50 Shades of Tuscan Cooking Class

posted in: Europe, Italy, Tuscany | 6
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Last week I told you about the adventures our foursome had making it into and around Tuscany, the foursome being me, my husband and our dear friends Carmela and Ivan. I mentioned that Carmela and I had scheduled a Tuscan cooking class at Tenuto Casanova, a beautiful estate near Siena in the breathtaking Tuscan countryside.

We were so excited to do this! At last the day arrived, our last full day in Italy with no traveling to do except get to the class. With only a minor hitch from our newish GPS, TomJustin, we arrived on time on the most beautiful day you could imagine!

Tenuta Casanova is a near-perfect place – manicured, organized, green and lovely against the sweeping Tuscan vistas. The well-thought-out operation includes grapes and wine, aged balsamic vinegar, olives and oil, herbs, even bees and honey.

Here are a few shots I took as we rolled in (all of the hedges you see in these pictures are rosemary bushes):

Part of the vineyard:

The bee hives are located in the screened-in structure at the bend of the road:

The building on the right is where the class kitchen is located:

This is the main building:


Silvano, the owner, met us in the driveway and we waited a few minutes until everyone arrived. We introduced ourselves in the interim. The class had six students. In addition to the two of us, there was a married couple from Orlando, Florida, and a couple that recently moved to Virginia from the Crystal River area of Florida. Does anyone else wonder how I can travel thousands of miles from Florida and end up in the same room with four other people from Florida???

Anyway, once we were all assembled, Silvano, a handsome, middle-aged, Italian man with a thick, wonderful accent, gave us a little overview of his operation. He pointed out the bees, the grapevines, and so on. We even “met” his “pet” wild sow who we were advised not to try to get to know personally. The other pigs on the other side of the fence from us were kept there to root around in the adjoining forest, which is preserved habitat. They keep the underbrush down, apparently, and I got the impression that Silvano had an agreement with the Italian government to provide these pigs. He seems to be smart enough to do stuff like that in many aspects of the place.

He then led us to the cellar where he personally oversees the production of their special balsamic vinegar. Here he is giving us the lowdown:

In this relatively small room, the vinegar starts out in big wine barrels and ends up in small, 2.5-gallon sized ones. At the end, the vinegar is 30 years old. We got to sample it in order to buy our own bottles later if we wanted. Oh, we wanted! The apple-honey vinegar was GREAT, as was the regular balsamic version.

Here is Silvano explaining their wines. The dashing young man on the left is Drivin’ Ivan, then you see Carmela in the shade, Silvano is gesturing dramatically while my husband, on the right, listens intently.

We were sampling their only white, which Silvano told us was made from a very old grape vine that he discovered on the land when he bought it. Apparently the vine was either wild or had been abandoned decades ago by the previous owners and had almost died out. He said he loved the grapes so much that he salvaged the vine and now has a few acres of it. He said it was the only place in the world with this grape. From it they make a light, sweet white wine that tastes for the world like strawberries, but there are no strawberries in it! The name of the wine? “Facile innamorarasi” (“Easy to Fall in Love”). Indeed.

After he primed us with a few more wines, Ivan and James set off to sightsee in San Gimignano while Carmela and I prepared to learn a thing or two about Tuscan cooking.

Our teacher was to be Rita, Silvano’s wife. She spoke no English but I believe she understood most of what we were saying. Silvano bustled around the kitchen during our six-to-seven-hour class, making sure things were in the right place and translating everything Rita said into English for us. Here are Rita and Silvano checking that everything was in place before we start:

The beginning of class consisted of issuing each of us an apron to wear and a plastic clipboard with a copy of the recipes we would learn that day. Just after handing us our aprons and clipboards, Silvano set down an open bottle of their Abate di Sant’ Agnese, a wonderful mid-range red. We each got a wine glass and a wine glass charm to tell the owner. This was at 10:00 in the morning!

None of us were holding back on drinking this wine during the class, which is what, I’m sure, Silvano and Rita were counting on. Not in a bad way! But every time that bottle got empty, I would turn around and there would be another full one in its place.

But I digress. Our first dish was tiramisu. Now, it’s such a popular dessert in the USA right now, in Germany, too. I personally have been making it for years from a recipe I got from an Italian woman I met in Germany in 1988. She told me it was her grandmother’s recipe. If it’s not, it’s a darn good imitation!

Here’s a shot of our espresso-soaked ladyfingers lining the tiramisu dish:

I’ll take this opportunity to say, if immodestly, I was probably as experienced a cook as the instructor. In addition, Carmela, who’s been learning to cook from me, had it all over the others in the class. We privately congratulated ourselves throughout the day, especially when one of the other students asked a very basic question that we already knew the answer to! However, I will add that there were a few things Rita taught me during this class, such as add a pinch of salt to the egg whites before you refrigerate them before whipping. Another tidbit I’m not sure I agree with yet: only move the mixer in one direction when whipping egg whites: either clockwise or counterclockwise. Doesn’t matter which you choose, just don’t change directions.

There was a funny moment when Rita was demonstrating this and moving the beaters in a clockwise direction. Then she handed it over to one of the other students who immediately started moving them in a counterclockwise direction. There was an instant, resounding cry arising from the group: “No!” Silvano nearly leapt over the counter to show her the “right way” to do it.

Myself, I think that the individual beaters of a mixer move in opposing circles anyway, so the theory that reversing the mixer direction would have the effect of undoing the whipping makes little sense to me. But, I make my tiramisu a little differently so I can’t swear to anything. However, Rita’s whipping method certainly worked in class!

Here’s a shot of the finished whipped egg whites into which Rita dropped the beaters and a spoon vertically to demonstrate how stiff they were:

Now to the part of the class that inspired the title of this blog post. I was standing at the counter listening to Rita and observing some process, whatever it was, with Carmela beside me. Suddenly I felt a hand reach around me from behind and slide down my body into the pocket of my apron! I looked down to see Silvano putting a paper towel into my apron! It startled me so much that I let out a little ‘whoop.’ By that time Silvano was gone, then Carmela looked at me in near hysterics. I said, “Well, THAT was more than I thought I was paying for!” We have since been referring to this event as the Tuscan Reacharound.
At any rate, here are some shots of the rest of our class:
Roasted peppers marinated with capers, garlic, olive oil and herbs from the estate:

Here’s my girl Carmela kneading pasta dough (hint – use semolina instead of regular flour):

Another shot of Carmela with the resting pasta dough after we rolled it out (the dough in the foreground is mine):

This is my model cooking handmade gnocchi:

And here she is spreading out focaccia dough:

Our husbands returned from sightseeing in San Gimignano mid-class and got the royal treatment on the patio with their own bottle of wine:

Here we are decorating our focaccia with toppings:

Here’s Silvano giving us a taste of the honey produced on the estate. If you’ve never tasted honey on cheese, run, do not walk, and do so. Right now.

Here’s Rita cutting the baked focaccia for our snack. I love the way she’s using kitchen shears instead of a knife. Very efficient!

I’ll take this opportunity to invite you to visit one of my other blogs that I share with phenomenal photographer Paula Showen. The name of our shared blog is Image/Imagine and we challenge each other with interpreting photographic themes. This time the theme is “Food” and I have posted a short video of my Tuscan cooking instructor Rita telling us about gnocchi dough, which is made from potatoes. The translator in the video is Silvano, whom you should know by now!

The culmination of our class was lunch, consisting of the wonderful dishes we’d prepared in class. Here’s a shot of the dining room:

On that table in the foreground is the selection of wines and vinegars available for sale from the estate. Of course we purchased our fair share before we left!

Here’s our group awaiting our meal, the best of friends by now!

Here’s what I consider the star of the meal: handmade tagliatelle with white truffle oil and parmesan cream sauce (OMG!).

And here is what Carmela considers and star of the meal – homemade gnocchi with meat sauce:

Ok, this next shot I have to apologize for. It looked so good that I, um, kinda started eating it before I remembered to take a picture! It’s roast pork with those marinated roasted peppers on the side.

This is our tiramisu. My suspicions were confirmed when I tasted it – mine’s better! In fact, I told Carmela as much, and the very next weekend she insisted I teach her my recipe. I’m happy to report that she and Ivan also agreed mine was better – my husband already knew it!

The crowning glory of the meal, IMHO, was the ice cream drizzled with the aged vinegar made in the cellar. You can’t believe vinegar tastes this good and enhances even Italian gelato!

Of course we strolled the grounds after our meal to take more pictures and chat. And to work off just a couple of those calories. The last stop of the day was the shop in the room next to the kitchen.

Naturally we had to buy a few bottles of wine, a couple of vinegars, and some luscious truffle oil, as well as some soap scented with the lavender grown there for my best friend in soap, Cheryl. As a bonus, Silvano threw in the small cookbook they sell there for free, as well as two packages of the herb mix they grow, too.

All in all, I’d say you were pretty jealous of me right now. And rightly so. But, I am offering to accompany any takers to this class again – name the date!

Here’s a parting shot of Carmela with our wonderful hosts in the shop:

Til next time – Arrivederci!

Photo for No Apparent Reason:

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6 Responses

  1. Ann Martin

    LOVED hearing/seeing all about your class – would love to go! And someday I'll live where rosemary survives the winter… making it my mission. 🙂

  2. r. annan

    what a superb article. The text and pics wrapped me in scent and sight, and I fell as if I were really there. The down side was that my mouth is still watering! I just loved it!

  3. Carmela Bermudez

    What a great day! I want to go back to Italy! I totally recommend this cooking class! I loved it! Great article Karren! Love your pictures as well! 🙂

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