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Postcard - Cooking in Florence, Our Day with Diva
Kathy Wood (Kaydee)
We stood inside the busy Florence train station, waiting for the arrival of the 9:21am train from Rome. It was our third day in Florence and a day we had looked forward to for almost a year.
Our eleven-year-old daughter Kelly held a handmade sign with elaborate decorations. "Libbie Griffin," her sign said in big black letters. "We are the Woods." There were pictures of an Italian chef, a pizza, and a bottle of wine.
We were at the station to meet my friend Libbie who lives in North Carolina. Libbie is one of several "travel friends" I've made on the internet, and I was about to meet her in person for the first time. Both of us had been traveling in Europe for some time, but now we finally found our itineraries intersecting in Tuscany. I had a giddy sense of excitement - like being on the Dating Game and waiting for the bachelor I had chosen to come around the corner. Libbie was taking the train up from southern Tuscany to meet us in Florence, and we were all going to a cooking class together, a cooking class with the famous "Diva," also a regular contributor to the Slow Travel message board.
I was equally excited about the cooking class, a prize I won in a Slow Travel contest last summer. I entered the contest by submitting a couple of trip reports to the website. Various travel-related businesses had donated prizes, some of which were weeklong accommodations in Europe. I could have selected one of the accommodation prizes, but since the arrangements for our trip were already set and I didn't know what we would want to do travel-wise after we returned home, I decided to select a prize that would be an enhancement to our long trip - something we wouldn't otherwise be able to do. The cooking class with Diva (the Slow Travel name of Judy Witts Francini, whose company is "Divina Cucina") was an easy choice for me, the opportunity to learn how to cook some real Italian food and get to eat it too. Although my prize was for two people, Judy invited our third family member to participate at no extra cost. And when we found out that Libbie would be able to come up to Florence for the day, she made it possible for Libbie to be part of our class too.
And now the long-awaited day was finally here.
The train arrived and we looked eagerly down the platform for our first glimpse of Libbie. Suddenly there she was beside us. She recognized us from our photos on the internet even before she saw Kelly's sign. We hugged and chattered like old friends. We walked through the crowds of tourists and street sellers around the station and made our way to Borgo San Lorenzo, the busy pedestrian street where our apartment in Florence is located. We had coffee and talked in a nearby coffee shop. It was so interesting to finally meet the friend I had corresponded with for two years, and we had lots of stories to share about our travels.
Going to our Cooking Class
Soon it was time to head to our class. Judy's "Cooking Studio" was only a ten-minute walk from our apartment, just beyond the San Lorenzo street market and the big indoor Mercato Centrale food market. We had made a little exploratory trip the day before, just to be sure we could find the address, plus it gave Kelly and I another chance to browse in the San Lorenzo market that sprawls on several streets around the austere-looking San Lorenzo church, once the parish church of the famous Medici family. The market has a couple hundred stalls that are open most of the day selling blue jeans, scarves, leather purses and belts, jewelry, t-shirts, ceramics, tapestries, paper products, artwork, and more. Nearby the illegal street sellers set up their little cardboard stands. They're selling sunglasses, watches, and bracelets - ready to close up shop and drift into the crowd if a Carabineri should approach.
I was also looking forward to meeting Judy, who is an active participant on the Slow Travel website and a great resource for information on Florence and Chianti. Originally from the Bay Area, she married a native Florentine and has lived in or near Florence for over 20 years. She told us that she and her husband now live in the countryside about an hour from Florence. She travels into the city a few days a week to do her cooking classes and has a little bedroom in her studio so she can stay overnight. She was very much like her internet persona: confident and easygoing with a big smile and a great sense of humor.
The studio consisted mainly of a big kitchen and an adjoining big dining room - a place to cook and then a place to enjoy the food. Judy, Charley, Kelly, Libbie, and I sat around the big dining table to get acquainted and await the arrival of our other classmates. Each class member got a special "Divina Cucina" apron and cookbook of Judy's favorite Tuscan recipes. Our family shared two cookbooks. Kelly was thrilled to have her own cookbook of Diva's recipes; she was as excited about being with Libbie and going to cooking school as I was.
In addition to our group of four, there were three other people in our class: a mother (Shannon) and daughter (Alex) from the Bay Area and a woman named Terry from Sleepy Hollow, Illinois, near Chicago. Alex was a bright young woman who is spending a college semester in Siena; her mother had joined her near the end of the term. Shannon said she was originally from China. Terry was traveling in Italy with her husband and college-aged son. The cooking class was her birthday present, and her birthday was that very day. Her husband and son dropped her off and headed out to see more of Florence. We had a very compatible group for our day of cooking.
Once the group was assembled, Judy gathered us in the kitchen and talked about our plan for the day. We would shop at the market, cook a meal together, and then eat our meal. She and her husband would handle the cleanup after we left, which eliminated my least-favorite part of cooking. I liked the fact there wasn't a pre-planned menu and that Judy hadn't already bought everything for our group. In fact, she hadn't bought anything that I could see except for a couple bottles of water.
Judy asked if there was anything anyone really wanted to cook. I said homemade pasta. Someone mentioned artichokes. Kelly asked about fried zucchini, and then I raised the possibility of zucchini flowers. Someone else suggested steaks. Judy also asked if there were any foods anyone was allergic to or had a problem eating. A few people mentioned allergies and dislikes. I said that Kelly didn't eat fish. Based on all this input, Judy suggested a couple of possible ideas for our menu. She said we'd also look to see if there was anything else that looked great at the market. She picked up her big market basket, and off we all went.
Shopping at the Central Market
The Mercato Centrale is in a big warehouse-type building with glass windows, spread out over two floors. We only went on the lower floor, which was made up of lots of individual open shops. I had expected something like the big outdoor markets we'd loved in Provence or maybe like the wonderful covered market in Barcelona. I expected this market to be packed with locals and tourists, but there really weren't many shoppers on the lower floor. The shops were somewhat upscale and absolutely beautiful, everything arranged just so: fresh meat and poultry, sausages and other cured meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, cheese, wine, olive oil, dried pastas and herb mixes, and fresh flowers. Huge hams and braids of garlic hung above many of the shops.
I asked Judy who shopped at this market - where were the throngs of people? It seemed like most of the other shoppers were tourists like us. I thought maybe the restaurant chefs shopped here each morning. Judy said most of the customers on the lower level of the mercato are the well-to-do people of Florence, because the produce and products are the very best in the city, and expensive too. Occasionally the chefs from the restaurants come to personally inspect the food or see what might be new, but normally they call to place orders and the shops deliver everything to the restaurants in the afternoon. She said the stands on the upper level were less expensive and exclusive, but our group never went upstairs.
We followed Judy through the market like little chicks following our mother hen. We passed a lot of meat sellers, and Judy stopped several times to tell us about the food. The meat stands displayed their wares in a way we're not used to in America, several featuring little pig heads with eyes wide open up above their little pink snouts. Some of the rabbits and birds were displayed with their heads, as we had seen in France. I think the heads are left on so the customer knows they're getting the real thing. Kelly tried not to look at the little pig heads. Judy pointed out a tripe stand. This specialty butcher sells a type of meat very popular in Florence, the lining of the first stomach of a cow. Fortunately it wasn't on our menu and we didn't inspect his stand closely.
Most of our time at the market was spent at two stands right across from one another, and Judy was obviously a VIP customer. They seemed to be expecting us, so I'm sure she brings all her classes there. The first shop (run by the Conti family) sold beautiful fruits and vegetables, wine, olive oils, and various other specialty items from Tuscany. Several of the family members worked with our group. We tasted balsamic vinegars of different ages; unlike any vinegar I've ever tasted and more like a thick and very flavorful dressing. The balsamic vinegar tasted especially good on strawberries, a combination I never would have imagined. One of the balsamic vinegars we tasted was 30 years old, and very expensive. There was one balsamic that was 100 years old, but we weren't offered a taste of that one. We also tasted olive oils and a red pepper jelly made using Judy's personal recipe. We tasted the red pepper jelly on bits of cheese. Yum!
We were at this stand for almost 45 minutes; looking, learning, tasting, and finally buying. Everyone in the class did some personal shopping of things to take home. Our family bought some dried fruits for Kelly, a small glass bottle of one of the balsamic vinegars (not the most expensive one), some of Judy's red pepper jelly, and a bag of colorful dried pasta. We would have bought much more if we had an easy way to get everything home. Meanwhile Judy also bought several ingredients for our meal; luscious strawberries, perfectly ripe tomatoes, bright yellow zucchini blossoms, artichokes, zucchini, pears, and big green beans. She rattled off her order in Italian and the young man and woman at the stand selected the very best produce for her, packing everything away in bags that they held for us while we finished our shopping.
Then we went across the aisle to a big cheese shop. Judy said this was the best cheese seller in all of Florence because they sold very high-quality cheese from several countries. I saw some of the French cheeses I was familiar with. We tasted several different cheeses, trying to distinguish the different flavors due to aging. Judy bought some four year old parmesan (a cheese she said she "absolutely loves"), a two-day-old cheese swimming in some sort of liquid, ricotta cheese, mascarpone cheese, and pecorino, a very popular Tuscan cheese made from sheep's milk. She even bought Kelly a little slab of English cheddar.
We stopped at a butcher's stand for thinly sliced beef steaks and then at a bakery for bread and finally a little grocery stand for various other things. Judy handled these transactions quickly while the rest of us gawked at all the wonderful food on display. Kelly was excited to see a stand selling Mexican food, something we've really missed during our travels in Europe. We traced our way through the market back to the Conti's stand and retrieved our packages. We had actually done most of our shopping there. Everyone was carrying several bags as we left the big market, once again trailing after Judy.
On the way back to Judy's place, we stopped in a busy little bar with a local clientele. We had a quick snack of wine and sandwiches. Shannon and Alex, the mother and daughter, were adventurous and ate tripe sandwiches. Judy bought several bottles of wine and champagne - more bags to carry. She seemed to know several people at the bar. She also knew many of the sellers outside in the San Lorenzo street market. As we passed by his stand, one man selling leather coats told us he'd give us a 50% discount because we were with Judy.
Preparing the Meal
At 1:30pm we were back in the big kitchen ready to start our cooking. We helped Judy unload all our bags, and she brought out pretty ceramic bowls and platters to display all our beautiful purchases on the big kitchen island - a photo opportunity before we began our work. Charley, Kelly and I posed for photos carrying a giant wheel of parmegiano reggiano cheese, acting as if it was terribly heavy. Fortunately it wasn't real!
Judy put out some cheese and bread on the dining table so we could snack while we worked, and she also opened the champagne. The two-day-old cheese was delicious, especially smeared on the fresh Tuscan bread. (Traditional Tuscan bread is made without salt and isn't good at all without something on it.) Kelly loved the flat focaccia bread. We all put on our Divina Cucina aprons and waited expectantly around the big island in Judy's kitchen.
We were preparing a traditional four-course Tuscan meal, Judy said. She told us our menu and we all obediently wrote it down in the back of our cookbooks:
I really enjoy cooking and own lots of cookbooks, but other than a few cooking demonstrations, I haven't taken a formal cooking class since home economics in the eighth grade. Back then I learned how to make macaroni and cheese, sloppy joes and chocolate pudding. Now here I was in Florence, Italy, learning how to make fresh pasta.
Many adult cooking classes are primarily demonstrations where the class (usually larger than our group of seven) watches the teacher cook the meal. Judy's class was different - we all got involved in the cooking and we all had a chance to help with each of the dishes. We were soon busy with knives and whisks and abandoned our note-taking.
Kelly was intently involved in the whole process, eager to learn how to cook. She likes being with adults in a situation like this. Charley became less engaged when we started working over the stove and the hot oil; I think at the end the kitchen just got too hot for him, but he definitely didn't have a problem spending the day with seven women!
We started our cooking in the reverse order of our meal and began by preparing a strawberry tiramisu, a variation of the traditional Italian dish that usually involves coffee. Several of us chopped up strawberries, which Judy covered with sugar to bring out the juices. Shannon volunteered to separate the eggs. Terry was really good at using a whisk to beat the yolks and sugar; apparently she has a lot of experience making pastry. Charley also dazzled the group with his whisking skills. Judy folded in the mascarpone cheese while Terry beat the egg whites. Libbie and I laid ladyfinger cookies along the bottom of the pan, and we poured the strawberry mixture over the cookies. Kelly did the final garnishing, carefully shaking cocoa powder to completely cover the top of the frothy dessert.
As we worked together to prepare each of the dishes, Judy answered our questions and shared information about Florence, Tuscany, Tuscan cooking, and cooking in general. We drank our champagne and the afternoon passed all too quickly.
We cut up the flat green beans, which Judy started cooking in a big pot with some olive oil, garlic, onion, herbs and tomatoes. This recipe was from the older Signora Conti, who we had met at the market. Then we moved onto the zucchini blossoms. We learned that some blossoms are male and some are female - imagine that! We reached into the tender yellow blossoms to remove the male and female parts and then stuffed them with a ricotta cheese mixture. We also prepared the zucchini and artichokes for frying. Judy showed us how to remove the outer leaves and trim the artichokes - they were smaller and easier to work with than the big artichokes we're used to at home.
Kelly and I were especially looking forward to making fresh pasta. Our pasta dish was ravioli stuffed with pecorino cheese and pears, another combination I never would have imagined. Judy carefully weighed the flour for the dough and then arranged the flour in a "volcano" on the wooden island. She broke two eggs in the crater of the flour and showed us how to slowly mix the eggs into the flour with a fork. We each took a turn stirring until the eggs were absorbed and we had a dough. The dough sat for a while under a towel while we cut up the pears and cheese for the filling. Charley and Kelly kneaded the dough. Judy attached a pasta machine to the end of the island, and then Kelly worked with Judy to pull the pasta through the little machine several times, changing the machine setting every few passes to make the dough thinner and longer. We ended up with two very long piece of pasta dough that we cut into squares. We all helped stuff and form the big raviolis.
Next we made the batter for the fried vegetables, and then dipped the zucchini blossoms, zucchini sticks, and artichoke hearts into the batter. Our last preparation involved the beef steaks. Some class members chopped the tomatoes that would top the cooked meat. Others dipped the thinly sliced steaks into flour, egg and breadcrumbs. I was impressed that Kelly volunteered to help with the beef. She usually doesn't want anything to do with raw meat.
At this point, everything was assembled and we were ready to really cook. We boiled the big ravioli in water for just three minutes, carefully removing them from the pot. Judy poured a stringy sauce made with butter and the wonderful parmesan cheese over the ravioli. We fried the battered zucchini blossoms, zucchini sticks and artichokes, and then we fried the breaded steaks. As if by magic, the beans - which had been simmering away this entire time - were ready at the same time as the rest of our meal. A few class members got out plates, silverware, glasses and napkins, and we were ready to eat!
Time to Eat!
Terry's husband and son arrived to join us for our meal and the young man who was driving Shannon and Alex back to Siena also came just in time to fill his plate. They were all complimentary of our day's work. We opened red and white wine and sat around Judy's big table and relaxed over our bountiful meal. Most of us had seconds - Charley and I may even have had thirds. Everything was absolutely wonderful. The steak was especially good with a bit of the balsamic vinegar. The grand finale was the strawberry tiramisu. I had almost forgotten that it was tucked away in the refrigerator. The wine flowed as we ate, and we enjoyed the social time with the rest of the group.
I couldn't believe it was already 5 o'clock. Libbie had to catch her train back to Chiusi in southern Tuscany. We said goodbye to Judy and our classmates and walked Libbie to the train station. It seemed like there was still so much to talk about. We made plans to connect again in a few days when our family shifts our base to southern Tuscany.
A Top Ten Day
For me, this was one of our best days in Italy, maybe even one of the Top Ten days of our entire trip. Charley, Kelly and I had been traveling as sightseers in Italy for almost five weeks, visiting Lake Como, Venice, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and then Florence. The natural beauty, history, art and architecture of this ancient country are truly amazing, and at times I found myself almost overwhelmed by it all. Until our cooking class with Diva, our interactions with other people were mostly limited to brief conversations with the landlords of our rental places or other English-speaking tourists at the next table in a restaurant. But on this day we were active participants - learning something new, having fun, and engaging with other people for several hours. I loved the informal and open style of our day; our visit to the market with Judy as our guide, learning to cook Tuscan-style in her friendly kitchen, drinking the champagne and wine, eating our wonderful meal, and especially sharing the experience with Charley, Kelly and Libbie. On top of all this, the experience was an unexpected opportunity - a gift, a prize, a freebee, an absolutely wonderful treat for our family - thanks to Judy and Slow Travel.
After our 14 months in Europe, our way of cooking and eating will never be the same. Some new foods got added to our list that day in Florence: balsamic vinegar, homemade pasta, pecorino cheese, zucchini blossoms, and strawberry tiramisu. And we added a pasta machine to the list of important investments we need to make when we get back home!
Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3427: Photo essay "Slow Travel Postcard - Cooking in Florence"
www.divinacucina.com: Divina Cucina, cooking school run by Judy Witts Francini (Diva)
www.tuscanyflavours.com: Conti, food shop inside the Central Market in the heart of Florence.
www.divinacucina.com/code/germana.html: Recipe for Fagiolini Mangiatutto Saltati
© Kathy Wood, 2005
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