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A Taste of Tuscany

Florence School Teaches Culture through Cuisine

In September my husband and I spent two weeks in Florence-one of the most pleasant times of the year to visit one of the most beautiful places in the world-learning about Italy in a way that I highly recommend. In the Centro Koine program Pane, Vino, e Lingua (Bread, Wine, and Language), the emphasis is on sensual Italy. Call it cultural immersion with your mouth as the guide.

Koine operates PVL in conjunction with the Enoteca de Giraldi, a tasteful wine bar on the ground floor of the Palazzo Borghese, a 16th century palace in the center of old Florence that also houses the language school.

Each day began with a 4-hour language class. Neither of us knew much more than musical terms and what we had gleaned from repeated viewings of The Godfather, so we knew we'd be starting from scratch. Luckily, Koine has 20-plus years of experience in teaching newbies, and it shows. I have taken many intensive language courses, but I have never encountered a better method for teaching beginners.

We dived headlong into language classes peppered liberally with real-life applications. On the first day the teachers took us on a tour of Florence. Knowing that we would have ample opportunity to explore the tourist sites, they took us instead to places we would actually need to find-the post office, the pharmacy, the market-and taught us the survival words to function there. Another morning our highly enthusiastic teacher, Cosetta, took us to the market for a scavenger hunt-forcing us to find out what produce was in season and learn things like the difference between proscuitto crudo and proscuitto cotto. All the while we were forced to interact with regular Italians-the key for building skills and confidence.

That emphasis on immersion continued in the cooking classes, held in the afternoon. On our first day, we accompanied our teacher, Lucia, a delightful culinary wizard, around Florence to learn the best place to buy the staples. As we walked, she shared the secrets that only a lifelong Florentine would know-the best gelato, the best pizza, the best cooking supplies. We felt like VIPs.

The school teaches the culture through the cuisine, so with every dish we prepared Lucia offered the history and secrets of the preparation and ingredients-in Italian and English. She also made sure that we kept busy cooking-while she passed along gems of Italian slang and kitchen know-how. We made dishes ranging from a classic spicy tomato sauce to Tripe Florentine to tiramisu-enough dishes to make our own "essential" Tuscan cookbook. And we got to eat everything we cooked, with wine that had been hand-picked to complement the dishes.

Marriage of Food and Wine

Wally, a certified sommelier, held forth on two afternoons (in Italian) on the elements of wine-what to look, smell, and taste for in a range of Italian wines. Perhaps more importantly, she taught us the importance of thinking about the wine before the food. In order to make the food and the wine taste their best, the menu must be developed in concert.

On a full-day excursion to a small, prestigious vineyard, Cennatoio, we got to see the whole operation-from the vineyards to the cellars-and taste the results with the proprietor. We also were treated to an amazing lunch in a Tuscan hill-town trattoria before we made our way to Greve in Chianti, the center of the Chianti Classico wines. We went on a similar excursion the second week.

The final level of immersion was living with an Italian family in a residential section of the city. Our homestay host offered us a capacious room in a beautiful, high-ceilinged flat near the Fortezza da Basso. While it was within walking distance of the school, we found that renting bicycles was more convenient and fun for getting around (Florence by Bike, www.florencebybike.it, at Via San Zanobi 120/122, rented us two no-frills road bikes for the duration of our stay for only about $50 each.)

By the end of the two weeks we were able to communicate basic needs and understand a great deal more than that, plus we had recipes and wine sense enough to host excellent dinner parties for years to come. Most importantly, we are now able to say with confidence that we experienced a small slice of real Italian life ... that definitely left us hungry for more.

For More Info

All of the schools we looked at before Koine were clearly targeting an economic demographic beyond ours-a single week without accommodations or travel was generally more than $2,000 per person! Koine combined our interests perfectly-two weeks of morning language lessons, afternoon cooking and wine classes, and excursions into the countryside at the unbelievable price of slightly under $1,000 per person for two weeks. A room with an Italian family is just over $200 for two weeks. (Rooms in apartments and hotels are also available.) Some meals are provided as part of the cooking classes, and a final farewell dinner is held in a local trattoria. Centro Koine offers other language and culture options in cities around Italy.

Contact Centro Koine, Via Pandolfini 27, I-50122 Firenze, Italy; 011-39-055-213881, fax 011-39-055-216949; www.koinecenter.com, koine@firenze.net.

For information on other languge schools in Italy, many of which also offer cooking courses, go to TransitionsAbroad.com's Language Schools in Italy.