May 1, 2013 |
MIscellaneous Wine Fun! , Wine & Food Pairings, Wine Country Travel |
Cooking Classes in Umbria
National Geographic's list of the Top Ten Cookery Schools in Italy describes the schools this way: "The locations are glorious, and the cuisine is exceptionally rich and varied. Up and down the Italian peninsula, schools teach you how to cook traditional dishes the authentic local way." [From Food Journey of a Lifetime 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe.] It's not surprising that Alla Madonna del Piatto is on this list, nor that the charming bed & breakfast was discovered by the press long ago. Umbria is being discovered by Americans who love Italian regional cuisine, as Tuscany was when Frances Mayes published her bestseller about Tuscan life and cooking.
Glorious location--check! Alla Madonna del Piatto rests in an enormous meadow, verdant green in springtime and edged with flowers, with a panoramic view of Assisi's towers, churches and the valley floor below. Rich and varied cuisine--check! Proprietor Letizia Mattiacci selects the freshest seasonal produce to create luscious dishes fragrant from garlic, artisanal cheeses and extra virgin olive oil. Schools teach you how to cook--check! Surprisingly, it was the men in our group who were the first to roll up their sleeves and try their hand at rolling pasta and finishing the plating. Authentic, local--check! Letizia is a native Umbrian who returned with her husband Ruurd to renovate the farmhouse and create their welcoming retreat after careers as entomologists. The saga of their endeavor to wade through Italy's infamous bureaucracy is a fascinating read on her blog.
I'm on my own food and wine journey of a lifetime, starting with VinItaly in Verona at the beginning of March, through my stay in Montepulciano studying Italian and sampling Tuscan cuisine, through this stay at Alla Madonna del Piatto, through a visit with my Italian friend Luciana--an amazing cook, to going on the Touring & Tasting cruise to Greece and Turkey aboard Celebrity, with the fabulous on-board cuisine.
Our class began in the village of Santa Maria degli Angeli dominated by a Basilica of the same name. In a store of local food products, we tasted olive oils, cheeses, prosciutto, wild boar sausage, truffle pesto, sweets, and liqueur made from olive leaves. Letizia was a storehouse of information, beginning with one of the staples of Italian cooking. At the food pavilion of VinItaly, I discovered that olive oil comes in a wide range of tastes from simply buttery to piquant, depending on the varietal of the tree. Letizia had us try a grassy, mild oil and a more peppery one. However, these were made from the same variety of tree, but 25 km apart, proving that, like wine, olive oil is terroir-driven as well as varietally distinct. She cautioned us to always buy extra virgin or virgin olive oil since it is "cold-pressed". Regular olive oil is extracted from the leftovers from the first pressing, using hot water in the best case, and using strong solvents like hexane in most cases.
I didn't realize that olive oil in Italy has a printed expiration date on the label. If properly stored, you can still use it for five years but the flavor and the green color present from chlorophyll will have disappeared after 18 months. Use this oil for cooking and use your best, fresh oil for "finishing" by drizzling a bit on pasta, bruschetta, and vegetables right before serving. Check for the DOP certification on the labels of the best Italian olive oils, which ensures producers have followed strict production regulations to guarantee the quality of the oil. I thought vineyards require patience, since it takes several years after planting for vines to produce wine quality grapes. The variety of olive trees they are planting take 30 years, so the trees Letizia and her husband are planting on their land are for their daughter to enjoy.
We sampled balsamic vinegar, aged 10 and 12 years . Commercial balsamic is made by adding caramel and possibly chemicals to regular vinegar; true balsalmic is made by fermenting grape juice (must) and aging it in a succession of barrels made from different woods such as oak, juniper, ash , and maple. If you see anything in the ingredients list other than must, it is not authentic balsamic. I bought a bottle of 30-year-old balsamic that is thick, syrupy and dense with flavor. Try top quality balsamic vinegar drizzled on grilled salmon.
Back at Alla Madonna del Piatto, Letizia showed us how to make the focaccia and the regional pasta called strangozzi in Assisi and pici in Montepulciano. She marinated the broiled asparagus in olive oil and pressed garlic, then let us roll and cut the pasta. After pressing the focaccia into the pan and adding rosemary and caramelized onion, she set on top of the stove to rise. Meanwhile, we made zabaglione and macerated fresh berries in Vin Santo for the tiramisù. The pasta was boiled for only a minute in heavily salted water. Letizia instructed us that "it should taste like the sea"--about 1 teaspoon salt per quart. The marinated asparagus was cut into bite-sized pieces and stirred in a saucepan with about 2 cups of freshly made ricotta. The pasta was quickly strained without rinsing and dumped into the saucepan along with a couple cups of grated Parmesan and three ladles of the pasta cooking water. The cheese melted into a creamy sauce--no cream added--with a enticing seasoning and aroma of garlic.
The pasta with puttanesca sauce was made in a similar way, with whole black olives, capers, Italian red chile peppers and chopped tomatoes. Letizia admonished that the noodles should always be combined with the sauce in the pan, then plated and drizzled with olive oil. "If someone serves you sauce ladled over the top of the pasta, get up right away and go out of there because that is not the way pasta is served." The warm, juicy olives were sensational in the spicy sauce.
After our cooking, we sat down to a convivial meal that started with local antipasti of green olives, homemade bread, Parmesan and prosciutto with local red and white wine, followed by both pastas, the focaccia and the delicious dessert, made with layers of Savoiardi cookies, zabaglione custard and the macerated fruit. When Letizia makes the traditional coffee tiramisù, she dips the cookies in expresso before assembling the dessert, letting it sit for a few hours for the Vin Santo to infuse into the cookies.
Alla Madonna del Piatto has five lovely guest rooms with handmade linens and radiant heat floors. The property is green, with solar water and electricity, plus a furnace to contribute to the heating of the water. Surrounded by fields on the hill above Assisi, you will find tranquility and friendliness. As Letizia says, "if my guests are not happy, then I'm not happy." Cooking classes are twice a week, on weekdays and dishes change with the seasonal local produce. If you picture yourself on their veranda, under grape arbor, sipping wine and soaking up the view, visit incampagna.com for more information.
Try one of Letizia's recipes:
Duck Breast in a Rosemary, Balsamic and Citrus Marinade
Spaghetti with Salmon and Brandy