Monday, October 31, 2011

Pasta in Toscana

Lisa and I love to eat.  And to cook.  Both the eating and the cooking, however, have taken on larger roles in our lives in the last year or so for a couple of reasons.  First, eating -- as an activity and a means of sustenance -- seem more important and less compartmentalized here in Europe and two, we've gravitated more toward the 'real food' and sustained agriculture views articulated by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like.  I remember reading somewhere (probably the NY Times) that Americans spend a much lower proportion of their income on food relative to their European peers and that this may not, actually, be a good thing.  Now don't get me wrong -- I'm certainly not implying that food insecurity and going to bed hungry is in any way a good thing -- but when an entire generation has been raised on mass-produced, low-cost, high-sugar, high-sodium, barely-qualifies-as-food (Doritos!), you develop a new appreciation for what you put into your body (and how you do it) when you move to a part of the world where eating is an experience -- not just a means to an end.  For example, when you dine out here in Austria (and the surrounding countries) and reserve a table, you essentially own that table for the entire evening.  You can enjoy a leisurely three- or four-course meal over the course of a few hours with no pressure, implied or not, to leave as soon as you finish.  Turning the table as quickly and frequently as possible isn't (yet?) the predominant restaurant business model.  Digression aside, though, the dining & shopping experiences Lisa and I are having here in Austria coupled with our changing views on eating and it how it figures into our lives (and that of the larger world) have dovetailed into expanding how and what we cook -- and eat.  And we do that by way of cooking classes. 

The first class we took together was in Istanbul -- a single evening affair where we learned to make, among other items, red lentil soup, imam bayildi (eggplant braised in olive oil with onion & tomato), and dolmasi (vine leaves stuffed with minced meat).  In the second class we took, however, we upped the ante:  we registered for a two-day Italian cooking course in the Chianti region of Tuscany where, in addition to the cooking, you also stay with the Italian family in their house out in the Tuscan countryside.  The cooking school is called Toscana Mia, is run by two fifty-something sisters (Simonetta & Paola), and has been featured in several travel publications, Budget Travel among them.  We arrived late one afternoon, deposited our things, wandered around for an hour or so, then settled in for a "light" dinner:  several types of cured ham (man on pork love!), an array of cheeses, salad, and -- of course -- Chianti to drink. 
The Tuscan countryside
The next two days were structured essentially the same:  breakfast with the family in the morning followed by 3-4 hours of hands-on cooking with the instructors preparing 4-5 different recipes.  Lunch was what the class prepared.  We prepared many dishes, although the standouts were the bruschetta, made-from-scratch spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli, roasted pork, tiramisu, salsa al aglione (spicy tomato-based sauce), and biscotti.  This was an Italian food-lovers paradise. 
Tiramisu batter:  a dollop for me, a dollop for the pan... 
Mad tomato chopping skillz!
Rolling out pasta dough prior to...
...running it through some sort of pasta-dough flattening contraption...
...before cutting and folding it into spinach-and-ricotta cheese ravioli!
Day one was also a birthday celebration (of sorts) since there were a handful of us in the class with birthdays in early-October.  A round of peach-gelato infused Prosecco for everyone!
Lunch was followed by an excursion to a winery...
I don't think I'd be very productive if I were a vintner...
"If God forbade drinking, would he have made wine so good?"  ~Cardinal Richeleu
Day two:
Lisa is the more experienced, skilled, and resourceful cook between us...
...whereas maybe I should stick to eating.
"You may have mocked me before, made-from-scratch Pici pasta, but you're no match for me now!"
Lisa and I posing with our Italian/Tuscan cooking guides at the end of the two days...
"We have confidence in your future cooking endeavors, Lisa, although Clint we aren't so sure about."

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