Cooking under a Tuscan sun
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Cooking under a Tuscan sun

Andrew Marshall joins a cooking school in the Tuscan countryside before travelling to the city of Florence to take a food tour....

“Every day is a picture postcard here,” says George Myers, as we take in the magnificent panorama of countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see. We are on the terrace of Hotel La Costa in the 13th century hilltop village of Montefollonico, situated about 100 kilometres south of of Florence. George, along with his wife Linda and their daughter Whitney, are our wonderful hosts of Cook in Tuscany, a week of gourmet cooking classes run by local women, fine dining and excursions.

We step inside the sunlit breakfast room, which offers tempting dishes such as hard-boiled eggs served with olive oil and chilli flakes, Italian fruit pie, fresh juices and fine coffee. After breakfast, my partner, Amanda and I stroll over to nearby ristorante La Botte Piena to join an eager group of Americans, Canadians and Australians already wearing aprons and rolling up their sleeves in readiness to cook and indulge in some of Tuscany's best dishes.

“This morning we will be making pici, a hand-rolled pasta which originated in the area,” says Linda. Then, after a few instructions, we are off on our 'Great Italian Bake-Off ' adventure, busily mixing flour, warm water, olive oil and a pinch of salt into a well-kneaded dough. When the balls of dough have rested for about 20 minutes, it is rolled out and cut into strips. Then the real fun begins as we roll, pull and wrestle the strips of dough with our palms in a collective floury frenzy of pici comparisons, photo taking and shrieks of laughter. “Remember to pull with one hand while rolling with the other,” shouts Linda, trying to be heard above the noise. The desired result is fresh pasta, thinner than a pencil, but unlike spaghetti it will have variations in its thickness.

When the pici-making session is over, George takes on the role of DJ as we all conga around the table and funnel into the kitchen for a cooking class with chef Elena, who runs La Botte Piena, with her husband Simone. Elena demonstrates how to make papa al pomodoro (a popular soup of bread, tomatoes, olive oil and basil) followed by a savoury cheesecake (a base of crushed breadsticks, a filling of fresh ricotta and a topping of tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar) and torta della nonna (a creamy custard tart).

After creating all this delicious food, it's time for everyone to enjoy eating it. The Cook in Tuscany team of George, Linda and Whitney, along with Elena, Simone, chef Julio and wine expert Serena, join the guests at the long communal table in the centre of the restaurant. A typical Italian lunch or pranzo, is a leisurely affair and usually consists of four courses: an appetiser (antipasti), a first course (il primo - usually pasta or soup), a second course (il secondo - meat or fish with a side dish, il contorno ) and dessert (dolci).

Each of our courses is paired with an Italian wine chosen from Simone's extensive collection of over 10,000 bottles. Prosecco from the Veneto region accompanies the papa al pomodoro and savoury cheesecake appetisers; a glass of Bolgheri Vermentino white wine goes with the pici and truffle first course; Chianti Classico compliments the second course of thick T-bone steaks (from the gigantic Chianina cattle breed), grilled over charcoal with oven-roasted vegetables; and a sweet Moscato d'Asti dessert wine is paired with the torta della nonna dessert. Buon Appetito!

After lunch, there's time for a quick siesta at La Costa, before we head off in the minibus with the rest of the gang for the afternoon excursion. Soon after leaving Montefollonico we are immersed in the classic, painterly landscape of Tuscany. Olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields carpet the rolling hills, interspersed with rows of tall cypress trees that follow twisting tracks towards honey-stoned farmhouses on the slopes.

We visit the village of Bagno Vignoni, famous for its Roman thermal baths, before journeying to historic Pienza, the earliest example of an Renaissance 'ideal town', which was granted World Heritage status in 1996. “You must try the gelato here,” says George as he leads us through a series of narrow lanes to the Gelateria Buon Gusto (Via Delle Case Nuove 26). Nicola and chef Giuseppe, who run it, make small batches of fresh gelato each day, focussing on quality ingredients and natural flavours.

This is the real deal, and very different to the mountains of brightly coloured gelato you find in many touristy gelaterias. Several delicious and original flavours are available, including rosemary-strawberry, carrot-ginger and salted caramel. High above the town walls, a promenade proves to be the ideal spot to eat our ices as we take in the sweeping hillside views. Later in the evening, at La Bandita Townhouse (Corso il Rossellino 111), the group enjoys a four-course meal of zucchini carpaccio with Parmesan shavings, tagliatelle al pesto, chicken breast with asparagus and bacon, and a chocolate, pistachio and salted caramel dessert.

The rest of the week follows a similar schedule, with a few variations: morning cooking classes with different chefs; cheese and bread-making; wine tastings; a truffle hunt; a pizza dinner; more afternoon excursions and a farewell dinner at La Costa. One Cook in Tuscany guest, Rita, from Salt Lake City, sums it all up: “George and Linda immerse you in the local culture, the food, the way of life and the history. They make it fun.”

The other side of Florence

After arriving in Florence and dropping off our hire car, we walk in the afternoon sunshine to the Oltrarno district, literally translating as “the other side of the River Arno.” The Oltrarno was and still is a fiercely proud working-class neighbourhood with a strong sense of community. In recent years it has become home to artisanal shops, craft workshops, independent boutiques and a new generation of bohemian settlers. The Oltrarno is the Florentine equivalent of Paris's Left Bank, Rome's Trastevere or London's Shoreditch.

The splendid Soprarno Suites (Via Maggio 35), our first-night accommodation in Florence, are in the heart of the Oltrarno. The 16th-century palace was converted into an elegant and stylish retreat by internationally acclaimed calligrapher and graphic designer Betty Soldi and her husband Matteo Perduca. ...

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Attached Files

Cooking-under-a-Tuscan-sun.rtf
Cooking-under-a-Tuscan-sun.rtf
“Simone who runs La Botte Piena restaurant in Montefollonico (with his wife Elena) proudly displays a tray of pici (made during a 'Cook in Tuscany' class) – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
“Simone who runs La Botte Piena restaurant in Montefollonico (with his wife Elena) proudly displays a tray of pici (made during a
“Making savoury cheesecake during a 'Cook in Tuscany' class, Montefollonico – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
 “Making savoury cheesecake during a
“Eating Europe guide Gaia Ancilotti outside L' Raddi -a traditional trattoria on the 'Other Side of Florence' Food Tour – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
“Eating Europe guide Gaia Ancilotti outside L
“The breakfast terrace, Ad Astra, Florence – Image credit ilaria Costanzo”
“The breakfast terrace, Ad Astra, Florence – Image credit ilaria Costanzo”
“Classic Tuscan landscape near Pienza – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
 “Classic Tuscan landscape near Pienza – Image credit Andrew  Marshall”
“Florence city skyline with the Duomo and surrounding Tuscan countryside – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
“Florence city skyline with the Duomo and surrounding Tuscan countryside – Image credit Andrew  Marshall”
“Inside Buon Gusto gelateria (ice cream shop) in Pienze – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
“Inside Buon Gusto gelateria (ice cream shop) in Pienze – Image credit Andrew  Marshall”
“Cook in Tuscany guests take part in a cooking lesson (making pici ) inside La Botte Piena restaurant, Montefollonico – Image credit Andrew Marshall”
“Cook in Tuscany guests take part in a cooking lesson (making pici )  inside La Botte Piena restaurant, Montefollonico – Image credit Andrew  Marshall”