One of the best things our group did while we were in Tuscany was take part in a cooking class in nearby Sant’ Andrea. The cooking class was part of Il Vicario farmhouse, which also operates as an agriturismo (www.ilvicario.com).
Owner and host, Fulvio Mecacci, has been conducting cooking classes with his sister, Francha for the last six years. The farmhouse is a charming 14th century building perched on a hillside surrounded by vineyards and walking trails. Fulvio has to be one of the most interesting characters we had the pleasure of meeting during our week. Before he ran the cooking school, he was a deep sea diver in the Indian Ocean off The Maldives. His sister, Francha, was adorable and spoke no English. I happened to speak a few Italian words to her and from then on I became the translator for the group. This proved quite funny, because most of my translating was spent nodding my head saying, “si, si”. I had never taken a cooking class before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that at some point we were going to sit down and eat everything we prepared that day with wine pairings. Yay!
On with the cooking! We started with our appetizers (antipasti) which was bruschetta, panzanella salad and pecorino with honey & pine nuts. Not super hard technical things, but when you see a dish done in its homeland, you pick up a few tips. For the bruschetta, the bread was first cut in thick slices (thin slices are called crostini) which were toasted, and then drizzled with olive oil (the beginning of lots of olive oil). We all took part chopping fresh garden tomatoes and garlic. When it came to the fresh basil, Fulvio had us tear the leaves versus chopping it. “This prevents the herb from browning,” he explained. We learned that the Italians are obsessed with keeping things bright and fresh.
Next, Panzanella Salad. There are many interpretations of this dish, but this version has to be the tastiest any of us had ever had. It’s important that you start with very old crusty bread. Like several days old. Fulvio exlained back in the day, people were too poor (and hungry) to be throwing out stale bread, so they found a way to use it. We took the stale bread, and soaked it in a big bowl of water. Then we all took turns squeezing the water out of the bread. Yes, I admit, it’s kind of strange, wet and mealy but keep an open mind. We then added the wet bread crumbs to a mixture of sliced vegetables that included onion, cucumber, tomato, capers, fresh basil (torn by hand of course), salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil. When my husband Kenny did the honor of adding the olive oil, he asked Fulvio how much he should use. Fulvio just said two words, “just start.” He wasn’t kidding. He mentioned that in his house they go through a litre of olive oil a day! That’s serious. We then prepared the pecorino (sheep cheese) slices. The pecorino was young, and softer than the traditional hard-aged cheese we typically eat. Some of the slices had chocolate sauce drizzled on, others (and my personal favorite) had honey, pine-nuts then fresh grated nutmeg. Before sitting down to enjoy the antipasti (with a glass of Verdicchio) we prepared our sauces for our next course: spicy tomato with pici and basil pesto with gnocchi.
If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that my favorite pasta is “pici”, a very thick spaghetti-like strand. This pasta is made with equal parts semolina flour and regular flour, then a little salt and water to bind. You role it into pencil thick strands, as long in length as you can without breaking them. Our group had a lot of fun trying to see who could make the longest strand. This took some talent, and let’s just say I wasn’t in the running. We then set all of our pici strands aside (sprinkled with a little semolina to keep them from sticking) and began the gnocchi.
Gnocchi, a small potato dumpling, was what our group was most excited to learn how to make. The dough, made from riced potatoes and flour, was kneaded for a few minutes. We each got a portion of the finished dough to work with. We rolled the dough into a thin log, then took a knife and cut them into approximately 1″ pieces. Then we simply took our forefinger, pushed down on the dumpling and rolled it back onto the thumb in a smooth motion. We learned you can make fancy fork patterns on the dumpling if you want, but Fulvio said it’s traditional just to keep them rustic.
Our last dish was breast of chicken with orange sauce. We sliced the chicken breast into strips, then dredged it in flour. The sauce was simply the juice of two fresh squeezed oranges. The chicken breast was then seared in a pan of olive oil, and once you flip the chicken over, add the fresh orange juice. Let it all cook together for a few more minutes, then serve it sauce and all on a platter. If it seemed like we were eating for hours, we were (not a bad thing). I won’t go into how the food tasted, but let the photos do the talking.
I will say that there’s nothing more rewarding than enjoying a thoughtfully prepared meal. And if you can enjoy it alfresco, washing it down with Verdicchio and Chianti on a sunny day in Tuscany, even better! Well, the fun didn’t stop there. After our meal, Fulvio served vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) w/ cantucci (almond biscuits) followed by grappa and espresso. Oh, Italian hospitality, don’t you just love it?
Spending the day at Il Vicario was such a treat. Learning traditional Italian recipes in someone’s home and sharing wine with them was an amazing experience none of us will forget. This concludes my report on Tuscany (for now). I hope you have enjoyed my entries, and I thank you for reading!