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Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Travel - Mother daughter and Cooking School in Tuscany
Three years ago my daughter and I decided that we wanted some time together and with both of us keen cooks, what better way of reaffirming bonds than in the kitchen. Not just any kitchen - we opted for cooking school in Tuscany. Villa Camporomano Tuscany. The kitchens of Camporomano to be exact and the cooking school Toscana Saporita run by Sandra Lotti . Sandra is known throughout Italy for her cookbooks on Tuscan regional cuisine (Sapore di Maremma, L’Anno Toscano, and Zuppe Toscane). She also co-authored, with her late cousin Anne Bianchi, Dolci Toscani, the definitive compilation of Tuscan dessert recipes. I understand that Anne succumbed to breast cancer and Sandra makes a point of contributing both her time and treasure to that cause in both the US and Italy. A larger than life personality and superb communication skills makes her a lively and informative teacher. Most of the classes are a visiting chef fluent in English, On our trip it was Christopher Covelli out of L'Uva in Provincetown, Cape Cod.
Camporomano is a 70-acre hilltop estate situated in Versilia, an incredibly beautiful corner of Tuscany in the Lucca, which is the westernmost of Tuscany's eleven provinces. The area, known as the Lucchesia is only 50 miles to Florence and 20 miles to Pisa. I came in by train to Pisa and my daughter arrived by air from Paris to Pisa. The school arranges transportation from the airport, train station or your hotel if you are already in Pisa. The week long cooking school includes afternoon outings (ours were lead by a mother daughter team with perfect English, great humor and a seemingly never ending source of local gossip and stories) and we enjoyed Lucca with its maze of inner streets and extraordinary city walls that you simply have to walk; Pietrasanta, lovely old town - I left a significant portion of my wallet with a local jeweler and brought home a necklace that I rarely take off. Close to the famous Carrera marble mines it’s a mecca for sculptors . We watched a 90 year old carver create from an artist supplied miniature a scale version of the original. New to me was that the contemporary marble sculptors/artists do not chip away to create the big work, rather they make a scale tiny model and it's the seasoned artisans who create the masterpieces.
As a working agricultural estate Camporomano is part of the growing Agro Tourism movement and the accommodations, when not leased by the cooking school, are available for vacation rental. The primary product is olive oil from its 10,000 or so olive trees. The olives produce a very fine extra virgin olive oil processed on the premises by one of the few privately owned olive presses in Tuscany. The oil is used by the cooking school and sold on the estate. There is also a limited production of fine wine, reserved for family and friends and for students at the cooking school.
It’s a fairy tale setting and two beautiful villas stand out from the estate's smaller buildings. One , the family's ancestral home and the other houses the Toscana Saporita Cooking School. This particular building wore vivid orange and yellow stripes and I learned that the markings are particular to an estate and in effect a trade mark. Student accommodations are on the top floor of the villa used for the cooking school and are elegant in their simplicity and sparseness. Comfortable beds, good bathrooms and glorious views of the Apuan Alps - from some corners of the estate, those views stretch to the Tirrhenian Sea.
We had a great time just being together and taking in so much that was new to us. I located the school through an ad in Cucina Italiana. I called the US number and information was immediately mailed out, registration was painless. Price is totally inclusive of transportation from Pisa, outings, classes, meals and accommodations. I was hooked on the description of the “Spring Festival classes focus on the wondrous foods that emerge in April and May: wild leeks, new potatoes, spring onions, wild asparagus, succulent shellfish, spring lamb and fresh new cheeses”
To be honest, it was the wild leeks that really drew me in. As a fan of this oft maligned vegetable I was sold on visions of traipsing the countryside and harvesting this bounty. In all fairness, I’m sure that somewhere in the fine print it does say that classes may vary from printed announcement as no doubt it says somewhere that the stated class size of 12 students may also increase! (It did but more on that later). I was disappointed not to see even one wild leek let alone any fresh green vegetables except fennel during our weeks stay.
Classes were heavy on meat preparation and very little use of what I considered to be local fresh produce. I'm not a big carnivore and quite honestly was repulsed by the massive hunks of meat that made up every dinner. meals were not balanced. If it was sea food it was nothing but sea food, pasta - then nothing but pasta. By far the favorite classes involved making multi-colored pastas (octopus ink and beet juice used for coloring) which we formed into ribbons and turned into sublime raviolis; learning the secret of feather light, melt in your mouth gnochi; fantastic little almond tarts and the all out winner and most often re created recipe, a braised fennel (see The Girl Fennel Has Hips). I was also introduced to Faro, a really versatile and tasty grain; not always easy to find in the US but well worth searching for. I was forever turned off octopus when I learned that it is tenderized by being beaten to death in a centrifuge machine! And further made tender when boiled with a handful of wine corks.
Our daily routine consisted of breakfast in the huge room that I think once housed wine casks; then aprons on and classes began. Several of us discovered that a pastoral walk through fields, down the hill and across the road lead to a coffee shop in the village so a morning pilgrimage to that holy grail (the source of good coffee) justified a double helping of the warm bread on the breakfast table.
Essentially we made our own lunch each day in the course of a class; hands on was definitely the style and the staff didn’t hesitate to correct knife skills, pasta rolling or other needed techniques. Following class the staff made a typical Tuscan dinner for the evening meal. We “worked” until 1, ate our well-earned lunch and then had about a 30 minute reprise before climbing into the mini van for our outing of the day. Back to the villa and an hour or so to nap and enjoy the grounds which boasted a swimming pool in a baroque setting and an off limits veggie patch, followed by a hearty, and I want to stress, unmercifully hearty, dinner at which the local wines flowed freely and were usually followed by a tasting - cheese, wine or chocolate (Amedei an fair trade brand chocolate and sublime!) By day four I was craving green, anything green, and on an outing to Pisa headed straight for a small restaurant where I knew I could get a salad.
Our classmates were varied and generally compatible. We had only one man in our class which lead Sandra to open every class with "Ladies and Ben" . 12 of us worked fairly comfortably in the well equipped kitchen but things got more than cozy when for two days a group of four people traveling together became part of our class, then there simply was not enough room. Not their fault at all but misleading in terms of the written literature which stressed small classes.
Looking back on the experience I treasure the time spent doing something we both love (travel and cooking) with my daughter; the setting; Sandra’s enthusiasm and the recipe for fennel that I’ve refined to my own taste and have shared with Connection readers. Of very minimal negatives I count the lack of variety in the dinners; the insertion of extra people into full classes and perhaps the most disappointing, no cookbook! We left with a CD that lacked any glossary or even rudimentary organization - so much so that I have opened it once since my return preferring instead to rely upon some great memories for inspiration when Tuscan food is on my mind.
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