Cooking in Chianti

By Pam Collacott
    IF YOU FIND YOURSELF IN THE CHIANTI region of Tuscany, check out Tutti a Tavola. It's a unique cooking school experience that you will remember with pleasure long after your visit with the four wonderful women who share the teaching duties. We heard about this school from Canadian sommelier Debbie Trenholm. A few years ago she spent time helping with the grape harvest at Croce de Bibbiano, a small winery near San Gimignano. The mother of one of the owners of this winery is Lele Vitali, one of the four teachers at Tutti a Tavola. On Debbie's advice we booked an agriturismo apartment at Croce de Bibbiano for a week and a cooking class with Lele and friends at Tutti a Tavola. They describe themselves as Tuscan mammas and women 'of a certain age.' Lifelong friends and in some cases, relatives, they launched Tutti a Tavola several years ago at the request of an Australian tourist who was impressed with their knowledge and enthusiasm for the foods and flavours of their corner of Tuscany. Since then they have taught visitors how to cook Tuscan-style in their classic country farm homes in three Chianti classico villages: Radda, Castellini and Gaiole. Every year the mammas travel to Australia and North America, captivating everyone they meet with their many stories, fabulous food and great sense of humour. They have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune in the US, The Sunday Times in Australia and many other media outlets. They recently launched an app, THE MAMMAS. We enjoyed the scenic winding 45-minute drive through the hilly Tuscan countryside from our apartment to Lele's lovely stone farmhouse near the town of Radda. She greeted us warmly and after a short visit, drove us to our destination: Mimma Ferrando's fabulous farmhouse overlooking a lush treed valley. Our class was held in Mimma's kitchen. On one wall was a huge rustic fireplace. On the hearth were bottles of wine and olive oil from Ciona, the vineyard and farm of mamma Franca Gatteschi, who joined us partway through the class and tutored us on the intricacies of her wines and olive oil. We donned aprons then sat around a long wooden table under a heavily beamed ceiling, watching Mimma and Lele as they guided us through the recipes and chatted about their much loved regional cuisine. Tutti a Tavola translates to 'Everyone to the table' and that's where we spent our time, first cooking then enjoying our meal. Our menu was simple Tuscan fare. We started with Torta di Cipolle, a freeform onion tart with olive oil pastry. The main course consisted of Tagliatelle al Ragu (homemade fettucine pasta with a classic Bolognese sauce, Scaloppine al Limone (veal scallops with lemon) and Finocchi Brasati (fennel sautéed with olive oil, onions and parsley). Dessert was simple: unsweetened yogurt mixed with whipped cream and sugar and served with fresh berries. The flavour reminded me of a cross between French fromage blanc and créme frâiche. If time had permitted, it would have been chilled in a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl to drain, then carefully unmolded and garnished with berries and peaches or a fresh fruit sauce. Lele and Mimma started the ragu with odori, the traditional trinity of vegetables essential in many dishes in every Tuscan kitchen: onion, celery and carrots. So important is this trinity that in the past, if a housewife couldn't afford these staple vegetables, greengrocers were obliged to provide them for free. We chopped the vegetables using a mezzaluna, a doublebladed hand chopper. Lele told us that a mezzaluna and wooden cutting board were given to every young woman when she married. As the wooden cutting board became visibly worn and a depression formed, the young woman was recognized as a good cook. While our ragu simmered, Lele taught us to make pasta. She prefers to roll and cut it by hand because the rougher surface holds sauce better than machine rolled. It was a treat to watch these women move about the room, conferring with each other (sometimes so passionately it sounded like arguing) and entertaining us with their stories of travel and food. By the time dinner was ready to serve in the dining room, we were all fast friends. Had the weather been warmer, we would have dined on the covered patio overlooking the hills. Our meal was delicious and convivial with much laughter and good fellowship all around and many hugs when it was time to say our goodbyes. As it can be challenging to drive the winding roads after dark and after such a fine meal, you may choose to stay with Mimma or Franca in one of their comfortable B&Bs. This would also make it easier to take advantage of the multiple-day cooking classes that they offer.



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