At the Agrivilla i Pini, a quaint Tuscan villa located just one mile from the center of San Gimigiano, owners Benjamin and Francesca are busy at work, tending to the myriad of tasks that need to be done to maintain their operations.
According to their principles, they strive for everything to be: sustainable, organic, vegan, seasonal and handmade. : sustainable, organic, vegan, seasonal and handmade. These buzzwords are thrown around on well marketed packaging at Whole Foods, but I wondered what it was like to actually live by them.
To find out, Ambra and I spent a few days here.
In Italy, organic farming must follow three basic rules:
1. Avoid Synthetics: No fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.
2. Grow Native: Only crops that are native to an environment can thrive without chemicals.
3. Traditional Farming: Rotate crops from one season to the next, create natural habitats such as planting trees for protection against pollution, and utilize natural fertilizers such as compost and dung.
Running a fully vegan operation is deceptively difficult. To most, it simply means avoiding animal products in food, but a true vegan lifestyle eliminates any items which require animal testing before coming to market. This forced the owners to be creative when choosing cosmetics and to be strict to avoid leather, for example.
But the obvious question on everyone’s mind: could they make the food satisfying enough that one doesn’t feel like they’re missing out on traditional Tuscan cuisine? And do it while being 100% seasonal and local, thereby dramatically reducing the possible dishes they can serve.
It’s mid-summer here on their villa, which means most foods aren’t in season, many of which are staples to a vegan diet, such as apples, spinach, pears, and squash.
And don’t get me started on local. You’ll never see a banana, avocado, or mango on the menu.
Chef Stefania is up for the challenge. Each day she assesses what is growing in the garden, and then creates a unique dining experience for the guests.
The first afternoon we eat a chickpea crepe stuffed with chicory root, a slightly more bitter spinach, topped with an almond ricotta. It comes with a side salad with tomatoes that explodes with flavor, along with a pesto that’s fresher than the original.
For dessert, a sampler of raw cheesecakes and a tartlet made with an indulgent sunflower seed cream. Incredible.
Post meal is the real measurement. If I can eat whatever I want and as much as I want until I’m satiated, and still feel great, it’s a winner. There’s nothing worse than feeling stuffed like the cow you just consumed.
At i Pini, you can have your (cheese)cake, and eat it too. And thank God for it, because after lunch is the perfect occasion to take a dip in their sustainable pool.
Before visiting Agrivilla I Pini, how pool water is drained never once crossed my mind. But for Benjamin, it was an opportunity to further their mission.
Their saltwater pool requires 600 liters of water every 10 days to maintain.
Draining it into the sewer system is wasteful, so they came up with an innovative solution, creating an irrigation canal which funnels the water to none other than a plant.
As one may expect, they aim to avoid using plastic (the organic juices they served us in the afternoon come with bamboo straws). In fact, the entire property is virtually zero waste.
Following the pool, Ambra and Chef Stefania collaborate to create some amazing concoctions in the kitchen, while I’m inspired to begin writing this post.
By dinner, everything is ready. Ambra has styled the plates to perfection and we snap some photos for her Instagram and website. Living up to its name, they really are Little Bites of Beauty.
As always when Ambra’s in the kitchen, it’s another incredible journey into the philosophy of healthy food.
Dinner begins with a spelt focaccia with pesto and a salad topped with their olive oil (they produce 1,000 liters per year), followed by a baked millet with vegetables (it feels like I’m eating lasagna), and topped off with a lemon crème tartlet.
I accompany it with a glass of their Vernaccia, a white wine made from grapes which only grow in this region – they produce 20,000 bottles annually.
I am beginning to understand that eating this way not only possible, but enjoyable. Aside from being completely satisfied (yet not stuffed) following each meal, I take pride in knowing I’m not contributing to the destruction of our planet.
After dinner, and an epic photo shoot with the chef, it is time to unwind.
Back in the room, the hangers, linens and towels are hand made from a local artisan. The laundry is air dried on the balcony, just like you see in the photos; driers consume unnecessary energy. WiFi is extremely limited and not missed.
Staying at Agrivilla i Pini made me reflect on my own hardly local, largely machine made and rather ‘unsustainable’ life in the States. How many habits do I have, some I’m probably not even conscious of, that harm our planet?
Poker has taught me that ecosystems do not remain inefficient for long. An unsustainable poker game, one without poor players, will simply not last. Once the sucker quits, other inferior players no longer feel they have an edge, and quit one by one until the game breaks.
In short, an unsustainable network can persist, but never for long.
It can be said that a poker game is a micro system representative of the world at large. How long can the unsustainable game we’re playing in continue before it reaches a breaking point? What will the consequences be?
What stuck with me the most about my experience at Agrivlla i Pini was how abnormal their lives were, yet how normal they should be. It’s ironic that what is sustainable, local, organic, vegan, and hand made is so difficult to find in our modern world.
I envision a future where these principles are a part of our everyday lives. Cities as we know them will be completely reformed, with a minimum requirement for parks and trees, and a limit on emissions. Production will be more local, slowing international trade. Energy will be green and more businesses will be sustainable, dramatically reducing our waste and carbon footprint.
The benefits are enormous, but so too are the sacrifices and effort to make this a reality. A sustainable world requires a collective conscious shift, which blossoms from a new hierarchy of priorities as a society.
As it stands, we value efficiency and convenience above local and sustainable, even if it comes at the expense of our planet. We buy conventional because it’s cheaper. We use plastic because it’s convenient.
Until the regard for the system as a whole supersedes our desire for quick, easy and cheap, we’ll continue destroying the world.
We have a sense of entitlement to our lifestyle and diet, most notably eating meat. While we do want a better life for the animals we consume, we often don’t value it enough to pay more for the product and rarely to forgo it all together in favor of alternatives. Until we can overcome our own egos and desires, we’ll continue to slaughter 120 billion animals a year.
All around the world, historic public figures are being judged by today’s moral standards, despite the collective norm being radically different than what it is today.
History rhymes. 200 years from today, we too will be judged by the moral norms of the future for our selfishness, wastefulness, and blatant disregard for the suffering of other conscious beings. Will those who eat meat today will be akin to slave owners of the past? Will our great grandchildren cancel Oprah for eating KFC?
I acknowledge these are not easy challenges to overcome. Among other things it will require future generations to grow up with a new set of values who then vote in politicians to enforce laws that require sustainability.
We’re seeing this happen, albeit too slowly. We only have one planet, which means we cannot afford to take risks that could potentially destroy it. No professional risks their entire net worth in a hand of poker. Only fools makes a gamble they cannot afford to lose.
Time is of the essence. I hope for the sake of our planet and the future generations, we can collectively awaken to the challenge.