan sun, a cooking lesson in a master chef ’s kitchen, and, of course, stops at the fabulous farmers’ markets.
Separated by several hundred miles and a shared hauteur about fashion and food, Provence and Tuscany actually have more in common than might first seem obvious. The similarities must have been notable to the governors of the Roman Empire who established Provence as the first provincia outside of what is now Italy in the 2nd century b.c. Today’s invaders often arrive from the north on France’s bullet train, which whisks you from Paris to Provence in about 2½ hours, shaving three hours off the time it takes to drive.
Regardless of how long it takes, France’s southeastern gateway to the Mediterranean is worth the trip. While Provence is blessed with a mostly moderate climate, its rocky soil prevents it from becoming the country’s agricultural engine. Instead, it produces small miracles such as apricots, artichokes, strawberries, and olives.
The area’s Luberon region made famous by author Peter Mayle with A Year in Provence remains a pure expression of life in the Provençal countryside. Its valleys are dotted with pines and its brawny shoulders—a geological wrinkle that rose in defiance of the Alps—get more sunshine than any other place in France. In this climate, many small, family-run vineyards thrive, such as Château la Dorgonne, where the stone farmhouse seems to be breathing sunlight.
After a barrel tasting of some jammy reds supervised by the winery’s owner, and a slow ramble through the vineyard led by his faithful yellow Labrador, our tour group departed the winery and made a short drive to the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque places in all of France. The town is built into a mountaintop, teetering above a sheer drop. Members of the French Resistance hid there during World War II, but resistance now to the magnificent views from Gordes is futile.
Aix marks the spot where much of the provender from the Provençal countryside comes to market. A morning stroll through almost any part of the town famous for its lively squares and chic boutiques excites the senses with a perfume of fresh flowers, bread, and fish.
From there we traveled to the Nice airport, then hopped over the Mediterranean to Tuscany, where Italian locals share the Provençal sense of life as a banquet. Since the Renaissance, Tuscany—and particularly its astonishing capital, Florence—has produced more than a few of history’s boldface names: Dante, Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Galileo, Vespucci, Puccini.
In preparation for a cook-it-yourself lunch designed to give visitors a sample of life in an authentic Tuscan kitchen, we were let loose in Florence’s bustling Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio with shopping lists that transformed the morning into a treasure hunt. Our assignment was to bring back chard (that wasn’t hard), cucumbers (we bought a number), and edible flowers (earning us showers of praise from the rest of the group).
In the Chianti hills above Florence, Ristorante I Tre Pini belongs to a boisterous chef, Libero, who allows tourists to cook their own meals under his operatic supervision. Some of our troupe made pasta dough from scratch, then turned that into ravioli, while others converted a huge pot of day-old soup into something red and fresh and utterly wonderful.
“Nothing goes to waste here,” said Libero, “and all of it tastes good.” After you finish slinging semolina for your supper, you may get a chance to sing for it, too. Tenor Roberto Ferraro, who has been singing and dancing at the restaurant for 20 years, does both between—and sometimes during—courses.
Tuscany is all about its hillsides, from which tumbles so much of what ends up on the table in local restaurants that tend to vibrate with an unrestrained sense of joy. Bathed in sienna and umber, with radiating groves of olive trees massing like troops on maneuvers, the Tuscan hills are best enjoyed between late August and early November, after the crowds have mostly gone and the olives are ready for harvest.
That’s when the pressing operation springs to life at the marvelous 15th-century villa at Fattoria di Maiano, which occupies 741 acres, making it the largest farm in the hills surrounding Florence. The charming owner, Count Francesco Miari Fulcis, lives in a castle at the top of the hill but can often be found ringing up bottles of extra-virgin olive oil in the gift shop or tending the livestock on the estate’s teaching farm.
“Since I was a little boy I knew that this was what I was destined to do,” the count says. “Working in agriculture is getting tougher, but my love for the earth is so deep that I face this challenge every single day with passion and determination.”
Organic olives from each of the estate’s 20,000 trees must be picked by hand in the late fall, and the olives are pressed within six hours to preserve the freshest flavors. The result is a beautifully rounded oil that can be tasted along with the family’s wine at Lo Spaccio, the villa’s restaurant, which features a lively larder of cured meats, tapenades, and homemade jams.
The view of Tuscany from the villa is a breathtaking survey of rolling countryside and Renaissance beauty—a panorama in which the only suggestion of “ag” is the sound made by a bleating goat. Aaaaag! Soon, however, she will busy herself with the production of a creamy Caprino, a chèvre like you nevre tasted. In Tuscany and Provence, even the goat has got culture.
Photography by Bon Appetit/Alamy (bread); Hans-Peter Siffert/Corbis (olives); courtesy of Chateau la Dorgonne (Gordes and grapes)
This article was first published in November 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.