Cooking Up a Feast in Tuscany
Whenever I travel, I like to balance my trips between scheduled activities and noncommittal rest and relaxation. Factoring in flexibility allows time for those additional adventures that spontaneously pop up or the need to wave the vacation-white-flag and surrender to lounging by the pool. Thanks to American Express credit card points, booking tours in advance alleviates the stressful legwork that goes hand and hand with planning activities or all-inclusive excursions. I’ve yet to be disappointed in this practice and the Tuscan Farmhouse cooking class we took with Walkabout Florence was no exception.
Our extremely friendly and highly competent guide took our group of ten (from different parts of the world) to the historic food market Mercato Centrale located in the San Lorenzo area. There we interacted with local farmers and butchers; sampled fresh produce and cured meats while we shopped for the necessary ingredients to prepare our lunch feast. Along the way our guide pointed out landmarks and their historical significance, and explained the origins of Florentine cooking and agricultural traditions.
After we selected the meats, cheeses, olives, balsamic vinegar, and sun-dried tomatoes; picked up the bread from the local bakery; and tasted the wines we’d be pairing with our meal, a chartered minibus drove us up to the Tuscan hills surrounding the city. There we encountered a beautiful rustic farmhouse sitting on acres of land. Waiting there in a gorgeous open-air kitchen was our master chef who was busy setting up our individual workstations. A farm hand was stoking the brick oven’s fire and moving wheel barrels of vegetables from the properties bountiful garden. Olive trees and grapevines extended out from the property’s edge into the neighboring Tuscan countryside where on the horizon the iconic red-tiled roofs of the city buildings colored the sky.
On the menu that afternoon was the following:
Bruschetta (made from ripe tomatoes we plucked from the farmhouse vines and their home-made extra virgin olive oil)
Garden Salad (fresh lettuce and vegetables from the farmhouse garden)
Pizza (dough made from scratch)
Pasta with traditional Bolognese (pasta made from scratch)
Tuscan Arista with roast potatoes (succulent roast pig)
Classic Tiramisu (with fresh mascarpone and Italian coffee)
Gelato (made from scratch)
Tuscan Chianti (full-bodied).
As someone who loves to cook, abides by the farm-to-table ethos that supports the use of fresh and local ingredients whenever possible; I consider Italian food to be my favorite type of cuisine. Learning to cook an authentic 4-course meal from a celebrated Italian chef was a dream come true. She taught us how to make pasta using fresh eggs from the farmhouse’s chicken coop. We made pizza dough and learned how to properly shape it—tossing it up in the air, as it progressively got thinner. Before roasting it, we cleaned, seasoned and tied strings around the pork; churned the cream for the gelato, and diced the tomatoes we collected in the farmhouse’s garden for the bruschetta.
Throughout the afternoon we enjoyed up to 4 glasses of Tuscan Chianti included in the class along with a fine Grappa. From early morning to late afternoon, our little group ate, drank, and learned the fundamentals of Italian cooking while getting to know each other. Tipsy and stuffed, bound for the city limits, we left the farmhouse with all the recipes/instructions for the meal we made, a copy of our chef’s cookbook, a cooking-class diploma (cute) and the apron we wore as a souvenir.
I highly recommend booking this class with Walkabout Florence or any other tours they provide (the company offers private or small group tours in a variety of areas and interests). Not only did I receive practical information about cooking popular Italian dishes I continue to use, I also experienced an unforgettable moment that enriched the vacation and my memory of it forever.