After seven months in France, we took a break from r-gargling and brie bingeing and visited Italy as part of our very brave eight-weeks-on-the-road-with-three-young-kids summer road trip. Michael and I have been there done that in Rome, Venice and Florence, so we picked a small country village in the hills of Tuscany and a quaint terrace house in Nesso, Lake Como as our Italian destinations of choice. For six nights in Tuscany, we stayed in an old stone relic of a house with those classic terracotta tiles you wish you could afford in a new home. They would never look as good as they do in a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years … it’s the scratches, divots and dents and the smooth, worn down steps that give it such character. I had a quick look on the other side of the ancient door that led to the attic from our enormous main bedroom and decided it could be left undiscovered. The cobwebs alone put me off!
The big country kitchen with ivory tiled benchtops and an eight seater dining table right in the middle that doubled as a preparation area made me feel like a true Italian Nonna! I swear when I next build a house, I’ll be installing one of the old-fashioned dish racks hidden in a cupboard above the sink. A brilliant idea! The house also came with an Italian coffee pot for making my morning cups of black gold. My aunt and uncle have always used them, and I know they are readily available at home, but I’d never tried one myself. Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of an Italian coffee pot that can be used on a gas, electric or induction stove top … had to cover all bases when our holiday means we will use fifteen different kitchens! It was worth the extra ten euros to ensure my family gets the best version of me each morning.
Highlights of Tuscany: San Gimignano at dusk was a moment in time (so much so that we went back a second time!); the views of the endless hills, dotted with olive trees and old farmhouses and marked by rows of vineyards; and Siena for its surprisingly entertaining Santa Maria della Scala Art Museum (we sheltered from a storm but stayed for a couple of hours exploring the underground hallways and rooms of what used to be a hospital in the 1300s) and equally entertaining and passionate providore in a quaint deli. This rotund gentleman was full of jubilance and good humour, his walrus moustache following suit. He looked like an actor from a 1960s street scene – someone who would be the local town butcher. I imagine him in a black and white photograph, his personality all that is needed to colour the scene. He over-generously handed out samples of his aged and smoked prosciutto served atop crusty bread and then quickly followed that up with a wedge of sharp pecorino smothered in creamy pesto. Twenty-six euros later, we walked out of there with snugly wrapped packages of everything we’d tried and more … we justified it by agreeing we didn’t need lunch after all the samples!
But there was one highlight that stood out in Tuscany. After months of living in Europe as a foreigner, I am almost repelled by the “top ten things to do in …” lists and deliberately go looking for experiences that are usually left for those who attempt to break in to the local circles. I got wind of a certain neighbour who occasionally offered cooking classes. I had no idea of her qualifications or if she was any good, but I felt that at the very least, it would be fantastic to meet someone local who spoke my language (both English and foodie!) and could offer further recommendations. Little did I know my luck would have me meet Emma Mantovani. She lived just a couple of doors up the (steep) hill and ended up being the person who checked us in as our hosts were called away to England at the last minute.
I booked a 4 hour cooking class and dinner for two with Emma and she very kindly invited the children to come along too and swim in her pool before-hand. She asked which meat I preferred and I picked pork, but apart from this, I left it all up to her! My afternoon of cooking with Emma started with a surprise visit to a local biodynamic farm to pick up supplies for our evening meal. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, a passionate, young farmer fighting against nature and the elements and no doubt her own will, to produce biodynamic vegetables and herbs. I’m no expert on this type of farming, but I’ve come to understand that very few farmers attempt this approach because the results are so unpredictable which means earning a living from this passion is almost impossible. However, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie, who is qualified in viniculture and has used her agricultural knowledge to set up her own farm with her boyfriend (I noticed she had family members helping in the fields too!). She explained to me that it’s a cut above organic and involves the use of many complimentary planting techniques, feeding the plants nutrition from fermented organic matter and the use of spiders and other creepy crawlies to keep away those insects that hinder a successful crop. She walked me through rows of eggplants, basil, celery, potatoes, onions, zucchinis, tomatoes, cabbages, shallots, garlic, asparagus, carrots and capsicums, and pointed out many failed crops along the way. This year it is mostly due to the searing heat that swept through France and Italy in June and early July.
Nonetheless, we left Nathalie with a big, brown paper bag full of zucchinis and their flowers, garlic and basil that had just been picked. As we drove off up the hill on the rugged dirt track, the echos of many “ciao’s” could be heard behind us. It felt as if we were leaving another world behind in the valley between two giant hills.
Back at Emma’s, I was presented with the evening’s menu and my tummy started to growl! Despite the four courses, the offering was simple, fresh and oh so Italian:
Appetiser: Terrine of Ricotta and Carrot with a Pesto Sauce and Schiacciata all’olio (Foccacia)
First Course: Fresh Pasta with Zucchini Sauce
Second Course: Pork Tenderloin Crusted with Aromatic Herbs
As we tackled the baking first to allow plenty of time for proving, I couldn’t help but notice Emma’s classic old school Salter scales. It made me feel like a pro at the outset! The cake went into the oven to cook first and we paused around 6pm for a glass of Lapillo Amiata 2010, which uses Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese grapes. It went down very easily with a few slices of Pecorino from Sardinia. I relaxed into casual chatter with Emma and discovered a little about her life around food.
She essentially grew up in a family restaurant where she made sure she worked hard to progress from washing dishes, to instead cooking with her aunt, as quickly as possible. Emma went on to run a bistro in Florence for years and opened an Artisan Chocolate Shop before most people knew and understood the difference between industrially produced chocolate and that of an artisan chocolatier. All her life she has been sharing her passion for food in one way or another. These days, she lives in one end of her large home with husband, Giancarlo, and rents out the other end as a 3 bedroom, self-catering B&B. She is kept busy during the summer months with cooking classes in her own kitchen, using as many herbs and vegies as she can from her own backyard.
I was sent out to the herb garden with instructions to pick sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano for the pork and stood dumb-founded by the views at sunset. Her backyard is an ideal platform to take in the panoramic views of the Tuscan hills. I stopped by at the pool for a quick chat with my hubby and kids who had come to join us for dinner, before heading back in to start on the fresh pasta for first course.
Whilst Emma takes food very seriously, I felt as though I was just hanging out in the kitchen watching my Italian Nonna cook the evening meal. She has an ease about her that makes you realise that sometimes the glamour and hype over food as a trend, means you lose the true meaning of what it means to really enjoy food. “You need patience and love to cook well” she told me. I couldn’t help but smile and think how similar it is to life itself – patience and love with people goes a long way too. It was obvious she had passed on her love of food to Matteo, her 33 year old son. He was visiting to help with their 600-tree olive farm and was called into the kitchen at about 9pm, challenged to a “rolling pin versus machine” race to prepare the pasta. He produced his Grandmother’s pasta machine that was purchased in 1967 and got straight to it, chatting enthusiastically with me about how simple food is and how important it is to forget about chasing “the perfect dish” … “because it doesn’t exist” he tells me quite frankly. Of course it doesn’t. I agreed with him that chef-reality shows do nothing to encourage ordinary folk to get acquainted with their kitchens. In fact, it intimidates them into thinking they could never cook dishes that look like Michelin starred centrepieces, so why bother?
By the way, Emma won the competition – the woman is twice my age and I couldn’t keep up rolling that dough at the pace she kept. I now look at food preparation in a new light – as part of a potential fitness regime! Matteo did well with the machine but shared the task around with me and the kids which no doubt slowed him up a bit.
I couldn’t help but ask Emma about the Thermomix I am so fond of. I was sure she would know of it – it’s a European appliance afterall. She didn’t let on that she knew of it and all I know is that after that conversation, she decided we would cut everything by hand! I couldn’t help but respect her even more for pushing me into a “back to basics” style of cooking to help me understand the work that traditionally goes into preparing a family Italian feast. I’m guessing the certificate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris on the wall may have had something to do with her purist intent as well.
Despite all this, she produced her blender at the last minute to make the pesto. She seemed oblivious to my squeals of delight at her original Vorwerk “Bibby 300” from the 1970s … obviously the precursor to the Thermomix we know and love today. Still in perfect working order but not something she uses often, she assured me. I could tell – I could see the muscle definition in her forearms!
By 11pm, we were ready to sit down for the appetiser. The whole family had been involved somehow in the preparation and Giancarlo shared with me, over dinner in the garden, his belief that food is an important part of life and should be something that families take time to do together and share with others. I could see his genuine concern that this was a dying art. You see, food and sharing is not only a business for this family but also a way of life. They meet people from all over the world who come and stay in their little patch of Tuscan paradise. I have no doubt they all leave richer for having had the experience of sitting down for a meal with the Mantovani family.
The following three courses were devoured in time and before each one, I was summoned to the kitchen to help Emma present each dish, and picked up little tips here and there that I can now pass on to you. I am a garlic lover and I can never seem to put in too much for my liking. To me, there’s just no point adding one or two cloves to a casserole. “Simple!” Emma tells me. “Just add two in the beginning and two just before you serve it.” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Sometimes we get so used to cooking a certain way that a class now and then can really freshen up your thinking and remind you how simple and easy cooking should be.
I was pleased to see Emma wrestling with the fresh pasta and sauce in the pan … I thought it was just me who ended up with all the sauce on the bottom! She simply served the whole pan to the table and reminded everyone as they helped themselves to dig for the best part … the taste of the biodynamic zucchinis was crisp and flavoursome and the mint that Emma added at the last minute gave the whole dish a fresh twist for summer. Again, this simple sauce had just four main ingredients but offered up enough flavour to be a stand-alone meal.
The pork tenderloin will go down in my recipe book as a fabulous cheat dish for entertaining. We cooked it an hour in advance by simply rolling the fillet in the mix of herbs (I learned all about juniper berries during the marathon chopping task) and searing it in a pan, adding the leftover herbs to form the base of the sauce. White wine was the only other ingredient together with the meat juices and the sauce was reheated just before serving. A brilliant way to serve meat hot without having to cook it all while your guests are waiting. The apple cake was moist and caramelised and served with Matteo’s home-made vanilla ice cream (the remaining four slices travelled with us to Lake Como the next day and were enjoyed for supper!). We rolled down the hill well after midnight with tired kiddies and content tummies.
Emma is one of those unique humans that can empower you without inflating your ego. Her no-nonsense attitude and relaxed demeanour meant I walked away feeling inspired. She made me feel like I had a responsibility to remind others how important good food and simple cooking is to families. That fresh, locally grown produce is always best and worth the extra effort to source. But above all, it reminded me that a basic investment of time and love in preparing food and sharing it with family and friends, will always pay life-long dividends.
If you’re ever travelling to Italy, I can highly recommend Tuscany. We stayed at Casa Magnolia (we contacted our host Charly via Airbnb.com). Emma and Giancarlo’s B&B is called “Casa Pietraia”. If you love cooking as I do, contact Emma in advance to book in a cooking class. She can be contacted on email@example.com. Tell her I said “ciao!”