Ruth Rogers’ perfect weekend in Val d’Orcia

More than 30 years since founding London’s River Cafe, the globally revered chef continues to delight the most discerning of diners with her passion for seasonality and authentic Italian cooking

Rick Pushinsky
Rick Pushinsky

“For the past 20 years we’ve spent the end of the summer in the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany. It’s almost like a desert landscape. I went to school in Colorado and I just love the endless views and big skies. 

We stay in Contignano, a village halfway between Pienza and Montepulciano. The house sleeps 20 and is always full. Other friends stay nearby, so we’re in and out of each other’s houses all the time. 

My husband Richard gets up early and so by the time I open our bedroom shutters on Saturday morning he’ll be outside, working. We eat all our meals on the terrace. Breakfast is coffee, toast and homemade jams, peaches and yoghurt and we’ll also make a very Italian dry polenta and lemon cake. There’s talk about politics, then we plan our day. 

First we’ll visit Montepulciano, about 20 minutes away. It’s home to San Biagio, a Renaissance church by Antonio da Sangallo that is one of Italy’s most magnificent. We park in the piazza at the top of the town and walk down medieval streets full of food shops and cafés. Late summer is all about the fresh borlotti beans and courgettes, and the tomatoes are at full ripeness. There might even be porcini mushrooms.

We’ll stop for a drink at Caffè Poliziano. It’s quite dark and small inside, but out the back it has a balcony overlooking the whole of the Val d’Orcia. I’ll have an espresso and one of their delicious cakes, or if it’s after 11am, a Campari. By midday it’s getting hot, so we swim at home before sitting down to lunch: penne with courgettes from the garden or the local pici with tomato and basil. And we’ll have fresh pecorino from Caseificio Cugusi, a nearby farm where it’s made each day from free-grazing sheep outside Montepulciano. At the end of the meal there is always a pause and then the words I love to hear: “Ruthie, game of take two?” A friend of Rose [Gray, my late business partner] taught me this game – it’s like scrabble without the board – the first summer we were in Tuscany, and I am obsessed.

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Early evening is a nice time to visit Pienza, a perfect Renaissance town on a hill not far away. It’s home to Macelleria Scroccaro, a generations-old butcher that has certified Chianina beef and Cinta Senese pork; and L’Orto di Silvia, a tiny greengrocer with the best local produce.

It is also where our friends, New Yorkers John Voigtmann and Ondine Cohane, created La Bandita Townhouse, a boutique hotel housed in an old convent. We’ll go to the square for ice cream from Dolce Sosta, and pizza, which the children eat sitting on the church steps.

We always get home in time for the sunset and gather on the terrace for a drink – Bellinis if we have any white peaches – and some bruschetta. I also make fried courgette flowers with the children; it’s our little ritual. Supper is a classic Tuscan meal of grilled meats or fish. There’s a piano and the children bring guitars, so the evening ends with everyone singing under the stars. 

In the morning, we’ll walk around the beautiful 15th-century estate of La Foce, near Montepulciano. When the sun heats up we return home to swim and rest – or do a bit more work. 

Sunday evening is a good time to hear vespers at Sant’Antimo, a Romanesque monastery a few miles from Montalcino. Then we drive up through olive groves to Sant’Angelo in Colle, a tiny village with two simple trattorias, Il Posso and Il Leccio, side by side, with tables outside for traditional Tuscan pici, panzanella and bistecca Fiorentina. Back at home, we drink grappa and watch films on our outdoor projector. Richard and I usually say goodnight first. Closing the shutters on Mount Amiata, we are thankful for this place we love so much.”

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