These may be the strangest words ever to come out of the mouth of an Italian chef running a Tuscan cooking class.
“Good morning. My name is Sunshine.”
The name fit like a snug sweater, his smile infectious and every ripple visible.
His parents had been “sort of hippies” and named him after the musical Hair. Try carrying that name growing up in Italy.
And Sunshine he would be, smiling patiently throughout the three days it would take to teach me to make pasta without ripping the dough and soup without burning it.
I have fancied myself a decent sort in the kitchen, what with my wide travels and Mediterranean parents. Each time I burn a dish or murder a sauce, it comes as a surprise.
I can’t really cook – and you have no idea how writing those few words pains me. Certainly I can rustle up a dozen or so classics, and have few enough dinner parties for anyone to notice I’m rotating my meals. Still, ineptness in the kitchen not something I would normally claim.
So the invitation from Flavours of Italy, a travel agency in Edinburgh with special deals for solo travelers, came at the perfect time. Come to Tuscany, and we’ll teach you to cook Italian, they said.
Tuscany. Food. Sunshine.
My inner chef leapt at the chance.
The school sits on top of a Tuscan hill, as most villas in Tuscany do. Around it is Arramista, an estate dedicated to making wine.
Upstairs are high-ceilinged bedrooms and on the ground floor is a combination of kitchen, sitting rooms and – most important – the classroom, a long table set neatly with a chopping board, an apron, a knife and a recipe for each of the eight of us.
Later that evening, we prepare for our first lesson.
“My philosophy is not to do things fast, but to enjoy the process, without stress,” Sunshine explains, simultaneously asking a student to rush outside and pick a few bay leaves.
And that’s how it goes for the next few days. We gather in the kitchen while Sunshine expounds on an aspect of cooking – how to hold the knife, how to chop, or in my case, how to wield a cleaver over unsuspecting lamb ribs.
We learn how to respect and combine the various colors of food, not to stir until we actually smell the onions melt and hear the spices crackle, and to use vegetables to make stock – no meat!
That first meal is perhaps the most memorable, kneading dough into ravioli shapes to the sound of Puccini. “My father always cooked pasta with opera,” Sunshine explains. With meat it’s Genovese music – Sunshine is from Liguria, Genoa’s province a bit further north – and for dessert something more folksy drifts through the air.
I’m surprised to discover making pasta is fun – how simple, with only flour, eggs, oil, water and salt… and how astoundingly tasty when compared to something bought in a store. The filling is equally simple, a mixture of leafy greens and fresh white ricotta.
When the dough has rested I learn to roll it out thinly, cutting it first into strips and then into squares. It breaks, of course, but with a bit of perseverance I’m soon filling it, gently pressing the edges with a fork to make those cute little ridges around each piece. The trick? Press the sides first to let the air out the front, then seal the front.
When it comes time to cook we move to the kitchen, the kind you probably have at home, with everyday utensils so yes, there’s a chance I’ll be able to reproduce that evening’s success.
Over the next few days we cook a phenomenal number of dishes – succulent guinea fowl with aromatic porcini mushrooms, panna cotta (my first, but definitely not my last), tiramisú (not usually a dessert I enjoy but this one… oh this one…), maccheroni with sausage and truffle butter, braised lamb ribs with black olives and pine nuts, Tuscan apple cake…
The classes break for a quick day trip to Florence but soon we are back in our kitchen, stirring soup.
At night, the sounds of the countryside – replete with howling dogs and a few errant mosquitoes – squeeze in through the windows, along with the fresh scent of crisp cypresses and the comforting odor of burning wood, all gently tickling me, pulling me into a deep sleep.
I can’t say four days turn me into a cordon bleu chef, but my confidence in the kitchen is tripled. I no longer believe I will have to throw every pan away, nor will I keep a ‘reserve’ dish in the fridge when I have guests, you know, just in case.
Sometimes it’s all in the teaching.
“Some chefs try to make things too perfect so people are frightened of making a mistake,” Sunshine explains. “If there’s stress when the food is being made, that stress will be passed on to the customer. I was like that in my professional kitchen but now, teaching small groups in a home kitchen makes me relaxed. I enjoy sharing the knowledge so much more, it’s so different than the stress I used to have.”
*UPDATE DEC 2015*: Sunshine has just published his book, My Tuscan Kitchen (affiliate link). Which of course I’ve just bought.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- If you visit, be sure to bring a bathing suit. I didn’t have mine and there was a glorious swimming pool right outside the building.
- Bring good walking shoes. The grounds are large and stuffed with trails to walk off all those extra calories.
- Flavours of Italy picks people up at the Pisa airport but if you’re driving, make sure you use your GPS and that you have the phone number of one of the staff. I did get lost but was able to get phone directions easily.
- Classes are comfortably small – my Tuscan cooking class was 8 people.
- Also of interest: What every woman should know about travel to Italy and A Woman’s Guide to Florence.
Photographs by Anne Sterck