For centuries painters, writers, artists and musicians have eulogized about the riches of this part of the world that offers everything from famous art, architecture, magnificent landscapes to wonderful food and wine. Famous Italian food writer Ada Boni says, “Purity is the keynote to Tuscan cooking and whereas elsewhere in Italy, cooking may be said to be a passion, in Tuscany it is an art.” Tuscan cooking simply does not work without the freshest and choicest of raw materials. The Wickedfood Cooking School team travelled to Tuscany in search for ideas for their Italian cookery classes and teambuilding cooking classes.
Tuscany covers a large region made up of seacoast and hills, plains and mountains, cities, suburbs and villages, and all populated by individuals who impart their own personal interpretation on local dishes handed down through the generations. However it is more the inland with its venerable history, where the end result of a meal will depend on the products of the season, the traditions of place, the intuition of the cook, and the knowledgeable joy of the participant.
To quote Marcella Hazan, one of Italy’s foremost food writers “The essential quality of Italian food can be defined as fidelity to its ingredients, to their taste, colour, shape and freshness. In the Italian kitchen, ingredients are not treated as promising but untutored elements that need to be corrected through long and intricate manipulation and refined by the ultimate polish of a sauce. The methods of Italian cooking are not intended to improve an ingredient’s character, but rather to allow it as much free and natural development as the tasteful balance of a dish will permit. The taste of Italian cooking is discreetly measured but frank. Flavours are present and undisguised, but never overbearing. Pastas are never swamped by sauce. Portions are never so swollen in size as to tax our capacity for enjoyment.”
However, one tends to get the impression that the Tuscans and especially the Florentines have a tinge of superiority about their gastronomy – and quite rightly so as history indicates that they did after all teach the rest of the world to cook. They not only lay claim to this achievement, but as a matter of fact, the three-pronged fork was also invented by them to make it possible to eat spaghetti in a polite way, and not with the hands as was done on the street by the common folk. To add a third string to their bow, it was as early as the sixteenth century that the Florentines already started their search for the lightest possible, the most healthy, the most elegant and simplistic of cooking – a trend that has continued to this present day.
One can not possibly discuss the foods of Italy without one’s mind turning to pasta at some point. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Tuscans don’t eat spaghetti or commercially produced dry pasta, of course they do, but the tradition here is fresh pasta, a tradition centuries old. Pappardelle (wide, fresh noodles) is a speciality, Tortelli della Vigilia (fresh pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta) is probably the best known, but as fresh pasta is so versatile it can take on dozens of different guises eg Tortelli di Zucca (pumpkin filled tortelli), as well as Tagliatelle al Sugo di Carne (fresh ribbon noodles with meat sauce) and many, many more.
Le Verdure, vegetables, even more than pasta, are the cornerstone of Tuscan cooking. An absolute must-see when in Florence, is the indoor market, a huge two-story iron and glass art-nouveau structure, across from the church of San Lorenzo. The variety and quality of the vegetables is awe-inspiring to say the least. All the stand keepers vie with one another to display their produce in the most beautiful way imaginable. The many different types of tomatoes, wild field greens, wild mushrooms, the freshness of the meat, fish and fowl is enough to make any cook’s head spin and run for your apron.
During our visit to a cooking school in Florence, a recipe using radicchio was discussed at one of the cooking classes. Radicchio, best known outside of Italy is the one with a tight, round, cabbage-like head of crisp, white-veined purple leaves, and extremely bitter in taste. To add to the confusion however, on visiting the fresh produce market, one would find a number of other greens also called radicchio, with some bearing no visible resemblance to the other. They all belong to the chicory family though and share, in varying degrees, the intriguing bitterness that is so agreeable to an Italian palate. All of them are extremely good in salads but can also be grilled or baked on their own, used in a pasta sauce or risotto or braised with a roast.
The use of olive oil is essential to Tuscan cooking as it is all over Italy. Despite the poverty of the Tuscan soil, olive oil is the most precious product of this region. In upper Chianti, most olive groves are planted on hillsides at altitudes ranging from 350m to 450m, which is considered unusually high for a Mediterranean fruit. The best olive oil comes from fruit that has been left to ripen on the tree, but care has to be taken that an early frost doesn’t nip the fruit. On small individual farms harvesting is done by hand, unlike southern climes where nets are placed under the trees, and the ripe black fruit shaken from the trees to drop onto the nets. Oil from hand-picked olives cultivated in upper Chianti pressed in the traditional way, is relatively rare and expensive, but the delicious golden-green oil is considered the best in the world. The oil is fresh and fruity both to the nose and on the palate, and has a pleasingly peppery aftertaste that softens with time, characteristic of oil pressed from under-ripe olives.
There are still so many other superb ingredients and aspects that contribute toward the making of this honest, but at the same time, the ultimate in sophistication, and civilized of cuisine’s. One can learn much from the Italian approach to life and cooking. Marcella Hazan on the cooking in her country, “What it requires is generosity. You must give liberally of time, of patience, of the best raw materials. What it returns is worth all you have to give.”
Great Italian recipes
Wickedfood cooking school runs cooking classes throughout the year at its purpose-built cooking studios. Classes are run in the mornings and evenings 7 days a week (subject to a minimum of 12 people). The venue is also popular for corporate events and private functions – team building cooking classes, birthdays, kitchen teas, and dinner parties with a difference.
Our classes are hands-on, where every person gets to participate in the preparation of the dishes. They are also a lot of fun where you not only learn new skills, but get to meet people with similar interests. For corporate groups and teambuilding cooking classes these classes are a novel way of creating staff interaction or entertaining clients.