Cooking class at Tuscan inn reveals soul of Italian food

Sunday, July 11, 2004

PANZANO IN CHIANTI, Italy -- Deep in the Chianti wine country, I guided a rented Volkswagen over a nearly mile-long dirt road, past vineyards and olive trees and down a steep, narrow and gouged stretch that made the car's shocks groan.

Maybe the dusty bouncing would have been less severe if I had taken the rutted path a little slower. But that would have required containing my excitement about the destination: a Tuscan inn with cooking classes.

Italy is a beautiful, friendly place, with an insane assortment of things to do and see. But when my wife and I spent three weeks there this spring, one of our most exciting activities was eating.

We were blown away by fresh pasta with one-note accompaniments, such as truffle oil or mushrooms. We marveled at the deep flavors of dried meats, pungent cheeses and rich red tomatoes. Things I would not eat at home, such as wild boar and rabbit, became new friends.

Opportunity not to missOne problem, beyond pants that no longer fit, is that if you really like to cook, eating amazing food forces you to reconsider your own kitchen strategies. It's as if the people in the restaurant are throwing down a gauntlet, saying, "Oh yeah? You think you make some good beef stew? Beat this."

So the opportunity to take a cooking class -- especially in Tuscany, the hilly northern region whose landscape of medieval villages and farms has changed little in centuries -- was too good to pass up. Here we could learn from the masters -- get inside the inner sanctum and see how the magic happens.

We discovered the bed and breakfast, Fagiolari, the same way we found most every place we stayed -- on the Internet, with the help of guidebooks and message-board postings from other travelers. Information abounds because so many tourists go to Italy; the Tuscan countryside is a trendy vacation spot (think "Under the Tuscan Sun"), and lots of places offer cooking classes, including multi-day sessions.

Our class came on the final night of a three-day stay at Fagiolari, a converted stone farmhouse where rooms started at $100, breakfast included.

Owner Giulietta Giovannoni charges $100 per person for the class, which she has offered since 1995.

That price includes an apron, a cookbook with about 30 recipes, the dinner that you learn how to cook, plus generous carafes of the red Chianti wine grown on the premises.

Considering that she charges that much for cooking classes, Giulietta seems surprisingly humble when I asked about the origins of her culinary wisdom.

"In Italy, the women all cook," she shrugged, and smiled.

But there is a little more to it: Raised in Florence, 20 miles to the north, she worked in a restaurant and with caterers before buying the Fagiolari farmhouse, olive groves and vineyards and turning it into a five-room B&B. In Italy this kind of inn/working farm is called an "agriturismo."

Giulietta's success with Fagiolari (pronounced Fahj-ee-o-lah-ree) inspired her twin sister, Marinella, to open a lovely agriturismo of her own just outside the Tuscan hill town of Volterra. We stayed at Marinella's place, called Podere San Lorenzo, before coming to Fagiolari and ate a few dishes that blew our minds, including a light but tasty asparagus lasagna and roasted vegetables stuffed with meat. (Marinella also offers cooking classes.)

Guided through the kitchenDuring our class in Fagiolari, Giulietta was in the background, turning things over to her young assistant, Stefania Balducci, who also speaks very good English. She sweetly, patiently and ably guided me, my wife, a Dutch couple and two New Zealanders.

The menu consisted of pesto, the sublime mixture of basil, garlic and olive oil; zuppa di farro, a traditional Tuscan soup featuring cannellini beans and spelt, a barley-like grain; vegetables simmered in a tomato sauce; beef and pork loins simmered in Chianti wine and onions; and an apple cake for dessert.

When we arrived at 5 p.m., Stefania had carefully laid out the ingredients, purchased that morning, and done a few key things in advance, like soaking the cannellini beans and spelt for the soup.

As we sipped wine, Stefania showed us how to make the dishes, and had us six students take turns peeling vegetables, chopping onions and picking fresh basil in the garden.

Stefania had a few key tips that I made sure to absorb, such as how to season raw meat by cutting strategically placed holes and stuffing them with salt, pepper and garlic cloves. Another bit of her advice: pesto will stick to pasta better if you add small chunks of potato to the boiling water in which the noodles cook.

By 8 p.m. -- after several glasses of wine -- we were starving to eat what we had been making and smelling. For me, the anticipation seemed more acute by having finally become an insider in an Italian kitchen.

When the plates were cleared and we shifted from wine to grappa, I decided to recommend the cooking class to others.

Perhaps best of all, it demystified and democratized the Tuscan kitchen. The essential message was how to get good food to emerge from simple concepts and very fresh ingredients.

That's a strategy I feel comfortable trying to replicate at home -- even though home, sadly, is far from the nurturing green landscape of Tuscany.

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