Setting out early, we walked along narrow footpaths as we traversed the streets of Florence’s UNESCO listed historical town centre. Locals on a mission were walking to work but, unlike at home, didn’t look rushed, whilst tourists paused on street corners, consulting maps, (both digital and old-fashioned paper ones), in search of their next destination.
Today we would not be joining them. Today we were headed out of Florence, swapping the inevitable mid-summer hustle, bustle and heat of the city for a slower-paced day at a small, unassuming villa nestled amongst the rolling Chianti hills in the Tuscan countryside. Today we were to embark upon an Air Bnb Experience, visiting the home of Luca and Lorenzo, learning to make traditional Italian recipes learnt from their grandmothers, as part of a Love X Food cooking class.
Arriving at Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station, I felt a little nervous. We had not had a good introduction to this station on arrival, getting lost and taking the wrong exit, inevitably leading to arguments, stress and extra walking on an extremely hot day lugging large, heavy suitcases. I really hoped today’s experience would be a positive one. Following the clear instructions given upon booking, we quickly found the appointed rendezvous point and scanned the crowd, wondering who we might be spending the day with.
We were early, having allowed plenty of time, but it wasn’t long before we spied the promised hot pink paddle with the LoveXFood logo being held aloft by Luca, one of our hosts. Approaching him hesitantly, we saw several others doing the same. We greeted Luca, introduced ourselves and soon discovered there were no less than three Annas attending today’s class. (In a group with just five women, that’s quite something.) Joining us today were fellow travellers from around the globe.
Luca explained how the day would work as we quickly left Florence behind, venturing into the surrounding countryside by rail. Arriving at our station, we spotted Lorenzo waiting on the platform to welcome us. We were greeted like old friends and driven the short distance to Luca and Lorenzo’s beautiful ‘not very old’ 200 year old home. (Apparently their last home was ‘really old’ at around 600 years! My Australian mind boggles at such figures.)
Some people just have a way of making you feel instantly comfortable and at home, as if they’re old friends you’ve known your whole life, rather than strangers you’ve just met. Luca and Lorenzo have truly been blessed with this talent.
We’ve done several home stays as part of small group tours and have stayed in some hosted Bed and Breakfasts. To be honest, they’re a bit hit and miss and sometimes you feel like an intruder, despite the host’s best efforts. So when I booked a cooking class in someone’s home I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; I was taking a leap of faith. Sure, there were rave reviews, but I’m always a bit sceptical about review validity and even more so on this occasion, as there were absolutely no negative reviews and in fact, all reviews had the full five stars. Impossible, surely?
Once seated outside the villa with cold water, hot coffees and a breakfast snack, I realised I had nothing to fear. This was going to be one of those days I’d remember fondly for years to come, I just knew it. As I took in the view, I was surprised we could feel so far into the country, yet be in such close proximity to Florence.
After breakfast, we were escorted for a quick tour of the gardens, where we met the chickens who provided the eggs for our pasta, viewed olive trees, picked lavender for use in flavouring dessert and observed capers growing from gaps in an old stone wall. We learnt this is the only place capers grow and that they stubbornly resist cultivation, preferring to grow wild amongst old stone walls and ruins. Having had this pointed out, we did in fact spy many caper plants growing in similar situations after this.
Tour complete, we were ushered into the inside dining room, set up for our cooking class. Each place setting contained a wooden board, fresh eggs and essential tools for our cooking adventure. I smiled at the use of wooden clothes pegs for name tags and their versatility, later becoming wine tags, ensuring our glasses did not become mixed up.
Having donned our aprons, we watched and listened attentively, as Lorenzo demonstrated how to mix the pasta dough. This was no cooking demonstration, but rather a hands-on class, where everyone had their part to play. All our pasta, it was explained, would be combined and cooked for our lunch. The pressure was on but there was no need to fear, as Luca and Lorenzo proved to be excellent teachers. Not only were the demonstrations provided slowly and with clear instructions, but the teachers then guided our efforts, offering advice about when to add extra ingredients, when to knead harder or softer and when to stop kneading altogether. As a teacher, I was extremely impressed with their teaching techniques. If only the classes I taught were small enough to allow for such individualised instruction and attention, work avoidance and lack of engagement would cease to be a problem. Everyone was, of course, a success and we soon had our own little portion of golden, silky-textured pasta dough, made with our own hands from just two basic ingredients – flour and egg. The dough was passed through a pasta machine several times, resulting in thin, even sheets, in preparation for our next step. We each now made five neat ravioli parcels. It was about this time we were all deemed worthy of a glass of prosecco, having completed the tricky bit. Luca apologetically explained they had learnt the hard way not to give their guests wine before this point in the class.
We were all proud of our efforts. Enter Lorenzo and his demonstration of pasta shapes to blow us all away. Lorenzo spoke of his grandmother and told little tales as he shaped his pasta dough into all manner of shapes and sizes, explaining the name of each one and the types of recipes it was traditionally used in. His array of pasta shapes was a veritable work of art.
Next, we made long pasta using a traditional tool called a chitarra (pasta guitar) to evenly slice the long slender strips. At this point, our hard work was complete.
Now we got to enjoy our wine as we watched our handmade pasta being cooked. Lorenzo demonstrated making the sauces and Luca demonstrated making panacotta, all the while engaging in good-humoured banter and teasing. Their interactions were both endearing and amusing and they played up to their audience to perfection.
Sitting down to share the meal we had prepared together, there was something extremely satisfying in knowing we had all made this pasta from scratch. Such simple ingredients and methods formed the basis of a truly delicious meal. In fact, nothing about this meal was complicated; fresh, high quality ingredients, simply prepared and shared amongst friends.
Throughout the meal, conversation buzzed as travel tales were shared, itineraries discussed and advice sought. There was no more than a cursory mention of careers and home, as they were irrelevant here. From disparate backgrounds, representing a cross section of ages and originating from all corners of the globe, we were brought together by our love of two things: travel and food.
This is one of the things I love most about travel – meeting fellow travellers, many of whom I would never come across in my ordinary life, and sharing extraordinary experiences with them.
Here, in this little villa tucked away in the Chianti Hills, not far outside of Florence, we were all fellow travellers enjoying local hospitality and produce. More than that, for a brief moment in time, we were family, preparing and sharing a special meal together.
As the afternoon progressed and our time together drew to an end, everyone agreed this had been a wonderful day. When Lorenzo announced it was time to return to the station, we all moaned, as no-one wanted to leave. We’d been made to feel at home, like part of the family and we really didn’t want this perfect day in the Tuscan countryside to end.
But, as with all good things, end it did and we sadly said our goodbyes and headed back to Florence, ready to continue our travels, but not before receiving ‘big hugs’ from our gracious hosts.
It really was a perfect day. All my fears proved to be ill-founded and this experience was a true highlight of our travels through France and Italy. It had all the essentials of a great travel experience – genuine interaction with locals, connecting with like- minded fellow travellers, delicious food and great wine in a beautiful location as well as the bonus of being a little out of the ordinary and involving our creative input.
A friend later enquired if I thought I’d make the recipes at home. To be honest, probably not, although plenty of others do and proudly show off their creations on social media. For me, that wasn’t why I did the class. I was looking for a genuine experience with real Italians in their home and I got it. If I do cook any of the recipes, it will be a bonus. Maybe one winter’s day, I’ll borrow a machine to roll the pasta into sheets and give it a go. It would be fun to do with friends, to make and share a dinner together, as we did at the cooking class. I would like to try the panacotta, and thanks to a kind friend’s birthday gift, have recently added a lavender bush to my garden in preparation for this.
If in Florence, do yourself a favour and sign up for this experience. We’re not the only ones who loved it. Love X Food recently won Best Air Bnb Experience, based on participant ratings and reviews.
Thank you Luca and Lorenzo for a day we will never forget. Big hugs!