As Dewey and I are currently living off a modest budget that we saved up for over two years, we’re quite versed in the art of picking and choosing what to spend our money on while making our way across Europe. In general, my philosophy is to value experience over material items. For example, if I had to choose between shopping for new clothes or taking a boat ride along the Amalfi Coast, I’d definitely choose the latter (hence why I’m wearing the same outfit in most of my photos!). That’s why when I came across the opportunity to take an Italian cooking class in a 13th century farmhouse in Tuscany, I couldn’t pass it up, despite it being a bit out of our normal price range.
We were a group of seven as my brother, his fiancé, and a few of our friends were visiting us in Italy to celebrate our recent engagements (my brother and I unknowingly got engaged on the same day in different cities in Italy!!). The farmhouse was located about 30 minutes outside of Florence at the end of a windy dirt road at the base of a mountain. We were all excited to spend the day in the Tuscan countryside— quite a different scene than the hustle and bustle of Florence’s city center.
Giovanni, an elderly man and the owner of the farm, greeted us. He had coarse hands from years spent working at the farmhouse and though he hardly spoke English, his kindness made us feel instantly welcome. He told us that the farmhouse has been in his family for generations, and he and his brother currently run the vineyard’s operations together. Next, we met Manuela, our chef and teacher for the day. Manuela is from Sicily where she grew up with a passion for food (as I suspect many Sicilians do). She moved to Florence where she worked in restaurants for years as well as taught Italian language and culture classes. She decided to host cooking lessons as a way to combine her love of teaching and cooking with visitors.
We began by making dessert first: tiramisu. Manuela informed us that it needed to sit for awhile in the fridge. Most of us had rather basic cooking skills, but it didn’t matter. Manuela was so sweet and patient as we tried our best not to mess up the quintessential Italian dessert. While we were dipping the lady fingers (or as Italians call them, savoiardi) into coffee, Manuela’s husband, Simon, and their two young daughters came into the kitchen. The girls were excitingly slipping their rain boots on to get ready for a scavenger hunt in the garden that their dad had set up for them. They girls both spoke fluent English and Italian, and I suddenly felt myself getting jealous of eight year olds…
I began to feel like this wasn’t going to be just a cooking class, but a chance to share a day in the life of an Italian family.
We moved on to the sauce for our pasta using fresh tomatoes. As we peeled and strained the tomatoes, Manuela talked to us about classic Italian cooking and the differences between what we as Americans think of as Italian dishes. She told us that chicken parmigiana (a classic dish on Italian restaurant menus in the US) is confusing to her. In Italian, parmigiana is a cooking style in which a dish is prepared in layers (for example, with eggplant or pasta). So, when she hears “chicken parmigiana” she thinks of slices of chicken stacked on top of each other. Silly, right? She also mentioned that chicken and pasta with tomato sauce is quite a strange combination for most Italians (though, she kindly acknowledge that it’s probably delicious!).
The next item on the menu was fresh bruschetta (pronounced bru-sketta, I quickly learned). Manuela ran out to the garden to pluck some fresh basil for our mixture while we chopped the cherry tomatoes. As we worked, Manuela debunked some myths about Italians. Although she’d like to support the idea that every time Italian families eat pasta it’s fresh and homemade, she said that’s just not realistic. It’s very time consuming to make pasta from scratch, and apart from holidays and special occasions, Italian’s eat pasta from a box just as we do!
Finally, it was time for the part I had been looking forward to all day (other than actually eating the food, of course): making spaghetti from scratch. Using a wooden rolling pin, we flattened the dough we had prepared earlier as thinly and evenly as possible. Manuela brought out a pasta maker, which is called a chitarra (guitar in Italian) because the machine has metal strings like that of a guitar. Placing the dough on top of the chitarra, she used the rolling pin to firmly press the dough through the strings, and we watched as it fell apart into perfect strands of spaghetti. Of course, she made it look easy… the rest of us… well let’s just say we are far from being pasta professionals. It was so much fun though, we couldn’t stop laughing. I decided I was going to get a chitarra when I’m back home so I can host pasta-making nights at my house.
While the food finished cooking, Simon and Giovanni took us around the farm to show us how they make their wines on the vineyard. It turns out that while Manuela hosts her cooking lessons, Simon helps Giovanni with the wine production (oh, what a life, being married and working together on a Tuscan farm…). On the tour, we saw where they ferment the wine, store it (in the naturally cool, underground part of the old tower), and bottle it. Simon translated as Giovanni explained each step in the winemaking process. From the way he spoke, I could feel his eagerness to share his passion for his craft with us, despite the language barrier. I felt lucky to be listening to his years of knowledge passed down through his family.
When the tour was over, it was time to eat! Manuela had an inviting dinner table set up in the upstairs room of the old stone tower in front of a window that peaked out into the surrounding countryside. She and her adorable daughters served us all four courses that we had made while Giovanni came to pour us various wines from his vineyard.
The simple, yet flavorful dishes combined with the delectable wines, cozy ambience, and the company of Italian locals, made the day on the farm a truly once in a lifetime experience. One of our friends enjoyed it so much he joked that he would be happy to work for free on the vineyard as long as he could eat Manuela’s food and live in the farmhouse (although, I don’t think he was really joking!).
The reason I love to travel is for experiences like this. Traveling is about making connections with people from different cultures and learning from them. Spending the day with Giovanni, Manuela, and her family gave us the chance to do just that. We were so warmly welcomed into a true Italian home for the day and left feeling like we had made new friends. Though Dewey and I are careful about budgeting, I’ll never regret spending money on authentic and intimate experiences such as this one. The saying really is true: travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.
If you are interested in trying this experience yourself, you can find it here.