Cooking up a storm in Florence
Have you ever dreamed the Italian dream? Waking up, let’s say in Florence, on a Saturday morning; taking a stroll to the local market to buy fresh produce; making fresh pasta with your own hands; having an aperitivo with friends before sitting down to enjoy the fruits of your culinary labours?Last week, I was lucky enough to have been invited to live this experience in the capable hands of Eating Europe Food Tours and the Florence Food Studio at their cooking school in the authentic Santo Spirito quarter of the city. You may remember that last year I reviewed their excellent Other Side of Florence tour.
The tour started in Piazza di Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno (‘other side of the river Arno’) district of Florence. Oltrarno is the part of the historic centre of Florence where the locals hang out, so near, but so far from the tourist filled area on the other side of the Ponte Vecchio. In the evening, the Piazza is filled with young—and not so young—Florentines who frequent the area’s many bars: trendy but with the timeless quality of Florence perfectly balanced. But at 09.30 in the morning it hosts a variety of fruit and vegetable stalls weighed down with produce fresh from the orto.
We met our host, Paolo, in the square and he proceeded to take us on a shopping trip, buying the key ingredients for our lunch. Tomatoes and basil from the stall, pecorino Toscano cheese and prosciutto from one of the best cheesemongers in Florence and finally some of the famous pane sciocco (unsalted Tuscan bread) again from a family-run bakery in the neighbourhood. All the time, Paolo provided a running commentary on how to pick the best produce, the varieties of Tuscan cheese and cold cuts, and a little of the history of the shops and their owners.
Shopping over, we went to the cooking school to meet Chef Giorgio who would be conducting the second part of the lesson. The school, which was converted three years ago, is beautiful. It consists of a modern professional kitchen, all chrome and tiles, and a large dining space, in Tuscan farmhouse style. Ascending a metal staircase, you reach a roof terrace with herb garden, which also doubles as a skylight for the kitchen. Florence in July is extraordinarily hot, and this day was no exception. It was the kind of day when it’s so hot that you long for a thunderstorm to break to atmosphere. However, inside the school was a different world. Efficient air-conditioning keeps you comfortable even in the heat of the kitchen.
Giorgio guided us through the creation of a menu which consisted of: crostini con pomodori (a Tuscan tradition, better known-in Anglo-saxon as bruschetta—pronounced broo-sKet-ta, please), tagliatelle con pesto and ravioli ripieni di zucchine (in Tuscan restaurants its very common to eat two different dishes of pasta) and tiramisù.
Now, I am an old hand with all of these dishes, but I must say that I learnt something in each case. Giorgio, who trained and worked as a chef before opening the cooking school with Paolo, is not only a great chef but an excellent teacher and both of the boys speak almost perfect English—something you can’t always take for granted in Italy. Teaching a Venetian to make tiramisù is not something I’d normally recommend, but Giorgio’s method departed from the original only in method, not in ingredients as is so often the case, and so it tasted perfect. If you want to know how he makes light and fluffy tiramisù without committing the cardinal sin of adding whipped cream, you’ll have to do the course.
The food prepared, we were distracted with an aperitif by Paolo, while Giorgio finished off cooking the pasta and we were served in the dining area. After a couple of glasses of wine with lunch and a nice chat with Paolo we ventured out into the Florentine sun wishing we could do it all again and hoping once more for that storm.
I did a lot of cooking classes in various schools when I lived in Paris, but I must say that for premises and professionalism, GIorgio and Paolo are up there with the best of them. I would heartily recommend this class for those wanting an introduction to Italian food but also those who know a bit and want to hone their skills. A week later, I incorporated the two details I’d learned about making fresh pasta into my technique and I must say, it’s the best pasta I’ve ever made.
If you want to try this class for yourselves, all the details can be found on Eating Europe Food Tours website. If they are reading this, I’d like to say a big thank you to them, and Paolo and Giorgio. I hope to see you again.