Cocktail hour begins in the garden. Not at some picture-postcard pergola on a manicured lawn (although there is one of those), but fully, shoes-in-the-dirt, in the garden. Francesco Rossi, the mixology master round these parts, is crouched down plucking herbs and flowers from bee-buzzed patches of plants that will soon garnish our aperitivi.
‘I’m lucky that I have all the ingredients right here,’ he says, gesturing at the blooming bushes of lavender, sage and rosemary that are punctuated by sun-bright clusters of calendula.
A head pops up from some nearby bushes. It’s the head housekeeper, Luz, cutting her own blooms and branches which she does daily in order to decorate guests’ rooms. ‘Take from the bottom of the bushes,’ she advises me, ‘that way it still grows strong.’
As well it might: this is the fertile Tuscan terra of Borgo Pignano, after all. And here everything begins in the garden.
Usually, upon entering Tuscany with so much as a pencil, you are duty-bound to describe its hills as ‘rolling’ and daily life as ‘rustic’. But these hills don’t simply ‘roll’; they ripple like a stone-struck pond – new peaks appear and disappear as the light shifts. On a good day here you can see the sea. And if ‘rustic’ is lazy shorthand for a relaxed, rural reliance on the land, then Borgo Pignano’s dedication deserves a term all of its own.
Luciano Lusardi, the estate’s CEO, drops by and offers his take: ‘We want to be – how do you say? – culturally connected. We don’t want to build anything new. We don’t want to alter spaces. We just want to restore what is already here…’
On these 750 acres (‘borgo’ actually means ‘village’ and the scattering of sandstone buildings still gives it the feel of one) there is a quiet commitment to doing things right. On arrival I’m welcomed at the historic main villa (the first official record of Pignano dates back to 1139) before my bags and I are dispatched to a quiet, cool, stone-hewn maisonette. Fresh fruit waits for me on the table, the bed is vast, the shower like a refreshing rain storm and there’s a kitchen area screaming out to be cast in the next Wes Anderson movie.
I’m led down to meet Barbara Cautillo, the resident riding instructor. ‘There’s no better way to explore the grounds’ she explains as she saddles up Mambo, a cocksure stallion keen to test my mostly forgotten riding skills.
As we ride out from the stables Barbara explains: ‘We get wild boar, foxes, the occasional wolf…’ but nothing seems to perturb Mambo who, at the sudden flap of a pheasant, just nonchalantly flicks spittle at me. But Barbara is right: there is no better way to explore these grounds. As we trot through scrubland, the scent of lavender fills the air, butterflies flutter around the bushes and, every so often, that tree-lined Tuscan panorama opens up in widescreen format in front of us. It somehow looks even better from atop a horse.
When we arrive at a particularly pleasing lookout point we meet Enzo. Now, Enzo – a man with a face worthy of a feature all by itself – knows these lands better than anyone: he’s been here for at least 70 years. What Enzo doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. Technically he’s head farmer and gamekeeper, but everyone just calls him Il Capo.
Enzo points at some neighbouring fields, visibly less green, and proudly explains Pignano’s 18-year history as fully biodynamic land. Put simply, chemicals are a no-no; everything is ‘totalmente naturale’. Solar panels provide 35 per cent of the power and there are plans for more. We make our way past some reed-filled reservoirs, a little less fragrant than the lavender fields. ‘All the brown waters come here,’ explains Enzo, ‘so those plants absorb everything in the water that’s bad. We are cleaning our water naturally, with those plants.’
The vegetable garden, when we reach it, is a little sparser than it usually would be at this time of year; spring has been late to bloom. But this doesn’t stop a smiling Enzo bending down, snapping an asparagus from the ground, taking a bite and giving me the thumbs up. He hands me one, and it’s as tasty a vegetable as I’ve ever eaten.
Enter Antonio Usan. ‘Toni’ is affectionately known as the bee whisperer. ‘They’re the most important guests here,’ he jokes. He’s right, of course: no bees, no agriculture. As such, most of the plants and flowers around are grown solely for them. That it produces such high-quality honey is a happy by-product.
After getting up close and personal with the bees, I join Toni in his lab to get the full experience, by which I mean watching him extract fresh honey while I get stuck into the results.
Being able to trace the origins of so many products here gives guests a much deeper connection to these inspiring Tuscan surrounds. For instance, I make sure I slather the next morning’s toast with the aforementioned honey and unashamedly return for thirds.
Not that the toast’s backstory gets neglected. After breakfast I join head herbalist (and de facto miller), Lisabetta Matteucci, to find out how the field-grown wheat is turned into flour. ‘The simplest processes are the best,’ she stresses as she talks me through milling, Pignano-style.
A straightforward stone grinding wheel crushes wheat kernels into fine, medium and coarse flours for different kitchen uses. This being Italy, we settle on a fine flour to be used that lunchtime for pizzas.
And, oh, what pizzas. At the alfresco kitchen – which sits peering out over a well-groomed lawn and a generously proportioned kids pool – the bases are hand-rolled from our just-milled flour. A cabal of chefs arrive armed with perfect looking passata, mozzarella di bufala, plump salsiccia, wafer thin prosciutto and an array of freshly harvested vegetables arranged in a basket worthy of a Caravaggio still life.
The assembled discs of delight are shuffled into the age-old pizza oven – ‘It’s been warming up for three days,’ points out head chef Vincenzo Martella – and three minutes later they’re served in all their aromatic glory, washed down with a buttery Tuscan white wine I’m still having daydreams about. How to attest to the quality of the flour? Well, I ate nigh-on three pizzas with not even a hint of post-prandial heaviness. It’s practically diet food.
‘In my menus – here or at the gastronomic restaurant – all the ingredients come from Tuscany. When you eat the dish, you have the smell of the terra; the taste of the terra…’ says Vincenzo.
Sated, I opt to spend my afternoon back with Lisabetta to learn about how else this generous land is used by the hotel. As you’d expect from the estate’s chief herbalist, her lab packs a heady floral punch. Bowls of malva, rose, lavender and marigold are laid out invitingly; we’re here to make some soap.
‘Nowadays, new plants can travel the world,’ she notes during my masterclass, ‘but it makes much more sense to use the plants we have around us, that we have been using for centuries, that our bodies are used to.’ There’s no new-agey hokum here; Lisabetta talks sense. She’s captivating company.
Soaps, shampoos, shower gels, hand creams – they all start life here. So what ingredient gets used the most? ‘Lavender is one of the main ones. We have half a hectare of it! You can smell it when you arrive.’
‘Not only is it much better to use the plants – in our farm we are eco-sustainable, so the plants themselves are extremely healthy.’
We wander over to the spa – a one-time well, now a rock-carved cavern of calm – to see how such ingredients are put to use in treatments. Spa manager Valentina demonstrates: ‘We mix everything in a pot to create a scrub with salt from [nearby town] Volterra, so everything is natural. Here, our line is to stay with nature – it is good for the body to smell the natural smells of Pignano. So sometimes I go and pick up herbs and cut flowers – rosemary, calendula etc – to use. And all our infusions are made entirely from products from Pignano.’
I opt for a cup of the rosemary-scented blend marked ‘Energy’ and it peps me right up. Lisabetta smiles and offers me a tip: ‘Take a bunch of rosemary, boil it in water, then take a bath and pour it in. You’ll be awake the whole night – no alcohol needed!’
But, with my stay drawing to a close, alcohol is needed. And Francesco is about to spring a mixologist’s surprise.
‘Some might have Sex on the Beach; we have Hanky Panky. And asparagus cream is key…’ I certainly didn’t expect those Enzo-picked stems to end up in my drink, but here we are.
‘Then we add rum infused with ginger and vanilla, some asparagus peel – the green part is less bitter than the white part. Decorate with some orange, a flower, some rosemary…’ The final touch is a whole asparagus tip: it’s like a garden greatest hits.
It’s delicious, of course – sweet, refreshing, herbal – and made with the freshest ingredients, with care and with passion. Like everything at Borgo Pignano, naturally.
Written and produced by Richard MacKichan
Photography by Louis Sheridan
Videography by Kelly Noecker
Additional videography by Chyna Powers