Friday, 16 March 2012

A Cooking Holiday: Finally Picking Leaves From A Tuscan Garden

A Cooking Holiday; a secret dream I had always harboured. I watched every Italian chef on television enthusing about the local markets and producers in Tuscany and even curled up in bed with my latest treasure (a book, you understand!) and dozed off to an imagined scents of a culinary paradise.

There’s something about the smell of fresh basil, crushed slightly and pressed to the nose that allows me to mentally exit my current northern life. I am immediately transported and can imagine tearing this evocative herb over freshly made pasta, drizzling extra virgin olive oil, adding a twist of lemon and fresh black pepper then settling down to lunch with a glass of wine, after a hard morning’s work on my imagined Cooking Holiday.

Yes, I know, an oxymoron perhaps; how could a Cooking Holiday possibly be hard work? But you know what I mean, intense concentration, the slight competition as you surreptitiously peer over the rim of your glasses to see just how other people are coping, rolling and shaping their pasta, that kind of hard work!

My love affair with Italian cooking began years ago when I started collecting cookery books after working in the kitchen department of Debenhams in Oxford St., London. I began with Elizabeth David’s Italian Food and was incredibly excited to find a copy of Leaves From Our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, a book written way back in 1901. The texts were simply magical and had the capacity to send me to Italy wherever I happened to be as I read. Perhaps Jamie’s no-nonsense,’ chuck it in, squeeze a lemon with your hands approach’ made me feel slightly less intimidated, but having been fiddling with all things Italian for years(!) it seemed right to finally consider booking myself a Cooking Holiday; the problem was, making a choice between Tuscany, Sicily, Puglia or Umbria..hmnn decision, decisions.

Meanwhile I read The Food of Love, Anthony Capella, Under The Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes and Extra Virgin: Amongst The Olive Groves of Liguria by Annie Hawes and between pages I would be greedily nipping out to make myself a delicate Italian snack until I decided enough was enough. Fed up with being a voyeur it was time to strike out on my very own Cooking Holiday sojourn and that, dear readers is exactly what I did, dreaming that I might meet Antonio Carluccio at the airport. Alas that aspect of the fantasy remains unfulfilled but everything else far exceeded my expectations of what a Cooking Holiday might offer.

From the moment I arrived, I knew my hunch had been correct; it was my spiritual home. Once I donned my green apron, poured jewelled local olive oil into my pasta and began to mix by hand, I was in heaven, never mind a Cooking Holiday. The trays of ravioli filled with delicious treats were like tiny pockets of treasure and I knew all the students felt the same; it’s extraordinary how something so seemingly ordinary takes on the love, aroma and passion of the Italian countryside just by being made under the Tuscan sun in a stunning villa.

I shall never forget the experience; my Cooking Holiday was a blend of relaxation, fun and hands-on learning, complete with my very own chef, Antonio. Ok I lie, I shared him with seven other students, two of whom have become close friends, but still, I picked up a tremendous number of tips and adored visiting the suppliers who pay so much attention to quality, infusing everything with their passion and skill.

Yes, I am still addicted to Italian recipe books but my Cooking Holiday has added another dimension and if I close my eyes I can still sniff that Tuscan kitchen and taste the heady flavours of Italy. I may well do it all over again another year.

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