Living and eating like the locals, sort of...

Trip Start Jan 14, 2010
Trip End Sep 02, 2010

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Podere le Rose, Toscana Mia Cooking School

Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Toscana Mia Cooking School
in Poggio San Polo, near Radda in Chianti, Tuscany

Arrived around 6:30pm to the tiny hamlet of Poggio San Polo – population 35. The nearest village is Gaiole in Chianti, and not far from that is Radda in Chianti.  Here the two sisters, Simonetta and Paola along with their family, share a rambling country house complete with guest rooms and two full kitchens and a wood fire oven that holds 20 pizzas (which they are loathe to fire up for a small group).  The ladies have been sharing their talents in cooking and language for over 20 years in Florence and Tuscany and lately, they have been focusing more on their cooking schools at this house in Chianti more than their language classes in Florence.  Both come from a background of language training, professional translation and teaching as well as cooking instructors and local tour guides.

At the rail station in Montevarchi I was greeted by Michele our driver and two other students (two sisters from Australia who area bundle of energy, excitement and sweetness) that arrived shortly after I did from Florence.  Michele drove us gracefully through the hills for our 45 minute ride deep into the countryside of Tuscany.  I would write that it would be difficult to imagine the imagery of the hillsides in Tuscany, but if you are an American woman of the age group 30 - 60, you have been exposed by novel or movie to this exquisite countryside and Hollywood has done a poor job.  The view alone makes you want to call in your resignation, sell your house and by something 500 years old.  Oops, I think someone already did that!!

After introductions and an initial glass of wine, we joined the rest of the family for a simple meal of crostini, pasta with eggplant and tomatoes, roasted meats with tapenade of olive, garlic and parsley and some incredible home made gelato with a sour cherry drizzle for dolce. I waddled to bed and slept like a Tuscan log.

Breakfast at 8:30am, class begins an hour later. No problem waking up on time – two young girls getting ready for school in an ancient house will certainly help you rise and shine! Two other students were supposed to join us today, but they experienced car problems, so they are delayed till tomorrow's afternoon class.

So, it's just the three of us – the two perky Aussies and me – the Californian.  The menu for today’s class includes some very classic Toscana recipes.  Ribollita, Focaccia con patate, Scaloppine, Panna Cotta and Pinzimonio (Italian version of crudités).  I had made one version or another of most of the recipes and the instructions were quite basic. 

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean anything bad by that.  What I do mean is that the ladies were clear, the recipes were simple and it was easy to see that I could do this again and again all by myself in my little kitchen in Capitola.  No special magic, nor exotic equipment needed.  And did I mention how it tasted?  If you have never had Ribollita and fresh Focaccia, you my friend, have not heard the angels.  Somehow for all my study via books and internet (that big electronic cookbook), I missed some really simple keys to making this stuff.  Now, I know the secrets.

Speaking of equipment, this is one way Toscana Mia reaches me – me, one of the little, simple people when it comes to cooking.  I somewhat expected a state of the art, gourmet, richly adorned kitchen with all the most modern equipment.  When we floated into their kitchen that first afternoon, not only was I seduced by the wonderful aromas and colors, but I was also put at ease because it looked (a little) like my kitchen!  I was in my element and at home.  Va Bene!

Toscana Mia certainly has recieved critical acclaim, if not popular acclaim, and judging on the numerous phone calls the ladies fielded while we were there, they don't want for guests.  All the same, I have to admit that they made me feel like I was the most important student they had recieved in quite some time.  And, I love attention!!

After stirring and kneading and cooking for 3 plus hours we sat down for a luncheon fit for a queen.  Personally, I am not a plate cleaner.  My dad always (accurately) accused me of having "eyes that were bigger than my stomach".  I rarely go for second helpings and even more rarely finish my first. 

Each meal, except breakfast, consisted of an appetizer, primi course (soup or pasta), meat and vegetables then dessert.  I can't explain it, and true hunger had nothing to do with it, but I managed seconds on most courses each day.  God Bless the inventor of elastic waistband pants.

When the Aussie ladies took the afternoon to visit a nearby village, I found a dirt road and walked down the hill as far as I dared, only to force myself to walk up.  Afterall, I had many more courses to go before I was done.

The second and third day of the cooking school were a repeat of the first day - 4 or 5 courses prepared by the students overseen by Paola and then consumed by the whole family - which included Paola's husband and two girls plus their Grandfather.  New students joined us every day and our little tribe of 3 swelled to 10.  It was joyfully electric - a few in the class had little technical interest (one gal from the midwest admitted that she only cooked once a week, and then ate that same massive dish all week - Paola, on hearing this announced "One Man a week is fine, but One Meal???  Nooooooooo").

The house itself was amazing.  The family purchased it 30 or so years ago as a summer house and only have lived their fulltime over the last several years.  Staircase rise and fall in several places and I would have a blast exploring it - the family bedroom part of the house is separated from the guest part and the family bedrooms seem to have a path to the lower kitchen and the garden.  The upper guest bedroom - where my Aussie cousins stayed - was sweet, but had an unusual collection of spooky dolls behind glass which, over a glass of grappa, we concocted scary stories about.

Each guest bedroom also came with a cat.  My tabby laid out on my pillow and made sure that I knew whose bed it really was.  Upstairs, in lower Australia, the cat hide beneath the bed until the girls were safely asleep then terrorized them.  It was histerical.

I loved my time with Paola, Simonetta, the family and my fellow students and highly recommend Toscana Mia as a wonderful splurge.  My Ribbolitta will never be the same.

Michele collected my Aussie cousins and I on Friday afternoon and delivered us safely back to the station.  When I arrived in Chiusi, Brian was there to greet me and take me back home to Casa Garuda.

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