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Cooking Schools in Tuscany

Hands-On Lessons in La Cucina Tradizionale

Tuscany and its cooking

One year, like several other years before, my wife and I worked in the south of France. While our children attended French schools, we took frequent trips across the Italian border to Liguria and Tuscany, stopping in village trattoria to sample for the first time "la cucina tradizionale," the regional cooking of Italian housewives.

From village to village and region to region the variety of the dishes—in the ingredients but particularly in the preparation—was astonishing. Then of course the villages were much more isolated from one another and Italian housewives had access only to ingredients found within a small radius of their kitchens. They combined these local ingredients in special ways handed down for generations.

Tuscany countryside

In Eating in Italy, Faith Heller Willinger’s authoritative guide to the gastronomic pleasures of northern Italy, the author points out that the variety in Italian cooking from one town or region to the next is due to the combination of geography, climate, and conquest. Over centuries hordes of invaders made Italy what Willinger calls a "Mediterranean melting pot" stretching from the mountains bordering Austria and Germany in the north to the sunny African islands of the south.

The overall extent to which traditional Italian cooking has suffered with the coming of rapid transportation and communication is a matter of debate. But thanks to the efforts of Willinger and others—most notably the "Slow Food" association, (see our interview with the Slow Food in Italy founder), with headquarters in the northern province of Piedmonte—who are tenaciously tracking down those who have clung to (and rediscovered) the old ways of producing and preparing food and wine, it’s now possible for even the short-time visitor not only to taste the various foods of the past but learn to prepare them.

Grape vines in Tuscany

To locate the schools that specialize in teaching the art of traditional Tuscan cooking we consulted Willinger, a New Yorker who has lived in Florence for more than 20 years and whose cookbook, Red, White, and Greens, gets almost daily use in our own kitchen.

From Willinger’s recommendations we chose three schools to visit: the Capezzana Wine and Culinary Center, on the estate of Count Ugo Contini Bonaccossi in the Carmignano, a wine area west of Florence; Judy Witts’ Divina Cucina program, which she has run since 1988, and now hosts from the beautiful town of Colle Val D'Else sitting between Florence and Siena, and La Bottega del 30 Cooking School, associated with the famous restaurant of the same name, located in the heart of the Chianti east of Siena.

The three schools and the teachers are very different, but their goals are the same: to impart the ancient culinary techniques of the women cooks of Tuscany following local recipes. The cooking is done by the students themselves in traditional Tuscan kitchens using fresh local ingredients which the students have helped to select.

Divina Cucina Cooking School

A Tuscan experience of a different nature is to be had in Colle Val d'Elsa at Divina Cucina, near Florence, with the transplanted American, author of the book "Secrets From My Italian Kitchen," blogger, generous social media presence and influencer, and Tuscan food fanatic who is a member of Slow Food International among many other associations, Judy Witts Francini. Judy feels that the key to Tuscan cooking is using the very best and freshest ingredients and doing as little as possible to alter their natural tastes, and she has been an ardent student of cooking for over 30 years.

At Divina Cucina, Judy offers a few of programs that span from one day to a week, and are very reasonable in terms of cost (see her website):

The "Pantry Class—La Dispensa" last one day twice a week and teaches you to create and improvise a meal based upon what is available at the local market, as well as the local butcher, and vegetable shops.

The "Market to Table" is 1-day class program that includes visiting a local market to pick up fruits, vegetables, meats, and then cooking both locally-inspired Tuscan food as well as cuisine inspired by market vendors from much further south in Naples and Puglia.

In addition, Judy offers a variety of longer special classes and custom programs that can be found on her website.

Tenuta di Capezzana Wine and Culinary Center

The Capezzana Wine and Culinary Center is located in an imposing Medici villa on an estate that has been famous for its wine and olives since the ninth century. Countess Lisa, known as one of the best home cooks in Tuscany, has for the past five years used the estate’s kitchen and facilities to offer a series of programs designed especially for food professionals, skilled cooks, and those involved with food and wine.

More than a cooking school, the Center, in which all the family participates, offers an introduction to Tuscan life. After a first night at the Hotel Principe in Florence, the 5-day program begins in the traditional kitchens of the estate with a morning cooking class, lunch, and hands-on pizza and focaccia cooking using a wood oven.

The second day is devoted to tasting and pairing wines with food under the guidance of winemaster Nicholas Belfrage. Dinner is at a local restaurant. The third day starts with a shopping trip to Florence’s Sant’ Ambrosio market where students select for themselves what they will prepare for dinner. Lunch is at Florence’s top restaurant for traditional cooking, Cibreo. On day four students visit local artisans— bakers, butchers, chocolate makers, etc.—before another hands-on cooking session in the Capezzana kitchen.

Day five is taken up with an exploration of the Chianti and its wines, tasting local cheeses and salamis at wineries, and buying meats, fruits, and vegetables for the farewell dinner with the Contini Bonaccossi family. The elaborate farewell banquet is prepared by a guest chef.

In addition to the cooking school, the Center also offers weekend wine tasting courses under the guidance of a master of wine. (The Institute of Masters of Wine is an internationally recognized body of experts on wine production and assessment.) The estate sells its own famous collection of wines and olive oil. Benedetta Contini Bonaccossi, who is in charge of sales, also can arrange stays at local farms.

A stay at Capezzana is most remarkable for the brief sense of the "Tuscan experience." Guests stay in a wing of the villa and join the warmly hospitable Bonaccossi family at meals. The lively talk is mostly of food and wines—while you enjoy "your" food and the best wines of the region.

La Bottega del 30

Tucked away in a tiny medieval borgo dominated by a winery is one of the Chianti’s finest restaurants, La Bottega del 30. Several years ago, the charming young chef, Hélène Stoquelet, married a Tuscan, Franco Camelia, and began to study the ways of traditional Tuscan country cooking—which she has adapted and refined to such a point that the restaurant has received a coveted Michelin star.

Note: Since receiving the Michelin star, the cooking classes we participated in as described below for La Bottega Del 30 have been discontinued, though many other schools in the area follow similar methods.

* * *

Cooking classes are held in a specially-designed kitchen apart from the restaurant. Each student has his or her own stove, work space, utensils, and ingredients. (Students keep their utensils after finishing the course.) The emphasis each day is on a separate part of the meal: Monday, antipasti; Tuesday, soups and sauces; Wednesday, fresh pastas; Thursday, meats; Friday, dessert.

After each lesson, which lasts from 10 a.m. to approximately 2 p.m., students lunch in the dining room, eating the dishes they have prepared accompanied by appropriate wines.

The ancient culinary techniques of the women of Chianti are taught in an adjoining room which reproduces exactly a traditional kitchen, complete with a wood oven for baking, a brazier, and a huge country fireplace. In the same building is a well-stocked library and videocassette collection, a wine cellar, and a museum of old farm implements and utensils used for preparing traditional Tuscan meals.

1-day lessons Monday through Friday include lunch and wine tasting. On Thursdays and Fridays there is the option of a 1-day lesson plus dinner at the restaurant; on Mondays and Wednesdays the 1-day option is a cooking class, lunch, and wine tasting followed by an excursions to the castles of the Chianti and dinner at a typical restaurant.

* * *

Having participated in sessions at all three schools, we came to two conclusions. The first is that there surely is no better way to get a sense of Tuscany, one of the most beautiful areas of Italy and richest in artistic and crafts heritage, than to immerse oneself in its culinary traditions. At the schools we attended you can almost “taste” the countryside—and meet some of the people who have maintained its traditional ways of growing and preparing food.

The second is that this brief immersion in the Tuscan experience is likely to have lasting effects. We came home with our bags packed with the olive oil from Capezzana and aged cheese from the Central Market in Florence to combine with fresh vegetables from our garden. (And of course with recipes for our favorite dishes.) When the supply runs out—and it all too quickly will—we’ll find a way to replace it.

Tuscan Cooking Schools

Divina Cucina. Courses: Weekdays year round. 1-day to 1-week classes in Florence, Chianti (with seasonal tours available in Sicily, Puglia and the Amalfi). Classes include walking tours, market visits, and meals at a local trattoria. Other longer-term special classes and options are included when you enroll. See her website for very reasonable prices with an excellent teacher, Judy Witts Francini.

Capezzana Cooking School offers 1-day and 5-day cooking courses as well as wine tours. Accommodations are in a wing of the Capezzana villa. The estate has a swimming pool, tennis courts, and pathways for walking and jogging.

Organic Tuscany is an Italian cooking school that offers week-long "farm to table" organic cooking courses. The program includes visits to local organic farms, cooking classes using organic ingredients, olive oil and wine tastings and tours of Siena, Florence and San Gimignano. See their website for costs.

La Bottega del 30 is a Michelin star rated restaurant, once a fabulous cooking school, and still well worth visiting for a great meal.

DR, CLAY HUBBS founded, published, and edited Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. for 30 years.
DR. JOANNA HUBBS is the owner and senior editor of Transitions Abroad.
They lived together in Tuscany years and summers for over 40 years.

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