Trick-or-treating is over for another year, cotton cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns are out by the curb, the last few colorful leaves are tumbling out of the trees, and the clouds and rain have shrouded Seattle in gloom. At times like this, I'm glad to have some happy memories of past travels.
Last year at this time, I was getting ready to head to Tuscany for Thanksgiving with my wife's family. In case you missed it, I posted a series of blogs about the agriturismo we stayed at just outside of Pienza, and the many culturally enriching activities they arranged for us. To help get into the Thanksgiving spirit, here's a recap of our special Tuscan-American hybrid feast:
When I tell people I was in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, their first question is — with a note of concern — "Did you have turkey?"
Americans love Thanksgiving dinner. And many of us simply can’t fathom counting our blessings without an oversized portion of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Our agriturismo host, Isabella, understands this, so very early in the planning stages she reassured her nervous American guests: "And of course we will celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving meal — one with a Tuscan twist.” Well, phew!
In typically thoughtful fashion, Isabella had arranged a fantastic feast, which happened to be at one of my favorite restaurants in the region (Osteria La Porta, in the tiny hill town of Monticchiello). Months before, Isabella had conspired with the owner/chef, Daria, over a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And the gang at La Porta had come up with a delicious mashup of American and Tuscan.
The first two courses were the most Tuscan, but cleverly informed by "our" Thanksgiving ingredients: a delicate pumpkin soufflé, topped with creamy pecorino cheese and fresh-grated truffle. And a dish of pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, gently nestled in a subtle citrus cream. I would not mind seeing either of these dishes on my Thanksgiving table for many years to come.
Then it was time for the main event. They loaded all of the turkey onto a tray and ceremonially paraded it through the restaurant. Then they took it back into the kitchen and re-emerged with beautiful — and very traditional — plates of turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes (with, in a delicious Italian twist, a trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil).
They also brought out some fantastic gravy and surprisingly traditional cranberry sauce. Daria explained that she’d asked some American friends to ship her some cranberries, which are completely unknown in Italy.
Sitting around the dinner table, watching Isabella’s family, and my family, enjoying an American-Italian hybrid dinner, was poignant. But it made me sad to think that people might pass up an idyllic week in off-season Tuscany with their families, just because of a fear that they may not get their turkey fix.
Holiday traditions are powerful. But keep open the option of busting out of your rut every so often. Risk not having turkey at Thanksgiving. Spend Christmas at a radish festival in Oaxaca instead of singing carols around a fir tree. Skip trick-or-treating in order to be in Slovenia the day after Halloween, when everybody in the country goes to the cemetery to lovingly decorate their family graves. Instead of dozing off watching another Detroit Lions blowout, drive around the French Quarter of New Orleans, handing out Thanksgiving leftovers to homeless people. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience all of those things, and never regretted what I was "missing out on." If holidays are fundamentally about surrounding yourself with the people you care about, you can do that anywhere. Your traditions will always be there, back home, waiting for you…next year.
If you'd like some inspiration for experiencing Europe for the holidays — or anytime off-season — here's a recap of some of the other wonderful experiences we enjoyed:
We stayed a full week at Agriturismo Cretaiole, perched on a ridge just outside of Pienza and wonderfully run by Isabella and Carlo. Carlo's dad, Luciano, kept us well-lubricated with a nightly does of grappa and Vin Santo.
We experienced three entirely different — and equally enjoyable — cooking classes: preparing a blowout feast in an Italian mama's kitchen; shadowing a Michelin chef in his restaurant's kitchen; and rolling our own pasta at our very own agriturismo.
We explored Montepulciano — my favorite Tuscan hill town — with its colorful cast of craftsmen.
We followed a talented dog as she sniffed out truffles in a dense forest.
And, in general, we fully enjoyed being in the foodie paradise of Tuscany.
Finally, at the end of the week, we did a little "Black Friday" shopping in Tuscan hill towns, and enjoyed the first of Italy's holiday lights.
All in all, we found that off-season is a wonderful time to travel in Italy. (And just in the nick of time, the freshly updated new edition of Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany — including all of these places and more — just arrived in our Travel Store.) Come to think of it, the holidays are just around the corner...