My work in the wine business during the last 15 years has gifted me the ability to travel to Italy, a place that feels like my second home. However, I am not the guide holding a stick high in the air, flag attached, herding a group through large cities flooded with people whizzing by on Vespas. Instead, I venture to off-the-beaten-track places (posti), like Podere il Casale.
Long, winding roads, flanked by an endless sea of vineyards and farms, is common in Italy’s countryside. This is one of its many charms. I am still in awe of the natural beauty, regardless of how often I travel there. Each visit captivates me, gives me chills (brividi, in Italian).
I have reveled in this bucolic beauty many times, but particularly when I visited Podere il Casale, an organic dairy, cheese and olive oil farm and vineyard that sits just 10 minutes outside of the town of Pienza. I love this village; it’s full of history (dating back to medieval times) and quaint. It even has a Via dell’Amore – street of love! I have a mixture of fondness and sadness when I think about this day. It was my last international trip before the 2020 pandemic rocked our worlds.
On my way to Podere Il Casale
In my small, automatic rented Fiat, I drifted through the undulating turns of the two-lane roads. I kept my window slightly ajar, so I could take in the married scents of fresh air, farmland and flowers. There is something so invigorating about these aromas.
Through the window, the sun’s brightness and warmth pierced my eyes and permeated my face. I felt free and calm. I expect that many visitors who drive Italy’s countryside experience this – physically and mentally. Like they are in a different world. Escaping it all – the hecticness of their lives and jobs back home. Perhaps like me, they too feel transformed.
I took in the countryside wonderment at a meandering pace, while locals zoomed by me. This was a clear marker that my “take in the world around me” style did not fit into their day. Smiling, I voiced “Ciao” and simultaneously waved. I was in my own world. They were too, perhaps racing to the local bar for yet another morning espresso, something my Italian friends do. (See Tips to Travel Italy about Italian bars.)
My drive to Podere Il Casale from Il Borro Relais & Chateaux, where I was staying in another area of Tuscany, was longer than expected. No surprise here! A normal 1.5-hours trek turned into two. I took this as the world’s way of saying “enjoy, slow down Jessica and go with the flow!”
Finally, I saw the sign indicating that I was approaching my destination. Perfect timing – my morning cappuccino and espresso were speaking to me. As I drove up the dirt road to the farm, dust trailing behind me, I encountered people flurrying about. This is a normal sight for a working farm, not one all doctored up in preparation for Instagram photos. Though it is a stunning place for those too.
The beauty of Italy’s countryside
As I stepped out of the car, I moved about slowly, like always when arriving at a new place. I was overcome by the splendor around me and completely disregarded my need for the bathroom.
Podere il Casale is perched on a hilltop overlooking its farm below with hundreds of sheep in billowy, white coats. Tall, thin, perfectly erect Cypress trees intermittently encapsulate the farm. You also can see the vast Val D’Orcia in the distance. This is the area of southern Tuscany that stretches between the towns of Siena and Grosseto.
I sauntered up the driveway to the main large stone building that looked like it had been there for centuries. I assessed its façade like a piece of artwork and imagined it housed many family stories. It did; it was built 300 years ago. The U.S. has not even hit its 250th birthday yet.
As I walked behind the stone building, enthusiastic, friendly goats greeted me. They know how to milk this new visitor for attention. Unafraid, they lean in to welcome me. Another structure close by, yet unattached from the original farmhouse, is home to cheesemaking and aging for which Podere il Casale is known.
Documenting the day, I took many pictures. If Sienna, my 13-year old daughter, had been with me, she would have questioned my need for so many photos. “So, when I am old I can remember my travels,” I would have retorted. Always one to have the last word, just like I did at her age, she would have given me the classic comeback. “Mom, you are already old!”
Creating boutique travel experiences and teaching clients of the local families’ creations and cultures have touched me in many ways. I feel proud to see clients furrowed brows relax as they get to know these local farming families.
The perfect marriage at Podere Il Casale
Podere il Casale’s panoramic views, charm and passion of Swiss-born owners Sandra and Ulisse made me fall in love with the area. This year celebrates the farm’s 30th anniversary. Ulisse, who refers to himself as the shepherd, towers over me; he is more than 6-feet tall. I am 5’5″. His still present Germanic accent reveals he is not a native of Italy, to which many of us secretly (or not so secretly) aspire. Yet 30+ years of Ulisse’s and Sandra’s life there naturally make it home for them and their family of five sons. Ulisse’s fervor divulges his love for their farm life. His hands reveal daily dedication.
Sandra and Ulisse’s story is just as magical as the feeling you may get when sitting on the outside terrace, under the pergola overlooking the pastoral landscape. It seems like worlds away from the American conveyor belt, hustle-and-bustle lifestyle.
Ulisse’s enthusiasm for his craft – caring for and attending to the animals and farming – radiates to those near him. Marry that with Sandra’s charming smile and hospitality, and it is evident why you would feel a strong desire to stay all day, peering out at the countryside. You might even feel the pull to uproot a hectic life and start over, just as they did years ago. They are emblematic of entrepreneurial success of dancing to their own tune. It has worked for them.
An idea and spirit combined
When I listened to Ulisse tell me his and Sandra’s dream to leave their urban, record company life in Zurich, Switzerland and move to remote Italy, I felt the same brividi overcome me. With little money, no clear path and no experience in farming 30+ years ago, Ulisse and Sandra, who was 38 weeks pregnant at the time, started a new self-reliant path in Italy’s countryside.
I identified with Ulisse’s spirit – a drive that lacks fear, and fearful he is not. His motto is identical to the Nike slogan of “Just do it.” Starting their farm life was in contrast to his once former fast-paced life, one that incorporated punk music. “Punk resonated with us,” he said. “You know Jessica what a punk band is?” Ulisse added. So, I replied, smiling, “Yes of course Ulisse.”
“Everyone thought it was a completely crazy idea to move [to Italy] and produce our own food. But it was not convenient to make the life the same thing [in Zurich],” Ulisse shared. “We had a clear idea of what to do but didn’t know how to do it.”
Already with one child in tow and one to be born at any moment, they had that spark and courage, which often holds others back, to move in the direction of their self-imposed plan… and have a different way of life. To be entrepreneurs! As a result, their simple desire, to “live in one with nature,” as Ulisse told me and grow their own natural food, still holds true today.
Their life choice, our benefit
Podere il Casale was one of the first to produce their own organic sheep’s milk to make Pecorino di Pienza. This means that their sheep make the milk from which Ulisse makes the cheese. The do not buy the milk as other cheese producers do. They bought their first sheep in 1992 to make cheese for themselves. But they did not truly reveal their farming and cheesmaking prowess to the public until about 11 years later. (Pecorino di Pienza is the cheese for which the region is most famous and is different than Pecorino Romano.)
Certainly, over the course of 30 years, there has been a natural expansion and welcoming of visitors to Podere il Casale, and Pienza. Serving tourists was not part of Sandra and Ulisee’s original plan. No one was coming to Pienza 30 years ago, he shared. And just a mere 10 years before that they drove their Deux Chevaux car up the drive to Podere il Casale, the farmhouse was without electricity or running water.
That has all changed now. With the increased hype about Tuscany and global organic and sustainable wine and food movements, travelers are finding their way to more remote places like Podere il Casale.
Without reserve, Ulisse and Sandra have embraced new activities and accepted transformations that have emerged with new generations and permeated their original 30-year-old+ plan. Sometimes, this is not easy.
Farm to table enjoyment
The Tuscan allure also captivated three of their sons and two daughters in law, who now help to share their parents dream with a broader audience. They have developed out the farm’s onsite restaurant with fresh ingredients that they grow in the farm’s garden (orto in Italian). Locals and travelers can enjoy this true farm to table experience there.
Podere il Casale’s cheeses are some of the best that I have tasted during my years of travel. While I support the local creamery – Narragansett Creamery – in Rhode Island, I treat myself with shipments from Ulisse and Sandra. Just thinking about how the Pecorino melted in my mouth when I was last there makes me salivate. The cheeses’ developments and tastes are a direct result of the sheep – how they are cared for and what they eat – said Ulisse. (Oh, and keeping the wolves at bay so the sheep are not stressed.)
My favorite is the raw milk Pecorino aged in pomace. Pomace is a leftover pulpy substance from the grapes after they have been crushed and used. I also am obsessed with their first press organic olive oil and organic Acacia honey.
Tuscan countryside cooking at home
Ulisse’s and Sandra’s daughters-in-law recently published a book – Podere Il Casale – Family, Food and Farming in the Tuscan Countryside – a historical overview and cookbook about the family’s start, farming and organic dishes that they make at the restaurant. I was ecstatic to receive its inaugural release earlier this year, especially since I have not been there in two years because of the pandemic. While reading the book and pondering what to make, I was transported back, at least temporarily.
I have taken in each page and was drawn in most particularly by the chapter on the orto and Ulisses’s humorous analogies of the Tuscan land. (If you buy the book check out page 65.) And while I will need a few of Sandra’s pasta making classes to sharpen my skills, I cannot wait (Non vedo l’ora in Italian) to make the Drunken Risotto with Red Wine and Salsiccia. I have one bottle left, thankfully, of their Il Fante Sangiovese to pair with it!
If the Tuscan earth were a character in a play, she would be the hardened and strict but wise grandmother. You know her: She’s self reliant, knows what she likes and would like things to be done exactly the way she wants, thank you very much.~ Ulisse
Connecting this Italian world of wine and food experiences with others gives me immense pleasure. The path in business, and life, has many twists and turns, just like Italian roads. Often, we must decide to welcome these new entries or ignore them. I am grateful that Ulisse and Sandra embraced a new path more than 30 years ago.