On my recent Italian travels, I followed the footsteps of many weary vacationers before me and toured the Coliseum and the Vatican, stared awestruck at Michelangelo’s magnificent David, ate my weight in pasta and tried mightily to experience the country’s renowned “sweet life.”
But as you might expect from this foodie, one afternoon I ventured far from the usual traveler’s agenda, donned an apron and volunteered to cook my own meal.
Madness right? Not in my book.
How often does one get to cook with a bonafide Italian grandma in a 16th century Tuscan farmhouse?
Nonna, or grandma in Italian, spoke just a smattering of English, but with the help of an interpreter our small group of wannabe Mario Batalis managed to assemble a five-course meal that could only be described as phenomenal.
The feast we constructed included an assortment of bruschetta (pronounced bruˈsketta – with a hard “k” — that was a sore spot with Nonna), an eggplant appetizer, hand-rolled tagliatelle, chicken simmered in Vin Santo and an incredibly light dessert made with marscapone cheese, strawberries, mint and bittersweet chocolate.
Fresh, seasonal ingredients are paramount to Italian cuisine and Nonna wouldn’t think of using anything else. Everything that graced our menu — the Pecorino cheese, the chicken, eggs, flour, vegetables, herbs and wine — had either been produced on the farm or just down the road. Even the wildflower honey was from their harvest, elevating the term “local” to the next level.
While Nonnamay have been particular about ingredients, her cooking methods were a bit unorthodox. Teacups were used in place of measuring cups; her pinch looked more like a heaping teaspoon and a liberal plug of olive oil was followed by yet another shot just for good measure.
From what I could tell, Nonnawasn’t really following any written instruction, but cooking more by some inexplicable intuition that told her when to check a pot or add a bit more salt even when she hadn’t tasted it yet.
Pasta, the mainstay of traditional Italian cooking, proved to be the most challenging. We first hand-stretched the incredibly elastic dough and then rolled it to an enormous translucent sheet (at least 10 times the original size) using nothing but an arm-length rolling pin, sheer muscle and a strong will to eat. We kept at it until Nonnagave her nod of approval.
After our hard work, we didn’t devour our meal, but slowly savored one course at a time (Italian style), drinking wine and laughing with new-found friends. It was hands-down the highlight of my entire vacation.
I hugged Nonna for her graciousness and left with a full belly, feeling less like American tourist and more like family.
What’s your favorite vacation food memory? —Karen