By Pam Collacott IF YOU FIND YOURSELF IN THE CHIANTI
region of Tuscany, check out Tutti a Tavola. It's a
unique cooking school experience that you will
remember with pleasure long after your visit with the
four wonderful women who share the teaching duties.
We heard about this school from Canadian
sommelier Debbie Trenholm. A few years ago she
spent time helping with the grape harvest at Croce de Bibbiano,
a small winery near San Gimignano. The mother of one of the
owners of this winery is Lele Vitali, one of the four teachers at
Tutti a Tavola. On Debbie's advice we booked an agriturismo
apartment at Croce de Bibbiano for a week and a cooking class
with Lele and friends at Tutti a Tavola.
They describe themselves as Tuscan mammas and women 'of
a certain age.' Lifelong friends and in some cases, relatives, they
launched Tutti a Tavola several years ago at the request of an
Australian tourist who was impressed with their knowledge and
enthusiasm for the foods and flavours of their corner of Tuscany.
Since then they have taught visitors how to cook Tuscan-style in
their classic country farm homes in three Chianti classico villages:
Radda, Castellini and Gaiole. Every year the mammas travel to
Australia and North America, captivating everyone they meet
with their many stories, fabulous food and great sense of
humour. They have been featured in the New York Times,
Washington Post and Chicago Tribune in the US, The Sunday
Times in Australia and many other media outlets. They recently
launched an app, THE MAMMAS.
We enjoyed the scenic winding 45-minute drive through the
hilly Tuscan countryside from our apartment to Lele's lovely
stone farmhouse near the town of Radda. She greeted us warmly
and after a short visit, drove us to our destination: Mimma
Ferrando's fabulous farmhouse overlooking a lush treed valley.
Our class was held in Mimma's kitchen. On one wall was a
huge rustic fireplace. On the hearth were bottles of wine and
olive oil from Ciona, the vineyard and farm of mamma Franca
Gatteschi, who joined us partway through the class and tutored
us on the intricacies of her wines and olive oil.
We donned aprons then sat around a long
wooden table under a heavily beamed ceiling,
watching Mimma and Lele as they guided us
through the recipes and chatted about their
much loved regional cuisine. Tutti a Tavola
translates to 'Everyone to the table' and that's
where we spent our time, first cooking then
enjoying our meal.
Our menu was simple Tuscan fare. We started
with Torta di Cipolle, a freeform onion tart with
olive oil pastry. The main course consisted of
Tagliatelle al Ragu (homemade fettucine pasta
with a classic Bolognese sauce, Scaloppine al
Limone (veal scallops with lemon) and Finocchi
Brasati (fennel sautéed with olive oil, onions and
parsley). Dessert was simple: unsweetened
yogurt mixed with whipped cream and sugar
and served with fresh berries. The flavour
reminded me of a cross between French
fromage blanc and créme frâiche. If time had
permitted, it would have been chilled in a
cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl to drain,
then carefully unmolded and garnished with
berries and peaches or a fresh fruit sauce.
Lele and Mimma started the ragu with odori,
the traditional trinity of vegetables essential in
many dishes in every Tuscan kitchen: onion,
celery and carrots. So important is this trinity
that in the past, if a housewife couldn't afford
these staple vegetables, greengrocers were
obliged to provide them for free. We chopped
the vegetables using a mezzaluna, a doublebladed
hand chopper. Lele told us that a
mezzaluna and wooden cutting board were
given to every young woman when she married.
As the wooden cutting board became visibly
worn and a depression formed, the young
woman was recognized as a good cook. While our
ragu simmered, Lele taught us to make pasta. She
prefers to roll and cut it by hand because the rougher
surface holds sauce better than machine rolled.
It was a treat to watch these women move about
the room, conferring with each other (sometimes so
passionately it sounded like arguing) and entertaining
us with their stories of travel and food. By the time
dinner was ready to serve in the dining room, we were
all fast friends. Had the weather been warmer, we
would have dined on the covered patio overlooking
the hills. Our meal was delicious and convivial with
much laughter and good fellowship all around and
many hugs when it was time to say our goodbyes.
As it can be challenging to drive the winding roads
after dark and after such a fine meal, you may choose
to stay with Mimma or Franca in one of their
comfortable B&Bs. This would also make it easier to
take advantage of the multiple-day cooking classes
that they offer.
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