Friend of IT Barbara Fallon is just back from Italy, where she took cooking classes and explored life in the Tuscan hills.
Housed in an old Tuscan farmhouse in Mercatale di Cortona, nine female friends from around the U.S. are gathered for a week of Italian cooking classes with chef Faye Hess. She’s already taught us so much–from making the perfect mushroom risotto, to braised ribs with white wine, garlic and rosemary (not to mention homemade pasta). Each of us take turns cranking the old Italian pasta machine. Faye pushes us and prods us, espousing her deep-held philosophy of slow, home cooking, that we need to toss out the buillion cubes, make our own stocks and pastas. Right now we all believe that we can. When we aren’t having our daily cooking lesson, and eating the results around a very long farm table, we’re off on a daily outing, often with a food or wine connection. We’ve done wine tastings in Montepulciano and Montalcino, cheese tastings in Siena, even tastings of aged balsamic vinegars (amazingly sweet and syrupy–almost drinkable). Tonight we’re having dinner at the villa of a local family who have extensive olive groves and produce a top olive oil. There are no crowds here in southern Tuscany, and the weather is perfect and sunny.
While most of our day outings from the Faye Hess cooking school near Cortona had a food focus, one did not: a day trip to Deruta in Umbria, to learn how they make their famous ceramics. We toured the Cama family’s small factory: one of the brothers was shaping the pottery on a wheel, and mama and papa were painting by steady hand their beautiful, old patterns. While I had always heard that Deruta wasn’t a particularly pretty town, the ancient hilltop was beautiful for both its architecture and dozens of shops with ceramics literally pouring out.
That night, we enjoyed a special evening with the Scarpaccini family at their palatial villa in Terontola di Cortona, near our farmhouse. It began with an olive oil tasting with son Emilio, who now runs the family olive oil operation. He convinced us forever that there is a huge taste difference between supermarket grade “extra virgin” olive oil and one produced by his family with love and under perfect Tuscan-growing conditions. Following the tasting, the mother and daughter treated us to us a beautiful dinner, giving us a chance to connect directly with one of the older families of Tuscany. The villa’s origins stretch back to Roman times.
As our week drew to an end, we made a final food outing to Montevarchi, just 30 minutes south of Florence, to spend the evening at the Pasticceria Bonci bakery and with the three Bonci brothers who own it. We watched in the big industrial kitchen as brother Sergio made focaccia bread by hand, followed by a tour of their chocolate factory with tastings of their handmade chocolates filled with Chianti, vin santo, and espresso. The biggest treat: we sat at long tables in the kitchen and spent several hours sampling the different focaccias as well as an array of Tuscan antipasti, ranging from liver pâté with vin santo to bruschetta with white beans. By the end of the evening, we all felt like members of the Bonci family.
We came home from Faye Hess’ Cucina Casalinga cooking school with a host of new recipes, less fear about making everything from scratch, and a new appreciation of the outstanding ingredients used in Tuscan cooking.
Photos: Barbara Fallon