Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cooking class, Italian pranzo both enjoyable and special experiences

Dave from Pittsburg chops veggies for the crostini al
pomodoro while Elena show how to make the ragù.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
I’ve always had the impression that making homemade pasta is a complicated process that takes at least an hour, but I have the opportunity to attend a beginning level Italian cooking class today and find out that it’s not difficult at all. I think that with some practice, I could make enough to feed two in about 15 minutes. And since fresh pasta is only cooked for a minute, the whole process wouldn’t take much longer than it does to boil dried pasta, which requires 10 to 12 minutes to reach the right consistency.

Giuliana, right, helps a student cut out a piece for a tortello.
The meal is part of a cooking class I attend with six tourists at the Fattoria il Poggio, a local farm and agriturismo. I am not actually enrolled in the class but instead am introduced as the official photographer by the instructor, who happens to be my friend and cousin Elena Benvenuti. It is a slick deal for me, because I receive not only a cooking lesson but a free five-course home-cooked Italian meal afterwards.

The class and meal are both fantastic. We learn to make tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle and maccheroni—and we also learn not to call them noodles, which is a German word. Another pasta product I previously thought difficult was ravioli, but it’s not that hard either, and nor is tortelli or tortellini. We also learn to make two types of crostini—which is a type of bruschetta—and the best balsamic chicken and ragù I have ever tasted.

For each shape Giuliana cut out,
Elena wrote the name on the paper
tablecloth, and then the class
duplicated the work.
Even if I never make any of these myself, the class is a great experience on many levels. Elena has partnered with Giuliana, an experienced chef who cooks for the Poggio but doesn’t speak English, so it is really Elena’s show. And the word show is appropriate, because she puts on an enchanting performance. Elena is lively, funny, entertaining and passionate about her cooking and her job of teaching us the proper Italian ways. She peppers her instruction with selected words of Italian and adds advice from her own mother, who told her, “When you cook, you cook. You must focus on what you are doing and not be distracted. But you also must be joyful and sing. The reason a nonna’s cooking is so good is because she mixes love in with her ingredients.”

All work is closely monitored by Giuliana.
And about those ingredients—Elena is insistent that they must be of the highest quality. The olive oil should be cold-pressed by a lengthy and time-honored process and not produced by chemical processes or by machines that try to speed up the job and thus create friction and heat during the cutting and squeezing. The balsamic vinegar must be the kind that is aged for five years. The fruit and vegetables should be fresh and organic, and the best meat is from animals raised locally.

“You must use cold-pressed oil,” Elena says. “There have been big scandals in Europe about companies that use chemical processes, mix in other ingredients with their olive oil or export really bad quality olives from other countries. If it doesn’t say extra virgin and cold-pressed, it’s a junk that I wouldn’t even use in my car.”

Elena shows an old-style olive press.
Badly produced oil can be detected by the way it smells, especially when it is cooked. In America, we are taught that olive oil breaks down when used in frying, but that is only partially true, Elena says. Italians use high quality olive oil for frying all the time; it is only the cheap oils that degrade at higher temperatures.

Some of the students take out pen and paper ready to write down amounts and ingredients, but Elena tells them to put their notes down and immerse themselves in the experience. “You can look in a cook book later, but now you need to smell and feel what you are doing.”

The group is surprised at how quickly the pasta and balsamic chicken are made. “Who knew it was that easy?” says Lisa of Pittsburg. “The Italians cook simply, and it’s delicious. We use a hundred ingredients, and for what?”

Crostini al pomodoro, a group
project worked on by various
class members
The crostini al pomodoro takes longer because it requires time to dice the tomatoes, garlic and basil, and various student cooks take their turn chopping. Meanwhile, the wait is mitigated when Elena opens a couple bottles of the fattoria’s home-bottled wine “to prove the quality of the wine.” We also sample bites of the pollo balsamico, which everyone agrees is perfetto. The ragù is not complicated, but I know I will not have the patience to make it at home, as it must simmer on the stove for two or three hours and requires frequent, almost constant, stirring. Anything less than two hours will not allow the ingredients to fully infuse, although we sample our ragù on sliced bread (crostini al ragù) about 10 minutes early and it is still incredibly good.

After the cooking lesson, we receive a short tour of the fattoria, where we see an old-fashioned olive press and learn more about the process of cold pressing. Today, however, families take their olives to various large mills and wait in line for their olives to be squeezed. This way each family is assured that their oil is pure and has been properly processed.

Pollo balsamico, made with fresh ingredients--fantastic!
And now come more rewards for my labors, our exquisite pranzo, with the same dishes we have learned how to make, plus a few additions. For the antipasto, we have the crostini al pomodoro but also pomodori secchi—sun dried tomatoes—olives, and finocchiona, which is a spicy cured pork, flavored with fennel seeds. The primo piatto is maccheroni al ragù, followed by insalata mista, a mixed green salad. We finish with as much pollo balsamico as we can eat.

Meanwhile we also have open bottles of every type of wine the farm makes for our sampling, along with Tuscan unsalted bread as another vehicle for tasting the pure olio d’oliva and aceto balsamico. All this is followed by cantuccini, which we dip in vin santo, a dessert wine.
Buon appetito! Here is the whole group, still on the primo piatto, minus the photographer.

During the meal, which takes around an hour, we have a conversation about our impressions of Italy. It is interesting for me to see the country once more through the eyes of a first-time visitor. Though I am a seasoned traveler, I am still accustomed to feeling a little uncertain of myself in Italy. I struggle to find the words to communicate. I don’t understand how the government offices work. I forget that the stores have different hours than I am used to.

Our teachers Giuliana and Elena, with crostini al ragù.
But today I get to see how far I have come since I first started traveling to Italy almost 20 years ago. Suddenly my role has changed for the foreigner who is trying to understand a different culture to an expert on a foreign culture. These people ask for my help with pronunciation, travel, customs and food, and I can easily answer out of personal experience. It’s a nice feeling being the person in the know, for a change, instead of the stranger who depends on the goodwill of others.

Thinking we are done, some of the ladies excuse themselves to use the facilities, but when they return, there are cups of espresso and grappa to help us digest the feast we have consumed. The six cooking students today are part of a tour group that is approaching the end of a seven-day tour. The feeling seems unanimous among those who opted for this class and lunch that this has been the most enjoyable day of their stay.

After he returned to Pittsburg, Dave sent Elena an e-mail, from which I have borrowed a few lines: “One of the high points in my trip to Tuscany was the cooking class. This was a deviation from the ‘normal’ touring, where I got to work and eat with the local people, to see how they live and enjoy life. This experience will live on in my memory for a long time.”

Dave and his group also took a tour in Lucca with Elena, and he had rave reviews about that as well:  “Elena was the best tour guide that we had during our stay in Tuscany. Other guides were able to relate dates and names, but Elena made Lucca come alive, she was able to share charming tales about the history and evolution of Lucca. The tour was not just dull facts and figures, but she was able to place us back in time. Elena was our tour guide, historian and ultimately a friend. Elena was proud of her home town, and this came through in the tour. Her effervescent personality and friendly manner made the day informative and fun. She went out of her way to ensure that we had a pleasant time, even joining us for lunch at her favorite Bistro. The friendly rivalry that exists between Lucca and Pisa was used as an amusing counter-point to Elena’s presentations.”
Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena.

1 comment:

  1. What a great and tastee experience. Must feel nice to feel like you are the expert - which you have become.



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