by Holly Dixon Hasselbarth
The tall, grey-haired driver waits for me as I step out of the airport in Florence, Italy. As an independent traveler, I have no idea what to expect as the car winds its way through the tiny town of Lastra a Signa and finally to the gates of Villa Pandolfini.
A friendly Australian introduces herself as Meaghan, the proprietress of Villa Pandolfini and the cooking school. She shows me my one-bedroom villa and invites me to dinner at 8 pm.
Of course, I show up at 8 pm and am told by the staff, “Dinner in Italy starts never starts on time. Can you come back in half an hour?”
At dinner, Meaghan introduces me to the other cooking school students. Besides myself, there is Vicky, a nurse, and Stefano, a restaurateur from California with his wife. We all are devotees of Tuscan cooking and anticipate the week’s activities.
The two master chefs, Lisa Marie and Maurizio, introduce themselves at dinner. The 5-course meal begins with a sparkling wine and a savory leek and salmon tart. Asparagus risotto is next, just before the main course of sea bass fillets over potato shavings and sliced almonds. A salad of mixed greens, apples and pine nuts follows and wine accompanies each course. Crema buciata is our decadent dessert. Assorted cheeses and fresh strawberries sprinkled with balsamic vinegar are offered to compliment our after-dinner drink of grappa.
It is after midnight by the time we are done laughing and talking. We are grateful that the cooking school starts at 10 am the next day and look forward to a restful night.
On our first day, Chef Lisa Marie takes us on a tour of the grounds where we pick fresh bay leaf, basil, sage, rosemary and thyme. She tells us that the villa produces its own olive oil and wine, and that no chemicals are used during their cultivation.
Back inside, Chef Lisa Marie writes the 5-course menu on a chalkboard as we don our aprons. She asks what kind of music everyone likes and loads up the CD player. We learn how to soak the stale bread in vinegar and water for the panzella. She brings out the ingredients for our walnut/eggplant ravioli. As we form an assembly line to prepare the ravioli, I ask, “Who knew cooking could be so much fun?”
Three hours later, Chef Lisa Marie opens the wine and hands out some bruschetta. By 2:00 pm we sit down to the meal that we just prepared. We are almost (but not quite) too full to sample the tiramisu.
Two days during the week are free days with no classes. On the first day, Chef Maurizio escorts us to the Mercato di San Lorenzo in Florence. This is the central market with stalls of fresh foods. He takes us to an olive oil tasting, cheese tasting, balsamic vinegar tasting and, of course, wine tasting. This region is famous for their Brunello, Chianti, Carmignano and Vino Nobile wines. Shopping is so much easier when each vendor or winery can ship directly to your home.
For lunch, we choose to stop into COIN, a large department store located on Via dei Calzauoli. Chef Maurizio suggests the rooftop restaurant, more for the 360 degree view of Florence than the food. However, I am happy just to have a salad and mineral water.
The afternoon is free to visit the museums such as the Uffizi Gallery or bargain amid the street vendors. I opt for the Ponte Vecchio and purchase a trinket from one of the jewelry shops.
The next couple of days has a few more surprises in the cooking school. Additional students join for one-day classes. We meet an engineer from Ireland and his wife from Sweden. A couple, on vacation from Seattle, also joins the class.
On our second free day, the school has arranged for a driver, Roberto, to take us on a day trip to Siena, Montereggiano, Pienza and Bagno Vigoni. Our first stop is Pasticceria Nannini, which is the oldest bakery in Siena. Roberto orders espressos, the Panforte Di Siena and Ricciarelli. The Panforte is a dense torte full of candied citron and nuts, covered with a dusting of powdered sugar. My favorite, the Ricciarelli, are chewy almond cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.
We take a quick tour of the Museo dell Opera, the Baptistry and Libreria Piccolomini. The shopaholics scope out the storefronts along the famous Piazza del Campo.
On our last day, we have morning tours at the ceramics factory in Montelupo and the Villa Medici in Fiesole. We lunch at Ristorante Da Delfino, just outside the medieval town of Artiminio. This is the original with Nonna Delfina who inspired Delfina’s in San Francisco and Poggio’s in Sausalito.
In our final afternoon class, we discover that eight additional guests have been invited by the proprietors. Luckily, our pasta making skills are honed, and both Chef Lisa Marie and Chef Maurizio keep things on track.
With the additional guests, a local musician also shows up. He provides a mixture of classical and Italian folk tunes on the guitar. General laughter and mirth ensue as we clean up, and the chefs plate each dish, straight from the oven. To our relief, many compliments were garnered from the guests.
Before all the guests leave, we are awarded their diplomas from the school as well as our aprons. What a graceful ending to my adventures in a Tuscan kitchen.
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For More Information:
Villa Pandolfini is located in Lastra a Signa, Italy. Reservations are easily
made through their parent company in the U.S.:
Connextions Group, Inc.
2825 East Cottonwood Parkway, Salt Lake CIty, UT 84101
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional details on availability and programs.
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Recipe for Classic Tiramisu
17.6 ounces mascarpone cheese (500 grams)
5 eggs separated
5 TBSP sugar
1 1/2 packages Pavesini (similar to lady fingers) approximately 10 ounces
4 cups Espresso Coffee (can be decaffeinated)
3.5 ounces Chocolate Bar (semi-sweet or unsweetened)
Place egg yolks and 5 tablespoons sugar into bowl and whisk until you have a pale, foamy paste. Add the mascarpone and continue beating until smooth.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with pinch of salt until stiff. Fold in the mascarpone mixture with the egg whites. Mix thoroughly, but do not collapse the egg white structure.
In a deep baking dish (8 x 8 x 2) spread a layer of the mascarpone mixture.
Quickly dip the pavesini in the espresso. Place the pavesini on top of the mascarpone mixture. Continue until the layer of mascarpone mixture is covered.
Repeat with another 2 layers of mascarpone, soaked pavesini biscuits, and strawberries. Finish with a layer of the mascarpone mixture.
Grate the chocolate and sprinkle over the Tiramisu. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Serves 6.
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About the Author:
H.D. Hasselbarth began her career as a technical writer for corporations such as
Computer Associates and IBM. Currently, she works at a community college in
Southwest Florida, mentoring students in the craft of writing. On breaks, she
travels frequently and freelances for such publications as the PepperTree Literary
Magazine and Natural Awakenings.