Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning the Art of Tuscan Cooking

Much to the disgust of other seasoned travelers we met on the road, we chose to neglect several major attractions in Florence including the world famous Ufizzi Art Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David. I guess it didn’t spark our interest as much as learning to cook in a Tuscan kitchen with a Tuscan chef.

As someone who is a little crazy about food, if there was one thing I didn’t want to miss in Italy, it was learning to cook the Italian way. I was even willing to pay the extortionate fees that most cooking schools were asking. It was a score when I discovered classes at half price without any skimping on the quality and we immediately booked ourselves in. We began with a tour of the San Lorenzo food market where our chef teacher guided us through the market stalls, introducing us to the fresh produce and products on offer. The vibrancy and depth of the colours on show as well as products of all shapes and sizes were mesmerizing. It was foodie heaven, until we approached one merchant who proudly sold tripe of all kinds and the occasional cow face. Impressive albeit slightly disgusting. We learned that the Italians make use of almost every animal body part in their cooking and these were also on display. I bordered on the very edge of converting to a vegetarian when a little lamb with its eyelashes still in tact was gutted and beheaded right in front of us. Eeeeewwww!! I guess the meat could not get any fresher!! Apologies to everyone….especially vegetarians who are feeling squirmish after reading this!  

 Mmmm, tripe! Not!

Look at that colour! :-)

After purchasing the ingredients for our class, we returned to the kitchen to prepare our degustation menu of tomato and basil bruschetta, pasta with a roasted vegetable sauce, balsamic glazed meatballs and panacotta with fresh strawberry coulis. The chef meticulously demonstrated the preparation of every ingredient, incorporating a few little secrets and hints about creating authentic dishes. We learned to part cook pasta in boiling water and then complete the cooking in the sauce, adding extra water as it softens. This little trick helps the pasta to completely soak up the sauce, instead of sitting on top of the pasta. The result…..a totally different and authentic taste, one that I’ve wanted to create for a while. I will be remembering this one!

Roasted vegetable pasta....delish!

Bruschetta....there's a few secrets in making these good too ;-)

We worked in a group of four to prepare each dish and sitting down to savour our creations was divine! Not only was the food as good as anything we had eaten in Italy, it was even more satisfying to know that we had a hand in perfecting it. So impressed by our experience, all we wanted to do was book into every class that was on offer….realistically, we only had time for one, so we registered for the ‘fresh pasta making’ class.

Waking up super keen and wanting to get to our next class early, we decided to drive the car into Florence, which from where we were staying was about half an hour. What we weren’t prepared for was any kind of drama, especially since Tim was obviously confident about where he was going. Walking for about twenty minutes I began doubting we were in any vicinity to the cooking school, but upon reviewing the map again, Tim assured me we were not far away. By this time, the class had started, we were fifteen minutes late and I was irritated to say the least. After studying the map together again, what we realized was we had been walking in the completely opposite direction for about two kilometers!! Ok, now I was infuriated! We caused a big scene on the side of the road, classic Italian style, with my meltdown over the likelihood of missing the class and Tim with his meltdown over getting the directions completely wrong. Then, in true hero style, Tim’s problem solving hat went into overdrive and he managed to spot a taxi sitting on the street corner. We jumped in and in broken Italian we directed the driver to where we needed to go and waved our hands around to gesture ‘get us there fast’! Arriving half an hour late, a little hot and sweaty, we really hadn’t missed much and our chef happily took us aside to help us make our pasta dough. I couldn’t be annoyed at the situation anymore or at Tim, who couldn’t have been more sorry about stuffing up the directions. We are all human after all.

Although I don’t mind eating dried, packet pasta, there is really no comparison to freshly made pasta and it was a treat to learn the art of making it. To prepare a good freshly made pasta, it’s all about the tools and letting the dough rest before using it. A very useful device in the Italian kitchen is a pasta making machine which flattens the dough and can also cut it according to the type of pasta you want to make. Of course these processes can all be done with a rolling pin and a knife, but the pasta maker speeds up the process. With dough that ended up over a metre long, it was a lot of fun to keep it in tact, but we managed to succeed in making tagliatelle and spaghetti. It seemed that we had a knack for it and even Tim’s enthusiasm peaked with the use of a new gadget. With minimal use of the pasta maker, we also learned how to make ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Just as important as the pasta, were the sauces to go with it – ragu (Bolognese), butter and sage, and fresh tomato and basil. All so simple but so delicious!

Making pasta....like being back in kindy!

If there is one thing I would recommend everyone do whilst in Italy, especially if you enjoy food, it would be to participate in at least one cooking class. To experience first hand, the love, passion and zeal that Italians have for their cuisine was inspiring. I can’t wait to cook up an Italian storm at home, wherever that may be.


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