Wednesday, September 08, 2004

COOKING SCHOOL WITH CARMELITA AND FRIENDS

Here's the link for our pictures from cooking school and Il Rifugio:

Cooking School Photos


The cooking school we won was scheduled for the week of August 22. The school,
Cook Italy is held in various locations throughout Italy, and when Carmelita emailed us the directions to Il Rifugio, the villa where she was holding our class, we laughed when we read them….we would be staying just up the hill from our friends Jill and Larry!

We knew that there would only be one other couple at the school, and Carmelita had told us that only the husband would be cooking. We knew that the other couple was American, but that was about it. We assumed that the wife wasn’t a foodie like us, or maybe she just didn’t like to cook. Whatever the circumstances, we were looking forward to learning and cooking a lot due to the (extremely) small class size. Even if the class had been full, there still would have been only six of us. The class size is determined by the facilities of each particular location.

We were to arrive at the house between 5 and 7 in the afternoon, so we were able to pack the car, close up the house and gather up all the loose ends before we left. I watered the tomatoes and basil at Adamo’s house, and left several buckets full of water so that Adamo could water them for us later in the week. I pinched back the basil so that it wouldn’t go to seed while we were gone, and made a small batch of pesto.

The really nice thing about packing for this “vacation” was that we were able to just throw everything into the back of the car without any consideration for weight or bulk! I even took my own pillow! We kept most of our clothes on hangers…that made it easier to transport them, and also meant that we wouldn’t have to worry about having enough hangers once we arrived…that always seems to be a problem when traveling.

We decided to take the SS317 since it’s such a pretty road. It had been very windy on Saturday, and had gotten quite cool. As a result of this change in weather, Sunday was incredibly clear…there was no haze at all…what a fantastic day!

Once we reached Montanare and turned onto the gravel road leading up to Il Rifugio, we tried our best to follow the directions but we still took a few wrong turns. As we were turning around from one of our mistakes we saw another car driving up the road. We were fairly certain it held our classmates, since they didn’t seem sure about where they were going either. They let us go first up the hill, and eventually we arrived at Il Refugio. The other car arrived about 5 minutes later….they had (wisely) let us get a good head start so that they wouldn’t have to drive through our dust, and consequently ended up taking more wrong turns that we did!

I stuck my head in the door and shouted “buona sera!” and Carmelita appeared. Introductions were made and we met the other couple…Mike and Shelley from Annapolis MD. They were given the largest bedroom…only fitting since they were the paying guests! Our room was located at the end of the hall, very quite and private. We had a nice size room, plenty of windows, plenty of storage, and an en-suite bath to boot!

We needn’t have worried about the hangers…there were more than enough in the closet, and plenty of storage space as well. We had a fan and a space heater, so whatever the weather, we were prepared. We had extra pillows and blankets, and the bathroom had American style large fluffy towels and washcloths…I was sure by now that the owner was an American! A blow dryer was supplied, and a LARGE bar of soap...what a nice treat.

On the bed were two red folders and two nice pens. The folders contained the itinerary for the week, the daily menus, and the recipes that we’d be making. We brought our stuff in from the car, unpacked the basics, and went downstairs to mingle and begin eating!

Carmelita had Prosecco for us, and this would become our normal pre-appetizer apperitivo. Prosecco is light and bubbly, and sweeter than champagne. It’s very common here, and quite refreshing especially in the summer. Carmelita says it "opens" your stomach in preparation for a meal.

The four of us walked around the house and grounds, exploring and discovering. Downstairs there was a large reception room with a television area and a second sitting area closer to the terrace. Down a few steps was a very large dining room with a long table. At the end of the room was a window seat that ran the width of the room and made a great spot to sit and read. Just off the dining room was the living room, nicely furnished with comfortable chairs, a leather couch, and a huge fireplace. A small cabinet housed a CD player, and a small selection of CD’s was in the drawer.

The kitchen, in the shorter part of the “L” of the house was enormous. The ceiling was beamed and a huge counter height fireplace stood at one end of the room. A large wooden topped work island ran down the middle of the kitchen in the working area, and the eating area had two tables. All this, and nothing was crowded or cramped! A pantry off the kitchen held the refrigerator and cabinets for staples.

The terrace was accessible from three different doors along the back of the house…actually four doors if you count the door on the opposite side of the kitchen. The terrace had several levels and several table and chair groupings. There was shade on most of the terrace for much of the day.

A covered eating area sat at one end of the terrace, protected on two sides by the walls of the house. A table large enough for eight to sit comfortably filled this space. We had our dinner here every night, and our lunch was eaten at a slightly smaller table in an open area of the terrace. The sunset views were stunning, as were the stars!

If you’ve looked at the pictures, you’ll notice the decorative iron bars on all the windows. Look a little more closely though, and notice just how thick those pieces of iron are. They fact that they’re decorative is secondary….these bars were meant to do some serious business. We found out that the previous owner of Il Rifugio was the head of the Questura in Rome…equivalent to being the chief of police, I guess. Because of this, he had lots of enemies, or at least he thought he did, and installed the bars as a security measure!

The house is surrounded by 55 acres of land, so it’s not only green, but also quiet! A clothesline was in the yard, and the small outbuilding held not only a washer and ironing supplies, but also another bedroom with its own bathroom. You could see where a garden had once grown, and olive trees grew in the area above the yard.

Carmelita brought the antipasti outside for us to enjoy. We had all offered to help, but she told us that for tonight, we were just guests! The fun would start on Monday morning. We could get up whenever we wanted, but the cooking would begin at ten. The plan was that we would prepare our lunch and our dinner in the morning before it got hot. Since we’ve had an extremely mild summer, this really wasn’t necessary for that reason, but it did free up the entire afternoon for whatever sightseeing or napping we might have planned.

Our antipasti consisted of crostini and of fresh Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey…both typical dishes for this region. For dinner we had pork filled with pancetta, sage and Pecorino, then braised in white wine. This was followed by a Tuscan coleslaw made with cabbage, tomato sauce, capers and a touch of balsamic vinegar…a nice Italian twist to one of my favorite salads. For dessert we had a baked ricotta pudding with toasted almonds, citrus peel and raisins. Red wine and water finished off the meal…oh, and coffee for those who wanted it…a very typical Italian ending to every meal. This dinner was so good, and we all knew that this was going to be one very delicious week!

We both slept soundly, and the next morning we found coffee, juices, fruit, breads and yogurt on the counter for breakfast. There were also eggs in the refrigerator if anyone felt like cooking. It was nice to fix a plate and wander onto the terrace to enjoy breakfast on the terrace. Just the sound of that phrase…..breakfast on the terrace….conjures up visions of a lifestyle we can only dream of…but then, here we were, in a fabulous villa in Tuscany….breakfast on the terrace seemed not only normal, but expected!

Our lunch for Monday would consist of dishes typical of Lombardy, in northern Italy, and our dinner would be from Sicily. I thought I was going to talk about each dish and give a brief description, but if I do that this report will go on and on and on. I’ll post the itinerary that lists what we made each day and let it go at that.

What I really want to talk about is Carmelita herself, not the recipes. Carmelita was born on Malta, which used to be under British rule, so her English is perfect and her knowledge of Italian cooking is incredible. She’s traveled the world as a representative of the British Tourist Council, and when she got tired of moving to a new country every few years, she had to decide where she wanted to live, and what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She ended up living in Bologna, which is a city known for eating well, and she decided to teach cooking as a way to earn a living. From what we saw, she’s qualified in every respect.

She was able to tell us so many little stories about WHY this is added before that, how a particular dish came to be, or why a dish was specific to a region. Carmelita told us that her mother had been not only a good cook but also a good teacher. This was definitely passed on from mother to daughter because Carmelita had the ability to teach us and guide us with good humor and strong opinions.

For Mike, the cooking class had been a birthday present from Shelley. Mike is quite an accomplished cook, and initially Shelley felt that she would be intruding on “his” class if she joined in. Luckily for all of us, she changed her mind and decided to join in. Shelley’s interest is primarily in desserts, and in the presentation, but she’s also very much a “foodie”. The four of us were going to have a lot of fun and a lot of good food!

Having only four people meant that we were all able to take part in everything. Even if I wasn’t the one chopping the veggies, I was still able to take a few minutes to listen to the instructions and watch the specific preparations.

Our lunchtime was standard for Italy, one o’ clock. I guess it usually lasted a good hour, and after that, we were free until dinnertime at eight o’clock. Since we live in Italy, we really didn’t have any plans, but Mike and Shelley wanted to see and do as much as they could. Carmelita was very knowledgeable about the area and was able to make recommendations, and Art and I made some suggestions as well.

We had to educate Mike and Shelley about “riposa”, the Italian naptime when all the stores are closed from one until three thirty or four. This gave us all a chance to relax or nap for a bit before setting out in the car.

On Monday afternoon we decided to drive to Lago Trasimeno, the large shallow lake that was just south of us. During the drought of last summer the lake had all but dried up since it’s not very deep to begin with, and we hadn’t been able to take any of the ferries to the small islands on the lake. Carmelita decided to go with us since she’d never done that before, so we took off for Castiglione del Lago, the largest town on the lake and the place where many of the ferries dock. Mike and Shelley left to explore areas further south including Paciano and Panicale, both adorable medieval towns on the southern edge of the lake.

Once we found our way to the docks, we checked the schedules and decided to visit Isola Maggiore, a small island known for its lace making. The ride took about thirty minutes, and once we arrived we on the island we found several small shops, a lace museum, and lots and lots of women sitting on chairs in the shade of their houses, making lace and chatting with other lace makers, neighbors and interested tourists.

We wandered around town, climbed up to the top of the island for a great view, had a coffee and a snack, then took the ferry back to Castiglione del Lago. The drive home took about twenty minutes I guess. I think we got back before Mike and Shelley, and once they returned we traded stories, opened the Prosecco, took a quick shower and made the final preparations for dinner.

At the end of our first full day of cooking school, I was amazed…we had made things for lunch and for dinner that I normally didn’t care for and probably would never have cooked before…and I had absolutely LOVED everything! For me, a somewhat picky eater, this was amazing! I had eaten risotto with zucchini liked it!!! I had also eaten eggplant that was one of the most delicious things I had ever put in to my mouth! Wow! I couldn’t wait for day two!!!

On Tuesday we made two dishes with peppers, and a parmesan cheese MOUSSE!!! I think we were all a bit skeptical about that one, but of course it was wonderful, and not difficult to prepare. This was the case with most of the dishes we made, and of Italian cooking in general. Italian cooking is really very UNcomplicated… you simply cook what’s in season. Carmelita was so helpful in telling us lots of tricks and tips for dealing with different situations….what to substitute for what, what to do when something doesn’t turn our quite right, what to do if the pot burns…all the sorts of things that every good cook needs to know.

Art and I decided to relax on Tuesday, knowing that we were going to spend all day Wednesday, our free day, in Florence. We had checked the train schedule and discovered that we could take the train from Camucia, less than ten minutes away.

Mike and Shelley planned to drive to Umbria on Wednesday…first they would stop at Deruta to shop for dishes, then head to Assisi for sightseeing and lunch, stop in Perugia (mostly for chocolate!), and if there was any time left, they hoped to stop in San Feliciano for olive oil.

When we arrived at the train station in Camucia we discovered that the tickets were only sold by machine, and that no change was given. Since it had taken us a while to find the station and where to park, we didn’t have time to figure out the correct change before the train pulled in to the station. Since Camucia is a small station, we knew that the train would only stop for a minute or two, so we decided to get on the train and pay on board. I’ve always heard that it’s more expensive that way, but our only other option was to wait for an hour for the next train.

As we pulled into the Florence train station, we looked at each other and shook our heads….well, we had wanted to pay, but no one ever came through the car to check for tickets! We decided that the train going home would be more crowded, and since it would be a busy time of day, we went ahead and bought our return tickets before we left the station.

I had always wanted to see a museum in Florence called “la Specola”. It’s located on the Altra Arno near the Pitti Palace and has wax figures of lots of animals, many of them now extinct. Since Monday is the “normal” day for museums to be closed, we were both quite surprised to discover that La Specola is closed on Wednesday! Maybe next time.

We also walked past the profumery of Santa Maria Novella about thirty minutes before they opened and of course we never got back to that area. Again, next time! I had thought this would be a great place to buy some presents. I’ve never been there before, but I’m guessing they have perfumed soaps, sachets, and oils…all sorts of things that make wonderful gifts for a variety of occasions!

We did hit the San Lorenzo Mercato…Carmelita had recommended a shop to us for balsamic vinegar. We found the shop, tasted several vinegars, and make our selection. We benefited from several of the tips that Carmelita had given us the day before, and felt like we had really made an informed, intelligent choice!

We stayed in the Mercato for lunch…Art had said that he was going to try tripe the next time we were there, but at the last minute he backed down. For me, just the thought of eating a cow’s stomach is pretty gross, and when you see it at the butcher shop, it looks pretty weird. It’s a specialty of Florence and is supposed to be delicious, but so far, we still can’t comment on that!

We stopped in the Coin, the large department store, to look in the housewares department….nothing like attending a cooking school to make you want some new gadgets! We also discovered that the top floor of the Coin held an Imaginarium, and I found a few cute things for the grandgirls and some birthday cards.

While we were wandering through Florence the phone rang. It was Jill. We had hoped to get together with them during one of our free afternoons, but they had houseguests and were trying to work around their schedule. Jill said their guests had gone to Venice for a few days, so we arranged to spend Thursday afternoon at their house. We wanted to see how their garden was doing, and the thought of sitting around the pool was quite inviting.

Since Jill and Larry had set out forty tomato plants, we hoped that they might have a few to spare since ours were just beginning to ripen. Carmelita had even mentioned that if they were really overwhelmed, she’d be happy to use some, and in exchange, Larry and Jill could come for dinner. Jill told us that they had plenty of tomatoes, and we would relay the message to Carmelita…I knew that Panzanella was on our list, so the tomatoes would be much appreciated!

We arrived back from Florence about five o’clock, and took a quick shower and a short nap. Since we hadn’t cooked today, we would be going out for dinner. Carmelita had offered to pay for a cab to take us as a group, and we were happy to accept. For most guests to Il Rifugio, the bumpy ride up the gravel road might be a bit annoying, but since guests would normally be in a rental car, it wasn’t of great concern. Although our car was large enough for the five of us to ride together, we knew that the car would “bottom out” on some of the bumps so we were happy to have someone else’s van navigate the road. Of course someone else driving also meant that we could enjoy the wine without worry!

The reason we were so excited about the dinner was because we were going to a local place in a small hill town close to Cortona. Their specialty was bistecca fiorentino…the delicious two pound steak that’s so tender and so tasty that it doesn’t need any seasoning, and is cooked very quickly over hot coals, and never served medium or well done.

It’s standard for two people to split one steak, and we figured that the five of us could share two steaks without a problem. Art and I knew that we didn’t want to order anything else until we’d eaten our steak. This too is very normal for Italy. You order course by course, so if you get full, you can just stop…or if you want to leave room for dessert, you can skip the pasta! A very nice idea.

Carmelita ordered a bowl of cannellini beans and a bowls of salad for the table. I had a taste of the beans and thought they were too salty, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them, so maybe it was just me.

When the steak was served, the chef had put both steaks on one large patter and had cut them into serving size pieces. This is one of the best times NOT to be a vegetarian! What a great steak! Needless to say, it was tender and delicious. When the chef came out we were able to offer him our compliments.

Thursday is market day in Camucia, and we were all excited. For Mike and Shelley it would be their first time to visit such a market, and we would have a chance to see what other markets had to offer. We left early so that we could find a place to park…on market day, many of the streets are closed to make room for all the merchant’s trucks.

On previous trips into town, Mike, Shelley and Carmelita had discovered a great little coffee shop, so once we had parked the car we went for coffee and pastries while the merchants unloaded their trucks and set up their tables.

We stopped at the butcher shop to get the chicken we would need for tonight’s dinner, and also for the beef we would use on Friday. The butcher cut the chicken for us and kept it for us while we went through the market.

We had several items on our list…Carmelita wanted some of those net “tents” to cover food served outside, we wanted to look for some metal clips to hold down the tablecloth for our outside table, we all wanted to look for various gadgets and cooking supplies, and of course we’d look for fresh fruits and vegetables to cook with for our final two days. What we didn’t find at the market we could pick up at the local Coop.

The market in Camucia was very large…much larger than the one in Marsciano, and with a greater emphasis on food and household goods. There seem to be way too many trucks with clothes and shoes in Marsciano, at least for me. In Camucia we found the little “tents” that Carmelita wanted, the clips to hold down our tablecloth, two small rugs, and several kitchen gadgets.

The food quality was incredible, and we found several vendors with beautiful produce. Carmelita knew some of the vendors from past visits, and checked out several new ones as well. We bought peppers and tomatoes, light purple eggplants that Carmelita told us were sweeter than the dark purple ones, cucumbers, fruits.

Mike and Shelley wanted to buy cheese and meats to take back to the states. As long as they were vacuum packed this wasn’t a problem, and we checked out several places, tasting, looking, and learning from Carmelita. Mike and Shelley found a truck that would vacuum pack their purchases, so they were able to buy food to take back to the states. (We later found out that you can NOT bring meats into the US, even if they are vacuum packed. Mike and Shelley had to give up some, but luckily not all of their meats)

One of the fringe benefits of market day is the porchetta. In Marsciano we have three porchetta trucks, but Camucia has at least eleven, and Carmelita steered us to the one she like the best. Of course we weren’t disappointed! We ate our sandwiches as we walked, then headed for the Coop to get the staples we still needed.

I picked up a few things that I had never used before…capers, apple vinegar…not apple CIDER vinegar, just apple vinegar…I think it’s very mild. I also bought several tubes of triple strength tomato paste, and asked for Carmelita’s advice about bread flour. She steered me towards a flour that’s labeled “dura”…for a hard wheat. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the same flour at the Coops here. Art found some good deals in the wine aisle, so we bought a couple of bottles for everyone to enjoy during our last day and a half!

Once we got back to the house and put everything away, we began our lunch and dinner preparations. Today we would have pasta for the first time, and we would make it ourselves! Jill and Larry had picked a great night to come for dinner…we fixed a wonderful chicken dish, tagliatelle, arugula salad and for dessert, panna cotta!

After lunch we drove down to spend a few hours hanging out with Jill and Larry, checking the progress of their garden and enjoying the view looking UP the hill instead of down it! We gratefully brought back a HUGE bag of tomatoes, as well as a few other vegetables…the garden is doing great…I think Jill and Larry have missed their calling!

On Friday, our last day of cooking classes, we made pasta again, this time a heavier pasta with flour, water and oil instead of the light flour and egg pasta we had made for Thursday. Dinner was Tuscan…Panzanella (tomato bread salad), a tender beef stew, green beans with tomatoes, and for dessert, Torta della Nonna!

Mike and Shelley still needed to go to San Feliciano to buy olive oil, and Carmelita decided to go with them. At Carmelita’s suggestion, Art and I drove to Lucignano, a charming medieval hill town just east of Cortona. The ride was beautiful, but if you’re going from Cortona, I would recommend the southern road over the northern one…much more scenic.

As we ate our last dinner on the terrace, it was hard to believe that our week was over! We had prepared and eaten so many wonderful dishes, and I couldn’t even remember what we had eaten on our first day…there had been too many other wonderful things in between. We still needed to complete our survey forms, and one question asked what our favorite dish was, while another asked what our LEAST favorite dish was…this was going to be very difficult!!!

On Saturday morning, after another great nights sleep, we reluctantly began to gather our things and put them in the car. Not only did we have to leave the beautiful house and setting of Il Rifugio, but we also had to leave our new friends, Carmelita, Mike, and Shelley.

Carmelita was taking the train back to Bologna to complete a move to a new home…a move that had begun without her during our week of cooking school! Mike and Shelley were off to Florence for a few days. We had been able to give them some advice about museums and restaurants, and they had called ahead to their hotel to have them make the necessary reservations.

Terry, and American girl who’s living “under the radar” in Cortona arrived to begin cleaning the house. She’s another one who has just fallen under the spell of Italy with no reasonable explanation…she just knows that this is where she’s supposed to be, and does whatever she can to make ends meet. We did encourage her to try to use the contacts she’s made to have someone “give” her a job and a lease on a house…although these would only be on paper, it would make it possible for her to remain here legally, yet still go back to the states when she wanted to without fear of having her passport taken away.

Mike and Shelley were going to head back to Cortona before they went to Florence, and we drove Carmelita to the train station in Camucia. We enjoyed a leisurely drive home, but were still glad to get back…the tomatoes had survived without us…and we even had ripe tomatoes waiting for us!!! At last! The basil needed to be pinched back, the garden needed a good watering, and laundry had to be done. As always, it’s good to be home!

We had been incredibly lucky with everything about this school…winning it was amazing, being able to attend for a week instead of 4 days was great, the location was beautiful, the weather continued to be mild with pleasant breezes, we had gotten along very well with our classmates and our teacher, we had learned so much, and we had eaten incredibly well!

We can recommend without hesitation Carmelita and her school. She offers several different programs at several different locations. She also offers specialty classes and personalized classes…if you want to check out the best places to buy food in Bologna, she has a one day tour for that. Her website is
http://www.cookitaly.com . She’s not only incredibly knowledgeable, she is also extremely personable, helpful and patient.

We would also recommend Il Rifugio for any family or group looking for a wonderful retreat in a beautiful and peaceful location. Several years ago we had stayed in this area, in Mercatale di Cortona, and Il Rifugio has a much better location for those wanting to see both Umbria and Tuscany. Their website is
http://www.sojourn-in-italy.com

As always, a special thanks to everyone at Slow Travel,
http://www.slowtrav.com for all their help and support with EVERYTHING….early on with our basic questions about traveling in Italy, later about how to move to Italy, and then for setting up the blog so that I could document our move and the changes that would come with our new life.

3 Comments :

At 9/08/2004 12:14:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barb,

It would seem that you have solved your link issues in your posts.

Happy blogging.

John

 
At 9/09/2004 03:55:00 AM , Blogger Barbara said...

Yes, finally!

 
At 9/10/2004 01:17:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Barb -

Sounds like a great week! We visited Il Rifugio with the owner, Chuck, last Fall. It's a great place and I DO remember the drive up the hill in our rental-thank-goodness-car! Chuck had some fascinating stories about the previous owner and lots of intrigue! It's a very private place and the views are lovely.

Gail Hecko
www.chicktrips.com

 

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