A: I was doing some looking into residencies in the U.S. to start I have always wanted to work on a farm and be able to cook with the ingredients in a locavore kind of way. I was accepted into one residency in upstate New York but as I came to think I continued to do more research on chef-in-residency programs around the world. As I surfed the web Villa Lena show up in my search, I did what anyone would do and I clicked the link: it was “Amore a prima vista”! I was captured immediately I just knew I had to continue to read what this 19th-century Italian villa located in Palaia, Italy was about. Through this research, I put in some work (literally) and actually got in contact with the owner Lena Evstafieva we had a Skype interview and next thing you know I was set for 2018 Aug-October chef-in-residence. The ortos, the pigs, the agriculture, the ethos, land, community, farmers, butchers, hunters, cuisine, artist are what all brought me to the Villa.
Amaze your friends with this sweet recipe from former chef-in-residence Aaron Tomczak. This cake is the ultimate dessert for al-fresco dinners with your loved ones.
Villa Lena to me is simplicity, made extraordinary through natural beauty augmented by creativity. To draw a parallel to food for me would be ripe strawberries and Margherita cake, topped with a sabayon made from local wine and garnished with herbs from the garden. Very simple ingredients, made memorable by the airy texture of the sabayon and floral aroma of nasturtium and lavender.
Discovering the Arbutus Unedo plant (or strawberry tree as it is affectionately known) growing abundantly at Villa Lena was a revelation!
This small tree belongs to the Ericaceae family, native to the Mediterranean region. The species name, ‘unedo’, is said to mean “I only eat one” in Latin as they are said to leave a slightly bitter aftertaste. I did not find this to be the case, though the texture for me was somewhat challenging (think flouring apple!) however, when transformed into shrubs, syrups and jams this fruit really is utterly delightful. The flavour is layered, complex and sweet and when married with thymus mint, also bountiful at the villa, the heavenly aroma and sticky sweet taste kept us going back for more. In folk medicine, the plant has been used for antiseptic, astringent, intoxicant, rheumatism, and tonic purposes. I enjoyed the shub best, the acidity of the vinegar gave a tangy twist and had that addictive quality that contrasting flavours often possess (think salty and sweet).
Bored of flipping through Tuscany tourist guides? Overwhelmed by the endless options? Pick up the brand new Museeum guide of Tuscany! In this short guide based on the senses you can find information for anyone.
In this guide you will find the top suggestions for an exploration of the main cities around Villa Lena: Florence, San Gimignano, Lucca, Siena!
From a connoisseur to food lovers, there are amazing tips for restaurants. Dine with a beautiful view at the café in Museo degli Innocenti, or try Italian comfort food with a twist at Michelin star gourmet restaurant ”L’imbuto” (The Funnel) in Lucca Centre of Contemporary Art. This is a great place for a change from traditional Italian cuisine and for a break from medieval art.
Stimulated by a common passion for food and cooking, Butternutten’s Luki + Oli hosted a four-course cheese dinner at Villa Lena.
Every course featured ceramics made in Butternutten workshop by hotel guests, staff people and artists in residence at Villa Lena; the ceramics are inspired by human body parts.
The individual and unusual tableware invited the guests to interact as well as to enter in dialogue with each other. The “cheese dreams” dinner is a way of questioning what eating can be more than food intake and how our being can be shaped.
by Alexis Delaney, chef-in-resident of the years past
The first year that I came to Villa Lena, I was picked up at the train station in Pontedera. After a brief stop at the local coop supermarket to pick up a few spring-in-Tuscany essentials (raw fava beans, pecorino, bread and salami) our tiny car made its way along the curving and bumpy road between Palaia and the villa. Despite my jetlag and lack of sleep that previous night, I was struck by not only the incredible views and terrifying blind turns, but also that the road was lined with elderflower trees and they were in full bloom.
I couldn’t wait to get back on that road, this time on foot to collect the crowns of fragrant and tiny blossoms, which bloom prolifically between April and June. I headed out with my husband and visiting photographer Ellie Tsatsou to collect the clusters and transform them into a delicious and unique elixir for our aperitivo the next evening. We snipped a basket full of the branches and made sure to keep them upright lest any of the magical pollen and flavor fall to the road.
Once back in the kitchen, I trimmed the heads of their leaves and stems, which lack the same delightful aroma, and made a light simple syrup with sugar, water and a bit of lemon peel. After the syrup had cooled a bit, the washed flowers went in, and stayed there for 24 hours for the flavor to steep. The next day, I strained my concoction and made my self an elderflower lemonade with some lemon juice, the syrup and sparkling water of ice. Then that evening, we substituted the sparkling water for prosecco and enjoyed our drinks by the pool at sunset!
I brought some of the non-alcoholic version down to Anna, who works in the Villa Lena office, the next day. She informed me of an ancient Italian recipe in which the blossoms are dipped in batter, fried and sprinkled with sugar. Known as fiori di sambuco fritti in Italian they are a delicious and unique dessert, especially when served with a bowl of sweetened and whipped ricotta.
This syrup will store for months. Dilute it with soda water or prosecco for a refreshing spring drink. For an inventive take on a French 75 cocktail, add a shot of gin or cognac ½ a shot of the syrup, top with prosecco and garnish with a strip of lemon zest.
500 grams sugar
1 liter water
1 lemon, zested with a vegetable peeler
15 elderflower crown
In a saucepan, heat the sugar, the water and the lemon zest until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until warm to the touch. Add the elderflower blossoms. Once the mixture is at room temperature cover and leave for 24 hours. The next day, strain through cheese cloth. Pack into sterilized containers and refrigerate.
These fritters use a basic tempura batter with prosecco instead of soda water to add flavor and color. Make sure the prosecco is cold for a light and crispy batter.
75 grams flour
75 grams corn starch
325 ml cold prosecco
2 dozen bite-sized clusters of elderflowers
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lemon, finely zested
flavorless oil for frying
Mix the sugar and lemon zest until well combined.
Gently wash blossoms in a bowl of water and remove to a towel to dry. Fill a pot with vegetable oil no higher than halfway, or you run the risk of boiling over. Heat the oil until a deep fry thermometer reads 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C. Prepare batter by whisking both flours and prosecco until just barely combined. Do not over mix. Working in batches of four or five, dip blossoms in batter until evenly coated and lay them in the oil. Avoid over crowding the pan. After a minute, flip the blossoms once with a slotted spoon, fry another minute, and remove to a paper towel. They should take no more than 2-3 minutes, and should be a golden brown.
Toss while still hot in the lemon sugar and serve immediately with honey whipped ricotta.
Honey whipped ricotta
1 cup ricotta
1 tablespoon mild flavored honey, or to taste
Small pinch of salt if necessary
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and beat until smooth and light, about 2 minutes.
by Alexis Delaney, chef-in-resident of the years past
Last year on a cool, cloudy evening in late March, I set out towards Toiano Vecchio to stretch my legs and watch the sun set over the craggy Tuscan hills. As I approached the abandoned town, a kilometer from the Villa, I saw a guy along the hillside, next to the tiny, ancient cemetery, bending down in the grass. When he came up, he had fistfuls of wild asparagus.
Italians really are an incredibly generous and kind people. I chatted with him for a while, and before I knew it half of his vegetal bounty was in my hands, as well as information on where to search for wild asparagus. Of course, no Italian conversation about food would be complete without strong opinions about how to prepare the tender and flavorful stalks.
The man recommended looking along slopes as the plant likes well-drained soil. He also suggested looking in the shade of olive trees. Once I had identified the “mamma”, a silvery-green, feathery and spiny plant. I began seeing them everywhere on the Villa Lena estate.
As the week went on I also saw families strolling on the road to Villa Lena, scanning the sides for culinary treasure, and then bounding up and snapping off the elusive spears. As with any foraging it is important to not take everything so that the plant can continue to thrive and produce in years to come.
I’m not sure which is better: romping around woods and olive groves hunting for this fleeting, seasonal treat, or bringing them to the kitchen and preparing a delicious meal. Wild asparagus are more flavorful than their conventional cousins, and are best featured in simple pastas, risottos, frittatas or crostini, where they can be the star of the show. I love smearing some garlic-rubbed bread with fresh ricotta and topping it with quickly blanched asparagus tips, lots of freshly ground black pepper and a good drizzle of spicy Villa Lena olive oil. It is equally delicious with lemon and parmesan in this risotto, which always makes an appearance in the Villa Lena restaurant.
Wild Asparagus Risotto
Risotto is a comforting one pot dinner. Originally from Northern Italy, it can serve as a base for any number of vegetables and flavorings. The best known rice for risotto is Arborio, but Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and Baldo are other options.
400 grams wild asparagus, trimmed and cut into ¼ inch pieces 1 lemon, zested and juiced 3 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, diced 300 grams risotto rice 1.5 liters chicken or vegetable stock 250 ml white wine 40 gras grated parmesan cheese
In a saucepan bring the stock to a boil and set aside, in close range of where you will be cooking the risotto. In a large, heavy bottomed pot melt 2 tablespoons of butter and add the diced onion with a pinch of salt. Cook on low until onion is completely translucent. Add the rice and coat with the onion and butter. Cook stirring frequently until rice is translucent. Add the lemon zest to the rice and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the white wine and turn up the heat to medium. Cook stirring often until all the white wine is absorbed.
Add 1 cup of stock and a pinch of salt and cook until absorbed. Continue this process, stirring occasionally to make sure rice doesn’t stick. After ten minutes add the asparagus. Continue cooking the rice with stock until the rice is tender but still has a “bite”. You will have to stir more frequently towards the end to prevent sticking. When the rice is done, turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, a tablespoon of butter and the cheese. Stir vigorously to develop the creamyness. Taste for salt and add a splash more broth if needed. Serve on warm plates.
In the words of Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” We at Villa Lena seek to bring holistic health to our restaurants tables.
Despite the many diet fads circulating one commonality exists that is proven to be beneficial to health. Minimally processed foods, predominately plants are decisively associated with physical well being and lower risks of disease.
Villa Lena is inspired by Tuscany’s own tradition in which whole grains, beans, olive oil, nuts, and fruits and vegetables are at the heart of a rich peasant food tradition.
We make food that comes direct from nature, whether its our own gardens, our wine and olive oil, or the many neighboring farms in the area. We try to move away from farmed meat and use game meat where possible. We emphasize seasonality so that we are cooking with and eating ingredients at their peak of flavor and nutrition.
Health is not the only objective at the heart of our food ethos – sustainability is another. By pairing the tastiest produce available at that moment with care, creativity, and technical proficiency, we attempt to build a model for a responsible and delicious future, where product is not wasted and enjoyed at its seasonal time.
We offer a set menu which changes daily, which we serve sometimes “family style” on top of our long, shared tables, with a hope that good food and good conversations will bring some memorable dinners.
Drawing inspiration from the edible herbs and flowers that can be found around the Villa Lena grounds, chef in residence Jill Donenfeld and designer Emma Montague led a children’s workshop that paired chocolate with everything from rosemary to lavender. First finding the flavours on a foraging walk through the grounds and later combining these with sticky bowls of melted dark chocolate.
The children’s activities were run as part of the artist residency program set up on the grounds, and were perfect for families to enjoy. The foraging and cooking experience were part of the slow food, organic ethos of Villa Lena in the context of imaginative and creative play.