2000s Archive

Cooking Schools: Homebase Abroad

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We awoke the first morning to the crowing of a rooster and the faint sound of church bells from San Casciano. Michela went out to the henhouse with Marina and returned with four pale white eggs in her cupped hands. We soft-boiled them, and I commented on the rich orange color of the yolks. Jason cut a tomato in half, rubbed it over a slice of toast, then doused the stained bread with olive oil. I raised an eyebrow. (This is not a man to forsake butter and homemade jam.) Milvio had obviously been up and busy in the garden for hours, harvesting bushels of ripe plum tomatoes (which, he explained, Marina would boil down into conserva, tomato preserves) and meticulously extracting tiny round seeds from the brittle dried pods of last season’s cavolo nero, Tuscan “black cabbage” (actually a dark green and crinkly kale).

Marina outlined a rough daily plan that ended up becoming our pattern for the week: We would go to market with her in the morning, loll about during the wide swath of midday, cook in the late afternoon, and sample the fruit of our labors in the evening, around eight. We remained faithful to this program, avoiding the supermercati in favor of local open-air markets and the little shops tucked into the tangle of San Casciano’s cobbled streets, one of which housed a butcher, a greengrocer, a baker who also made pizza, and an alimentari whose sparkling glass display case was filled with cheeses, cured meats, and olives.

Marina’s approach to shopping required neither a list nor grim-faced determination. “Do let’s make pici,” she cooed from the backseat as Milvio sped north toward the weekly market in the town of Chiusi. The handmade spaghetti-like pasta made with only flour and water is a specialty of this part of Tuscany. “But let’s decide everything else once we’re there.” Something about her warbling voice—high- and low-pitched at once, and punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter—made me think of Julia Child.

With Marina at our side, we allowed ourselves to be carried along on the twin tides of curiosity and adventure. We pointed to a heap of shelling beans, their pale pods flecked with purple. “Ah, si, borlotti. We can make a soup tomorrow with black cabbage, tomatoes, and beans.” We bought a strand of braided garlic for aglione (garlic-and-tomato sugo, a classic sauce with pici), red peppers to braise with onions, new potatoes with bits of dark earth still clinging to their papery skins, and yellow-fleshed peaches to cut into a carafe of chilled vino bianco.

On our way back to La Vetrichina, we stopped at a butcher shop in the one-horse town of Piazze and bought a chicken to pan-roast with olive oil, rosemary, sage, and chile peppers, and some ground beef and pork for a meaty red sauce, also for the pici since Marina thought we should try both of its traditional toppings. The marbled meat for this sugo (two parts beef, one part pork for a “sweeter” sauce) was ground to order. Our yellow-skinned chicken not only had its head and feet on, it looked like it had enjoyed plenty of exercise before its demise; no one had to tell me “free-range.” Marina and Jason discovered their shared love of frattaglie (offal) and bought a pound of veal kidneys. Milvio and I bonded over our mutual aversion to the same.

Every evening, when it came time to cook, Marina would call us into the kitchen and assign each of us a task. “Julien,” she said brightly to my 18-year-old son, “help roll out the dough for the pasta. Michela, you and I are going to make a chocolate cake.” She simply assumed that the kids would want to cook. In fact, it wasn’t that difficult to keep their attention—especially when making pizza in the wood-fired oven and when using the curious little wooden box known as a chitarra (guitar), a device originally from Abruzzo, whose tightly strung metal strings, with the help of a rolling pin, would instantly turn a rectangle of dough into pasta.

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