Courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez
Italy is a land rich in history and lush in landscape. It’s a place of varied topography — mountains, valleys, coastal towns, and islands — that produces some of the most beloved cuisine on the planet. Whether it’s Neapolitan pizza, a hearty fettucine Bolognese from Emilia-Romagna, Venetian risotto, truffles from Umbria, or a seafood stew from Marche that sends your palate soaring, everyone has a favorite region and a favorite dish.
Though I watched my grandmother and my mother make Sunday “gravy” more times than I can count, I’ve always wanted to learn about the ways in which the Italian people cultivate their land, source their ingredients, choose their menus, prepare their meals, pair their wines, and celebrate with a sit-down meal on their home soil. With so many companies offering food-based excursions through both the cities and countryside of Italy, I decided to head to Tuscany and Lazio — two vastly different culinary regions — to sample a few epicurean adventures along the way in the hopes of finding the best of the best.(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Giampaolo Macorig)
Derived from peasant origins, Tuscan cuisine is simple food focusing on local produce, mellow cheeses, hearty breads, and grilled meats. Beans are a staple, as is high quality beef from cattle breeds like Chianina and Maremmana. Wine-braised game such as boar, deer, and rabbit, and hearty soups thickened with day-old bread like ribollitacover the Tuscan table. Then, throw in some Chianti. There are countless villas throughout Tuscany that look to broaden your appreciation of Tuscan food. From my experiences, two stood out.
Once a crumbling Medici palace headed for demolition, now a five-star Small Luxury Hotel of the World property, Villa Le Maschere sits pretty in the town of Barberino di Mugello. Overlooking Bilancino Lake, a design palette of purples and blues, greens and yellows are bathed in gorgeous Tuscan light throughout the day.
In this fairy tale setting, cooking classes with Chef Fabio Danzo enhance any visit to the region. Danzo stresses the authenticity of local ingredients as he infuses his own herb flavorings in his oils and uses the same technique to create original salts. Then he shows attendees how to use the ingredients to make a chunky soup, a smooth flan, or a silky mousse. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/ulterior epicure)
The menu changes seasonally and highlights traditional Tuscan and Mugello dishes. My class included pappa al pomodoro con gamberi, a bread and tomato soup with shrimp, Florentine-style “tagliata” of beef, and a walnut and cocoa parfait for dessert. Through demonstration, the easy-going Danzo illustrates how to execute a Tuscan meal, in the end presenting each course in the hotel’s elegant restaurant, Il Piopponero.(€135 or $190, minimum of 2).
Veronica Clemente, the lifelong Tuscan who leads Ciao Laura’s Farm to Fork cooking class from her father’s countryside villa in the Chianti region, lives and breathes food. When you meet her, she’ll tell you how she used to sneak into her family’s kitchen after she finished her homework as a young girl to watch the magic whirl around her. You can see her passion to share what she’s learned with others. Her cooking classes teach “the key” to the Italian way of life: food.
Veronica’s hands-on approach begins the moment students arrive at her home. After reading through Italian recipes, deciphering culinary words and phrases, and visiting farms and markets for ingredients, a menu begins to take shape. Everything is made from scratch in Veronica’s kitchen — from bread to pasta to sauces — and the process is inclusive. The Farm to Fork experience recently expanded to include a children’s program. (€130 or $186 per person, minimum of 2; discounts available for groups of 4+) (Photo courtesy of Ciao Laura's Farm to Fork)