“To really learn how to cook like a Tuscan, you must cook with a Tuscan nonna”, I said to Susan Van Allen, an American writer, whose interests are focused on Italy and women travels. Susan was born with Italian genes (her maternal grandparents came to the USA from Molise and Potenza). She grew up eating like an Italian - smelling lasagnas and listening to family dramas, which ignited a passion in her that inspired her to travel to Italy in 1976. Since then she has continued to explore the country and write about it in a popular guidebook 100 Places In Italy Every Woman Should Go.
In fact, when travelling around Italy, you do not need to be trained or work out, but just to open your senses wide and breathe: to listen to women chatting and arguing over ‘too-much-less-salt-in-pasta’, sniff the air as it fills with garlic, pepper and olive oil sizzling in the pan, contemplate gestures as simple as throwing a pinch of salt in water, to savour the outcome of such dramatic process… Susan approached me with such enthusiasm asking about a cookery class to arrange for her group of ladies. They were spending a week in the Chianti area in a luxury country resort enjoying visiting Florence and small towns, as well as olive picking during the harvest. There was not much to be unveiled to her around Italy and Tuscany, therefore I cast my card betting on ‘authenticity’ and ‘spontaneity’: cooking with nonnas like Italian do!
Cooking has now become a passion for many, from bloggers to housewives, searching for the perfect recipe and snap to share with fans. Nonetheless, the only authentic way to feel like a Tuscan and learn tricks, gestures and timing in cooking ‘alla Toscana’ is to elbow in with nonnas… being instructed, guided, advised and sometimes ‘kindly-slapped’, as if you were working in their kitchen on Sunday morning preparing for the big traditional dinner...
Susan welcomed Marisa and Piera as they stepped into the kitchen, which would turn into a cozy gourmet academy for a few hours. The pasta machines were placed, linen canvas to lay tagliatelle, tools and ingredients. Marisa and Piera are two gorgeous mamas and nonnas, some of the best examples of good-looking stylish Italian mature women, wearing pearl necklaces over their aprons, while working hard on the pasta dough. The seasonal menu included fresh pasta with tagliatelle tomato and rolled-bacon (read, ‘pancetta arrotolata’) and ravioli, with pumpkin filling. The group took a stand around the large table to start preparing fresh pasta and Susan wisely introduced them to the process and ingredients, though allowing herself a nook for try-out herself the roll-bend-and-flatten formula.
As if by magic, all the ladies were understanding each other with Piera and Marisa, who by means of gestures and over-articulation of words, taught their little toddlers’ to Italian cooking. It is unbelievable how easy it can be making yourself understood while cooking. The language of spoons, knives and skillful hands is stronger than any truthful tongue. Marisa, Piera and their team filled almost every surface of the kitchen with a layer of pasta, ready to become tagliatelle and ravioli. It was time to cheer up and enjoy a glass of wine. Despite what many people might think about Italians, we take cooking seriously. To Tuscan traditional mamas, this is a job and you do not drink, while on duty. Marisa whispered in my ear "Aren’t they tossing too much?".
All the ladies were now dancing harmoniously around the table, cutting, filling, folding and displaying ravioli on trays dusted with cornmeal so that they do not stick. Others were chatting with Marisa, peeking into the pot of sauce to taste it, to see if it needed salt. It was as if they had known each other for ages… When dinner was served the students gave Marisa and Piera a standing ovation. They were moved AND surprised: “Per cosi poco - for so little,” they asked. What comes naturally to these nonnas turned out to be a unique treasure for the American visitors. “This was my favorite night of the whole week,” one of them said.
So, here is my tip, when planning your travels to Italy: search for more authentic experiences, which allow you to discover the differences in cultures and to appreciate them, not pretending to be Italian, but try to understand the mentality of the people, according to their status, education and life. Authenticity appears in front of you in simple gestures, looks, accents and words, not in iconic pictures. So go ahead and meet up with people, greet them and eat…like Italians do!
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Susan Van Allen
The next appointment is for the 24th of December.