January 15, 2016
In the fall, I embarked on a culinary adventure to Tuscany that still leaves me spellbound — it was an incredible time filled with amazing people, adventures and food. We had spent some time in Florence years ago and I was excited to return and dig deep into exploring the cuisine and sharpen my skills in the Tuscan kitchen.
Italy is vast and the culinary regions are distinctive. Lucky for us, we had enlisted Peggy Markel to be our guide. She seemed like the perfect person to contact when we began dreaming up this trip. With over two decades of building relationships, Peggy was able to connect us with the greatest chefs of the region. The bonus — she’s lovely, talented and knows her way around every corner of Tuscany.
We dreamed and schemed (along with those Nervous Nelly moments about leaving my kids) and before I knew it, I was packing my bags to spend ten days with six fun friends cooking, eating and drinking with the masters of this region. It was nothing short of epic. I made it, the kids made it, and now everyone is reaping the benefit of homemade pasta and ragu!
We began with three days in Tellaro on the Ligurian coast, cooking fish (in every which way) with the masterful Angelo Cabani and his lovely wife Giovanna of Locanda Miranda. This was followed by a hands-on tutorial in the hillside with veteran chef and instructor Piero Ferrini and his wood-burning oven. From there, we were off to an outrageously fun and insightful introduction to butchering in Panzano with the famous Dario Ceccini at Antica Macelleria Cecchini. We moved onto Florence to experience the culinary wizardry of Fabio Picchi at Cibrèo. Lastly, because we just hadn’t had enough, we finished with a day in Montefiridolfi making pasta at Fonte de’ Medici. Can you say lifetime bucket list check-off times five?
First up, dearest Angelo…
The common theme in all the kitchens we visited was to source the best quality ingredients you possibly can find (PERIOD!). This means always cooking seasonally and not settling for second rate ingredients. I’ve always tried to follow those tenants in my own kitchen, but came home inspired to bring that philosophy into every meal, snack and cocktail that comes out of my kitchen.
Something we found funny was the arrival of potatoes at just about every meal. When I think of Tuscan food I think of pasta, risotto, bistecca alla fiorentina, which we enjoyed and cooked in abundance. However, I was surprised at the amount of potatoes we ate, simply boiled or steamed, always doused with olive oil and fresh herbs. The next time you eat a potato think Tuscany.
Here is the kitchen at Fatttoria Degli Usignoli. We made most of our fourteen different recipes in this wood burning oven.
The Maestro Piero conducting with Peggy translating.
Watch for this Cavolo Nero and Polenta recipe — coming soon!
Onto Panzano where we went to learn from the butcher Dario Ceccini. Dario is famous for nose to tail butchering and extraordinary care for animals.
If you’re a vegetarian you may want to skip this part…
We toured the butchering facilities and watched them break down an entire leg.
Darling Tommy was our guide and led us through the farm, butchering, cooking a bit in the kitchens, restaurants and shop. He had us laughing the entire time.
Don’t ask, but I think I was driving a vespa through the restaurant.
Back in Florence we were fortunate to spend time in the kitchens with Fabio at the Teatro de Sale, Caffè and the Trattoria. Pinch me.
From all of these adventures in all of these kitchens I was struck by the thought and encouragement to put away recipe books and focus on the ingredients. They prompted us to look to your soul, your heart and your past when preparing food and do it with thoughtfulness and love. I learned about many techniques, ingredients and history, but this sentiment is what has stayed with me most back in my own Santa Barbara kitchen. Ad amare i miei amici.