Everyone (it seems) wants to learn the secret of Italian cooking, FIONA BECKETT is no exception. So a six-day cookery course at Villa Valentina in Tuscany seemed the answer.
We step off the bus that has wound its way up the mountain road from the coast and walk into the village of Tavernelle, to a scene that hasn’t changed since the 13th century. As we sip Prosecco and nibble torta di riso (sweet rice cake) we eye each other up. There are 15 of us in all from all over the world, and of course there’s the irrepressible Valentina: TV personality, author of 18 cookery books, who, although she has spent much of her life in Britain and speaks perfect English, was born and brought up in this area. We eat family style around a large table decorated with flowers and candles before the cookery course begins. The menu is simple, delicious and homely – torta di zucchini (savoury courgette cake), Italian roast pork with lemon-roast potatoes and strawberry parfait.
We walk into the room and find the table groaning with vegetables, cheeses, bread, pasta, oil and all the ingredients we will have to work with over the next six days. It is only recently that Italian food has been recognised as such, explains Valentina. Until the 19th century most of Italy’s regions were autonomous and there are major differences in cooking styles around the country. History lesson over, Valentina shows us how store cupboard and shop-bought ingredients can be thrown together for an informal antipasti lunch – bresaola, simply dressed with oil and lemon and scattered with wild rocket, the sweetest of red peppers, roasted and dressed with olive oil, a quick, easy tuna and bean salad… The ingredients for each recipe are efficiently laid out on trays. We work in pairs, all preparing the meal together In the afternoon Valentina has us making pasta. By hand (well, on a machine). I pick the stuffed tortelloni, which is apparently modelled on Venus’ belly button. There’s a long, ribald story about this which Valentina recounts with considerable relish. All food in Italy is related to sex somewhere along the line.
A day of visits to some of the best producers of parma ham, balsamic vinegar and parmesan. The thing that strikes you is the combination of up-to-the-minute hi-tech equipment, and the years of knowledge and skill that is needed. And the length of time it all takes to be ready – a minimum of 12 months in the case of the ham and cheese, to 12 years for balsamic vinegar if you want the tradizionale version (the only one, we are told, worth buying). We manage to fit in a quick wine tasting with local producer Lamoretti. Although Signor Lamoretti is very proud of his Sauvignon, Cabernet and Merlot, I’m rather taken by a delicious Moscato which Valentina recommends pouring over white peaches.Lunch is at the Gardoni in Torrechiara – a feast of parma ham, lardo, salami, and hand-made ravioli with ricotta and chard served with melted butter. Then – not that we need them – a selection of little cakes plus some more of that irresistible Moscato.
A visit to the market in La Spezia to learn the Italian way of shopping. Valentina instructs us to watch how the Italians shop, picking carefully through the produce, inspecting it, sniffing it and talking to the stallholder (at length) about how to cook it. ‘Seeing how Italians shop is like looking into the Italian soul,’ she says. We also get to raid a great kitchen shop where we fill up with a whole load of gadgets we will almost certainly never use once we get home.Back to the kitchen for a risotto lesson. I learn that you need to toast your rice for four minutes before adding any liquid. ‘You don’t want a savoury rice pudding,’ says Valentina. Everyone’s been given free range to use whatever ingredients they like which results in some pretty strange combinations. Valentina and her neighbour Lisa are highly impressed by a (savoury) strawberry risotto, which is apparently a great delicacy in Tuscany. I’m not so sure. Later that afternoon we tackle a selection of fish, a task Valentina approaches with the practised ease you’d expect of a woman who learned to wring a chicken’s neck at the age of eight. We learn the art of scaling, gutting, cleaning squid (very messy) and clams, and preparing fish for a classic Italian fritto misto. The more squeamish members of the party are mollified by being given the recipe for a wonderful strawberry tiramisù which will certainly find its way into my dinner party repertoire
Italians have the art of making a small amount of meat go a long way – batting the pieces out as in scallopine or involtini (beef olives) or stretching it out with breadcrumbs to make delicious meatballs. Again there are some great tips: making meatballs ultra smooth by adding a little water, removing every scrap of sinew from your scallopine so they don’t curl up, and soaking them in beaten egg to give them extra flavour.In the afternoon we master gnocchi. Or rather we don’t. We watch Valentina make a fabulously light, airy mixture and roll it with effortless ease down a gnocchi board. We make rubbery little bullets that disintegrate in the pan. It’s some consolation to find that very few Italians make them either. I have better luck with my carciofi alla romana – artichokes stewed with oil, garlic and lemon.
The last class: bread- and pizza-making under the tutelage of artisan baker Dan Schickentanz. Out of the same basic dough you can make focaccia, pizza and calzone. The trick with pizza, he reveals, is to let the dough hang from your hands and its weight will pull it into shape. Allowed free rein, the class runs riot creating a multitude of different flavoured pizzas and flatbreads. We get the afternoon off for good behaviour – a boat trip round the stunningly beautiful Cinque Terre ports before a final feast of asparagi alla parmigiana, coniglio alle olive and panna cotta al cioccolato.
There’s just time before we leave to watch one of Valentina’s neighbours making cheese and discover what real ricotta tastes like. And time for Claudio, one of the Italian chefs, to show us the wild herbs he has been using in his salads and torta dell’erbe (wild herb tart) which sadly we’ll never manage to recreate at home. It’s a wrench to pull ourselves away. But we have learned so much. How to make the cornerstones of Italian cuisine, how to work with unfamiliar ingredients like artichokes, rabbit and squid. But perhaps, most importantly, what it’s actually like to cook and live in a large Italian family. My fellow guests were already booking their next trip.
Villa Valentina is at PO Box 3038
CR2 0XS. Tel/fax (44) 208 651 2997 www.villavalentina.com. Courses cost from £1,185–1,220 inclusive of all meals and excursions but excluding flights.
OTHER ITALIAN COOKERY COURSES
Decide how intensive and hands-on you want the course to be. Find out who is leading it and how well they know the area. And what the price includes. Most exclude airfares but you need to check what meals, excursions and teaching materials you’ll need to cover.
Italian Cookery Weeks
+44 208 208 0112
Hands on classes in Umbria and on the Amalfi coast. £1,249 for 7 nights incl flights
Roberto’s Italian Table
+39 41 714 571 (fax) www.italiantable.com
Luxury holidays based at the Hotel Cipriani, Venice, Villa
San Michele, Florence and Hotel Splendido, Portofino. $4,250–4,750 for six nights
Tasting Places +44 20 7460 0077 www.tastingplaces.com
British-based firm offering holidays in the Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily and Piedmont. 7 nights from £1,100, excl flights
Diane Seed’s Roman Kitchen +39 66 797 103
5-day courses from $1,800.
More essential info is at: http://cookforfun.shawguides.com