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Tuscany: Traditional Rural Lifestyles

Tuscany, Italy

We visit a Tuscan farm that raises sheep (for pecorino cheese) and pigs (for prosciutto). The farmer tells us how he cures ham the old-fashioned way — a process that takes over two years and yields a mouthwatering product, best enjoyed with wine.

Complete Video Script

In Tuscany it’s still possible to find your own sleepy fortified village. While tourists pack the more famous places, little off-beat gems like this remain overlooked, and are great places for enjoying the traditional culture.

Hamlets like these originated as communities of farmers who banded together on easily defensible hilltops overlooking their farmland. With today’s tourism and relative affluence, it’s easy to forget the fact that, until the last generation, this region was quite poor.

Today, while the poverty’s gone, the traditions survive. Many rural families still preserve their own meats and enjoy firing up their wood-burning ovens on special occasions. And here in rural Tuscany, you feel an enthusiasm for tradition.

Gazing at these content sheep, you can almost taste the pecorino cheese — which seems to be a part of every meal.

At this farm, walls are stacked with rounds of pecorino, made from the unpasteurized — and therefore tastier — milk of the farm’s sheep. Making cheese this way is labor-intensive and takes lots of patience. But, for these folks, it’s well worth the trouble.

To be sure we get the most out of our visit, we’re joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Roberto Bechi. We’re visiting the noble farm of the Zanda family, where Nicola raises a couple hundred pigs. These pigs are a rare breed brought back from the edge of extinction by people who care about traditional agriculture…people who really love their ham. Now, like the pigs all eventually do, we move onto the prosciutto part of the farm.

Nicola artfully cures every part of the pig. The hind legs are destined to become fine prosciutto. He brushes on a coat of garlic and vinegar with a sprig of rosemary, sprinkles it with pepper, and finally cakes it in salt. Top-grade prosciutto is cured by hanging in a cool room for about a year. During the slow curing process, Nicola checks the progress employing a wooden needle and an expert nose.

And, like any proud farmer, he invites us into his home — not your everyday farmhouse — for a memorable taste.

Rick: From the farm to the table, with only a little bit of travel — 200 meters!
Nicola: 200 meters, but a lot of work.
Rick: A lot of work! How many months?
Nicola: About, uh…15 months.
Rick: And then the ham is waiting…?
Nicola: The ham is waiting about 12 months.
Rick: Oh, so more than two years.
Roberto: Yeah.
Rick: Nicola, three different meats. Can you give me a little tour?
Nicola: This is ham prosciutto; we have soppressata — it’s done with the heads of the pigs, and we have the salami here.
Rick: You like this?
Nicola: Oh, I love it.
Rick: This is from the head of the beautiful pigs I was just feeding…Is it good? You eat it, Nicola?
Nicola: It’s fantastic.
Rick: Yeah?
Roberto: Try it! Try it!
Nicola: It’s the best part.
Roberto: I think he likes it.
Rick: Yeah! It’s like “prosciutto for beginners,” and this is for the expert.
Roberto: For the expert.
Rick: The connoisseur.
Roberto: Perfect.
Rick: With some good wine.
Roberto: Always with good wine.

Nearby is the vecchio mulino — or old mill. While this swan thinks this pool’s made for him, it’s actually a reservoir used to power the mill.

This mill — with its ancient grindstones — has been producing flour for generations. Until the 1960s, neighboring farmers brought their grain here. While locals know stone-ground corn makes the tastiest polenta…

…mills like these are a tough fit in our fast-paced world.