I have always been a late “bloomer”. My first time in Europe was at the age of 35 when I had the opportunity to live in the beautiful Bavarian region of Germany for 18 months with my family. This was the ideal opportunity to travel extensively around Germany, right? Well, not exactly!
One autumn holiday weekend I embarked on tour to Verona and Venice with a girlfriend, and was instantly smitten with Italy. Not long after, I brought my husband and daughter back as well. My husband became as passionate as I am about experiencing all things Italy offers. My daughter was still a toddler, but we have nurtured her love of Italy ever since her first visit. From then on, we have traveled to Italy as often as we can.
Sorry Germany. We still love you… honest!
Flash forward twenty-something years later and I have never stopped plotting opportunities to travel to Italy. Next up, we embark upon a trip in two days to celebrate our 30th anniversary. This time out, I thought would be a great opportunity to share my adventures via blog.
So follow along with me as I share our experiences in Tuscany next week, and Umbria the week after. I hope to offer some interesting stories, countless food photos, and even some videos as we once again answer the ”siren song” of Italy and explore its ever-enchanting central regions.
Today was the day for our cooking class at a wonderful local restaurant Le Logge del Vignola. Massimo Stella, the convivial owner, has been providing amazing cuisine for almost two decades. Our class encompassed every course from appetizer to dessert, and we cooked under the sage guidance and instruction of Chef Eduardo in the well-equipped kitchen, which further enlivened the experience.
Arriving at 9:30 sharp, we all enjoyed an espresso (Why wouldn’t we?), donned our aprons, and then got down to “work” and a great deal of fun! First up was an appetizer of a beet and sheep ricotta cheese souffle, which had a somewhat more dense consistency like that of a flan; essentially diced beets, sheep’s milk ricotta, seasoning, and eggs. The finished appetizer, ringed by a reduction of black garlic, made a lovely presentation:
Next up, potato gnocchi, which was very fun to make. Here I am “feeding” the cooled yellow potatoes through a ricer. We got to mix, roll and cut the dough a bit later but no pictures were taken due to our very “doughy” fingers!
For the sauce, we made a fresh parsley and basil pesto with walnuts in place of the usual pine nuts, adding a distinctive flavor to the dish. The gnocchi came out light as pillows and I think this was easily our favorite dish!
This was followed by the main course of mussels with gratined topping. Looks easy until you try and get all those buttery breadcrumbs packed over the slippery mussels. A few of the mussels unfortunately “died” while being steamed and refused to open. (PS – Of course, we did not use any of the predeceased mussels; only the ones that met their buttery, garlicky demise in the steaming saute pan.)
Last, but in no way least, was an exquisite chocolate souffle made with 70 percent cocoa… and the usual egg whites, yolks and sugar — but to me it’s all about the cocoa!
After all of our hard work, we sat down to our multi-course lunch in the beautiful restaurant dining room at our favorite table for two by the window. Anyone interested in the recipes, contact me!
Today was all about cheese – Pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese to be specific. That wonderful Italian cheese so famous in the area of Tuscany in which we are staying.
Our day began early as we were able to find Podere Il Casale easily – amazing considering it was not listed on our GPS navigation system, but we were able to find it via memory and my husband’s superb sense of direction. We were even a few minutes early.
Podere Il Casale , an organic farm, is perched high atop a hill overlooking the spectacular Val d’ Orcia, which provides a breathtaking view from the al fresco lunch tables on the ristorante’s sprawling terrace. Ulisse, a native of Switzerland, and his wife Sandra, have been the hardworking and proud owners of this 150-acre farm for 27 years years and counting.
The farm is primarily used to raise sheep, cows, goats and pigs. There are also olive trees, every sort of vegetable, herb and flower, and hay for the animals. Because the soil in this region is generally poor, the crops must be perpetually rotated. Most of the neighboring farms produce wheat.
Ulisse took us to a small room which is used for various guest functions such as cooking classes and cheese making demonstrations. He pointed out that the table at which we were sitting, was for many years the family kitchen table for his and Sandra’s family of seven (They have five sons!). He proceeded to demonstrate the detailed process of making pecorino fresco to include the types of rennet, forming the curds, separating the curds from the whey, forming the cheese disc, and aging. He also explained the many variables (time, temperature, curd size, aging environments, etc.) that make cheeses distinctly different.
After the cheese making demonstration, we went on to see the where the magic of making cheese happens. There were two other cheese makers at work in the dairy we entered. After that we were shown another room where the cheese was waiting to be salted, and then on to the two aging rooms where many rows of cheese were lined up to begin aging anywhere from three months to several years.
Next, Ulisse took us on a brief walking tour of the farmyard where some of the animals reside – primarily goats. We also encountered a very contented peacock who paid us very little mind.
After our hard work learning so much about the farm and cheesemaking, it was at last time for our reward: lunch – all the food they served us is grown all around the very place where we ate! We dined on a cheese souffle with a quince compote, several wonderful vegetable dishes, a micro-greens salad with an edible nasturtium that tasted quite like a spicy radish, a baked cheese appetizer, and whole-wheat pasta in a delicious red and green tomato sauce. The piece de resistance was, however, the beautiful cheese board served near the end of our multi-course meal. We enjoyed 11 delicious (and beautiful) samples of sheep and goat cheeses of varying age and type, including a very fresh ricotta (Literally the process in which the separated whey is “recooked.”
The views of the Val D’Orcia absolutely astounded us as we feasted on our lunch as Ulisse kindly joined us for the second part of our meal to describe the elements on cheese board, as well as interesting aspects of the world in which we live.
A magical day indeed, which provided an enriching experience about cheese and farming we will long remember. As an added bonus, the weather turned out to be perfect!