Dale Curry, The Times-Picayune Food Editor
New Orleans resident Karin Giger, right, makes fresh pasta with Italian cooking instructor Ada Bernadini and Lindsey and Paul Burke from Atlanta.
Karin Giger and her husband Larry Eustis spent an early summer week with four other couples relaxing at a farmhouse, cooking for a few hours each day, then experiencing what the countryside has to offer. Field trips took them to a cheese factory, an olive press, vineyards and market day in Siena, as well as on shopping trips to the factories of Armani, Burberry cashmere, and a leather coat manufacturer.
This is very casual, she said of the course titled Tuscan Women Cook. Instructors are home cooks who live nearby and teach students how to cook authentic Italian everyday food.
Its just such fun, Giger said. To me, it is the right mixture of giving your vacation some focus without it being obsessive. Yes, we were at cooking school, but we werent hard-core cooks. Larry said he really went to eating school.
With a view of the medieval village of Montefollonico on the next hilltop, Giger and friends spent mornings in the kitchen of an 18th century manor house on a farm named Belagaggio. Located 45 minutes southeast of Siena, the house and several stone cottages were converted to accommodate cooking classes with living quarters meeting comfortable hotel standards but with the feeling of being in someones home.
The Italian government-sponsored program called Agriturismo has made conversion of farmhouses and villas possible for owners through low-interest loans and other incentives to enhance tourism. One of many such sites in Italy, Belagaggio offers the comforts of home including a swimming pool, hiking grounds and hunting, and fishing activity.
Being in someones home was so congenial. Theyd get out their own bottles of wine at 9 in the morning. No one minded at all. In fact, it was encouraged, Giger said. Bill and Patty Sutherland serve as hosts, offering artistic and culinary expertise to daily events that include a wine tasting in a 700-year-old cellar, visits to other private homes and discount shopping.
They found out our interests, said Giger, an avid gardener, delighted that the Sutherlands kept scenic gardens in mind when they planned the itinerary. And, although she is the cook in the family, her husband still cooks the meat sauce he learned to make.
Larry makes a fabulous ragu now, she said. Other favorites that she still prepares are bread salad and a white bean minestrone. The week includes all meals, rooms, classes, field trips, use of grounds and extras such as wine. Some will schedule the week for a group of friends exclusively, and the schools are frequently booked months in advance.
Language is little problem. As one travel agent put it, food is the language. However, most instructors speak English and in the case of locals who dont, translators are offered.
Students respond that cooking in Europe is a fascinating way to enjoy the countryside. Picking plums in the morning and feasting on a plum tart later that day is part learning, part fun. Then theres the leisure time to stop and smell the rosemary that most dont forget.
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