When Chef Silvia Baracchi was brought by her husband Riccardo to his ancestral home, nestled in a gorgeous valley near the historic town of Cortona, she knew immediately that the crumbling antique villa would make a beautiful setting for a restaurant and hotel celebrating the traditions and flavours of Tuscany. ‘The passion was in my genes,’ she says, before sighing, ‘And this place… it’s so beautiful.’ It is beautiful, with the hotel buildings in traditional stonework giving way to a densely wooded valley and beautiful views of the surrounding hills. It’s a landscape that has inspired some of the greatest artists in history, such as Fra’ Angelico, who lived and worked in the area during the early Renaissance.
The historic estate has been in the ownership of the Baracchi family for centuries, and Silvia’s husband Riccardo was born in the 17th-century villa constructed by his ancestors, spending his early childhood here. ‘It is very important that this hotel is run by our family- by myself, by my husband,’ Silvia tells us, ‘I think that makes all the difference.’ It really does. From the moment you arrive at Il Falconiere, there is a genuine sense of warmth and hospitality, not just from the sparky Silvia and Riccardo, but from all of the staff. Lina Bartelli, the General Manager, grew up with Silvia and Riccardo in nearby Cortona, and has fond memories of the trattoria run by Silvia’s mother. ‘The cuisine was very traditional,’ she says, laughing. ‘It was amazing.’ This atmosphere of family and friendship is extended to the kitchen, where many of the chefs and kitchen staff have remained faithfully by Silvia’s side for most of their careers.
Il Falconiere was originally opened as a restaurant before restoration work began on the villa, and food has always been central to Silvia’s life since she watched her mother cooking regional specialities in their trattoria. She’s come a long way since those days, earning the coveted Michelin star in 2002 for the restaurant’s extraordinary take on Tuscan cuisine. Although not one for boasting, Silvia does note with a smile that the restaurant has the only Michelin star in the whole of Arezzo. Part of Il Falconiere’s success must be put down to its extraordinary location, Silvia insists. ‘This place has inspired me a lot. We are in the beautiful Valdichiana valley, where there are so many good ingredients.’ Famed for its delicious Chianina beef, this verdant corner of Tuscany has a long tradition of beautiful produce. The hotel practices a ‘Kilometre Zero’ philosophy, meaning that, wherever possible, all of the ingredients are sourced within 20 kilometres. Some ingredients, such as the fresh herbs used in the kitchen, are grown on the estate. ‘Living in this part of Tuscany, it’s impossible not to use local ingredients,’ Lina says. ‘We have everything growing here all year around, everything! It would be stupid to use ingredients from somewhere else.’
A commitment to the surrounding Tuscan hills is a strong part of the hotel’s philosophy, and is particularly clear in Il Falconiere’s acclaimed cookery classes. Led by Silvia herself, you’ll learn not only how to make delicious regional fare, but also the importance of good quality, locally sourced ingredients. Silvia loves sharing not only her experience, but her traditions too, telling us that ‘What I want to do is to teach and to talk about our traditions, how to choose the best ingredients, understand what is the best seasonal ingredient.’ As part of the cooking class, you’re driven to a local farm to get sheeps milk for making pecorino and ricotta cheese, and another farm where you source fresh vegetables for that afternoon’s meal. ‘Our guests enjoy it so much,’ Lina tells us, ‘the programme is very local, and you have a lot of contact with local people.’ Sometimes the finest ingredients can be sourced without ever leaving the estate. According to Silvia, ‘olive oil is the most important ingredient’, so much so that Silvia and her husband produce their own from the estate’s olive groves, cold-pressed at the hotel using traditional stone mills. It’s as intensely green as the surrounding hills in springtime, with a slightly spicy but well balanced taste.
It’s not just this liquid gold that is produced by the Baracchi. Wine has been in the family since the 1860s, and now Riccardo and his son Benedetto are taking the family tradition in a bold new direction. The estate is now home to over 32 hectares of vineyards, growing Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah and Trebbiano grapes. Pride of place for Riccardo are the estate’s sparkling wines, created using the same methods that they use in the Champagne region of France. Swirling a glass of gently sparkling rosé, he is quick to tell us that this is the first sparkling wine made from the Sangiovese grapes on the market. During a stay at Il Falconiere, you’ll have ample opportunities to taste the Baracchi’s beautiful vintages. There are wine tours every day, followed by wine tasting or a tasting paired with dishes from the restaurant. ‘We decided to offer the possibility for people to taste our wines paired with some of our dishes, at different prices so that people can still enjoy a Michelin star cuisine without having to pay expensive prices,’ Lina tells us. It’s another gesture of the Baracchi’s extraordinary commitment to showcasing the best of what this region has to offer, for everyone.
Silvia and Riccardo even make use of the estate’s produce at the hotel’s intimate and inviting spa. Here, you can enjoy soothing therapies with products that use the natural antioxidant properties of the grapes and the wine, proven to have beneficial effects on skin, circulation and stress relief. Other treatments make use of the hotel’s olive oil, or the natural products made by the world-famous Officina Profumo Farmaceutica de Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
Offering a spot where people can really unwind is particularly important to Silvia, and the hotel’s natural surroundings are particularly important. There is ‘a rhythm to the countryside that follows the seasons’, that Silvia believes can help us find tranquility amidst the hectic demands of modern life. Staying at Il Falconiere, you’ll feel an almost palpable connection not only to the surrounding hills and valleys but also the region’s rich traditions and history, whether in the recipes that Silvia learned from her mother when she was still a young girl, or in Riccardo’s continuation of his family’s wine production. ‘I want our guests to feel as if they are coming home,’ Silvia says, kneading pasta dough for that evening’s menu, ‘I want them to enjoy the Tuscan life, and our soul.’