December 18, 2012
By Lori - Last October, fresh from leaving my job at a startup, I decided to get out of town and booked a spontaneous trip to Italy. I credit my friend Miriam, who looked at me after listening to all my ideas for re-orienting my career, and said “Are you going to do anything FUN?” So I went home, brainstormed all the exciting schemes I could think of, and selected cooking school in Italy from the top of the list. Google set to work, and alora! there was Tuscookany, with both availability and lots of good reviews from the likes of Conde Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet. Determined to clear my mind, I set out by myself, trusting that the other cooks would be fun and welcoming. Indeed!
Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany
An experienced traveler who has often landed unattended in exotic venues, I still had some trepidation about actually getting to Casa Ombuto, the charming setting for my cooking education. After booking the trip, I realized my destination was two hours from Sienna, Montepulciano, Florence, Rome or any other city. I would have to take a two hour bus trip to the nearest town, then have one of the guides fetch and deliver me to the villa. My strategy was to get an international phone with texting, and have the mobile and resident phone numbers loaded on speed dial, tested in advance multiple times from home. I did not have the nerve to rent a car and find my way out of Florence alone, then drive the country roads at night. Adventure does have its limits.
Upon landing in Florence, it became patently evident that my Southern did not translate to Italian, when I asked for the bus to Poppi and received a blank stare – “We have no poppy”. I wrote it down and then “Ah! You mean PO-ppi!” At the next bus station, I checked with the attendant before loading my luggage, and learned that my ticket was to Poggibonsi – unfortunately in the opposite direction, and the bus to Poppi had just left. An hour and a half later, safely on the right bus in the right direction, I relaxed into the beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside until the sky blackened into night. Finally, we cruised into a tiny town where the bus driver deposited me on the sidewalk, in the dark, and I prayed that Loretta at the lodge really did get my text message about late arrival. While dragging my suitcase over to a shop front, she arrived on queue and my Tuscookany vacation had begun!
Dinner was underway at Casa Ombuto, and I got my first glimpse of the quintessential Italian villa – curved stone walls marked the elongated dining room, with a roaring fire at the end of a tableful of jolly travelers. To my left, there was the ultimate kitchen that would be our laboratory for the next 7 days. In the morning I would get the full view of the surrounding countryside, but tonight was time to break open that Italian wine I’d been waiting for and drink it in.
Entrance to Casa Ombuto
For the next week, we had a delightful mix of cooking classes (4 days starting at 3pm), touring and free time. Somehow, the lazy mornings of prolonged breakfast followed by walks and late lunches before class, seemed just perfect. I had been a little concerned about what we were going to do until class each day, but the location was so beautiful that it was easy to fill a morning taking pictures, strolling through the trails, chatting with the other travelers and enjoying the fresh air. For the work-impaired among us, there was ample access to email and internet to keep the home fires burning. On our full day off, several of us loaded into a rental car and hit the designer outlet stores about an hour away.
Enjoy the scenery from the pool
So, what about the cooking?? The first day, Chef Paola pulled 15 recipes out of the book she gave each of us, and said, “OK, that’s enough for today…” This was to be repeated every day we cooked. We went from pasta (“Roll thinner!”), to cod fish soufflé (“Chop finer!”), and zabione cream with cat’s tongue to cream puffs with orange custard and tangerine sauce. We made Robollita (bread soup) that got better as it was recooked in a frying pan over the week.
Chef Paola with a silver fish
We kept it simple with fresh dough pizza and vinegar chicken, then cranked it up for lamb in puff pastry with artichokes, and guinea fowl with vin santo and porcini mushrooms. Best of all, we got to feast on our creations every night at dinner, and gained new appreciation for “left-overs” at lunch time. The only dish all week that was not for me was the veal with tuna sauce, a mix of flavors and textures that did not appeal, but some folks really liked it. Paola meticulously assigned us our tasks each day, making sure couples were split and re-paired with folks less likely to boss or critique, and taking care to give each of us a chance to shine. At dinner, she never forgot who made what, and proudly proclaimed attribution to each connoisseur. Chef Paola made the week truly delightful, with her charm and good humor, (and awesome itunes playlist) and of course her patience with a roomful of vacationers who, by 6pm, were more interested in cocktails than finalizing that last bit of sauce or filling.
Luckily, Paola was perceptive enough not to ask me to chop anything that had once breathed, crowed or swum. No vegetarian, I am a fainter and just generally a lot happier to stick with the baked goods and veggies. Instead, I caught a few shots of a giant squid before it became calamari, Paola holding up the guinea fowl before it was beheaded, and several wide-eyed fish before they got souffléd.
Chef Paola holding the fowl
How often will I roll out fresh pasta on my countertops, or take the time to make puff pastry filled with custard? Probably not often, but it’s great to know that I can, armed with hundreds of recipes in a cookbook dog-eared with my own trials and triumphs. Mostly, I’ve learned how to make chicken really special, the value of a “little” (that means a lot) olive oil on just about anything, and that when it’s all done, it tastes just a little better when garnished with a happy shriek of “Alora!”
Lori and Paola having fun cooking classes at Casa Ombuto
Lori Collins wrote her culinary travel article personally for eFoodys. She went to Tuscany, Italy for this cooking vacation in October 2012.
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Lori is a risk taker, experienced traveler, innovative business leader, environmentalist, and recreational cook from Charlotte, North Carolina.
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