The original Montefollonico cooking school since 2000

A Jewel of a Cooking School in Tuscany
Mary Redmayne, Dream of Italy

A homey aroma summons from the kitchen of Bill and Patty Sutherland’s 300 year-old farmhouse as we arrive for the first day of our course in Tuscan cooking. The familiar smell is a soup base of carrots, onions and celery but there’s a less familiar, fragrant not. A peek into the pot confirms that it’s olive oil-an astonishing quantity of olive oil. The vegetables are simmering under the surface of an emerald pool. And here, where the front yard is an olive grove, there’s no reason to skimp.

In fact, a trip down to the cellar for another liter of olive oil or a jug of Bill’s homemade red wine is all the Sutherlands’ spirit of sharing the rustic pleasures they’ve savored since emigrating four years ago to Tuscany form Texas. An easy hospitality infuses their week-long program, Tuscan Women Cook, and ensures it will be as much about unwinding in the countryside and enjoying people as it is about food.

High school sweethearts reunited in middle age, the Sutherlands are opposite in appearance. He’s a commanding presence, with white hair and a wide smile. Patty, a brunette who’s both wry and warm, stands barely taller than Bill when he’s seated.

The pair was initially drawn to the medieval town of Montefollonico by the Michelin stared restaurant La Chiusa. As they spent more and more time at the adjacent hotel, their friendships with local crafters and restaurateurs grew deeper and more numerous. The couple began to nurse a dream of someday retiring nearby. When they had a chance to buy a 10-acre hilltop farm a mile or so outside the village and Bill had an offer for the Dallas real estate firm he then headed, Bill and Patty knew it was time to make the dream come true.

They started their new life at Poggio Castagni, as their home has always been known. It means, “hill of the chestnut trees,” though there were none when Bill and Patty arrived. “You don t rename a house here,” Bill has learned; so instead, he and Patty are planting chestnut trees at the rate of one for each grandchild. Last summer brought the fourth.

The square, stone house had been tastefully remodeled inside, after being uninhabited for the 10 years before the Sutherlands became the owners. They’ve brought it back to life, reopening bricked-up windows, exposing the ceiling tiles and sloping beams and hiring local wood-workers and a blacksmith to furnish its five rooms and loft with custom cabinetry and wrought iron fixtures. Kitchen tiles with a vegetable motif were hand painted from drawings by Patty, an artist.

To take a cooking class in Italy has been a longtime fantasy for me and my sister-in-law. Alice, and it turns out our 10 American and Canadian classmates joined this program for the same reasons we have. We are all attracted by Tuscan Women Cook’s diverse menu of offerings: kitchen time, field trips, shopping excursions and meals at both local osterias and fine restaurants. None of us cares about celebrity chefs; we want to see how real Italians make their meals.

Our instructors are two women in the 70s whose local reputations brought to Bill and Patty’s attention. Iolanda, a 5-foot-tall grandmother with a broad bosom and sturdy legs, retired from La Chiusa’s kitchen. She keeps her head bent over her ingredients and seems unmindful of her audience, but knows her voluble skepticism of Bill’s new fangled kitchen is part of our entertainment.

Bill learned of our second instructor after surmising the cook at another favorite trattoria was’’ the originator of its gnocchi. “Your mama made this, didn’t she?” bill asked, and that question led him to Bruna, another retired pro. Petite and soft-spoken, she relays detailed instructions through a translator and beams as she presents each finished dish.

We spend two mornings each with Iolanda and Bruna, who are most alike in their culinary pride and kitchen frugality. Flour left behind after making dough must be sifted. Scraps are folded into the pasta dough; loose flour goes back into the bag.

Our instruction mainly takes the form of demonstration, with little hands-on participation. But on Monday and Tuesday, pasta making is both show-stopper and our chance to work at the prep table. Iolanda’s specialty is pici, handmade pasta devised by home cooks when many families in the region were too poor to use eggs. She forms her dough on a pine board she watched her grandmother use 60 years earlier. Then, with deft motions in stretch and shape the dough, she rolls it into stout strings several yards long. We watch and try to do what she did, but produce mostly laughter and a few short, bumpy threads that Iolanda feels compelled to redo.

The next day, Bruna shows us how to roll her famous gnocchi up the back of a fork to make ridges for catching sauces. Then she invites us to help roll out dough for pappardelle, a ribbon-like pasta she makes using one egg per person eating. Here the trick lies in a quick tossing motion with the dough on a rolling pin. Eager to redeem my pathetic pici performance, I’m the first to attempt this move, and manage something close on the second try. Only a few of the others are game.

Our mornings in the kitchen have the feeling of a party where people lean on the counters and visit while they watch a meal come together. Dishes are simple: vegetable soups; a salad made with day-old-bread; and a variety of tomato sauces. Seasonings are uncomplicated, often nothing more than garlic, salt and pepper. Sweets usually get short shrift in Tuscany, so Iolanda’s tiramisu is a highlight, and we learn that crisp ladyfingers and Vin Santo bring character to this too often dispirited dessert.

Bruna narrates more of her work than Iolanda, but we glean most form our instructors by watching and asking questions through a translator. We add our own notes to recipes Bill and Patty have provided, though our instructors depart at whim from past practice and recorded measurements.

Depende, depende,“ is Patty’s mantra, as she gives us recipes along with the caveat that ingredients might change based on what is in the garden. Bill, a keen student of Tuscan ways, explains key points in a baritone drawl accompanied by big, Italian-style gestures.

Excursions help to fill in our picture of rural Tuscan life. Bill and Patty take us to the hill towns of Montepulciano and Pienza, where we could get some of the best locally grown products. We tour a producer of Pecorino; the local cheese made from sheep’s milk. In a cellar that has been used continuously in winemaking for 750 years, we sip Vittorio Innocenti’s distinguished Vino Nobile and Vin Santo. We dash into Torrita di Siena to experience an authentic Tuscan market day.

Dinners let us taste a wide range of restaurant styles, from nouveau Tuscan (an oxymoron: think lamb brushed with lavender-infused olive oil) to mixed grill at an unvarnished roadhouse to exquisitely executed simplicity at La Chiusa. Evenings run late, starting after shopping expeditions, stretching through several leisurely courses and winding down after wine.

I didn’t realize it during our graduation ceremony at lunch on Friday, but unexpectedly, I’ve seen a fuller picture of life in Tuscany than I d ever conjured while driving the country roads and wondering what it s like to live in one of those old farmhouses. Now I know, and the image that still lingers in my mind is suffused with the fruity perfume of a jewel-colored oil.-Mary Redmayne

The travel newsletter Dream of Italy, The Insider’s Guide to Undiscovered Italy has been recommended by USA TODAY, National Geographic Traveler, and U.S. News & World Report. The newsletter is available by annual subscription only (10 issues per year) for $99 for delivery by mail and $79 via the Internet. ADDED BONUS: All subscribers have online access to nearly 30 back issues--perfect for trip planning! Contact Kathy McCabe, editor and publisher, at www.dreamofitaly.com for more information

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