I’m not sure if it’s the sunlight sliding through this tour or the overwhelming vibe that this house wasn’t built yesterday or the sheer uniqueness of this home, but I am hooked on it. I’ve lost many minutes zooming in on Raffaella’s kitchen shelves and dreaming of a nap in one of those beds. It looks like such a good life. You’ll see. Welcome, Raffaella!
Q: Please introduce us to your family!
A: Marco and I met during a night out with friends in Milan, and neither of us had the least idea that we’d be starting a family shortly after. We were both very busy with our jobs; he was working as an architect in Milan, and I was in TV and film production.
On a whim, he invited me to spend a weekend with him in Tuscany. Marco studied architecture in Florence and moved to Rome and Milan afterwards, but his family originates from Montalcino in the south of Siena. In fact, his mom says that their family’s presence in the Val d’Orcia can be traced back all the way into the early 15th century. We must be on the way to continue the family tradition since the prominent wine town in southern Tuscany is where we live now together with our two sons!
Dante is nine years old and thrives in the wilderness that surrounds our house. He is great at mushroom hunting in autumn, fishing at the Tuscan coast in summer, and manages to find huge bunches of wild asparagus in spring. He also loves looking after the chicken. Quite to the contrary of his brother. Indro just turned six and could easily live in a city. He doesn’t care too much about his surroundings as long as he has time to draw and paint, but most of all he loves lying on the sofa to meditate about who knows what.
Q: How did your house become your home?
A: I fell pregnant early on in our relationship, and knowing that our life was due to change we weighed up the options we ha: keeping our jobs in Milan or starting afresh in Tuscany? Unable to decide. we literally flipped a coin and have been living on this Tuscan hill ever since. To start with, we stayed in Marco’s grandmother’s apartment in Montalcino’s historic town center. One Sunday we went for a walk and came across our house tucked away in the forest. It felt like a page out of a fairy tale: overgrown and uninhabited for decades, it looked like hunters might have used it as a base from time to time. Asking around, we discovered that it was owned by family friends. Quite a bit younger back then and with little money but much more energy and enthusiasm, we decided to restore all of it by ourselves! I’ve learnt how to mix cement and what it means to put stone on stone, and above all how long everything takes with do-it-yourself! But in return, I think we managed to renovate it without overdoing it or scraping out its soul.
As usual with Tuscan farm houses, the lower floor had been used as a stable for centuries. These stables are beautiful open spaces, which are hard to come by in the living quarters of historic Tuscan countryside houses. The living spaces were traditionally situated on the first floor above the stables; shared by large or several families they had to be divided into smaller rooms with each new generation.
Once renovated, Marco used the ex-stable as his studio. However, with the family growing we decided to turn it into our living room, whilst Marco returned to Nonna’s flat in town to install his Tuscan architect studio there. This also meant I finally got a bigger kitchen, which was truly needed for my new activity.
Q: What makes you love the place you live?
A: Val d’Orcia is known for its cypress lined hills and natural beauty. It is, in fact, a Unesco World Heritage site. But what I love so much about living here is simply what most people might treasure about living in the countryside, no matter where you are: having my own vegetable garden, being able to have breakfast with fresh eggs, or to fire up the old pizza oven to throw a party at our home without ever having to worry that we may disturb the neighbours – a fact our kids obviously take advantage of when they’re having friends over!
Q: You lived in the city before this. Compare and contrast the best and least-best parts of living in each.
A: A guest at our wedding said it looked like we were getting the best of both worlds. I didn’t hire a caterer, but cooked with the old ladies from Sant’Angelo in Colle, a gorgeous hill town close to Montalcino, for days before our wedding. There was every thinkable Tuscan starter, handmade pasta, and wild boar stew for a regiment on the buffet in the olive grove, but also a DJ from Milan and American friends who had put up the most amazing cocktail bar.
Of course, one good party won’t get you through the rest of the year. And whilst I’m very happy to raise my kids in the countryside, there were also things that became more complicated when moving to the Italian outback. Marco had quite a smooth transition as an architect; he nowadays restores Tuscan villas and farmhouses, and is happy to design wineries or swimming pools instead of office buildings. But I had to find a new career for myself and felt rather disoriented with having lost my professional identity. I’m happy we did it and love what I created during the last years, but it hasn’t always been easy.
Q: Are there new traditions for your family now that you’ve moved to the countryside?
A: The biggest change is, no doubt, Sunday lunch. Whilst our single lives in the city just included a strong coffee in the late morning or maybe a very late brunch, family life means we’re at last back to the traditional Italian Sunday lunch.
It doesn’t just have to be the four of us. Often, friends or family will be joining the table, which was another reason why we moved the living room downstairs. I wanted to have enough space for people to pop in and stay on, be it friends visiting from Milan and abroad, new acquaintances from the village, or our children’s buddies.
When I don’t have much time a plate of spaghetti, some fresh greens, and a glass of wine will do. But whenever I can, I love to prepare a proper four course meal as any Italian Nonna would: antipasti, primo, secondo, and obviously a dolce to finish off. Although we’re all in need of a digestive walk through the woods afterwards!
Q: You love to cook and have made a gorgeous business from this love! Tell us all about it!
A: I’ve always loved to cook. In fact, at some point my mom had to ask me to give it a break, since all the elaborate recipes I was trying out were overtaxing the family budget! Later on, I spent my free days cooking in Milan and loved hosting diners for friends and friends of friends, but I would never have dreamed of turning my passion for Italian food into a proper job.
It really only was when sitting in Montalcino with two small kids and realizing that TV production wasn’t an option in Val d’Orcia that I started to consider it. The rest kind of just happened; friends started to ask me to cater for birthdays or celebrations, then came the harvest lunches in wineries, and one day a small group of American tourists was referred to me for a Tuscan cooking class.
Once I got my head around it and got over the first panic attacks, I realized that I’d be able to bring together all the things I love most. Italy’s regional cooking is endlessly varied, and much of it depends on the raw ingredients, which – be it cheese, meat or vegetables – have to be fresh and of prime quality. Finding and visiting the producers in Val d’Orcia and Tuscany is one of the most exciting parts. Last but not least, there is the Tuscan wine. Marco’s grandfather was one of the first in Montalcino to produce the town’s famous Brunello wine, and so there will be no cooking class without a glass of it!
Q: How do you balance your cooking classes and catering with feeding your own family?
A: I really don’t want to impose my passions on my kids, but no doubt what I do influences them. Both our sons love to lend a hand in the kitchen, and sometimes even prepare a meal on their own. Obviously, making pizza and preparing fresh pasta are favourites, which are always fun for kids and adults alike.
One of the biggest surprises I had was how much fun cooking lessons can be for teenagers. When whole families book the classes, the iPhone addicted 15- and 16-year olds turn out to be less afraid to get their hands into the pasta dough than their much more kitchen smart parents. I hope this will hold true once my kids are of that age!
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What has surprised you the most about being a mom?
A: Maybe the incredible love for them…unconditional even when they drive you crazy? And realizing that there is part of me in them still manages to surprise me.
Q: If they could remember just one memory from this childhood home more than any other – and you as their mom – what do you hope it would be?
A: The freedom to move, to explore, to be out in nature without having an adult supervisor around all the time, which is what I cherish most from my childhood even though I grew up in a much more suburban area in northern Italy.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: That there is light after the tunnel. Okay, I’m being sarcastic, but you know what I mean.
Life gets more complicated and intense and, at times, rather challenging with kids. But it’s not like I would have quite gotten it if somebody had told me in advance. Some things have to be experienced to be understood. At least in my case.
It’s a bit like trying out a new recipe. Cookbooks are great guides, but you have to get your hands dirty to properly figure it out.
Thank you, Raffaella! Your words and sun-streaked photos brought on such a calm in my office, and there are parts of your home that remind me of our life in France. All that to say, this tour put me in a happy place!
I really love how Raffaella described the early days of her business: “Once I got my head around it and got over the first panic attacks…” It’s reassuring that we all feel like that before jumping into a new endeavor. Anyone having one right now? If so, here are some words for you: You can do it! Go get your hands dirty!