I arrive at the hire car office in Firenze and it is pandemonium – bags, kids, customers and frazzled Italian attendants all sweltering in the stuffy confines of an overcrowded office. After much hand waving and raised eyebrows (on my part) I had the keys to the chariot – a Fiat Panda. Have you ever driven a Fiat Panda? Well, it is just like a ride-on lawn mower but with windows and a glove box. I opened the hatch at the back of the car to put my suit case in, only to find that it is too small to accommodate the coffin on wheels that I am carting about. So after much puffing and panting I finally get my suitcase onto the back seat with the assistance of a gent who was standing on the pavement. After graciously helping me he hobbled away holding his stomach where I am sure a hernia was evidence of his chivalrous action.
Luckily, I had arranged to hire a Sat Nav system to assist with the journey into the wilds of the Tuscan mountainside to the east of Firenze. So off I go driving on the wrong side of the road into the twisting crowded streets of Firenze in my Fiat Panda. For the first five hundred meters the sat nav was deadly silent as there was no coverage between the tall buildings and narrow streets of this part of Firenze. Finally, a voice from the wilderness sprang into life and started to give directions. Placing my trust in Susie (I named the Sat Nav – Susie) I made my way cautiously through the crazy Saturday traffic and head towards Poppi and the Tuscan hills.
After 2 hours of climbing and winding through beautiful forests (mostly in second gear and at best in third) I arrive in a small agricultural town of Poppi. This is situated on the Arno river in the very fertile Casentino valley, servicing the farming community around it. Apart from the river, its distinguishing feature is the medieval Poppi Castle imposing itself over the town from the highest point as castles usually do.
I head out of town looking for my home for the next week – Casa Ombuto. There is a rickety wooden sign pointing off-road so I follow it. The road gets rougher and rougher – holes that are big enough to swallow the wheel of the Panda, ridges, ruts and boulders make this a real off-road experience. My goodness – I should have paid more attention to the fine print on the contract – I am sure there is a clause in there about no off roading!
Finally, I glimpse my destination ahead – a couple of imposing stone pillars and iron gates. I follow the gravel drive and arrive in front of some very attractive stone buildings. These are surrounded by lovely gardens and orchards. Further afield from this elevated plateau is a valley spreading out before me and then surrounding the villa on the other three sides are heavily wooded hillsides covered with oak trees and conifers. It is very peaceful with a vivid blue sky above and the sound of birds coming from the forest and the faint hum of bees that are hovering over massive pots of lavender, roses, and oleander that surround a glistening swimming pool and terrace.
The accommodation is a large stone building covered in vines, wisteria and roses. My room is one of five bedrooms (all en suite) in a self-contained apartment. There is a kitchen with a large wooden table, a large sitting room with squishy sofas and wing chairs and the room is dominated by a huge stone fire-place in which you could literally roast a wild boar. The shuttered windows overlook the gardens and the valley in the distance. There is a shaded veranda overlooking the gardens and the swimming pool where comfortable sun lounges beckon and a vine-covered pergola where a couple of hammocks are slung between posts that look very inviting. My home for the next week is going to be comfortable indeed.
The main building is set apart from the accommodation and is the control centre of the cooking school. This is where all the action happens. It houses an enormous kitchen (where we will have our lessons) and very large dining area that can easily seat up to 30 people. Here we can help ourselves to the fridge, cocktail cabinet, refreshments, wine fridge etc at any time of day of night – as long as the last person to leave turns the lights out and closes the door.
My companions are good fun and during the week we get to know each other better and share many a laugh along the way. However, the star of the show, is our chef and teacher – Paola. She is a larger than life character with wild red hair, a big smile and a vibrant personality to match. Throughout the week, she regales us with wonderful stories about life in Italy, local identities and oddities of Italians and their unique way of life. Her passion for food and cooking is evident and it infects us all as we discover new skills and a love for creating artistry on a plate.
On our first night, Paola cooked a welcome dinner starting with an apperitivo of peach Bellinis and nibbles of tiny peppers stuffed with a cheese and caper mouse. Then dinner was served outside in the cool of the night around a huge table, under a vine-covered pergola lit by lamps and candles and surrounded by wonderful hydrangea and roses. An idyllic setting which will add to the ambiance of all our meals over the next seven days.
Dinner started with a mixed antipasto of mouse made with Bresolsa (air dried beef) on crostini, a caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a pastry pinwheel stuffed with an olive tapenade; prima piatti – fresh fettuccine with a rocket pesto and grated zucchini and shaved Parmesan; secondo piatti – bistecca fiorentino (T bones – 700 gms to a kilo each) flash grilled then sliced and a served drenched with warm olive oil that had been steeped with rosemary, pink and green peppercorns. This was served with roasted local potatoes and a fried zucchini flower; dolce – a wonderful light apple cake spiked with pine nuts and served with a homemade cinnamon ice cream. Each course was accompanied with a matched Tuscan wine. In case the matched wine ran short there was lots of bottles of house wine on the table.
To top off the evening when the desert plates were cleared about a dozen bottles of different liqueurs, digestives, vin santo, and grappas were put on the table. Luckily my room was only a short stagger away and up only one flight of stairs. This after dinner ritual was repeated every night of our stay so there was much story telling over a glass or two of something.
Our daily routine began after an Italian breakfast of fruit and cereals, cheeses and cold meats. We spent mornings at leisure: lying by the pool, swimming, reading, sleeping, walking, biking or taking a drive to explore the local area and other towns nearby.
Lunch is served at 1.00pm by our lunch chef Rita. This was a delicious selection of dishes including pasta, a vegetable dish, salad, a meat dish and cheese and then followed by a home-made cake or tart. There is wine on the table but most of us chose to take it easy as cooking class commenced at 3.00pm.
After lunch, we had a brief hour to rest and prepare for the foray into the kitchen. The bell rings at three and we congregated in the kitchen where we were presented with our aprons and cookbooks. For the first hour we sat around the table as Paola outlined the recipes for the day. Our class was not confined to just preparing three courses but consisted of an appetizer, pasta, main, and then a dessert course – also there were other dishes cooked during the session that will make their way to the lunch table the following day.
At around 5.30 – 6.00pm we took a break from the hive of activity in the kitchen and sat around a table outside to grab any passing breeze. To restore our energy levels, wine was available, fruit juice and for repast there was a tasty cake, tart or gelato that had been cooked by the class that day. Following the break, we reconvened in the kitchen to complete the list of tasks and recipes for the day. At 7.30 it was time for a quick dip in the pool and a shower before we enjoyed for a well-earned dinner under the stars where we tried the fruits of our labours.
This is a summary of what we cooked in the week:
Pasta e Pizza e Pane
• Pizza – mine was decidedly the oddest pizza on the table – a weird abstract square shape with a toppings that looked like a Picasso canvas
• Pane alle Patate e Rosmarino – potato and rosemary bread
• Rotolo con Broccoli e Ricotta – fresh pasta roll with broccoli and ricotta
• Fagottini di Branzino all Zafferano – pasta filled with sea bass and saffron sauce
• Ravioli da Asparagi con Pesto di Asparagi – pasta filled with asparagus and ricotta
• Ravioli di Barbabietola – beetroot ravioli with lemon and prawn sauce
• Ravioi di Funghi – ravioli with wild mushrooms
• Tortelli di Patate – ravioli filled with potato
Salsa e Sugo
• Salsa Verde – green parsley sauce. A great topping for bread and meats
• La Salsa – tomato sauce.
• Salsa alla Puttanesca. A great topping for crostini and pasta.
• Maionese – Mayonnaise. To vary the flavour add orange juice, Dijon mustard, or white wine vinegar
• La Mediterranea – fresh tomato sauce. This is an ideal topping for bruschetta
• Aromatic Salt – this can flavoured with a variety of herbs such as rosemary, zests of citrus, or rose petals
• Il Ragu – meat sauce
• Pesto de Zucchine – excellent in a vegetarian lasagne
• La Salsa di Senape – vinaigrette sauce
• Melanzane con Tagliolini e Proscuitto – stuffed eggplant rolls with tomato sauce
• Muffin di Vedure – vegetable muffins
• Cheesecake al Pesto di Basilico – basil pesto cheesecake
• Souffle di Baccala – cod fish soufflé
• Zuppa di Cipolle – onion soup with Tuscan bread
• Sformato di Ricotta Tarufata – ricotta and truffle pie
• Millefoglie di Baccala e Porri su Crema di Rucola – cod fish and leesks with puff pastry on rocket cream
• Faraona al vin Santo e Funghi Porcini – guinea fowl with vin santo and porcini mushrooms
• Petto di Pollo Farcito alle Olivi – involtini of chicken breast filled with olives
• Filetti di Pollo in Crosta di Pistacchio –chicken breasts with a pistachio nut crust
• Filetto di Maiale Croccante con Pistacchi – crunchy pork fillets with pistachios
• Coniglio alla Cacciatora – rabbit in a tomato sauce
• Vitello Arrosto con Porcini – roasted veal with porcini mushrooms
• Vitello Tonnato – veal with tuna sauce
• Fagottini de Ceci con Pori – chickpea “bags” with leeks
• Cream di Zabione con Lingue di Gatto – zabione cream with cat’s tongue biscuits
• Cantuccini alla Mandorle – almond biscuits
• Panna Cotta
• Torta di Peshe ed Amaretti –peach and amaretti tart
• Rotolo di Cioccolato con panna – chocolate roll with cream
• Semifreddo alle noci e ciccolato bianco – walnut and white chocolate semifreddo
Delicious and loads of fun – I am happy to provide recipes on request – just drop me a line.
In the next Blog I am visiting a very special winery and chatting to the wine maker, a passionate goat cheese maker and more…