Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Perfect Day of Pasta

Wherever I go, I love to see how people live, and cooking and eating are among the best ways to be part of someone's ordinary life. Dave and I were excited to go to Italy for the food every bit as much as the art. We decided early on that we were interested in taking a cooking class while we were in Italy - to be able to bring skills and taste home with us. We looked at all sorts of classes in Florence - we could spend our whole time abroad studying how to be chefs (and spending our children's inheritance as we went!) Finally we discovered The Accidental Tourist and it sounded like a great fit: for a very reasonable price, they would pick us up in Florence, drive us to an old farmhouse, teach us how to make pasta and feed us the pasta as part of a Tuscan lunch, before driving us back to the city.

Perfetto, as they say in Italy.

That it would be a great fit was confirmed when I sent an email to book our spaces in a class, and the enthusiastic response was: Canada! We love Canada! If you bring us maple syrup, we will trade it for our olive oil.

Our kind of people indeed!

Majla, the brains behind the operation, picked us up in her car and drove us to an ancient farmhouse ("Most of the house is over a thousand years old, but the kitchen is only 850 years old," she explained, while we swallowed our New World tongues in shock.) En route, we talked about our families, our soccer-loving sons and why she encourages her son not to play soccer ("It's like a religion here - they end up as underwear models!") and what looked to us to be suicidal Vespa drivers. ("Fewer of them die than you would think. And each one dies only once.") She pointed out the lack of suburbs around Florence, how the line between city and country was abrupt. She talked about the care that has been taken by small villages to prevent urban sprawl that could destroy the land they depend upon for their olives. Passionate about preserving a culture and its food, Majla herself returned to Italy after a decade in the United States when she inherited a house with a tower. Now, after eleven years of juggling her business and her family, her enthusiasm has not diminished. She talked about the lower rates of depression in Italy, about how Italians mix work and pleasure - and how her business was an example of that. (She also talked about why she moved to the USA and what she missed about it: opportunities for her children, all-day breakfasts, efficiency, the ability to move around, cruise control.) She told us about real Italian olive oil - how the best of it is hand picked from steep slopes, pressed within 48 hours of picking, never heated (even though that increases the yield dramatically) so that the taste and healthful properties remain intact. She says that the olive oil we will take home with us is never sold overseas, that there is never enough even for the local families. All this we learn while negotiating winding woodland roads where fields and groves fall away from us into beautiful sunlit valleys.

Majla is the first person we have met in Italy who speaks fluent English and we ask her about the weather forecast, so we can plan our next few days. She laughs and says that weather in Italy is always "variable", influenced by the water that surrounds the country and the mountains that climb up its length.

We arrive at the ancient farmhouse and are greeted by its owners and their cat, who pounces each time the wind rustles the grass. Our fellow pasta-chefs-in-training have opted for the full day with the Accidental Tourist and are not yet back from the morning wine tasting. Majla sets us up at a stone table outside where we can watch the clouds stream past the hilltops and trace the road we have come from. She brings us a bottle of fresh red wine, two tumblers and a plate of bread drenched in olive oil and salt. She apologizes for starting late but we have not a single regret as we eat and drink the most delicious simple meal.

Finally the others arrive and we meet Alex, our young teacher. A musician by night, Alex shares tour duty with his father, which enables them both to stay in the region that is home to them. We begin to realize how important place is to Italians, all day breakfast notwithstanding.

We slip into the cool basement of the farmhouse and don aprons. There are ten of us: four Canadians, two British, and four Americans. Alex walks us through each step (I am sworn to secrecy about the process. And really you must go and try it yourself.) with good humour and good teaching. We laugh and make friends. Our first accomplishment is to make spinach-ricotta-parmesan ravioli and then we use the rest of our dough to make fettucine. Alex says we are quick learners.

Majla takes our pasta upstairs on trays to Christiana, the lady of the house and a cook among cooks. (A recipe she sends me later of one of the dishes she made for us says of basil, "For God's sake, do not use dried basil.")We talk and sip more wine from brilliant mismatched turquoise glass tumblers. We find seats around a large oval table that takes up much of this "new" kitchen. Christiana and Alex start us off with a zucchini frittata and a cauliflower dish as antipasti. There is much debate about which one is better - and no clear winner. ("Do people in Canada talk so much about food?" Majla wants to know later. We consider this and tell her some people do, but that our fallback topic is the weather.) This is followed by squares of pizza, and then comes our pasta: the fettucine has been tossed with the lightest tomato sauce, with a hint of olive oil and hot pepper, while the ravioli have been cooked and then rolled in butter melted with sage leaves. We are magnificent chefs - with Christiana's additions. There may be another course before Alex finally clears our plates away and washes them in the sink, but I cannot remember it. He takes orders for coffee and brings us tiny cups of espresso while Majla passes us bowls of frozen tiramisu.

We all bow down to Christiana who smiles. She loves to cook and loves having her cooking appreciated. Majla shows us gifts that have been sent to Christiana by her fans around the world. Christiana may appreciate the rasp the most, but I liked the little statue of Barack Obama.

On the way back to the city, I tell Majla we won't possibly be able to eat supper. She says that everyone always says that, but she suspects we will. She wants to know later, wants me to tell her when I email her some maple recipes (in exchange for Christiana's recipes she promises me). We pick up a couple of slices of pizza on our way back to where we are staying, but that night I am still too happily full to take more than a few bites.

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