These may be the strangest words ever to come out of the mouth of an Italian chef running a Tuscan cooking class.
“Good morning. My name is Sunshine.”
The name fit like a snug sweater, his smile infectious and every ripple visible.
His parents had been “sort of hippies” and named him after the musical Hair. Try carrying that name growing up in Italy.
And Sunshine he would be, smiling patiently throughout the three days it would take to teach me the intricacies of Tuscan food, of making pasta without massacring the dough and soup without burning it.
I have fancied myself a decent sort in the kitchen, what with my wide travels and Mediterranean parents. Each time I burn a dish or murder a sauce, it comes as a surprise.
I can’t really cook very well – and you have no idea how writing those few words pains me. Certainly I can rustle up a dozen or so classics, and have few enough dinner parties for anyone to notice I’m rotating my meals. Still, ineptitude in the kitchen is not something I would normally claim.
Cooking in Tuscany. Food. Sunshine.
My inner chef leapt at the chance to mend my culinary ways.
My particular cooking school, which was run by Flavours of Italy, sits on top of a Tuscan hill, as most villas in Tuscany do. Around it is Arramista, an estate dedicated to making wine. (These days, you'll find Sunshine whipping up his specialties at La Dogana in Montepulciano.)
Upstairs are high-ceilinged bedrooms and on the ground floor is a combination of kitchen, spillover sitting rooms and – most important – the classroom, a long table set neatly with a chopping board, an apron, a knife and a recipe for each of the eight of us.
Later that first evening, we prepare for our basic cooking classes.
“My philosophy is not to do things fast, but to enjoy the process, without stress,” Sunshine explains, simultaneously asking a student to rush outside and pick a few bay leaves.
And that’s how it goes for the next few days. We gather in the kitchen while Sunshine expounds on an aspect of cooking – how to hold the knife, how to chop, or in my case, how to wield a cleaver over unsuspecting lamb ribs.
We learn how to respect and combine the various colors of food, not to stir until we actually smell the onions melt and hear the spices crackle, and to use vegetables to make stock – no meat!
My first meal is perhaps the most memorable, kneading dough into ravioli shapes to the sound of Puccini. “My father always cooked pasta with opera,” Sunshine explains. With meat, it’s Genovese music – Sunshine is from Liguria, Genoa’s province a bit further north. For dessert, something more folksy drifts through the air.
I’m surprised to discover making pasta is fun – how simple, with only flour, eggs, oil, water and salt… and how astoundingly tasty when compared to something bought in a store. The filling is equally simple, a mixture of leafy greens and fresh white ricotta, supreme Tuscan cuisine in all its fresh simplicity.
When the dough has rested, I learn to roll it thinly, first cutting it into strips and then into squares. It breaks, of course, but with a bit of perseverance I’m soon filling it, gently pressing the edges with a fork to make those cute little ridges around each piece. The trick? Press the sides first to let the air out the front, then seal the front.
When it comes time to cook we move into the kitchen, the kind you probably have at home, with everyday utensils so yes, there’s a chance I might be able to reproduce that evening’s success.
Over the next few days our Italian cooking school students prepare a phenomenal number of dishes – succulent guinea fowl with aromatic porcini mushrooms, panna cotta (my first, but definitely not my last), tiramisú (not usually a dessert I enjoy but this one… oh this one…), maccheroni with sausage and truffle butter, braised lamb ribs with black olives and pine nuts, Tuscan apple cake…
The classes break for a quick day trip to Florence but soon we are back in our kitchen, stirring soup.
At night, the sounds of the countryside – howling dogs and a few errant mosquitoes – squeeze in through the windows, along with the fresh scent of crisp cypresses and the comforting odor of burning wood, all gently tickling me, pulling me into a deep sleep.
I can’t say four days of cooking holidays in Tuscany turn me into a cordon bleu chef, but my confidence in the kitchen is tripled. I no longer believe I will have to throw every pan away, nor will I keep a ‘reserve’ dish in the fridge when I have guests, you know, just in case.
Sometimes it’s all in the teaching.
“Some chefs try to make things too perfect so people are frightened of making a mistake,” Sunshine explains. “If there’s stress when the food is being made, that stress will be passed on to the customer. I was like that in my professional kitchen but now, teaching small groups in a home kitchen makes me relaxed. I enjoy sharing the knowledge so much more, it’s so different than the stress I used to have.”
Tuscan cooking. Truly a ray of sunshine in my plate.