The original Montefollonico cooking school since 2000

Stirring the Tuscan Soul
Robin Davis, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

For some adventure lovers, vacations mean parachuting out of airplanes, climbing sheer precipices or battling the rapids of an untamed river. My idea of an adventure vacation involves knives and fire.

I am what you could call a culinary adventurer. When I travel I want to see what foods the people of that area produce, I want to taste the dishes they cook and, in the best of circumstances, I want to learn how they make those dishes when I return home. The food of an area, I’ve found, speaks volumes about the history and the culture. You learn the food, you know the people. Cooking school vacations are one of the hottest trends in travel. Hundreds of programs are available around the world, from high-end luxury packages to one-day lessons. Tuscany may have the highest concentration—more than 60 vacation cooking programs as varied as the cuisine itself.

Tuscan Women Cook

I selected a school in the hills of Montefollonico with four generations of Tuscan women as instructors. This program, set on a hilltop near Montefollonico, a village of about 600 people, was created by two recent American expatriates. Bill Sutherland and his wife bought a Tuscan farmhouse and relocated from Dallas. One of their neighbors turned out to be a four-generation Italian family running an agriturismo, a farmhouse that takes in guests.

It occurred to Sutherland that in addition to lovingly restored accommodations, the family had something Americans want even more: knowledge of Tuscan cooking. He convinced them to offer weeklong cooking classes, which Bill pairs with shopping and other excursions. Tuscan Women Cook was born.

This class—it’s taught by women but open to anyone—is held in one of several stone buildings that comprise Belagaggio, the family’s agriturismo. This long, narrow space with a tiled floor and fireplace, a china cabinet and modest kitchen is set up more for demonstration than hands-on cooking. Ada Bernadini and her daughter, Antonella Arrus, do most of the cooking, though occasionally Bernadini’s mother, Nunzia, or Arrus’ shy daughter, Gloria, peek in.

Over five days the women teach their students how to make the dishes they’ve been eating for generations, including fresh pici, a pasta made only of flour, oil and water from the days when eggs were too expensive to use in noodles. The class I visited was made up of women, friends from New York and Dallas traveling together. One of the women had brought her husband.

In the kitchen, Bernadini and Arrus taught the visitors how to make pasta for lasagna; a spinach and ricotta-filled ravioli; pappa alla pomodoro, tomato-bread soup; and cantucci, the Tuscan version of biscotti, studded with whole almonds and the scent of licorice from anise-flavored liqueur. As mother and daughter cooked and talked in Italian, an interpreter translated their instructions for the students. Some of the students took notes, jotting down recipes, while others watched the demonstration.

Almost everything eaten here is grown or made on the premises—from the olive oil and wine to cured meats like prosciutto and coppa. When the duo needed eggs for the pasta, they gathered them from their chickens. When they needed rabbits to roast in the outdoor wood-fired oven, they cleaned them in the morning, before the students arrived.

As much as this program is about cooking, the Sutherlands make a point of showing the students other aspects of the region, from trips to Bagno Vignoni, the ancient Roman baths, to a day in Florence. They also arrange for lunches and dinners at many of their favorite restaurants, like La Chiusa in Montefollonico and Osteria del Grotte in Sinalunga.

“We’re trying to give them more than a cooking class,” said Sutherland. “We try to include places they normally might not go.”

Whether your desires are an in-depth hands-on kitchen experience or cooking demonstrations alternated with shopping and other excursions, Tuscan cooking schools can provide a range of fabulous vacations.

Be Sure to Ask

To get the most enjoyable vacation cooking class for your needs, be sure ask about the following:

What is covered in the classes? Is it home-style cooking or more the kind of food you would see in restaurants? Is any historical information given?

Is the class demonstration or hands-on? Some classes are demonstration only. If you want to get your hands dirty, be sure the program offers that.

Who teaches the classes? Are they chefs? Cookbook authors? Do they speak English?

What is included in the cost? Programs range from cooking classes only up to full packages. Be sure to check whether accommodations are included and if there is any additional charge for excursions and meals.

How much free time do participants have? Most programs leave some time each day for students, but others can fill every minute with activities.

Getting There

Montefollonico is midway between Florence and Rome. Several airlines fly to Rome, with connections in New York or Europe. Express trains serve Florence from Rome and Milan, but rent a car if you will be traveling outside Florence.

Robin Davis writes for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food Section.

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