The olive oil route through the Pisan hills takes visitors on a tour of many of the area’s artistic, cultural and gastronomic treasures. Olive oil has long been one of Tuscany’s most important agricultural products and the olive oil produced in the Pisan hills is of excellent quality. The olive oil route covers 138kms and passes through the towns of Buti, Calci, Vicopisano, San Giuliano Terme and Vecchiano. The varied landscape is one of hills, mountains and plains. Along the route there are many artistic, cultural and historical places of interest, including the region’s pretty medieval towns, monasteries, churches and ancient villas, such as the Medici villa at Agnano which used to belong to Lorenzo il Magnifico. The first town on the olive oil route is Calci. This old town is famous for its imposing monastery building which today is home to a natural history museum. From Calci, follow the Zambra stream to Mount Serra. This is the highest of the Pisan hills and from the top it’s even possible to see the islands off the Tuscan coast on a clear day.
The next two stops on the route are Asciano, with its Medici-built aqueduct, and San Giuliano Terme. San Giuliano Terme lived its golden period as a spa town during the reign of the Asburgo Lorena family in the eighteenth century and the town is still famous today for its thermal waters. Another town on the route is Vecchiano. The Sant’Alessandro church with its bell tower is well-worth visiting, as well as the Santa Maria castle which was a hermitage before being used as a castle. Next is the town of Buti, an ancient town which still has most of its medieval architecture, much like Vicopisano which is the last town to visit on the olive oil route. Vicopisano is home to a wonderful fort designed by Brunelleschi and has many other historic buildings worth visiting such as the Palazzo Pretorio, the Palazzo Comunale and the well-preserved medieval towers.
This tour of the Pisan hills isn’t only about art and culture though, this is also a gastronomic tour. The region’s most well-known gastronomic products include not only olive oil but also chestnuts, mushrooms and honey. Many local dishes include pork or wild boar and many of the area’s farmers rear traditional local breeds of pig such as Cinta Senese. A lot of spices and herbs are used in local cuisine and many local recipes have been handed down the generations throughout the centuries. These recipes speak volumes about the traditions, way of life and culture of the people who have inhabited this region for so long. Here, meal times are about much more than just food, they are about getting together and sharing a moment.
Bread and pasta are essential in the area’s peasant cooking. Most old farm houses had wood-burning ovens attached to the outside of the home where traditional loaves would be baked. Flour was ground in the many local mills in such a way that the flour maintained its flavour for several days. Pasta was also made here by hand, using nothing but elbow grease and love. Along the olive oil route described here, there are many artisan workshops where visitors can stop and sample some traditional dishes. A series of food fairs are held in the autumnal months to celebrate local products such as olive oil, chestnuts and mushrooms.
Local dishes are often based on porcini mushrooms or vegetables and there are many traditional recipes such as cabbage soup, game meat, fresh pasta and home-made desserts such as ‘nozze’, ‘pan ficato’, ‘castagnaccio’ and ‘schiacciate di Pasqua’. Most of these dishes can be enjoyed with wines and sweet wines such as the Chianti wine of the Pisan hills which has an intense and velvety flavour. Chestnuts have long been one of the area’s most important agricultural products as they can be either eaten as they are, or turned into sweet flour to make bread, polenta and castagnaccio cake.