A Cooking Class in Tuscany: Why it’s Sometimes Worth it to Splurge

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.

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Part of the farmhouse

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.

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The tower from the 13th century

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 expect 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.

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Giovanni and my friend Gina pose for a photo

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.

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Prepping the tiramisu

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!).

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My brother and his fiancé making the pasta sauce

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!

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The most delicious bruschetta

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.

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Manuela showing us how it’s done

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.

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The basement of the 13th century tower where the wine is stored

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.

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The dining table

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.

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The group and our cooking class certifications!

If you are interested in trying this experience yourself, you can find it here.

13 Traditional Bulgarian Dishes to Try

I spent about a month in Bulgaria and in that time I fell in love with Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, it was probably my favorite cuisine of all the countries I’ve visited so far.

Bulgarian history is complicated. The country has been a crossroads of many civilizations throughout time, and thus, its food is a collection of different cultures. Greek, Ottoman, and Slavic culture along with the country’s unique climate combine to make Bulgarian cuisine special.

It’s an ideal mix of fresh vegetables, yogurt, cheese, spices and grilled meat, but what I particularly loved about Bulgarian food was not just what they eat but how they eat it. Bulgarians cherish time with family, and eating together is one of the best ways to enjoy each other’s company. Traditional dishes are shared amongst friends and family over the course of a few hours. One night, Dewey and I went out to a traditional restaurant and we were seated next to three older Bulgarian men who were still there chatting, laughing, and eating after we had paid the bill (and we were there for 2.5 hours)! Bulgarians never rush to finish their meal, and the waiter will often leave you be until you call him/her back over to order more.

Here are some of the many delicious specialties you should try while vacationing in Bulgaria:

1. Banitsa

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If you’re like me and prefer savory over sweet dishes, banitsa is the perfect breakfast option for you. It’s a popular pastry made with filo dough, butter, and Bulgarian cheese and then baked in the oven. Though not low in the calorie department, it’s definitely worth a try. Plus, it’s a great for munching on-the-go while you explore the city. One of the tour guides I had in Sofia told me he eats one every morning!

2. Lyutenitsa

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Lyutenitsa is a spread made mostly of smashed red peppers and tomatoes and packed with flavor. There are many variations of it: puréed or chunky, spicy or mild, and different vegetables can be added as well. Most Bulgarians grew up eating their Grandmother’s homemade version on toast for breakfast. I wasn’t lucky enough to try the homemade kind, but fortunately it’s sold in grocery stores all around Bulgaria. I tried various takes on the spread, but my favorite was the chunkier kind with eggplant added. I ate it almost everyday I was there (I especially liked having it with scrambled eggs— though not typically eaten this way, I’d definitely recommend it). I even bought two jars to carry with me to our next destination!

3. Yogurt

It would be a crime to leave Bulgaria without tasting the yogurt (or to Bulgarians, “sour milk”). Bulgarian yogurt is so important that it’s considered to be a part of the people’s identity and something they are extremely proud of producing. Seriously, yogurt is everywhere and consumed in every way: as a dip, salad, cold soup, drink, or sold homemade in jars outside of locals’ homes! What makes their yogurt different is a special kind of bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus (yes, even the bacteria is named after the country), that grows naturally in the Bulgarian climate. It makes the yogurt thicker and SO fresh. Locals believe it’s linked to good health, cures hangovers, helps sunburns, and can even make you live longer!

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My favorite dish that you’ll find on almost every restaurant menu was the yogurt salad. It’s made with cucumber, dill, garlic, and walnuts. It was so simple yet so refreshing especially before a heavier grilled meat dish. Another common dish that I didn’t have a chance to try (but I will on my next visit) is the cold yogurt soup called tarator, which is made with similar ingredients as the salad and eaten in the summer.

Even if you’re not a yogurt fan, give Bulgarian yogurt a chance. It’s unlike anything sold in grocery stores in the States!

4. Ayran (Sour Milk Drink)

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I became obsessed with this drink while I was visiting Bulgaria. It’s sour and slightly salty and made from the same Bulgarian yogurt mentioned above. It can be sipped with breakfast or lunch; I usually had it with a banana in the morning, and it kept me full for hours. You can find it served fresh in restaurants or sold by the bottle in grocery stores. It contains that same bacteria that’s in the yogurt, so it’s great for your health!

5. Shopska Salad

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Can you see the colors of the Bulgarian flag?

Every restaurant in Bulgaria will have shopksa salad on the menu, and that’s because its creation is tied to when the country was under Communist control. The government wanted to create a dish that represented Bulgaria and could be replicated and sold in every restaurant. So, the shopska salad was invented. It’s made with red pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion and topped with freshly grated cow cheese. The ingredients are meant to represent the colors of the Bulgarian flag.

Though no longer a Communist country, the shopska salad remains a staple of Bulgarian cuisine. What makes a shopska salad so delicious is the freshly grated cow cheese on top. Dewey and I found it so flavorful we didn’t need to add any dressing!

Nowadays, you can find many other salads offered on the menu, such as a shepard’s salad, which is essentially the same as shopska but with ham and egg. I found the produce in Bulgaria to be so fresh that any salad you pick will be tasty!

6. Rakia

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Rakia can range is color from clear to a yellowish tint

Rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria. It’s a fruity brandy with high alcohol content that is popular across all of the Balkans; however, Bulgarians argue that it originated in their country. Warning: asking a Bulgarian where it originated is a sensitive question! It’s a staple of Bulgarian culture and they believe it can help cure anything. Upset stomach? Drink rakia. Sore throat? Drink rakia. Headache? Drink rakia.

It can be made from various fermented fruit, though Bulgarians commonly use grapes, apricots and plums. It’s served in a small glass and traditionally consumed throughout the meal. Bulgarians never drink it without food, as it’s very strong— especially if it’s homemade. Though Bulgarians usually drink a few glasses of it during dinner, I suggest trying one glass with your salad or appetizer and switching to wine if you want to remember the rest of your meal!

7. Mezze

 

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Lukanka

Reflecting its Greek past, mezze is a big part of dinner out in Bulgaria. If you’re unfamiliar with Greek mezze, it’s essentially a selection of small dishes served as appetizers. I love this tradition. There’s just something so pleasant about chatting with friends and family, drinking wine (or rakia as the Bulgarians do) and enjoying small bites. Many different options are available to order, but most common is white cheese and dried meat called lukanka (Dewey’s favorite). I liked the stuffed vine leaves the best. Order a selection of plates, and be sure to take your time eating just as the Bulgarians do!

8. Stuffed Peppers

Peppers are found in many Bulgarian specialties, so it’s no surprise that they also eat them stuffed. Usually made with red peppers for more flavor, they’re filled with minced meat (either pork or veal), rice and a variety of spices. They can be either boiled or baked and sometimes even fried. You can order them as an appetizer or pick them up at a local market (check out the Ladies Market or the Central Market Hall by the Sofia History Museum) and have as a snack between sightseeing like I did!

9. Beans

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As a majority of the country is Orthodox, most Bulgarians fast around Christmas and have to avoid eating anything that comes from an animal. Thus, beans became a popular alternative for protein. The most common dish is the bean soup. It’s slowly cooked and full of spices. You can also find them roasted and served as a starter (like the ones in the picture above).

10. Kebapche & Grilled Meat

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Pork filets, kepabche, sausage, and a meatball

Okay, so kebapche (similar to ćevapi) is a dish common across all of the Balkans, but it’s still worth trying during a visit to Bulgaria. It’s a type of grilled minced meat similar to kebabs made with spices and often eaten with fries.

Bulgarians are meat lovers, so you can also find other grilled meat on the menu, such as meatballs, pork filets, roasted lamb, pork neck, and sausage. It’s all quite simple, but the spices make it so tasty!

11. Clay Pot Dishes

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Stew with pork, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers— still on fire!

Bulgarians make many wonderful stews and casseroles in clay pots— a tradition that stems from Ottoman times. You will find beautiful pottery sold all over Bulgaria, and that’s because they believe cooking with them adds more flavor, and I couldn’t agree more! They make many specialties with clay pots, but most common is a slowly cooked mixture of chopped vegetables with chicken, beef or pork.

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Onion pie baked in a clay pot

Various pies, soups, eggs, and more can also be cooked in these clay pots. The combination of the colorful pottery and the hearty flavors makes this tradition the perfect meal to eat after a long day of sightseeing.

12. Moussaka

The Bulgarians have a history with the Greeks that dates back to when the Thracian people first migrated to the area. So, naturally, there is a lot of Greek influence in their food. However, Bulgarians like to add their own twist to some traditional dishes like moussaka. Rather than making it with eggplant like the Greeks, they use potatoes, yogurt, yellow cheese and minced meat. I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have the chance to try it, but it’s definitely at the top of my list for when I return (especially knowing how delicious Bulgarian yogurt and cheese is)!

13. Bulgarian Wine

I had no idea wine production was a big industry in Bulgaria before I arrived, but I had fun tasting a variety of local wines with my dinner— especially red wine. I quickly learned that I didn’t need to ask the waiter whether the wine was dry because almost all Bulgarian wines are dry (which I prefer). Wine production dates back to Thracian times in Bulgaria and they are arguably as tasty (and WAY less expensive) as Italian wines!