Italy: Learning the Secrets of Tuscan Cuisine
"That easygoing Italian way of life that visitors find so alluring and desirable, la dolce vita, is indisputably linked to the Italians' instinctive knowledge of how to drink and eat well."
By Stephen Hartshorne
Tuscany is a great place to learn the art of cooking.
People visit Tuscany for many different reasons. Some like the sunshine, the stunning pastoral scenery, the medieval villages and the ancient Etruscan ruins.
Some come to see the magnificent art and architecture of Florence and some like to relax on the beaches of the Tuscan Riviera.
Some like the hiking or the horseback riding, some come to take art lessons or visit the spas and hot springs, and some like to go golfing or hot-air ballooning. Still, others are drawn to the exciting pageants and festivals dating back centuries.
Florence is the birthplace of the opera and attracts many music lovers, and then there are the galleries displaying the works of great artists like Raphael and Michelangelo.
But of all the attractions that lure visitors to this storied province, the greatest is probably the food -- and the wine.
Just as the Italians are renown throughout the world as masters of the culinary arts, so Tuscan chefs are renown throughout the 20 provinces of Italy, as are Tuscan vintners.
Good Tastes of Tuscany
So it's not surprising that visitors from all over the world come to enjoy the cuisine of Tuscany and to learn more about local cooking techniques. One of the very best places to do this is a cooking school called Good Tastes of Tuscany.
Located in the historic 14th-century Villa Pandolfini, Good Tastes of Tuscany offers a wide range of options from a single-day cooking class to a seven-day culinary/cultural adventure.
The English-speaking Italian chefs all have extensive professional training and have also learned the secrets and traditions passed on in their families from generation to generation.
The 370-acre estate includes a private forest, vineyards and olive groves. Antiques, frescoes, beautiful loggia (porches) looking onto a breathtaking renaissance garden and an elegant castle that has accommodated guests like Napoleon Bonaparte and King Charles VIII of France
The Villa Pandolfini is a working farm and vineyard which produces extra virgin olive oil and Chianti, so visitors get a firsthand look at the seasons and cycles of Tuscan agricultural life.
Some students stay at the Villa with its historic frescoes and ornate gardens, others chose from an extensive listing of self-catering accommodations in Tuscany from villas in the countryside to apartments in nearby Florence. After all, if you're taking cooking lessons in Tuscany you want the opportunity to test what you have learned, both in the market and in the kitchen.
While some people like to stay at hotels and dine at restaurants, others like to shop and cook because it makes them feel more a part of the region they're visiting.
Good Tastes of Tuscany offers two different one-day courses: one for beginners and one for gourmands.
A First Taste
The beginner course is called "A First Taste of Tuscany" and participants learn step-by-step how to make traditional Italian meal from appetizers to dessert.
They learn to create pasta like ravioli, tagliettli and gnocchi prepare sauces such as fresh basil pesto, tomato and basil, ragout of wild mushrooms and sweet onions, meat or duck ragout and many others.
They also receive a book of 150 Tuscan recipes.
A Course for 'Foodies'
In the gourmand course, called Italian Immersion, students learn how to prepare a decadent Tuscan meal that will impress even the most experienced 'foodies.'
This includes stuffed pasta like ravioli, risotto, beginning with the broth, the second course of meat or game and, of course, dessert. The meal consists of five to six courses: two antipasti, two first courses (ravioli, risotto or gnocchi), the second course with one or two side dishes and dessert.
They can also visit the local market with the chefs to learn how to select the best ingredients.
As with all the courses, students get to enjoy the fruits of their labors, along with Chianti and extra virgin olive oil made right on the premises.
For those who want to learn more, the school also offers two- and three-day sessions, as well as a comprehensive week-long course.
A Week-Long Culinary Adventure
The week-long course, called "The Villa Pandolfini Gastronomical Adventure" begins with a history of Tuscan cuisine, typical dishes, Tuscan bread, peasant foods, and explains how the gastronomy has changed through the medieval and renaissance periods up until modern times.
On each of the four cooking days, students prepare a full five-course meal, including a wide variety of dishes from oven-roasted guinea fowl to pork with fennel and scallions, to orange duck, to a savory tart of pears and Gorgonzola cheese.
On the first day, students are taken on a tour of the countryside visiting medieval villages and castles, and the 14th-century Olivetan monastery where 'The English Patient' was filmed.
At a vineyard estate owned by one of Tuscany's renowned noble families, they have the opportunity to savor wines, olive oil, cheese and salami and enjoy a light lunch at the vineyard's restaurant. Then the tour takes in the towns of San Quirico and Bagno Vignoni, famous for natural hot springs.
They also visit a factory where pecorino cheese is made.
The Mercato Centrale
Throughout the week excursions are planned to give students a familiarity with the agriculture and animal husbandry that produce the ingredients that go into Tuscan cuisine.
One of the most important excursions is a visit to the famous 'Mercato Centrale, the multi-level marketplace whereFlorentines have purchased their fresh produce for centuries.
The trip includes an opportunity to shop at the famous leather markets and to try what is considered the best gelato in the world.
Students get to go truffle hunting in the countryside and gather edible flowers to garnish their dishes. Another excursion is to a hand-painted ceramics factory.
But the main emphasis, of course, is on the food: how to select the best ingredients, how to prepare the myriad dishes and desserts, how to serve it, and, above all, how to enjoy it.
The school's philosophy is summed up on their website:
"That easygoing Italian way of life that visitors find so alluring and desirable, la dolce vita, is indisputably linked to the Italians' instinctive knowledge of how to drink and eat well.
"The dinner table is the scene of many conversations, debates, and decisions; favorite foods evoke happy memories, good health and comfort.
"The saying that Italians live to eat while the rest of the world eats to live still rings true today."
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.