The train hurtles westward toward the sea. A pair of young American lovers in sweatshirts are engrossed in one another and the view of Tuscany from the window: undulating hills marked out by ancient walls; meticulously tended vineyards and olive groves; sunflowers, whole fields of them, in the ripe sunlight. It's a short ride on the Florence-Pisa line through Tuscany and a historical landscape unchanged since Michelangelo's, Leonardo's, Puccini's time. Even the cows are epic: The Roman poets Virgil and Columella sang the legendary beauty of the snow-white Chianina cattle that graze across mossy green valleys.
No matter how many times I see it, Tuscany moves me in some profound way. It also makes me hungry. Luckily, I'm on my way to the Villa Delia Tuscany Cooking School for a weeklong immersion in the regional cuisine. After all, this area is as much about food as anything—cucina genuina, real cooking, the honest, basic fare that's at the very heart of the cuisine.
At Pontedera, a quiet industrial town just before Pisa, a driver collects six of us—the cooking school guests for the week. He drives us over the hills of Lari toward Ripoli, an exquisite village, and with real panache careens down one of the characteristic Tuscan strade bianche, or white roads, as these dirt roads are ironically called. Passing through an avenue of cypress trees, we arrive at Villa Delia, an ochre stucco house built in the early 17th century. It stands on 54 acres of farmland that is worked by owner, chef, and driving spirit Umberto Menghi. He will be our teacher and guide to the Tuscan good life.
I arrive skeptical, to be sure—perhaps even a tad arrogant. I was born and raised in Italy and I've always resisted cooking schools. What could I possibly learn that I hadn't already picked up from my mother, my aunt, or from epicurean friends whose idea of a good time is to assemble at a long table somewhere in Italy and eat?
"Buon giorno, principesse!" Umberto Menghi greets us with the phrase from the hit film Life Is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni, who directed and starred in it, is a fellow Tuscan. This welcoming salutation—we are all, men and women, "principesse"—becomes a refrain throughout the week.
Menghi is enthusiastic about Italy, food, wine, fast cars, and his little boy (not necessarily in that order).A handsome man in his fifties, compact and yet larger than life, he's been an entrepreneur, television personality, and cookbook author. Born in the 1940s on a farm outside Pontedera, he ran off as soon as he could and climbed the restaurant ladder. After cooking his way through hotel school in Rome and working as a sous-chef in London and Montreal, he finally settled in Vancouver, where he opened a string of mid- to high-end Italian restaurants. Before long he had 16 of them in Vancouver and San Francisco. Not surprisingly, he was often called "the Canadian Wolfgang Puck."
That first evening, after having unpacked and reassembled ourselves on the terra-cotta-tiled veranda for a sumptuous supper of chicken-liver crostini, bistecca alla fiorentina, and pappardelle, we learn a little about the villa itself. In the 1990s, once Menghi had become a culinary mogul, his mother encouraged him to rescue a tumble-down mansion and fix it up so that she, her children, and their families could create a home that celebrated the traditional Tuscan way of life. The villa is named for her. Over time, these family gatherings turned into a cooking school, run by Menghi's sister, Marietta, her husband, Silvano, and by Umberto himself. "My heart and soul are in this countryside. I come as often as I can," says Menghi, who eventually sold all but six of his Canadian restaurants—what he considers a manageable few—in order to spend more time in Italy and with his family. He adds, "With this school, I always have a good excuse to come over, even if it's for just a few days."
The next morning, rubbing fresh-picked basil leaves between his fingers to release the fragrant oil, Menghi exclaims, "Here is sweetness in the air." He anoints the group of eager chefs. We inhale deeply, tie the Villa Delia aprons around our waists, and get to work. The kitchen is a huge, well-equipped modern space that has recently been added to the villa. This morning's task is the making of delicate ragùs, a transformation of vegetable purées and fresh-tomato sauces into more than the sum of their simple parts, a process that shows you what Tuscan cooking is really about.
An integral part of this recipe—and most others—is broth. Throughout the week, we will prepare this recipe linchpin again and again. Large chunks of beef, bones from the shank and shoulder, a roasting chicken, and an array of onions, carrots, leeks, celery, ripe tomatoes, and a handful of basil leaves are thrown into a big pot and covered in cold water. The mixture is brought to a boil, then simmered gently for two hours to produce eight cups of stock. With it we concoct a very basic and very rich ragù, which can be made with rabbit, vegetables, or, like ours, with ground beef.
We move on to the pasta. I confess: As familiar as I am with the Italian kitchen, I've always been intimidated by the notion of homemade pasta. But this is no time for hesitation. The ingredients are basic enough and right in front of me—water, flour, eggs, a pinch of salt. It's how you pull and stretch the dough that makes the difference; the trick, I learn, is gentle kneading, preferably on marble. Then, rolling out the dough into almost paper-thin sheets and feeding it into the stainless-steel pasta machines will result in perfect strands of fettuccine.
My skepticism, which is beginning to wane, disappears entirely by the time we've made delicious breadsticks and crunchy almond biscotti, not to mention risotto. The properties of Italian rices like Arborio and Carnaroli are uniquely suited to risotto. As we stir simmering broth into the rice, the melting starch binds the kernels and all the flavorings in the pot into a gorgeous creamy mass. This is the stuff of opera.
We learn how to braise a duck to make anatra alla contadina, the farmer's duck with black olives, whose bitterness counterbalances the richness of the meat. First, you chop a duck into pieces and sauté the meat in a hot skillet, pouring off some of the fat as it's extracted and browning the duck to a golden hue. White wine and handfuls of garlic, sage, and rosemary are tossed in the pan and cooked until the wine is reduced. The liquid is replenished with—what else—broth. After adding generous amounts of Calamata olives, cover the skillet and simmer the dish for an hour. A sprinkling of orange zest—a bright citrus note—is the final flourish.
On other mornings, there are lessons in the perfect ravioloni, oversized ravioli. For example, there's my favorite: ravioloni filled with ricotta, spinach, and a raw quail egg.
The villa's main dining room is dominated by an enormous hearth that's used in cool weather for heating and cooking. There is starched linen on the tables. Plenty of wine. Delighted chatter. During warmer weather, guests eat or meet for alfresco aperitifs in the inner courtyards, seated in the shade of giant umbrellas. For breakfast, refectory-style dining tables are set up in the bar area and guests can help themselves to cereal and pastries.
Both rustic and elegant, the villa is decorated throughout with lovely local ceramics. There's a swimming pool and a tennis court dug into the hillside for those inclined to move beyond the kitchen. The 14 bedrooms have wrought-iron beds, antique armoires, vaulted ceilings, and sybaritic bathrooms (you can sink up to your neck in bubbles in the huge tub).
After dinner one night, I sit in my room nursing a glass of fine vin santo—the "holy wine" adored by Tuscans. Outside, an electrical storm crackles. The surrounding countryside is suddenly lit up. It's the final days of the vendemmia, the wine harvest, and the workmen have been picking and crushing grapes just below my window. As I fall asleep, a heady perfume of wet soil, fragrant rosemary, and fresh-pressed grapes rises up through the lace curtains.
In the early morning, out for a walk—the dew thick on the grass, the fog hanging in the trees—I see the flickering tails of a family of wild boar. They've been foraging in the gardens. As soon as they hear me, they disappear.
Mornings in the kitchen pass more and more quickly, gathering a momentum of their own. Afternoons are devoted to hilltop towns like the Etruscan Volterra, the walled San Gimignano, Pisa—and, of course, Florence. There are day trips to the rugged seaside, the other Tuscany, that's just an hour away. Menghi also makes sure we visit the area's best restaurants. My favorite is La Gattaiola, in the village of Fauglia, a stone's throw from the villa. There we eat teeny fried quail eggs; tagliolini with local white truffles; fresh oval mushrooms called ovoli, one of the region's great delicacies, served with fresh Parmesan.
Menghi's passionate about Tuscany—and it's contagious. By now we are all—every "principessa"—stuffing ourselves as we visit local prosciutto producers, pasta makers, ice cream manufacturers. There are visits to wineries in the Chianti region, the famed Antinori Vineyards in particular.
Menghi is also a fervent winemaker. The acreage around Villa Delia is planted not just with olive trees but with seven and a half acres of grape vineyard. His Gargano is a light, refreshing red. And, more importantly, there is his Bambolo, an extrapolation of the word for doll, or baby. Robust and full-bodied, Bambolo clearly is Umberto's baby. When Menghi describes the wine, his eyes mist over.
"I want my Bambolo to be even better than Tignanello," he says one morning during breakfast, referring to the great Antinori wine. (For the moment, however,I think he knows that the Marchese Antinori, his friend and advisor, won't be losing too much sleep.)
"Do you want to make a great wine or do you want to make money?" asks Menghi's wine master, Alberto Antonini, who's been blending Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot Noir grapes to arrive at the formidable Bambolo. Menghi recognizes this common dilemma—and chooses to make a great wine. He wants to create a so-called Super Tuscan wine, with a vintage to compete with Tignanello to boot. Profits take a backseat when you are obsessed, when a great wine of your own is just over the horizon.
On our last night we drive by the legendary quarries of Carrara, where the finest marble has been mined for centuries. Then it's on to the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, which, though bustling in summer, virtually shuts down in the fall—except for Lorenzo, which is world-famous, overlit, and operates with a high-octane energy that's doubly amazing in these parts. But then Lorenzo caters to an international jet-set clientele who swoon over the restaurant's poached bass, seafood spaghetti, ravioli filled with rouget and zucchini. That and, of course, the wine list. Over the years, owner Lorenzo Viani has painstakingly put together an astonishing collection of wines and spirits that he houses in a second-floor cellar and guards fiercely.
On the way home—by now Villa Delia seems like home—we're shadowed by a full moon. It lights up the marble quarries, reflecting off the magnesium whiteness. The landscape is exquisitely eerie. Everyone on board is quiet, lost in thought, sated by the remarkable meal. The scene outside could be a set for an Italian movie, lit by God. As if on cue, Menghi leans over and whispers, "Life is beautiful, isn't it?"
Here's a wonderfully simple recipe from Villa Delia—I prefer to call it a culinary trick. The syrup is delicious—both sweet and tangy—and ever so versatile. Drizzle it on salads, boiled potatoes, steak and other grilled meats; or spread it on toast. Once you try it, you'll never want to be without it. It makes about 1/2 cup.
1. In a small nonstick pan, bring 2 1/2 cups moderately priced balsamic vinegar to a boil.
2. Boil the vinegar until reduced to the consistency of thick maple syrup, about 15 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before using.
This recipe has been adapted from Umberto Menghi's book, Toscana Mia (Douglas & McIntyre). Served with a glass of vin santo, biscotti provide a quintessential flavor of Tuscany.
5 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (6 ozs.) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and brought to room temperature
4 eggs (lightly beat and reserve 2 tbsp.)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup Marsala or vin santo
1 tsp. each baking powder & baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup whole almonds with skins
1. Pour the flour onto a clean surface and make a well in the middle. Add butter. Using your fingertips, quickly blend butter with surrounding flour. Stir in eggs, sugar, wine, baking powder and baking soda, and salt to make a batter. Add almonds. Incorporate enough of remaining flour to form a firm ball.
2. Cover ball of dough with a clean cloth, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide dough into 3 pieces and shape each into a log about 2 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches thick. Place logs on two parchment-lined baking sheets. Brush tops of logs with reserved egg wash.
4. Bake the biscotti at 350°F for 30 minutes. Then remove them from the oven and reduce the temperature to 225°.
5. Allow logs to cool slightly (about 5 minutes) and cut on the diagonal with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Arrange slices on baking sheets. Return to oven and bake until dry and golden brown, about 1 hour.
6. Allow biscotti to cool to room temperature before serving. Makes 40 to 50 biscotti. Store in an airtight container.
Contact: Umberto Management Ltd.,1376 Hornby St., Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6Z 1W5; 604-669-3732; www.umberto.com. A package of ten days and nine nights at Villa Delia is available March-November: $4,400 per person double occupancy; $4,900 single occupancy. Between packages, the villa operates as a hotel.
Steven Wagner is editor in chief of the Women.com network.