There are many perks that come with working for Flavours, one, not least is to sample some of the holidays that we offer, so as you can imagine I jumped at the chance to leave my office role with the company and spend a few days cooking up a storm in the Tuscan countryside! All in the name of research!
The moment my plane touched down at Pisa Galileo Galilei airport I had a good feeling, the plane doors opened and there I was stood in the Tuscan sun - suddenly the grey Edinburgh har from which I had left just two hours ago seemed a long way away.
As I walked into the arrivals lounge I was met by the Flavours driver Nicola - he took my bags and escorted me to the van for what was to be one of the most picturesque 'airport transfers' I have ever taken! We snaked through vineyards, past crumbling roman viaducts and medieval hill towns - little had changed from the days of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli.
As we drove the roads became narrower and narrower until we reached the silence and solitude of Villa Segalato - the home of Flavours of Italy in Tuscany.
As I met the other guests Simone made us welcome by pouring a glass of ice cold Prosecco, somehow the conversation seemed to flow very well! My group was much more varied than I could have ever imagined, we had a dietitian, a physiotherapist, a farmers wife, a retired civil servant, their was plenty to chat about while we sat down for a dinner of locally cured hams on a bed of rocket with pecorrino cheeses and a main course of blue cheese and grated pear tagliatelle.
After a dip in the pool and a spot of sun bathing it was time for our first cooking lesson. We met with our charismatic chef Simone in the kitchen as he showed us how to make Zuppa di Farro, a typical Tuscan dish of Berlotti beans and Spelt. Our chef Simone tells us that - "You can learn a lot of the Italian History by looking into this dish..." We also marinated chicken to make the dish Pollo Cacciatora in rosemary and other herbs from the estate, many freshly picked by Simone that morning.
After the lesson we had an hour free to wonder the estate and read as we wished. I chose to take out my watercolours and sketch some of the rolling hills and olive groves that lay below us from the terrace at Villa Segalato.
As I sat down for dinner with my fellow cooks Edinburgh and the real world seemed so far away, I felt I had known these people for months as we ate the fruits of our labour and sipped the best red wine I had tasted well into the small hours!
The next morning, after a night of completely uninterrupted sleep (was it the silence of the Tuscan countryside or the red wine?) I met the rest of the group outside on the terrace for breakfast. Luckily I had mustered up the appetite to deal with fresh croissants, muesli, plum and orange preserves, toast, natural yoghurt and an amazing moist Tuscan cake (which I am yet to get the recipe from Simone for). This is definitely a holiday for the food lover!
After breakfast we assembled in the kitchen for our first lesson in pasta making. Making pasta is definitely a slow food process! I've decided since coming back to the UK that it would be wise and money saving to cancel my gym membership and make fresh pasta every day - serious stamina was needed for this!
We made the pasta into lasagna sheets to form the basis of Lasagne di Zucchine, a delicious meat free lasagna. We cut the remaining strips of pasta to make tagliatelle nests for use in this evenings starter. Simone taught us how to make the perfect Bechemel sauce and Ragú, a perfect staple for those quick simple meals when back home in the UK!
After the lesson I felt inspired to really take on Simone's philosophy of 'Slow Food' , we spent an hour or two relaxing on the terrace discussing our own recipes and swapping tips while sipping a crisp dry white wine from the Forci estate, preparing for what was to be a truly delicious lunch!
After lunch we set off for a tour of a local vineyard 40 klm away from Villa Segalato. The route took us through some of Tuscany's most inspiring countryside, we even passed through Collodi, the birthplace of the Pinocchio, which I learnt was the best selling book after the bible when it was first published!
The Vineyards owner, Marino Pannetoni, showed us his estate and explained his enviable life living up on a Tuscan hillside drinking wine all day - I must say he looked very good off it, at a sprightly 70 years of age! After a tasting session of three reds and three whites from the vineyard we headed back to the villa for dinner - yes more food!
We were met at the villa by Simone and the scent of our evening meal which we had cooked earlier that day. Simone had also prepared a slow food tasting where we learnt the principles of slow food and the importance of using local producers or as Collette (the dietitian in our group) called it food with no air miles!
As a repeat of the evening before we sat down and ate and ate and ate and drank another few bottles of fabulous local wine. For dessert Simone had prepared a delicious Crostata di Fruita (Fruit Crostata) which was just divine!
By the final day I felt I had mastered a fair few recipes from Simone, however there was still a lot to learn. We had one final cooking lesson where we got to grips with traditional spinach and ricotta ravioli, a classic tuscan maincourse of rabbit and patatoes and that old italian favourite - Tiramasu. After taste testing all of the above for lunch we headed to Lucca for a day of shopping a sight seeing (and a chance to buy some of the cooking gadgets that Simone had shown us in the kitchen!).
Lucca is a fascinating city, and is simply charming - the city never really feels touristy, enclosed by it's own walls which have now been turned into an elegant 12 m high garden, perfect for a passeggiata. Almost completely closed off to traffic, the city centre had a cosmopolitan air, the cobbled streets made for an ideal stroll while picking up souvenirs of Acacia honey and Extra Virgin Olive oil. At 8pm I met the rest of the group for a brief peroni before heading to a contemporary Luccase restaurant for a meal - for the last night we let someone else do the cooking! I felt thoroughly relaxed and well fed and almost ready to head back to reality!