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Women on the Road

The Anatomy of a Tuscan Cooking Class

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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.

Tuscan cooking vacation - chef from Flavours of Italy poses in front of schoolSunshine takes a minute off teaching to pose in front of our Tuscan cooking school

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.

It shouldn’t.

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.

Until this.

cooking classes in Italy - burnt ribs are what drove me thereSo my decision to take part in an Italian cookery course in Tuscany (Italy) would transform me into a masterchef and I would, finally, learn to cook with results NOT like these ribs @WOTR

Cooking in Tuscany. Food. Sunshine.

My inner chef leapt at the chance to mend my culinary ways.

cooking class tuscany italy - beautiful countryside and vineyardsThe beautiful Tuscan countryside is perfect for early-morning walks before my Tuscan cooking course starts @Anne Sterck/WOTR

My cooking school, 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.

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 

cooking in Tuscany - learning to make ravioliAnd so I learn to cook in Italy and make my first batch of fresh ravioli @Anne Sterck/WOTR

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…

panna cotta - from my cooking school in TuscanyThe panna cotta from my Tuscan cooking class. The memories of this keep me awake at night @WOTR

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.

10 things to look for in cooking schools in Tuscany

  • Cost: this will obviously be a factor when choosing Tuscany cooking vacations (but make sure you know what you're getting for the money before making a decision about which is actually more expensive). Compare like with like when you're shopping for a class.
  • Size of class: you'll have a much better chance of learning something if your class is small, a dozen at most. This gives the chef an opportunity to interact with every student at every meal.
  • The chef: qualifications don't really matter but admit it, if your chef has spent time in a Michelin-starred restaurant or written a cookbook, you'll be impressed! Even without these, find out about your chef's background - how many years has s/he been teaching, how many interactions with foreign students... all the things that can make or break a culinary vacation.
  • Style of teaching: this is at least as important as a chef's qualifications. Is the chef outgoing? How much time will you have for interaction? It might not be easy to find this out before going (although I can vouch for Sunshine!) but read the student reviews and recommendations.
  • Accommodation: you may be tempted to save money by staying in cheaper accommodations nearby (if this option is indeed available) but consider that you'll be missing out on all the camaraderie and special tips that emerge during evening wind-down sessions, or impromptu gatherings that may take place at a moment's notice. What if there's a last-minute schedule change? You may be the last to know about it. For me, this kind of trip is also about connecting with fellow travelers and sharing the experience, not dashing out to get back to my place before nighttime.
  • Location and leisure: Where is the course taking place? If it's in the rolling hills of Tuscany, as was mine, you'll be able to pop out the front door and you'll be in the middle of the countryside. That time off to relax is part of the experience.
  • Time to relax:  Look at the schedule and make sure you have the time to wander and soak in the atmosphere - and especially to eat and enjoy what you've cooked.
  • Wine accompaniments: This one passed me by (I don't drink) but my class included a visit to a local winery and tastings, as well as class advice on what kind of wine to drink with what dish. It's an opportunity for learning about wine, sharing your own knowledge and enjoying the tastings.
  • Type of cooking: you may want to find out about the cooking style of your class. Will it be home cooking? Regional specialties? Or are you about to learn three-star dishes with which to impress your guests at home?
  • The menu: Make sure what's being prepared fits in with your own requirements. If you're vegetarian or vegan or have other culinary constraints, make sure you ask beforehand if they are able to accommodate them.

What every Woman on the Road should know...

  • Bring an appetite and open mind.
  • Flavours of Italy has special deals for solo travelers (you'll find them here) and I make an extra effort to support companies that do.
  • If you visit this particular venue, be sure to bring a bathing suit. I didn’t have mine and there was a glorious swimming pool right outside the building.
  • Sunshine has written up his wisdom in his delightful My Tuscan Kitchen, which brings back vivid memories each time I open its pages.
  • Bring good walking shoes. The grounds are large and stuffed with trails to walk off all those extra calories.
  • Flavours of Italy picks guests up at Pisa airport but if you're driving, make sure you use your GPS and that you have a local phone number to call when you get lost (yes, I said 'when'). I did get lost but called and was able to get directions easily.
  • Classes were comfortably small - my Tuscan cooking class was 8 people.
  • Enjoy - this is one of the best cooking classes in Tuscany, Italy!

And please - don't forget your travel insurance before you head to Tuscany! I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

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