Under the Wooden Spoon of a Tuscan Nonna
Susan Van Allen, The Providence Journal
I leaned in to inhale one of my favorite smells on earthgarlic simmering in extra virgin olive oil. On the other burners were stuffed zucchini blossoms cooked with ripe red tomatoes next to a pot where dark green chard and carrots bubbled.
Into the picture came the thick, gnarled hand of my cooking teacher holding a wooden spoon. On the counter, the morning sun cast a glow over a round of aged pecorino cheese that sat in front of a bottle of ruby Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Id landed smack in the midst of a Tuscan culinary masterpiece!
The program I enrolled in last June, Tuscan Women Cook, included a week of cooking lessons, trips to nearby towns, wineries, markets, cheese factories, restaurants, and designer outlet shops. Its center was the 13th-century village of Montefollonico (population 700), an hour south of Florence, where rolling hills of olive groves and young vineyards in the Chiana Valley presented a landscape right out of the Florence galleries.
But instead of standing back and admiring Tuscany as if it were a display in a museum, on this trip I stepped inside, sharing the tastes with the locals, transplants and tourists who filled it. A passion for Tuscan food and wine was our bond.
Eight American visitors eagerly gathered to eat and drink the regional specialties, and learn how they were made. Our hosts were Bill and Patty Sutherland, transplanted Texans who had fallen in love with the area through many visits. Five years ago they left Dallas, bought a hilltop Montefollonico farmhouse and settled in to pursue their Under The Tuscan Sun dream.
They hired Iolanda and Bruna, two village nonnas, who on alternate days taught in the Sutherlands renovated kitchen. The choice to hire town women instead of star chefs makes this cooking school uniqueno Emeril BAM! showmanship here.
The morning classes were like family parties where wed hang out with grandma and Cristina, the local pharmacists daughter who acted as translator. Each instructor had an individual, endearing style, showing us traditional dishes shed been making since she was a kid.
Bruna, trim and crisp, wowed me with her pasta making. Shed flip a sheet of dough off a wooden roller or twirl gnocchi off a fork to make perfect tiny ridges. Then shed stand back and pose for our cameras, a demure magician.
Iolanda, 5 feet tall and stocky with a low gravely voice and swollen ankles that spilled over her orthopedic shoes, had a more rough-around-the-edges manner. She prowled from table to stove fully in charge, brandishing her wooden spoon or old paring knife she called mi amore. She treated Bill and Patty like her own childrenone minute scolding them for buying ricotta that wasnt up to her standards, the next pinching them on the cheeks with affection.
Will you adopt me? one of the students asked, after tasting Iolandas ribolitta, a hearty vegetable soup. Without missing a beat, Iolanda lit up and answered with a hearty, SI!
The country cooking centered on simplicity. Olive oil and sea salt were used liberally; vinegars, herbs, and sauces were added with a light touch so the flavors of fresh tomatoes, rich mushrooms, and homemade pasta werent overwhelmed. And no fancy Williams-Sonoma tools here. Iolanda and Bruna used their expert hands as food processorsbreaking up tomatoes for sauce, tearing herbs for salad, and mixing dough.
Bill encouraged us to jump in and give a hand during the pasta making, but my attempt at rolling pici, the thick spaghetti specialty of the region, resulted in a lumpy mess. As I stood back and watched Iolanda smush up and perfectly re-roll the dough on her mothers old pine board, I realized jumping in and giving her a hand would be like me grabbing Michelangelos chisel and giving him a hand with David.
Patty set the table with linens from the Arezzo antique market and sprigs of lavender from their yard. With a CD of Andrea Bocelli (also a Tuscan native) serenading us and Bill pouring the wine, wed dig into the four-course lunch wed been salivating over during class. The weeks highlights for me were Brunas tagliatelle with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce and Iolandas creamy tiramisu.
Dinners stretched late into the warm evenings, showcasing a range of local restaurants and chefs. In each, the bounty of the areas farmlands was transformed into flavorful dishesfrom simple grilled chiana beef to rich duck spiced with wild fennel. And as our own class/party continued, we got to know more of Montefollonicos natives.
At the elegant Michelin-starred La Chiusa, (a converted olive press), I slipped back to the kitchen to thank chef Dania Lucherini, whod bowled us over with a seven-course feast. There she was, a tall willowy blonde, stirring tomato sauce with one hand and tilting a glass of prosecco to her lips with the other. She purred like an Italian movie starlet, I am so happy you come visit me.
At Il Botteghino, a rambling old house turned trattoria, we blended in with the packed scene on the porch. A chorus of Buon Compleanno (Happy Birthday) burst from a family table inside, as next to us a very-much-in-love young couple stared into each others eyes while devouring a thin crusted pizza covered with arugula. This is the town truck stop, Bill joked. For me, it was authentic Italian country living at its robust finest.
On Hotel La Costas terrace, chef Paolo Masini, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who was the royal cook in Naples, sent out intensely flavored black-olive bruschetta as we took in the breathtaking sunset. Cypress trees and blooming yellow finestra dotted the vineyards and farmlands. Cortona, the hills of Umbria and Lake Trasimeno faded in the distance as we wined and dined till 2 in the morning.
The terrace was set over Montefollonicos wall, which in Medieval times had served as protection from the nearby Montepulciano Guelph warriors. It could not have been a more peaceful spot now, nor more perfect for our accommodations. Our rooms were upstairs in the attached historical landmark building that had once been the town farm.
The only drawback to the beauty of Montefollonico life was that it made the trips to Pienza, Montepulciano, and the designer factory outlets pale in comparison. Sure there were church frescoes to be admired and an astounding variety of pecorino cheeses, Vino Nobile and Brunello wines to buy. And it was a kick to go elbow to elbow with the stylish Italians at the Prada store and score a chic pair of flats for half the price Id seen on the same shoes in Los Angeles.
But it always felt best to drive back under the stone arch to Montefollonico. After only a few days the faces in the two-via village became familiar: the signoras in housecoats and gold jewelry sets who sat on the bench in the piazza and gave us cordial buona seras, the boys kicking soccer balls across the cobblestones, the priest who weeded the church garden, rang the bells, and then threw on a vestment to say mass.
I grew so attached to the spot I stayed on a few days after my classmates left. Wandering around at lunchtime, I passed Iolandas house and peeked in to discover her unloading bags from her morning shopping. The next thing I knew, shed pulled me into her kitchen and sat me at the table with her husband, Novilo, whom shed called in from pruning their backyard grape arbor.
Novilo poured Chianti from a jug as Iolanda bustled about, frying up zucchini blossoms, slicing up fresh bread and setting it before me next to a bowl of deep green olive oil. I took a deep breath, feeling part of the family and preparing for my next taste of yet another Tuscan culinary masterpiece.
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