Tutti a Tavola: Cooking in Chianti
"Who wants to do the tiramisu?" By now, a familial bond has formed among my six classmates at Tutti a Tavola, a cooking school located in the heart of Tuscany's historic Chianti Classico zone. So like devilish siblings, we shout "Connie! Connie!," knowing full well that dessert preparation is her weakness. A part-time cook at a vegetarian cafe in Connecticut, Connie Lussier had fumbled the task of separating egg whites several days earlier. "Che disastro", our teacher Mimma Ferrando had cried as she rushed to prevent the yellow yolk from trickling over shells and fingers into the bowl of pristine eggs whites. But this time when the eggs are handed over, our teacher shows more mercy than Connie's grinning peers, passing along a plastic egg separator.
"People don't come to our school to become a chef. They come because they want a peek into the Italian kitchen - the cooking, the family atmosphere, the traditions," explains Lele Vitali, a robust and witty woman in her sixties who is one of the four founders and teachers at Tutti a Tavola (which means "everyone to the table"). And indeed, our group contains a retired brick layer, a British BandB owner, an office manager, two cooks, and a journalist. The fact that we can peek into several different kitchens over the course of three days is what makes TAT so appealing to all of us and wholly unique among cooking schools in Italy. (People can also opt for one or two days only.) Students are housed in the teachers' homes - all lovingly restored stone farmhouses with rental apartments that are nestled in the wooded countryside near Gaiole and Radda in Chianti - and each day we rotate to a different kitchen for our afternoon class and dinner.
Within these charmed dwellings we step into an extended circle of family and friends. There's TAT's four founders: Mimma Ferrando, Lele Vitali, Marisa Forcheri, and Simonetta Palazio - old friends who retired in Tuscany after raising children and working as teachers, social workers, family therapists, and secretaries in such far-flung places as Brussels, Zambia, and the industrial cities of northern Italy. There's also Mimma's sister Franca Gatteschi, who offers a hand in the kitchen when she's not overseeing Podere Ciona, a small wine estate on her property. Their cousin Franco Lombardi is a retired civil engineer who found a second career as an organic olive oil producer and offers TAT students a fascinating two-hour seminar on this cornerstone of Tuscan cuisine. The young woman brushing Franco's olive oil on fire-toasted bread is his daughter, Francesca Lombardi, who acts as TAT's behind-the-scenes coordinator. Add to this the cooks' charming husbands and household pets, and you've got a lively cast of characters dashing on and off stage during the three-day course.
The centerpiece of tonight's dinner is porchetta—roast loin of pork stuffed with rosemary, garlic, and coarse salt. Connie's husband, Marcel, is chopping rosemary with the mezzaluna, rapidly rocking the half-moon blade back and forth over the fragrant herb, cut from a huge bush in the backyard garden. Lele informs us that the loin can be deboned or not, as one wishes. "But there's nothing more beautiful than to chew your ribs," she notes, an Italian accent making her skewed English as melodic as an aria. Using a wooden spoon handle, Lele stabs a hole through the middle of the pork loin, then instructs Marcel to fill it with the herb mixture.
"Thirty years ago, you'd know where the animals came from," says Lele, after discoursing on the best local butchers. "They'd say, 'Oh, go to the butcher today, because Ernesto just sold two pigs.' You'd know where they were from." She shoves the pork into the oven. "Don't you use a thermometer?" Marcel asks. "No, I use a thermometer when I'm sick," she replies.
Our mouths are watering, because we already know how good this aromatic dish can be, having sampled it just this morning at the outdoor market in Montevarchi—an excursion offered by TAT. There it's served on wax paper and accompanied by squares of crisp fried polenta. Eaten with the fingers, these moist and savory pork slices were my idea of heaven. As we nibbled and slowly weaved our way through the crowd of shoppers, we admired the crates of purple artichokes, red peppers, and tender apricots, huge rounds of aged pecorino cheese, cans of salted anchovies, and bags of biscotti. We tasted fresh ricotta and stuffed olives fried in batter, and stopped by an old pharmacy with floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves now lined with wines and gourmet goods where we sampled the classic combination of vin santo and cantucci—sweet golden wine from dried grapes and almond cookies for dipping. Two of us came away from the market with new mezzalunas, while Linda Wojcik, co-owner and office manager of the natural food shop where Connie works, picked up a wooden gnocchi board. As small as your hand and lined with tiny ridges, it was exactly like the one we'd used the night before to create ribs in the gnocchi so they could better hold the pesto sauce.
While porchetta is a traditional Tuscan dish, pesto is not. And while the TAT cooks pride themselves on teaching home-style Italian cooking, they don't necessarily focus on Tuscan dishes. "If we limited ourselves to Tuscan food, we'd be closed in a week," Mimma stated the very first class. "Tuscan cuisine is very good, but very limited."
Having family roots in Naples, Turin, Genoa, France, and elsewhere, the four cooks of TAT have amassed an array of recipes from diverse regions. During our three-day session, we had risotto from Piedmont, pesto from Liguria, pizza margherita from Naples, and crespelle or Italian crepes from Tuscany. "These were brought to France by Catherine de' Medici when she married the Duke of Orleans, who later became the King of France," Mimma explains. "Fortunately, we don't have too many French at our school, because we would constantly fight."
The recipes, provided in little booklets each afternoon, are characteristically Italian, with measurements tending towards the simple and intuitive. An absolutely divine recipe for potato gratin is as spare as a haiku: "Butter the pan and arrange the sliced potatoes with parmigiano, salt, and pepper. Add milk to nearly cover them. Place in the oven for approx. 45 minutes." Fortunately, details are fleshed out during our sessions in the kitchen, with Mimma in this case hovering nearby and telling us to cut the potatos thinner, not to overlap slices, and checking that we put the right amount of grated cheese on top of each layer. Earlier, in making the pesto sauce, Simonetta tells us that "The secret is a lot of parmigiano. Be generous. You know it's enough when you taste it and it's not bitter." Unlike the minimalist recipes, their verbal instructions can be as suggestive and eloquent as lyric poetry. Whipped egg whites should be "like clouds". The asparagus for risotto should be cut into small pieces, "like jewels". Truly, this is the art of cooking.
With the main course and contorni or side dishes under control, it's time to make our appetizer: Neapolitan pizza. Ken, Linda's husband and the main cook at their cafe, did a handy job kneading the dough. Now it's time to stretch it into shape. When Marisa asks for volunteers, I eagerly stick up my hand. Thin pizza crust is my Holy Grail. Whenever pizza is made in our house, my Italian husband does the honors. But being from Piedmont rather than Naples, it's not in his blood the way it is for Marisa, and his crusts end up too thick for my taste. I seize this opportunity to get in the driver's seat.
"Do you flip the dough in the air?," Kens asks hopefully.
"No. This is not a show! This is serious business," says Lele with mock dismay. Meanwhile, Marisa is watching me wield the wide rolling pin and maneuver the crust into a long rectangular shape to fit the pan. "Beware whoever puts pineapple on a pizza," she warns. "Pizza for us is always a savory thing." She recounts how pizza margherita got its start when a Queen of Italy named Margherita visited Naples and a pizza maker wanted to create something special in her honor. Taking the red, green, and white of the Italian flag as his inspiration, he used tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella on his pizza and presto! A classic was born.
To accomplish the delicate task of moving the wafer-thin dough from table to pizza pan, I imitate a neat trick Marisa had demonstrated. Taking the edge of the crust, I roll it up like a carpet around the rolling pin, then gently unspool it into the pan. It works like a charm. Then, following Marisa's instructions, I trim the edges of the crust, coat it with tomato sauce, pour a liberal amount of olive oil over the top, then sprinkle it with dried oregano. It's thrust into a hot oven of 250š C. "The trick is to wait until the last five minutes to add the mozzarella," Marisa instructs. We obey, and a half hour later, we're sitting on Marisa's patio, gazing at a perfect Tuscan landscape and crunching into a perfectly crisp pizza. As we watch the swallows careen, the talk drifts to the wildlife that inhabits these parts. Morning coo-coos and night owls can be heard from our beds, and deer and wild boar roam the heavy woods that for centuries have attracted hunters. The local townships have strict laws preserving the wild nature of Chianti's woods, much of which is in private hands. Since each of our hostesses has renovated crumbling farmhouses, they've all had to deal with the reams of red tape that comes with construction. But every one understands the restrictions on real estate development and unfettered modernization that could wreck the unique character and wild beauty of this region. It is, after all, what has drawn foreign travelers here ever since the Victorian age and lured every one of us - Italian, American, and British - sitting around this table.
Dinner is served, and we move into Marisa's dining room. These stone walls once housed donkeys, cows, rabbits, or other creatures of the farm, while the human occupants lived on the upper floors. But today the room is elegantly set, with red and white ceramic dishes placed on a red brocade tablecloth, and opulent roses everywhere, freshly cut from the garden. The room echoes with lively conversation and clinking glasses as a procession of courses arrives at the table: velvety risotto with asparagus, tender and savory porchetta, sweet-sour onions, and colorful pepperonata, a slow-cooked melange of red peppers, tomatoes, onions, black olives and capers. We gush over Connie's excellent tiramisu, a classic version with ladyfingers soaked in dry Marsala and coffee. And when the plates are finally cleared, a small army of etched-glass bottles come out, tempting us with grappa and homemade liquors created from infusions of rose or lemon.
As the evening draws to a close, so too does our cooking program. We all hug and double-peck everyone's cheeks Italian style, and exchange emails, American style. We'll each bring back home some new favorite recipes. But more importantly, we've all come away with a newfound appreciation for TAT's motto and goal: "cooking for friends with friends".
Published in the November 2002 issue of Pasta magazine.