By Michael Turtle
By now we all know that Elizabeth Gilbert went to Italy for the ‘eat’ part of her ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ world tour. There is something about Italian food which just oozes romanticism and it’s more than just the taste. Perhaps it’s the tradition, the way the names sound, or the care that goes into its preparation.
One day to go a step further than Gilbert in experiencing Italian food is to learn how to cook it yourself. We went to Italy to see how it’s all done and found ourselves in a beautiful villa in the Tuscan hills above the city of Siena.
Here are some of the delicious dishes that we made the traditional way with food straight from the garden…
Firstly we prepare the kitchen. It’s a large room with a central island where all the preparation work will happen. Around the edges of the kitchen are large stove tops, an oven and two large sinks to keep things clean as we go. The local cook who is going to teach us is Stefano Schieppati.
For an easy bit of cooking to start off with, we make a plum jam. All the fruit has come fresh from the garden and is ripe and juicy. It takes a while to get rid of all the stones but then we add a lot of sugar to the flesh and put it on the stove to cook.
The key to the gnocchi is to use the right potatoes and make sure there is just the right amount of flour mixed in with them. You don’t want the potatoes to be too moist or it will ruin the whole thing.
The hardest part of making this dish is getting rid of as much moisture as possible from the eggplants. We slice them, cover them in salt and then put pressure on top (using a pot filled with water). Only then can we start to layer them in a dish and build the parmigiano.
Ravioli is surprisingly easy to prepare and cook. Making the pasta dough and then getting thin sheets of it is the key. After that you can put dollops of filling on the sheets, fold another sheet over on top and cut them into little squares ready to be boiled.
Making tomato passata is an annual tradition in Italian families. When the tomatoes are ripe in the garden, everyone will come together for the whole day to boil them, mulch them and then store them in jars. This is the foundation for a lot of Italian cooking.
Of course you can’t learn Italian cooking without making some pizza. Typically there are only a few toppings on each pizza because you want to appreciate the taste of each of them. The pizza are then best cooked in a wood-fired oven to get an even heat across the whole thing.