The header photo on the home page of my blog is a scene of the Chianti countryside from the drive back to Siena from Panzano. To me, it embodies a classic Tuscan view — the rolling hills, the grapevines, the olive trees, the cluster of old buildings comprising a little hill town. It also reminds me of a wonderful tradition that a group of friends have managed to continue over the span of 20 years, culminating in a week together in Tuscany last summer at a villa just outside Siena. Throughout this post are just a few of the photos from that week. (Just as I opened my blog with a post on the Pecorino of Pienza, I suspect you may see other photos or future posts periodically reflecting back on that incredible trip.)
In the early 1990’s, we were three couples embarking on our new careers, six young adults, four of whom had graduated from the same post-graduate institution, and all of whom had relocated to a new community. While none of us could be called close friends during graduate school, we had overlapping circles of acquaintances, and we reconnected during that first year or so following graduation, as we became part of the young professional community in our new city. In December 1992, we invited the other two couples to our home for dinner. We recently had purchased a Greek cookbook, and decided to put together a Greek-themed menu for our informal gathering. When you are just starting out, and have been living the student lifestyle for so many years, planning such a dinner is a pretty big deal!
The menu consisted of Tzatziki (the Greek cucumber and yogurt dip) with pita bread and veggies, a Greek salad, Spanakopita (Greek spinach pie), and then one of our friends brought over red velvet cake they had baked. Rounding out the meal was retsina, a uniquely flavored Greek wine thanks to the addition of pine resin. The evening was a wonderful blur of conversation, and the hours flew by, ending with a plan for our next dinner gathering a few months later at one of the other couple’s homes. Before the night was done, I think we may have even brought out some of the Saba Spice (spiced 151 rum) we had purchased during our honeymoon on the little Caribbean island of Saba. Dinner club was born.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Every quarter, without fail for 20 years, we have gathered. One couple moved to a city a couple hours away, we have added six children, and we have had three couples’ relationships stand the test of time between and among all of us. When our kids were very young, we would bring them along. During that delightfully busy toddler stage, we tended to hire a babysitter. But, as time went on, our kids became part of dinner club, and even as teens, they have continued to look forward to our quarterly gatherings. We parents find that as we get older, the nights end a little earlier, or some of us may be found sleeping in a chair as others talk into the wee hours. We bring to the table so much in common, yet so much interestingly different. In this age of polarizing political discourse, it is refreshing to have a group of friends with often divergent views who can have a civil, yet vigorous discussion, and still raise a glass in toast to friendship at the end of the evening, and then move on to a mean game of Trivial Pursuit. Some meals have been a great gourmet success, while other menus may have recipes we decide to “retire” from our kitchens. Some desserts have been festively flambéed, while others were just plainly burned. Good memories all around.
With this history, as we began our 19th year of dinner club, we discussed the idea of doing something special to celebrate this tradition. The hour approached midnight at one of our quarterly gatherings, and we finished up dessert (a bit later than usual, although 10:00 p.m. is not an unusual time for our dessert course, since our evening starts at 6:30 p.m. with appetizers, moving on to salad and the main course at a time that depends on how organized the hosts happen to be that day — as our kids have become older and more involved with activities, we find our organizational levels decreasing in equal proportion, although I admit to my husband and I being the ones who are routinely delinquent on the organizational front), the conversation again turned to marking this significant anniversary. There may have been a few bottles of wine involved throughout the evening. . .
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ~ W. C. Fields
As we discussed our options, the kids floated in to pick up a piece of dessert, and joined in the conversation. We adults first discussed Napa — a weekend of wine country for just the parents! Delightful, relaxing! Oh, but the kids have become part of the tradition, so perhaps a weekend in Chicago was more family-friendly, yet still had some appealing foodie aspects. What about a cruise? Alaska? The Caribbean? Nah . . . . what about . . . Italy? The kids all cheered — “Yes! Italy!” As we all laughed; yes, nice idea, but what a pipe dream, kids! But, hey . . . life is short, isn’t it?! And, what better destination for a group of food-loving friends than Italy, right?! So, amazingly, over the course of the next year, we made our dream a reality and committed to sharing a house for a week in Tuscany.
“La vita e breve” ~ “life is short”
Being the Type-A trip planner, I researched a variety of vacation rental and villa options, and emailed my findings to the other couples in our group. We ultimately decided on a lovely villa just outside of Siena, the Villa del Cielo with Caminetto. I was impressed with the communications I had with Rentvillas, inquiring about the rental, and the property satisfied (at least on paper) some element from each of our “wish list” items of what we had hoped to find when renting a house in Tuscany. For me, I did not want to be so far afield from neighboring towns that I spent the whole day driving for sight-seeing; for another, having a nice property where she could just sit and unwind without others around was important; for another, a beautiful view; for the kids, a pool to share; and for all of us, enough bedrooms and baths so we still liked each other at the end of the week! The villa exceeded our expectations, and as we walked onto the property and met the first family to arrive at the house, two of us found ourselves grasping hands and jumping up and down euphorically, looking and sounding like school girls, “I can’t believe it! It doesn’t seem real!” But, indeed it was real, and spending time at that house every evening, as we came back together after typically going in different directions to sightsee during the day, was probably everyone’s favorite memory of our week together.
We shared tips and experiences from our different travels to surrounding hill towns; my husband met the “Butcher of Panzano” (his — my husband’s, not Dario Cecchini’s — highlight of the week!) and ordered several steaks to pick up later in the week to grill at the house for everyone to share; we had a local chef come to the house one night and cook for all of us so we could enjoy a meal together seated around the table for 12; and other evenings we enjoyed taking turns cooking, using the fresh herbs available on the grounds of the villa. Best of all, almost every night, we sat outside with a glass of Italian wine (or limoncello!) in hand and enjoyed the incredible view of the Tuscan hillside, pinching ourselves for our good fortune to have this time together in such a beautiful setting.
“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” ~ Julia Child
Do you have a food tradition that has become an integral part of your life?
Ciao! ~ Kat B.