I try first with one hand and then with two. Either way, I can’t seem to roll the dough into the smooth even cylinders I’m aiming for. The more I try, the worse it gets.
“Too much pressure”, I’m told by the Italian cook. Tell me about it! I feel like everyone is watching me as I literally make a mess of this meal. Although the ‘pressure’ he’s referring to is coming from my hands. I ease up a bit and the dough starts to resemble something a bit closer to the expected.
It’s gnocchi that I’m trying to make. After mashing potatoes, mixing them with flour and kneading the combination into a big lump, I’m now at the crucial stage of turning the mass into small pieces to be cooked. Luckily there’s an expert at hand to give me some instruction (and probably fix my mistakes if all goes too badly).
Here in the large kitchen of a Tuscan villa, I at least feel the part. We’re working on the gnocchi at a large island in the centre of the room, using the marble top on a dark wooden base as our table – no need for trays or boards.
On two sides of the room are earth-coloured tiled benches with cooking instruments and sinks. In between them is a large stove top where two metal pots are sitting with the plum jam we made earlier in the morning, the sides tinged with a rich fruity purple.
Hanging off the walls are chopping knives, large spoons, whisks, and other implements essential for the toolbox of an Italian cookery.
This is only day one of a Tuscan cooking experience organised by Eating Italy Food Tours. At the heart of the three days is this kitchen, in a remote villa high in the hills above the city of Siena.
We will end up developing a love/hate relationship, this kitchen and I. It will challenge and frustrate me at times as I struggle to replicate the dishes just demonstrated. But when I sit down to eat the half a dozen or so meals I help prepare, I’ll wonder how I could ever live without it.
Italy, of course, has a reputation for some of the best food in the world. Our teacher, Stefano Schieppati, has spent years learning its secrets and using them to make delicious meals day after day. He is clearly an expert cook… but he’s understated when I ask him about Tuscan cuisine.
“We have a good knowledge of making prosciutto – curing the pork – and good pecorino cheese”, he says.
“But honestly, Tuscan cooking is not one of the most important in Italy. It’s really poor, let’s say, if you compare to other regions. The meals that are most popular are made from poor ingredients, using the ingredients you have left over.”
Stefano is being modest, I feel, and essentially trying to explain that Tuscan cooking is more natural and earthy than some of the richer dishes from other parts of the country. But it’s this simple organic style of food preparation that really appeals to me.
The Tuscan cuisine seems to inherently suit Stefano’s character. He’s laid-back and patient with his semi-incompetent students.
There’s no showmanship or bravado to his cooking – as he makes us pasta one day he cracks as many jokes as eggs and mixes in some cheekiness with the flour. His soft voice shows a comfort devoid of insecurity in the kitchen and as he moves lightly between the stove and the sink, he almost appears to be a natural part of the Italian décor.
Stefano used to be a vegetarian but gradually started eating meat again during his years working here at Villa Ferraia. That’s because the villa is more than just luxury accommodation – it’s a whole organic food production operation.
Slightly down the hill from the main buildings is a garden where the vegetables and fruits are grown. A greenhouse looks after some of the crops while a large outdoor patch hosts the more durable plants. It’s all surrounded by seasonal fruit trees and we pick some ripe figs on a walk down there one afternoon.
Further down, along a narrow dirt road, is the farm where donkeys, cows, goats, pigs and (sometimes) chickens are kept. They’re looked after by local staff and are treated well before they end up in the kitchen at the top of the hill.
It’s this holistic approach to the preparation of food which adds an even more natural layer to our cooking experience.
It’s aspects like this that help make this experience different to many other Italian cooking courses. Each person doesn’t have their own table or do their own thing independently of the others.
Everyone works together to create the meals and you feel like you are spending time in someone’s house, in their kitchen, eating at their dining table and sharing a meal. The dining room of Villa Ferraia can seat almost 30 people and, with some fine local wines, mealtimes can be an event in themselves.
Now, I’ve got a few specific recipes to share with you from the experience. Make sure you check them out if you would like to try your hand at some authentic Tuscan cooking. But without Stefano to help fix your mistakes, I wish you luck!
- How to make gnocchi like an Italian
- Tomato passata the traditional way
- How to make the best ravioli
- Making tiramisu is easy