GUEST BLOGGER : CHEF KATRINA WOLLENBERGAT THE TUSCAN WOMAN'S COOKING SCHOOL
WITH PHOTO BY CHEF MICHELLE MUSALLAM
WITH PHOTO BY CHEF MICHELLE MUSALLAM
May 17, 2013
When you plan for that special vacation everything goes perfectly. Right? Ah, let me start at the beginning. I am leaving today for Tuscany, Italy, with my partner, Michelle, for a dream vacation. All I said 12 months ago was that going to a cooking school in France for six months is on my bucket list. Hers was to go to Portofino, Italy. Michelle asked me if I had ever seen the website for TuscanWomenCook and their feature on a Jane Pauley special. I jumped on the website and discovered that six days in Italy might fill the bucket just a wee bit and Portofino was on the way back to the Milan airport.
Miles in hand we book our trip from Dallas to Miami to London to Milan Malpensa airports. Business class and first class. This is definitely the best way to fly unless someone wants to buy my same Serta mattress and place it in a very dark room on an airplane that doesn't jump, shift or fall from space in turbulence accompanied with a five star chef to serve any li'l ole thing my heart might feel like between Dallas and anywhere in Italy. I also like nice quality linens and air conditioning. Should the pilot prefer to leave the wing doors open for fresh air that would suit me just fine.
May 18, 2013
May 18, 2013
Our flight to Miami was uneventful but we end up on a much delayed flight from Miami to London Heathrow. I watch as each traveller gets more and more haggard. After three hours the frustration and anger are gone. There are just boundless weary soles. The gentleman sitting opposite us in the lounge is from Beirut. He knows he has missed his connecting flight and hopes AA will rebook for next day. Michelle already has us booked on two future flights, just in case (ie:AA falls down on its rebooking job.) By the way, if you ever consider buying an entry to the AA first class lounge in Miami you will discover an unkempt lounge where staff is non-existent, and the only free food is stale celery, carrots and tomatoes.
What a difference a change in continents makes. British AA staff greet us with 138 rebooked tickets upon arrival handled with exceptional speed. A first class British lounge offers elegantly dressed staff and plenty of them, complimentary beverages of any kind, hot soup, sandwiches, cheese, fruit and a full table of desserts. All fit for a Queen.
Our rebooking took us to Milan Linate airport, 50 km from the original destination and three hours later (9:30 pm). The rental car at Malpensa had to be cancelled and the single available rental car on site cost twice as much as my first booking. New 6 speed stick shift with no satellite reception and a major downpour meant we head out into traffic not knowing our way. With unabashed bravery we spot the only open gas station at 11:30 pm and are immediately set on the right autostrada to Parma. At 1:30 am on Sunday we try to close our eyes and sleep.
Sleep has been elusive and the time change difficult to surmount rapidly. We are grateful for our 10 am start at our first class right here at La Chiusa in their professional kitchen. The proprietress and head chef is Dania, a glamorous woman who believes her skills improve wearing Prada and stilettos while she works. She speaks Italian but her words are immediately translated by a young Tuscan by the name of Christine. We are presented with small glass bowls of cooked and strained beets and spinach. "Now, make your first design on your plates. Food will look more appetizing surrounded with flowers!" This start just made my day. Not that I am so creative but this unleashed a sense of childhood coloring that brought laughter around the table. Dania began with the blending of fresh ricotta, pepper, garlic and nutmeg which we piped from pastry bags into fresh squash blossoms. A little lemon, olive oil, garlic and pine nuts on top and into the oven for 10 minutes they went. Homemade zucchini risotto was started with Carnaroli instead of Arborio rice. Less stickiness and a lovely nutty flavor make this dish unique. Next came the seasoning of free range chicken pieces and into the huge sauté pan. This would be tossed with finely chopped celery, carrots and tomatoes once the chicken had cooked. Several of us were transported downstairs to the pasta room. We observed and helped assist making stuffed raviolis and pici pasta (more on that later). Back in the main kitchen we participated in the making of caramel ice cream, spun caramel nests and glazed strawberries to go on top of the ice cream. When all was done we sat in the main dining room and were served by professional staff with endless wine. People are quickly abandoning the white wines in favor of the local reds.
We discover that each afternoon we are whisked away with Patty at the helm full of local history and places to sightsee. Pope Pious II's summer home of the 1400's was turned into a hot springs bath. Thousands flood there each year to "take the waters". How odd to see a Ducati motorcycle suspended over the pool water in preparation for an upcoming sponsored event. A shopping tour of Pienza of Pecorino cheese fame wrapped up the afternoon just in time to head to dinner. This amazing eat-a-thon is becoming overwhelming. We need to learn fast not to eat much at each of the many courses but the camaraderie and friendships are building fast.
May 21, 2013
Today we began with a brisk walk into town in the rain for a cafe at the Sport Bar. It is cooler than a typical May spring as it has been in the USA. However the roses are profuse and the air pungent with their floral scent.
Our class is held at the restaurant we dined at last night, 13 Gobbi. It is tiny so two larger tables are staged in the "main" dining room with 17 cutting boards circling the tables. We have two local chefs, one young and the other in her seventies. One woks in a bowl, the other creates a volcano for the flour she will mix. This is pasta day. A blend of "0" flour, oil, water a couple of eggs disappear under the capable hands of these women. They talk about the muscles they build with the kneading of the dough and host, Bill, warns us not to get into an arm wrestling match. They will win. The rolling process is fascinating with a four foot rolling pin. Always start from the center and roll out. When you are ready to turn the dough, begin by rolling the dough closest to you over the pin just to the center point of your circle. Roll back and forth with hand pressure from the center of the pin towards the outside. Take hold of the outside of the pin, raise it off the board and with a sharp flipping motion spin the dough so it slaps over and down on the cutting board surface. Repeat this flipping motion several times. Turn the pin a quarter turn, unfurl the dough and continue rolling out the dough always beginning from the center. Repeat the rolling and flipping motion until the dough is paper thin. Our chef then cut 4" x 1/2" slices from the dough. Using our right palm only we were to use a rolling motion while pulling the dough string with our left hand. The "string" will eventually become two feet long and the thickness of a slender pencil. Doubling the string and holding it in two hands you slap the strung on the table much like you might slap a jump rope. You have just made "pici" (pronounced "peachy"), a string pasta served all over Tuscany. When it is cooked it will usually be served with a meat and tomato sauce. This pasta making is followed by pappardelle, same blending process but flat, wider noodles are the outcome. The kitchen is about 10' x 10' so only four of us at a time could assist with the grilled vegetables and chicken dishes.
Nap time is de riguer and much needed. Our bus arrives for a drive across the valley to Cortona, a less hilly and more industrial community. This is where the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" was written. We visit the a monastery where 7 friars still manage the agriculture and then shop in the charming village. Our bus takes us to olive oil tasting and dinner at Walter Redaelli's Ristorante in Bettolle. It is elegant and offers luxurious hotel rooms. PS: do not use olive oils that are dated more than two years old!
By now we are so comfortable with every one in our group. There is tremendous camaraderie and laughter spills forth on each occasion. Our major complaint is that we are all eating wayyyyyy too much food. How to stop?
May 22, 2013
This is our early departure day for a tour of Florence. We will be joined by two guides in the city, Ann and Francesca. We begin at the central food market. It is a blaze of color and a feast for the eyes. Cheese stands, olive oil and meat stalls, olive, fish, bread, dessert and chocolate shops line up one after another. Customers are in a hurry and shop keepers are bustling to and fro. We are given a balsamic tasting and learn to differentiate the depth of a 25 year old balsamic from the 12 year old variety. Try investing in one bottle of 18 - 25 years. Brush it on a grilled peach or fig. Dining in heaven must be like this. Avoid all balsamic where the first ingredient is red wine vinegar. It is acceptable here to reduce 5 year old balsamic as long as it is an authentic Italian balsamic.
Shopping and a walking tour of the Duomo remind us how exquisite Florence truly is. This city most certainly deserves a long stay in order to grapple with so much of its beautiful history and architecture.
We are happy to see our driver at 5:00 pm and most of us fall asleep for the slow 2 hour drive back to Montefollonico. We pull up to the home of our hosts, Patty and Bill, who offer us a huge fresh salad and pizza. It is just what the doctor ordered. Their farm house sits atop a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding valleys. They live on the second floor as the ground floor retains the original stalls and feed containers for cows. As many Tuscans do, they press their own wine and make olive oil from their olive trees. You do not need fields of either to have your own supply. The home interior has been transformed to a rustic but elegant coziness. Patty's artistic talent is everywhere from hand-painted tiles in the kitchen to her jewelry workroom where bracelets and necklaces adorn tables and bureaus. We all quickly realize how much true artistic talent runs through her blood. Her designs are superb.
I forgot to mention that our group has decided to put on a small farewell production Friday evening at dinner. This will be our last gathering and, under Michelle's leadership, we have taken the liberty of rewriting the words to "Mamma Mia." This will be our final thank you gift to Bill and Patty. As tired as we are Michelle writes and prints 17 copies for our planned practice session at 8:00 am tomorrow. More on the production later. Bona sera.
May 23, 2013
This morning we met for a rehearsal of our production at breakfast. My this has become a dedicated group! Ok, it sounds a bit shaky now but we still have 36 more hours until show time.
Our chef leader, Isa, has been the most efficient cook yet. We were warned that she moves quickly and she does. She can multitask like no one else. She had us making minestrone soup, eggplant parmesan, full roasted pork, individual spinach and potato soufflé and panna cotta with fruit and chocolate sauce. Her presentations were beautiful and the food rich in flavor.
A short rest ended with a trip to a small cheese factory. Here we sampled cheese that will not keep more than two weeks to those, like a 2 year old pecorino, that will keep for a year. A wine tasting at Innocenti took place just behind the ancient wine storage building and house Vittorio Innocenti calls home. His family has produced wines for seven hundred years. It is still a small vineyard at 35,000 bottles a year but some of his wine is distributed in the USA. His production is primarily from Sangiovese grapes.
Now you know we still had a dinner to consume. This evening it was in the wine cellar of La Botte Piena in Montefollonico. It was a series of small plates which just tricked us into thinking we weren't eating a lot. Phooey!
(updates will be added ...so revisit this blog post under travel)