Cooking In Tuscany
Today was another amazing day. I woke up to a city washed with rain. The streets glistened in the early morning sun, and the fragrance of the roses and jasmine perfumed the cooler air. After a quick bus ride to the pick up place, I stopped for an espresso and croissant. The coffee here is unbelievably flavourful. The driver picked us up and drove for about 25 minutes to Villa Pandolfino. However, the kitchen we were in was not in the villa proper but in the converted soldiers quarters, as this was a place that had originally protected a bridge. Even more specific, where we cooked was in the converted stables.
We were greeted by Chef Luciano Piacenza who was an interesting and animated character. The most obvious trait about him, other than his quips of wisdom - a chicken without skin is like a lady without breasts - was his passion for food. His joy of creating emanated from him. He greeted us with fresh coffee and cantuccini, and before too much longer the vino rosso di casa was opened.
As we cooked, he explained what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how to make food more flavourful. The best thing though was how we could reduce dishes as we cooked.
We started with our dolce - tarte ricotta e cioccolata. Always begin preparing your dolce and your carni first as they take longest. We made the pasta for the crust and then made the ricotta filling. So quick and easy. One of the ladies had brought along cedro, a large lemon with mild zest, which just happened to be what was needed. He had the candied version, but nothing is as good as the fresh.
After that was in the oven, we began the polo ell'etruscan. Chop the chicken - this is where the comment about the skin came in, add the wine and the raisins, and all the wonderful ingredients and place into the baking dish. When it is almost done, remove add the olives and place back into the closed oven. By this point, we were into another bottle of wine and the aromas wafted through the kitchen.
Fresh spinach and ravioli were next. Pasts fresca - treat it like a woman - tenderly and the trick for ravioli to make it finer - is to reduce the eggs and to add four half egg shells of water. He was amazing. He would pour the ingredients by eye and feel, then show us on the scale that he had the exact measurement. That is talent - and 30 years of being a chef.
Risotto has never been easier. The trick is to create new stock that is hot, to cook the onions in a bit of stock til they are dry, then add the oil. That way the gas of the onion escapes and the taste and fragrance is much more delicate. Stir in the rice and add the zuchinni flowers, and arrange it well. Slowly adding enough stock to make one width of a finger over the rice ensures that you don't have to stir the rice so it won't break and it doesn't stick. Add the saffron, cook until done. Add the parmisan cheese and there it is. In just twenty minutes!
As this was happening, we also made the crostini toscano with chicken liver - which was horrible at a restaurant the night before. He explained how to do it to create amazing flavour. So we did - and the crowning touch was to drizzle honey on the pate after it was put on the crostini. More wine was opened. More stories were told. We talked and compared our travel highlights and tips.
In about four hours we created five amazing dishes and now was time to sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labour. So more wine. Toasts. One fabulous dish after another and all the timing was perfect. However by then, the driver was anxiously waiting to take the few of us back to Firenze. So we said our good-byes, exchanged email and facebook information. It is amazing how good food, great wine, and awesome experiences bring together strangers that leave as friends.