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Cooking in Tuscany
By Joann Biondi


Tuscan Women Cook, in the village of Montefollonico, sits on a hill surrounded by medieval walls, a 13th century Sienese fortress, where ancient cobblestone streets lead you to some of the best food in the world.


Iyolanda, a sturdy 76-year-old Italian grandmother, shows up for work everyday with her own pasta board. A weathered slab of wood with scars and stains and splintered edges. It is the same pasta board that her mother used when she was a little girl. And it is the same pasta board that her daughter and granddaughter will likely use when she is long gone.

"My pasta board is a bit rough and very old." she says. "I like rough because it's good to get the pasta dough started. And old, well, old is always better than new."

A retired chef with 26 years of hot stove experience, Iyolanda is one of the star instructors of Tuscan Women Cook, an intensive five-day program in the medieval town of Montefollonico. She is also the epitome of an Italian mama-quick to pinch a cheek, fill your pockets with cookies, and flail her arms up in the air when things don't go just right.

Rough, old wood is just one of her requirements. There is the ricotta cheese-bought fresh each morning at the dairy and lightly seasoned before stuffing into delicate zucchini flowers. There's the wild boar meat soaked in red wine overnight before simmering with garlic and tomatoes for a savory ragų. And then there is the pasta dough, cut into strips and hand-rolled with an idiosyncratic flick of the wrist that creates the ideal thickness for pappardelle, wide noodles commonly eaten in Tuscany.

"As soon as we met Iyolanda we knew she was the cooking teacher for us," says Patty Sutherland, co-owner with her husband Bill of Tuscan Women Cook. "She is so down to earth and very real when it comes to food."

Housed in a 300-year-old villa, Tuscan Woman Cook is a hands-on cooking school that pays homage to the traditions of Tuscan cooking. Food with lots of heart and soul, prepared the old-fashioned way, as women here have done for centuries. It is a place where local women with wrinkled faces and ample hips share their family's cooking secrets, and encourage guests to indulge in the sensuality of food.

It is not a chi-chi Cordon Bleau experience with some egotistical chef who expounds on the chemical properties of ingredients. It is a down-home and relaxed lesson on the simple rituals of rural Italian kitchens. A joyful sonata where meats and spices and fire and fun merge as one.

One of Italy's 23 regional cuisines, Tuscan cooking is based on an agricultural history of hardship and living off the land. Tuscans have a great respect for the natural variations in the local soil, and are acutely aware of the influence this variation can have on flavor. Its basic philosophy is that you can eat well by making do with less. At its core is an array of simple and hearty dishes that utilize wild game such as rabbit and boar and pheasant, chestnuts, wild fennel, fresh figs, virgin olive oil, just-picked herbs and vegetables, a minute amount of sauces, and stale bread used as a stretcher-added to bean soups, mixed with fresh tomatoes for a salad, or as bruschetta, also known as poor man's pizza.

I have come to Tuscan Women Cook to improve my less-than-proficient cooking skills, get in touch with my long lost Italian roots, and of course, relish the sun-washed beauty of the countryside. Here, in the heart of central Italy, vast fields of sunflowers punctuate the landscape and the softness of the light makes the warm browns and golden yellows radiate like no where else on earth.

About one our south of Florence and two hours north of Rome, the village of Montefollonico sits on a hill surrounded by medieval walls. Founded in the 13th century as a Sienese fortress, it has ancient cobblestone streets that meander past old stone houses decorated with overflowing flowerpots. From tiny gardens, the sweet aroma of basil wafts through the air. About 20 miles away is Cortona, the town that served as the setting for Frances Mayes' book, Under the Tuscan Sun.

My mornings start at 9 a.m., when classes begin. I arrive at Patty and Bill Sutherland's villa where Alessandra, their large white Great Pyrrenese-like dog, greets me with a sloppy kiss on my face. Shiny copper pots hang from the kitchen ceiling and the wooden louvers are thrown wide open. I don an apron, tie my hair back, and join my six fellow classmates. For five days we take turns chopping vegetables, rolling pasta dough, and whipping heavy cream into mouse. We cook for hours, and then, we sit down to eat. Oh boy do we eat.

Late afternoons are spent exploring the nearby towns of Pienza, Montepulciano, and Torrita di Siena. And at night, we attend wine tastings at local wineries specializing in the famed Tuscan Brunello wines, and then dine at some of the finest restaurants in the areas-more food!

While enrolled in the program, guests are housed for six nights at the nearby La Costa Hotel as part of a package. About a mile from the Sutherland's villa, La Costa is a delightful property with old brick walls and huge wooden beams that once served as a manor house for a large farm owned by an Italian marquis during the 14th century.

The lovechild of Bill Sutherland, a former Texas real estate entrepreneur who once owned a gourmet food shop in Arlington, Texas, Tuscan Women Cook has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a ruin with a view. Bill and his wife bought the run-down villa on a lark while traveling through Italy in 1998, and then quickly decided to leave their fast-paced life behind. They then spent about two years renovating it-sandblasting walls, restoring terra-cotta tile floors, and lugging in the perfect mix of rustic elegant antiques.

Along the way they both learned to speak Italian, and after enjoying countless wonderful meals at local restaurants while working on their villa, they decided to turn their stunningly beautiful home into a school where tourists could experience first-hand what they had grown to love so much. Hiring local grandmothers to teach the classes was the centerpiece of their plan, and one that proved to be the perfect touch. Soon after, Tuscan Women Cook was born.

Intentionally small, Tuscan Women Cook receives less than 100 students per year. And while most students who come stay for the entire five-day program, the school also offers day sessions if arranged in advance.

"We really don't want the school to get too big or too busy or to take over our lives, " says Bill. "Heck, that would take all the fun out of it."

Sutherland is right. Fun is the essence of Tuscan Women Cook.

Now, will I ever break out a rough old wooden board and roll my own dough for pasta? I doubt it.

INFORMATION

Cost of a week-long Tuscan Women Cook package: $2,550 per person, based on double occupancy (single supplement is $350) and includes: cooking classes, six-nights lodging, local transportation, tours of the surrounding areas, all meals and wine. For information on the daily schedule, visit http://www.tuscanwomencook.com/code/daily.html.

Airfare and transportation from Rome is extra. Classes are limited to 12 participants, and are held in May, June, July, September and October. For information, visit www.tuscanwomencook.com or call 011-39-0577-669444.


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