A Tuscan Cooking Class

A Tuscan Cooking Class

We got up, went to the car, and travelled to Podere Marcampo, about 5.5km outside town, as we had a cooking class booked for much of the day. We arrived early, and had a little explore of the outside of the property.

The podere (farm) owners also run Del Duca restaurant in the heart of town.  The class was led by the somelier of the restaurant, who herself is a pretty good cook.  We were brought inside to their private quarters, and given a small cookbook and apron each (all of which we could take home with us).  It was explained to us that we would be making 5 things:

  1. Crusty, rustic bread;
  2. A soufflé of zucchini (courgette);
  3. Filled pasta with tomato sauce;
  4. Stuffed guinea fowl breast;
  5. Chocolate soufflé

The class itself was about 3 hours long, and I immediately wondered whether we’d be able to accomplish everything within the alotted time.  Towards the end of the class the instructor told us that they used to do one course after another, which led to time issues, but she had the timing now down to a fine art.  A little of the pre-measuring and prep had already been done, and ingredients gathered (all local, most 0km).  We would be doing a lot of the prep work, but largely observing during the actual cooking.  This was fine by me.  

The timetable, then, was a solid 3 hours, with only a short break about 80% of the way through to try their own vermintino (white wine variety), wild boar salami and capocollo (cured pork, a cut from the back of the neck).  The meats were sensational, and cured by the patriarch of the family.

For the zucchini soufflé, a full medium red onion was sliced and fried in a lot of extra-virgin olive oil to soften them.  This took about 10-15 minutes, during which time we sliced the zucchini and prepped the bread dough from scratch.  Unlike traditional Tuscan bread, we would be using salt – which is my preference.  It was my first attempt at making bread, and… yeah… it was a mediocre effort.

The dough was left to prove, and then we went back to the kitchen to deposit the zucchini slices into the onions, after the instructor had demonstrated that the onions had sufficiently softened.  One thing of note, was that I don’t think salt was used to extract the moisture from the onions, but water was squirted in every now and again.  Once the zucchini was in, then she used a mixture of salt and pepper (which they keep together in a single container to ensure consistency in seasoning). 

We went back out to make dough and filling for our ravioli.  It was an egg-pasta, and we made it from scratch, making use of an electric pasta maker (but only to flatten dough into sheets – we didn’t use any of the cutters).  The filling was the instructor’s nonna’s recipe – sweet ricotta with cinnamon and marjoram.  Niamh mixed that up – and we could have happily spent the afternoon eating that alone.  I noted that they had bought the ricotta, and left it drain for the guts of a day before using it.  An egg and a tablespoon of parmesan were used to bind.

The instructor’s mamma came in and demonstrated how to make various pasta shapes (largely using my dough!).  It’s easy when you know how.  We then made our own ravioli.  Not bad for our first attempts.  Once they were done and floured, we went back out to the kitchen to drain and coarsely mash the courgette – which we could have eaten as was!  

Our dough had proved, and we shaped it without further kneading, floured it and put in the oven.  Then the instructor set about making the tomato sauce.  This was all down to the quality of the ingredients.  They used their own small (pre-chopped) tomatoes, and aromatics, which cooked down quickly.  While they cooked, we had some salumi and white wine, and then were brought out to butterfly our guinea-fowl breasts (which had the skin on) and stuff them with sausage and wrap them in pancetta.  We then made a clever use of a two-tiered, tapered plumbing pipe to force the breasts into a net, ready for sealing.

The tomato sauce was ready, and we used a winding sluicer to smoothen the consistency of the sauce, and to ensure that no tomato skin was included.  We had a taste of the sauce, and I almost fell over it was so good.

The bread was also fully baked, and was left outside to cool.  Spinach was boiled for a minute, before being doused in cold water and drained, so it would keep its colour.

We then observed as the guinea-fowl was sealed in a pan – with olive oil enfused with garlic (which was removed when the enfusion was complete).  Aromatics, olives and white wine were added (the latter of which added serious steam!).  After about 5 minutes, the meat was taken out and left to breathe for a bit, while the sauce left in the pan cooked down and thickened.  It smelled yum.

While we were doing other prep, mamma had melted chocolate (70% Ecuadorian, I think) and butter (they use French butter, not Italian – Italian butter is a little lacking, sadly, but their cheese is killer!).  In went flour and sugar to the mix, and then egg yolks were added too.  The egg whites were vigorously whipped by our guest, until very stiff (enough to keep the whisk upright) in and then gently folded into the mix by Niamh.  I could cheerfully have buried my face in the mixing bowl when all was done.

While this was going on, I buttered and floured (semola flour only – so it wouldn’t join the mix, nor add its flavour to it) some aluminium cups.  We filled the cups with the mix when done – they would eventually be cooked in a Bain Marie (Bagna Maria in Italian, believe it or not) for 5-6 minutes.

Anyway, that was the end of the course.  We had prepped way more than we’d eat, so a lot of it would be used by the restaurant staff to feed themselves.  We were ushered out to the outdoor seating area while all our work was being cooked.

We ate Niamh’s bread (lovely!), before our first course came out.  Each savoury course was complemented by one of their own red wines.  

The first course was the zucchini soufflé, drizzled with a little olive oil.  Those of you who know me know that I’m not a fan of veg which goes a little ‘mushy’, preferring instead root and floret veg, served with a little crunch.  However, this dish was stunning.  Our instructor said that we should try it with potato and turnip, if I didn’t like zucchini – but I don’t have to; it was just beautiful!

The next was our own ravioli with the tomato sauce.  I usually skip tomato sauce-based dishes, but again I was shown up as a fool, as this was amazing.  The sweet pasta filling went perfectly with the almost sour tomato sauce, which had hints of all the aromatics and garlic – it was an intensely rich sauce. 

Our third course arrived (again with another wine) – the guinea-fowl breast, sliced.  I’d never had it before, and I hate to say it, but it tasted like chicken!  It was perfectly moist, and the sauce was fab.  The bird went well with both stuffing and coating and I could have had two of them!

Finally, we had the chocolate bomb soufflé, which was served with a bitter orange marmalade.  It was perfectly melty in the middle.  We made 15 of them, and might have yummied down 2 or 3 each had we been let.

What an amazing meal, in a wonderful, bucolic surroundings… in 30 degree heat!  The temperature didn’t really bother us, though.  After we’d settled and were ready to go, we were given a brief tour of their wine plant and cellar below.

They grow a variety of grapes for their wines, but chiefly grow merlot and sangiovese for their reds.  Their merlot harvest would be taking place tomorrow (today as I’m typing this – good luck, guys!), with the sangiovese harvest occuring in early October.  A culinary aside: they were expecting 20 people to assist with the harvest, and so they had browned quartered duck, and were slow-cooking it in a vat of tomato sauce to feed them tomorrow!

Upon leaving, we were given some of our bread and soufflés, along with a plate of freshly-picked figs Niamh and our guest had tried (and loved!).

All-in-all, it was an amazing day out, and highly recommended if you’re in the area.  Being an agritourismo, they offer B&B and have a lovely pool – which they again invited us to use when we wanted.  One might balk at the price of €150 per person for the class, but that includes manual, apron, all the ingredients, 4 glasses of wine and a 5-course meal (including the salumi course).  We all thought it brilliant value by the end of the instruction.  Well done to our hosts!  As Niamh said, it was one of our best days here ever.

We were told that a kids fair was on in the main and cathedral squares.  It turned out to be a normal Saturday market, with more candy stalls for the kids.  Nice and colourful, and with some shopping to interest the adult partaker.

We stayed in the whole evening.  I had nothing else to eat for pretty much the rest of the day (save for a granita on my way back to the apartment after visiting the fair).

This morning, I took a ciruitous route past the witches rock and was a sweaty mess by the time I got home.

I might visit the pinacoteca today (the art gallery).  I’ll let you know if I do!

5 thoughts on “A Tuscan Cooking Class

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