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Report 1542: POSTCARD - Cooking in Cortona

By Bugalu from AL, Spring 2008

Trip Description: My sister and I were headed to Montisi, in Tuscany, for a week with Gail’s Great Escapes. We were staying in an eight room villa with several other Slow Travel friends, and a few other travelers. The trip offers a chance for a cooking class with Alessandra Federici in Cortona, as well as a hot air balloon ride, and art lessons … more postcards to follow!

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Tuscany

Categories: Vacation Rentals; Cooking Classes; Independent Travel; 2 People

Page 1 of 1: Cooking in Cortona

photo by Bugalu

Cooking in Cortona

My sister and I were headed to Montisi, in Tuscany, for a week with Gail’s Great Escapes. We were staying in an eight room villa with several other Slow Travel friends, and a few other travelers. The trip offers a chance for a cooking class with Alessandra Federici in Cortona, as well as a hot air balloon ride, and art lessons … more postcards to follow!

Cortona has gained fame most recently from the book by Frances Mayes, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, and of course the movie that we all have seen. It is also an ancient Etruscan town, dating back thousands of years. This is a beautiful Tuscan walled city, easily explored on foot. Cooking class or not … Cortona is a must!

Our cooking class was scheduled for Wednesday, bright and early. We woke early and fortified ourselves with a cup of coffee before heading out. We had programmed Tomas-Tomas our Italian Tom-Tom to get us to Cortona, about a 40 minute drive from Montisi. The drive itself was not bad but I would never have made it without Tomas-Tomas. The back roads in Tuscany are not exactly well marked with signs. The drive was beautiful in the springtime of the year; red poppies and yellow blossoms everywhere you look. The rolling hills and short trip on the autostrada made for a fun trip.

The one problem with Tomas-Tomas is that ‘he’ is very literal. If you program the city of Cortona, you will arrive at the city center! Remember to begin looking for parking, well before you wind up on the narrow streets intended for residents only. We parked just outside the city walls and made the short climb up the hill to Alessandra’s shop ‘il Girasole.’

We met Alessandra in her shop, which is just on the corner of the Theater in the center of the city. We were ready for our busy day! The first stop was the café on the corner for a cappuccino and a bite of breakfast. Alessandra had prepared a cookbook for each of us with our recipes for the day.

  • Antipasto
    • Polpettine all’ascolana
    • Acetello alla cortonese
    • Frittatina agli aglietti
    • Pecorino fresco con pere e miele
  • Primi piatti
    • Tagliatelle alragu di Funghi
    • Risottino alla Milanese
  • Secondo piatti
    • Arrosto di campagna al latte
    • Carciofi saltati
  • Dessert
    • Tiramisu
    • Cantuccini e vinsanto

Off we went … to the fresh market for our vegetables. Alessandra chatted with the girl about which tomatoes she wanted, the perfect size artichokes, some tender baby garlic, celery, onions and carrots. Next, we were off to the wine store around the corner, a special white wine from their extensive selections. Across the square to the grocery store; again she handed the recipe book to the owner and there was a discussion about our menu. This all reminded me of any small town, friendly and chatty. Here we bought some cheeses, eggs, risotto, cookies for the tiramisu, some spices, and milk. At every store they agreed to deliver her groceries to her car, nothing for us to carry. Next we made a quick stop into the Bakery for some day old bread. The last stop was the meat market. Here, she asked about the butcher’s sons, very good looking apparently! Allora, they weren’t there, so we settled for some fresh chicken, a beef tenderloin, some sausage and a few bones for the marrow. Everyone approved our menu, although the butcher did have some comments about the boneless, skinless chicken breast Alessandra wanted. We followed along, loving the music of Italian chatter, and feeling very much a part of the whole experience.

There was a slight encounter with the parking attendant, which left us all laughing. Alessandra explained one of the worst things to say to someone is, “Ma hai mai mangiato a casa mia??” Translated to “have your ever eaten at my house?” meaning, “You are not a friend of mine.” We all piled into her car, with the groceries in the back, and headed, lickety split, down the hill to her home. We felt so lucky to be invited into her cucina, not the least bit intimidating. She is such a warm and friendly person, that we felt like friends and neighbors right away.

Alessandra’s kitchen is truly the center, the heart, of her home. In this small space she has every cooking utensil she needs, so efficiently organized … I am in envy!

We gathered around the big island ready to watch her make her magic. But … NO WAY! She pulled out an apron for each of us, beautiful aprons from her shop. We rolled up our sleeves and tied up our aprons. We were all cooking today.

Each of us had a job, from slicing and dicing the garlic, cleaning the artichokes, and chopping vegetables. The Tuscan bread was broken into pieces for the bread salad. The olive oil we used was from her brothers olive trees, the wine from her neighbor. We made a quick trip out to the neighborhood garden for some fresh herbs. It was a little farm, with chickens and eggs, bunnies in pens, and a great garden. Might I just say … I am glad rabbit wasn’t on the menu!

One of the highlights for all of us was taking a turn at the pasta machine. No fancy Cuisinart or mixer, she showed us how to nest our semolina flour and fill the center with eggs. She whisked the eggs and kneaded the dough without any mess. We rolled out the dough, cut the ribbons of noodles, and Ta-Da! We were not quite as skilled as her years of practice; but we sure had fun! The long strands of tagliatelle were perfetto.

We spent the entire day preparing each dish. We had several pots going at the same time. She kept it all straight. There was always a little wine for the pot and a little wine for the cooks. We laughed and talked and enjoyed the chance to be in a real Italian kitchen.

When everything was ready, we sat at her family’s table and shared in the wonderful meal. We tasted a bit of this and a bit of that. Everything was just great … one of the best meals during my entire trip. She told us stories and kept us laughing. When we were too stuffed to even move, she proved that a sip of Grappa can be a digestive.

Alessandra shared more than just her family’s recipes. She showed us how to stir the ragu like her Mama does, how to let the risotto cook without getting gummy, how to plate each serving with care. She also showed us the love and pride that goes into every Italian dish. This is the memory I treasure the most.

I have already tried some of the recipes out on my family and friends and just as with Alessandra and her mother, no matter how closely I emulate what she has taught me, it just isn’t the same! It must be the Italian air.

If you ever have a chance to spend a day cooking with Alessandra in Cortona, do it! I will carry this memory forever, which is why I just had to send y’all this little postcard.

Sandi (aka Bugalu) is an experienced southern cook. Her family owned the WhistleStop Cafe, and they are still involved with the food product business.

She has written two cookbooks, and runs the WhistleStop Cooking Blog.


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