Florence: Of Wine, Women and Garlic
by Sharon Spence
As the daughter of an Italian grandmother and mother, I suspected there was more to life than microwaving Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce.
That's why I decided try my hand at the Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu located in Florence, Italy. Established in 1985, the school is set in a small, charming building near the famous Duomo and Michelangelo's "David." In addition to cooking, the week-long program offered by Ciclismo Classico also included three days of hiking in the rolling hills of Tuscany.
Must Be the Food
When I arrived at my hotel, the four women who greeted me looked like goddesses from Botticelli's La Primavera, with their luminous complexions, shoulder-length hair, and sculptured cheekbones. The quartet included Gabriella Mari and Cristina Blasi--founders and directors of the cooking school--as well as tour guides Roberta Gandolfi and Angelica Turi. Gabriella was pregnant with her first child. "Perhaps I will name him Michelangelo," she smiled.
Gabriella and Cristina are both members of the Commanderie des Cordons Bleus de France. In addition they are sommeliers, experts in extra-virgin olive oil, and hold specialty degrees in chocolate, herbs, desserts, and ancient/modern Tuscan cuisine.
My group included ten travelers--doctors, lawyers, and business executives from around the United States. All were women, although the program also usually attracts male hikers and food lovers as well. Back home, none of us has time for elaborate cooking or hiking, but this week we enjoyed both.
Each day, the cooking school ran from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. At our first cooking session, Cristina Blasi explained, "A typical Italian meal consists of four courses: the starter, first course, second, and dessert. Today you will make crostini di fegatini, strozzapreti, coniglio alla cacciatora, and schiacciata coll'uva."
So Much for Lasagna
After she passed out the recipes translated into English, we saw our endeavors would involve chicken livers on toasted bread, spinach-ricotta gnocchi, rabbit hunter style, and grape tart. Adria DeLandri, a New York attorney, read the tart recipe aloud as Gabriella and Cristina put Jan Ruzich, a Chicago hotel executive, to work making dough.
Cristina sauteed onions, garlic and fennel seeds before searing the rabbit, as Pam Mungovan, a pharmaceutical sales manager from Chicago, recited our recipe for conigilio. Although it was only 10:30 A.M., the aroma of the sizzling meat made us hungry.
A Zest for Cooking
Even while cooking, Gabriella and Cristina looked elegant--Gabriella with her long, shiny ponytail, and Cristina adorned with pearl earrings and black beads. Their enthusiasm for cooking inspired us. Three hours later, sipping chilled Bianco del Fortino, we enjoyed the delicious results of our morning's work.
Another morning, we visited Florence's bustling Mercato Centrale at Piazza San Lorenzo, a noisy cavern where fresh trays of hare, quail, duck, beef heart, tongue, lungs, pigs' feet, and bull testicles await creative chefs. One shop sells only tripe, which resembles wash cloths and deflated balloons.
"We usually don't make any tripe dishes," laughed Gabriella, "Because Americans won't eat them. But perhaps you may be bold! So I will use tripe in one recipe."
At the market, we strolled among peaches, plums, pears, grapes, porcini mushrooms, basil, thyme, rosemary. Baskets of sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, lemons and ripe avocados were surrounded by bouquets of yellow sunflowers.
Overflowing with shopping bags, we trudged past stalls proudly bearing names like Luciano, Manetti, Ieri. At one seafood stall, a tray of octopus (polpi) posted a handwritten sign, "Vivi," meaning alive. Another notice said "Freschi"--fresh.
"What's the difference between vivi and freschi?" I asked Gabriella.
"Who can say?" she replied. "But vivi costs more."
As we began another cook-fest, Gabriella told us, "In Tuscany, we enjoy rabbit many coniglio ripieno."
Meat, Glorious Meat
Christine Speiser from Chicago intoned the recipe as Pam spread mashed sausage, fresh thyme, fennel, and lemon zest over a large piece of boned rabbit. Barb Esses, an ear specialist from Colorado, added a second layer of mashed chicken livers. Cristina rolled the meat into a neat package, wrapped it with pork caul, and placed the roast into the oven for two hours.
Meanwhile, we kept busy making pappa al pomodoro (tomato bread), salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce) and fagiolini in umido (string beans in red sauce), while the rabbit and custard pie cooked.
The school is a comfortable place to cook, dine, and browse international cookbooks. Despite the fact that I was in the place Fra Stefano Bonsignori described in 1584 as being "so noble and illustrious a city that celebrating it is superfluous," I often contented myself by paging through Paul Bocuse's La Nuova Cucina and Loving Food: A Collection of Recipes for All Occasions.
Italian food is so delicious because nothing is frozen, canned, or more than a day or two old. Recipes take time to prepare, time to cook, time to enjoy.
Talking with the other guests, I realized that we came here to learn the secrets of La Cucina Toscana--and also to rediscover our lost selves. Our grandmothers once spent hours, even days, cooking family meals; some of our mothers had time to be real cooks. But most of us survive on fast food, the microwave, and take-out. Just for this one week, days went by without faxes, phone calls, e-mail, as we wallowed contentedly in flour and olive oil.
A Cultural Comedy
Our third day, we cooked minestra di magro (Tuscan bean soup), stracotto all toscana (Tuscan style pot roast), spinaci alla romana (spinach Roman style), and tiramisu (biscuits with mascarpone cheese). Everyone enjoyed chopping, sauteing, searing, mixing, and whipping.
Cristina joked about salt portions used by different cultures. "A Tuscan pinch of salt uses five fingers," she remarked. "Italian pinch is four, French is three, American two, and Japanese for their salt pinch use only one finger."
Three days of eating had tightened all our clothes, so we bid Gabriella and Cristina a temporary arrivederci, to begin our hikes through the Chianti countryside.
Guided by Roberta Gandolfi and Angelica Turi, we visited serene, ancient towns such as Radda and Greve. After passing 100-year-old stone farmhouses, we wandered through vineyards and olive groves, and told jokes under tunnels of emerald cypress trees. Like school girls, we ran through the fanciful manicured gardens of Villa Vignamaggio, where Much Ado About Nothing was filmed.
Too soon, the time came for our last Tuscan dinner. On the outdoor terrace of Ristoro Di Lamole, we feasted on homemade ravioli stuffed with radiccio, gnocchi with ricotta and spinach, and nonna cake for dessert.
Roberta and Angelica gave us T-shirts that said "Leonardo." Cristina handed out Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu diplomas. And a very pregnant Gabriella rested quietly at home, awaiting her Michelangelo.
Having learned some secrets of La Cucina Toscana, I am in awe of the meals once created by my grandmother, Anna Riello, and my mother, Maria Teresa Juliana Magdalena Riello. I say a prayer of thanks, and hope they are cooking together in some heavenly kitchen.
For details about the itinerary including three days of cooking classes and three days of hiking the Tuscan countryside, contact Ciclismo Classico, 13 Marathon Street, Arlington, MA 02174. Phone: (617) 646-3377 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.ciclismoclassico.com.
Or contact the cooking school at: Scuola di Arte Culinaria; Phone/fax: 011-055-23-45-468; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.aspide.it/piazza/cordonbleu.
For information about other tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Cooking School".