Tuscan Soul Food – Tuscany, Italy

My wrists are sore, my arms ache, and my shoulders are screaming at me. I am covered in flour from nose to knee, sweating in the warmth of an extra layer of apron, and as happy as a person can be.

I am in the midst of my first Italian cooking class.

Marco, our interpreter-cum-kitchen-slave, deftly whirls a delicately thin pizza crust in the air with a flourish. Shooting me a pitying look, he says aloud to no one in particular, “The pasta is man’s work.”

After what seems like an eternity of kneading, I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been pressing and smushing and rolling and massaging this beige lump of dough for about half an hour, and it still lacks the proper consistency, pliability, and lack of striation that Marco and his wife, Anna, demand.

Marco does "Man's Work"

Marco does “Man’s Work”

Nevertheless, I plunge back to work with gusto, because I am living a dream.

Cooking is almost as great a passion for me as eating, and cooking Italian food is something I’ve always wanted to do. I have enjoyed countless indescribably delicious meals in Italy in the past, many of which bring back a fond romantic nostalgia, but I can never recreate the magic in my kitchen back home. When my mother and I made plans to spend a week in Tuscany, I nearly insisted on agriturismo – an Italian farmstay.

My mind was full of a pastoral fantasy: a rustic farmhouse on a hillside, terracotta-tiled roofs and sun-bleached walls covered in ivy and vine; neat groves of gnarly, silver-leaved olive trees stretching into the purple distance alongside the enlightened oenological geometry of vineyards; and a handful of horses, chickens, and goats on hand to provide the braying, clucking, neighing sound effects for a bucolic idyll. And for the cherry tomato on top of the pasta: a gigantic farmhouse kitchen where I could learn to cook gnocchi, raviolis, ragù, and bruschetta.

It seemed almost too much to ask for the reality to live up to the ideal, but when we pulled up to the Fattoria Montalbano, I immediately saw that it followed my imagination’s recipe to the tee. We were greeted by the friendly proprietors, shown to a simple but comfortable room, and handed a bottle of the farm’s own Chianti to sip as we sat under a flowered arbor and watched the sun set over the grape vines.

Next step: arrange a cooking course.

It was easy to do; Marco and Anna have come over from a nearby town, and are presently taking us on a whirlwind ride through the Italian kitchen.

Anna takes it all very seriously

Anna takes it all very seriously

Anna is the chef. She is plump and professional, a pleasant brunette with a lop-sided smile that peeks out on rare occasions at the antics of her husband Marco. Her movements are as steady and serene as a calm Italian lake, and her voice quiet but serious as she commands Marco to fetch her this or chop up that.

Marco bounces around to do her bidding, a high-spirited man with good looks and a mischievous glint in his dark brown eyes. His curly hair is just hidden beneath a bandanna, his jeans are ratty, and he informs me almost at once that he learned English by listening to Elvis Presley songs. I strain to remember how many hits Elvis sang about chopping garlic and braising pork, but in the meantime we’ve gotten by with my rudimentary knowledge of Italian and the universal language of gestures and grimaces.

My mother, perhaps the wisest of we two, is sitting on a bench nearby peeling potatoes and sipping a glass of Chianti. She looks at home in the warm glow of this kitchen. The sun is fading out over the hills, but inside all is ablaze with color. There are vegetables piled up in a still-life on the counter, sprigs of rosemary strewn from one surface to another, and wire baskets bursting with eggs. Pots, pans, and cake moulds hang from the walls and utensils dangle like tentacles from a rack over the stove. A huge brick oven takes up one end of the room, and the long wooden workbench I’m toiling at, the other.

As I continue abusing my mound of dough, the conversation turns to music. Specifically, the blues. “I love the blues! Stevie Ray Vaughan, what a wonderful musician,” Marco croons. “It was so sad when he died. But I love his brother, Jimmy – he is so talented!”

“Well, we know Jimmy Vaughan,” my mother pipes up. “He and my husband are members of the Kontinentals  Car Club at the Continental Club. It’s one of the original and longest running live music venues in Austin. They hang out together at least once a year. In fact, we’ll be seeing him again in a couple of weeks.”

Yours Turly, Fighting the Dough

Yours Truly, Fighting the Dough

I thought Marco might jump out of a window in sheer excitement. “Really?! That is incredible! You are so very lucky, I would give anything to meet him, to talk to him about music.” Marco dances through the steam-filled room to attack another pile of unpeeled potatoes at his wife’s silent gesticulation. “I play blues guitar. I am in a band, and Jimmy Vaughan is a hero!” he informs us.

I am fascinated by Marco’s enthusiasm. It becomes clear that he is enthusiastic about many things, and food is one of them. Not surprising, given that he is Italian through and through. He delights in sharing historical anecdotes about Italian cuisine, and I have to admit that his tales whisk a more complex flavor into the dishes we are preparing.

“Did you know that tiramisu was invented in Venice, long ago? It was created for men who went to the” (and here we have to confer over the proper word, as Elvis did not incorporate it into any of his tunes) “brothels. It is made with coffee to help keep the men going strong, so they can stay at the brothel longer and spend more money.”

Fascinating stuff.

We learn lots of trivia about Italian cooking. Each family has its own ragù sauce recipe, a not-so-carefully-guarded secret involving special blends and ingredients. Marco and Anna’s ragù incorporates ground beef, ground sausage, and laurel leaves. The white fagioli (beans) stewing on the stovetop are known as “poor man’s meat.” Everything has olive oil or wine in it; usually both, made right here on the farm, dispensed from earthenware jugs and bottles that pepper the countertops and workspaces.

Knead, knead, fold, knead, pound, smack, flip. Chop, chop, stir, hiss, simmer, sizzle, whir. The mesmerizing rhythm of the kitchen is punctuated by the pitter-pattering feet of our hostess’ children as they wander in and out of the room. Four blond heads suddenly poke up across my workbench to peer at me, faces smeared with Nutella and eyes wide in curiosity. They listen attentively to Anna’s Italian instruction, and I begin to understand that passion for food is instilled in Italian children at a very young age.

But the best part is yet to come. Anna strolls up to me wielding a knife and seizes my ball of dough. She slices into it and examines it for a breathless moment. This is the third or fourth time she’s gone through this ritual.

“Buono. È pronto.” It seems that, at long last, the layers in my dough have disappeared, and it is ready to be rolled and cut. I’ve seen pasta rollers for years in the culinary stores, and their workings have always been as mysterious to me as the grungy power tools in my dad’s garage. This is my big chance. Anna cuts off a hunk of dough and runs it through the roller.

“Wow, that’s cool!” my mother and I expostulate, as a pretty, smooth page of dough comes out as if fresh off a printing press. Anna motions for me to roll the same sheet back through the contraption on the next lowest level.  And then again, five more times. Then it is on to the next chunk of dough, and another six turns through the roller.

I had no idea that making ravioli was this involved. Each sheet of dough is paper-thin, and Anna, my mother, and I labor over an assembly line to carve, stuff, and paste together neat little packets of spinach and ricotta. We do not speak the same language, but we all understand each other, laughing and pointing out air bubbles, uneven edges, mistakes and disasters. The Nutella-faced children stare intently at our efforts, oblivious to the cartoons playing on a tiny television in the corner. They, too, giggle, nudge each other, and – no doubt – critique our work.  I’ll bet they are admiring my deformed raviolis, which look nothing like the miniature edible artwork Anna is tossing onto the floured plate. We all feel like family at this moment, brought together in a cozy kitchen and working for the same purpose.

There is more: a braised pork loin simmering in red wine sauce; thinly sliced bruschetta topped with cheese and honey, roasted rosemary potatoes drizzled in olive oil, white beans with garlic, and the iniquitous tiramisu. Barely-controlled pandemonium breaks out as everything comes together at once. Steaming pots full of sauce, roasting pans, dishes, platters, and silverware clatter and jangle. At least fifty delicious aromas are drifting through the house, and beautiful courses of authentic Italian food start to emerge from the chaos.

Marco pulls us aside as my mother and I doff our aprons, and presents us with a CD of his band’s music.

“Will you please give this to Jimmy Vaughan, and tell him that I would be honored for him to listen to it?” Of course we agree. We are brushing the flour off our hands and faces, and preparing to descend to the charming be-candled wine cellar that serves as a dining room, when our hostess walks over.

“Guess what? We have some other guests of the farm here who will be sharing your meal for dinner,” she informs us.

Gosh, I hope it turned out ok!

Epilogue: The food was amazing, and I have since used these recipes and techniques to impress my friends and loved ones. My mother, on the other hand, only ever bothers with the tiramisu, and always serves it at her dinner parties and book club meetings . . .which makes me wonder – and grin a little. Jimmy Vaughan autographed a copy of his latest CD for Marco. We are waiting to hear about Marco as the next big Italian blues player.

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