On their second trip to Italy with Concierge in Umbria, Californians, MC Sungaila and her father Richard, asked us to arrange a couple of cooking classes for them. MC asked if she could share her thoughts on the experiences on our blog. Here it is — un-edited — and with a fantastic photo they took of the outdoor kitchen at Casa Gola with homemade farfalle waiting for the pot — MC and Richard, butta la pasta!
My father and I visited Italy again in October, under Maria and Brian?s expert direction. I am an admirer of the Slow Food movement and was in the midst of expanding my own cooking repertoire, so I wanted to take some short, one-day cooking classes while in Italy. Maria arranged two classes for us ? one at the Antinori winery Badia di Passignano in Tuscany, and another at Casa Gola, the Umbrian home of Luciana, a gracious lawyer-turned-chefpreneur. My father, who planned to come along only for the ride, turned out to be an integral member of both classes.
Osteria di Passignano
Badia di Passignano is a thousand-year-old abbey halfway between Florence and Siena in the Chianti country of Tuscany. We traveled narrow dirt roads and even narrower bridges (one car at a time, please!) to get there. The Osteria is a destination restaurant associated with the Antinori family winery operation at the abbey.
Matia, the young executive chef, greeted us and took us into the relatively small kitchen. Perhaps sensing my father?s trepidation, he started out by asking us to taste from among several small squares of the locally made Amedei chocolate. We were to choose the one we should use for the molten chocolate cake we were making for dessert. The chocolate was all delicious. But Matia explained how, for the cake we were making, we did not want to choose too exotic or delicate a flavor (the taste would get lost). We settled on a more traditional chocolate named- of all things- Tuscany.
The menu, which we made with professional kitchen tools (pasta roller and slicer, anyone?), included handmade “papa al pomodoro” ravioli and basil pesto, roast Cornish hen with thyme, lemon and green bean bundles, and, of course, the molten chocolate cake in strawberry soup. Since this was a four-hour cooking course, I focused on learning fundamental cooking principles (rather than the details of the menu).
The three principles I learned from Matia were:
1. Cooking is about timing, temperature and technique. These are the things years of practical experience teach you, and explain why just getting a recipe from someone does not guarantee that your version will turn out the same as the original which prompted you to ask for the recipe in the first place.
2. Food can be about nutrition, or it can be an emotional experience. Matia aims for the latter. He can always tell, he said, when something has been made with passion. As with most things, it seems, the passion shows through and creates excitement.
3. Focus on the harmony of the ingredients in a dish and in a meal. Do not choose one standout ingredient, even if, for example, it is the main ingredient for the dish.
We later enjoyed the menu in the main Osteria dining room with wine pairings chosen by the winery?s manager Marcello (a man who, as my father said later, knew far too much about wine to give tours of the vineyard and cellar as he did with us). Among the wines Marcello poured: Solaia, one of the most famous and expensive of Super Tuscans. When we stumbled out of the restaurant into the darkness, we had trouble spotting our car and driver: the driveway, which had been empty in the afternoon, was now filled with dinner guests? cars.
Ten days later, we are in the hills above Bevagna in Umbria, on our way to pick olives and prepare lunch in an outdoor kitchen at Casa Gola, the lovely home of Luciana. It is raining, however, which means we cannot actually pick the olives; we learn how it is done, and admire the undulating hills of olive trees instead. We also tour Luciana?s lovely home, which has been featured in Architectural Digest. Luciana gives us some coffee and homemade bread made with grape must to fortify us for the cooking.
My father says he is just going to watch, but Luciana pops an apron over his head and puts him to work. Luciana and her friend Aurora do all of the actual cooking. My father and I are the sous-sous-chefs, chopping fresh herbs, rolling meat in pancetta and herbs, and rolling fresh pasta dough. We do not have the benefit of the professional machines Matia had, so this time we mix eggs and flour and roll it all out by hand with a wooden rolling pin. The dampness of the day makes the pasta difficult. My father saves the day by accidentally putting too much egg into his flour; on a wet day, this was the perfect proportion to make the pasta, it turns out. We hand-cut the pasta into tagliatelle, rustic Umbrian shapes, and shape them into bow-tie farfalle. The tagliatelle will be used for our lunch; the rest is for our hostess to use later.
This is home-cooking, albeit elegant, classy and refined. Luciana and Aurora have changed the recipes, even though they put them together only a few days ago, because the herbs and tomatoes they expected to be able to use were not fresh this particular day. This is one of the secrets to the flavors of their cooking: nothing is used unless it is fresh. In most cases, many of the ingredients were also made on Luciana?s land, or her neighbors? land.
We return to the skylit home to eat our lunch. The menu: Cannelloni bean salad with salt, pepper, red peppers, celery, capers, and sundried tomatoes served with lightly toasted unsalted Umbrian bread soaked in fresh-pressed olive oil from Luciana?s trees. Tagliatelle with a tomato sauce that is more pure fresh tomato than sauce. Pancetta-wrapped pork with ?mashed? potatoes served frittata style. For dessert, an Umbrian specialty made by Luciana?s mother, a baked dessert with raisins, apples, and cinnamon. We top it off with espresso and an anice liquor.
As we leave, Luciana gives us soap made from her olives and herbs to remind us of our visit. We sign her guest book, with only a few entries from folks all over the world. Hers is a new venture and she can use some good testimonials. My father and I oblige, happily.