A feast for the senses in Umbria, Italy

There is no better way to get a true taste of Italy than to learn its culinary arts, writes Ute Junker.

Sometimes, a journey is a quest for enlightenment. Other times, you just want a recipe for tomato sauce. When I signed up for some cooking classes in Italy, my goals were utterly prosaic. If I came home knowing how to make perfect pasta, I would be happy. Throw in some tips for a top tiramisu, and I would be thrilled.

What I experienced in Italy, however, taught me about a lot more than just cooking. Through my talented teachers - Ettore and Lucia in Umbria, Gianna in Puglia - I developed an appreciation for the role food plays in Italian culture, a role that's intrinsically bound up with ideas about family and tradition, beauty and passion.

In Italy, life is a banquet. Here's how to savour every course.

LESSON ONE: ETTORE AND THE OLD WAYS

Italian kitchens always smell good. From the tang of brewing coffee to the heady scent of fresh basil ready to be tossed into a sauce, there's always something delicious in the air. None of it, however, smells as good as Lorella's cheese bread.

Made with plenty of pecorino and parmesan, the bread fills the kitchen with the mouthwatering aroma of grilled cheese as it bakes. By the time the loaves emerge, crusty and golden brown, we are ready to eat it by the fistful. Learning to make Lorella's cheese bread is my introduction to Umbrian cuisine.

My instructor, Lorella's husband, Ettore Benedetti Del Rio, spends most of his time running the property: one of the family farms that patchwork the Umbrian countryside, growing organic produce, from cherries and strawberries to lentils and olives. Occasionally, however, he hosts cooking classes and shares some of the recipes that have been handed down through his family and Lorella's.

The recipes are simple, but flavourful, showcasing the produce of these fertile flatlands. Ettore grew up eating cheese bread, which holds a special place in his memory. "When I was young, Lent was a time when we weren't allowed to eat a lot of things," he recalls. "Cheese bread was made for Easter breakfast, which marked the end of quite a dark time."

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As cheese bread was also traditionally given as a present to friends and neighbours, it was cooked in large batches: Lorella's original family recipe requires 100 eggs. Our pared-down version, which produces two golden, crusty loaves, uses just four eggs.

We make plenty of other delicious dishes during Ettore's cooking class. We also whip up super-soft gnocchi and cook a delicious combination of sausages and lentils, among others, but what really strikes me are the traditions that cling to every dish.

That sense of history, of rituals repeated over centuries, hangs heavy in our work room. We are cooking in the old farmhouse kitchen, a huge room with an old-fashioned stove, a table large enough to seat three generations, and a central fireplace large enough to roast a pig.

The ingredients we are using are, by and large, home grown. The eggs have come from the farm, as have the vegetables. When we make jam-filled crostata for dessert, the fillings - jams made with figs, cherries and blackberries - were cooked up by Lorella using the farm's own fruit.

The crostata recipe we are following comes from Ettore's family, and is made without yeast. Ettore tells me that for many years, he and Lorella would eat Sunday dinner with her family. The meal inevitably concluded with crostata, which Lorella's mother made with yeast.

Every week, Ettore says, he would ask his mother-in-law why she didn't leave out the yeast. The crostata taste much better that way, he would tell her. After many years, his mother-in-law finally succumbed to his pleading, and made the crostata without yeast.

"As soon as he tried them, Lorella's brother straight away said, 'Why did you have to make them without yeast?' " Ettore laughs. His point is clear -the tastes of our childhood shape the rest of our lives. In many ways, we never outgrow our childhood.

The vegetables and jams we are using are not the only things that are home grown. Ettore and Lorella also make their own olive oil, producing about 1000 litres a year. When he takes us on a tour of the farm, Ettore shows us oil-making equipment that goes back to the 18th century. I ask him just how long his family has lived on this farm. He tells me the earliest paperwork he has relating to the property is from the 1860s, but he thinks the family has been there since the 17th century at least.

Through the kitchen window, we look out onto another building, which Ettore calls "the new building". It was built in 1870. Concepts such as old and new, it seems, are relative.

Finally, the cooking is done. As we sit down to eat, everyone eagerly eyeing the aromatic cheese bread, I wonder how many previous generations have enjoyed that very dish in this cosy kitchen.

It strikes me that, in a world where we often focus only on what's coming next, it's refreshing to look back for a change, to remember our forebears and to appreciate the bigger story of which we are all a part.

LESSON TWO: LUCIANA'S FEAST FOR THE SENSES

My days of storing eggs in the fridge are over. Instead, I'm going to store them in a wire container twisted into the shape of a chicken. I'm also going to keep my eye out for a light fixture which uses red Campari bottles as light bulbs, and my simple monochrome forks are going into the bin, just as soon as I buy a new set with brightly coloured handles.

A cooking class at Luciana Cerbini's Casa Gola is as inspiring as a layout in Vogue Living.

Every time I look up from my chopping board, I covet something else: those stripey cushions, those linen napkins. From Michelangelo and Raphael to Dolce and Gabbana, the Italians have a genius for making things look good.

In Luciana's exquisitely furnished house, outside the small Umbrian town of Bevagna, I start to appreciate how aesthetics permeate every aspect of Italian life, right through into the kitchen.

Take those two essential ingredients: red tomatoes and green basil. Piled in baskets on the bench in Luciana's outdoor kitchen, they glow as gorgeously as a Perugino fresco. The finished meals are just as exquisite.

Served on green-rimmed plates, our pasta course is as striking as a Botticelli painting.

Aesthetics aren't the only thing Luciana excels at. She has also mastered the fine art of la dolce vita, leading us through the most relaxed cooking class I have ever experienced. Although we work hard - whisking custard, kneading pasta dough, stuffing zucchinis - each activity is interspersed with a pause to savour the sunny day.

We start our day with a coffee in the garden, surrounded by fragrant flowering shrubs.

During our next break, we retire to the terrace for a glass of chilled wine and some mortadella. It's a reminder that life is to be savoured - and that 11am is a reasonable hour for a quick pick-me-up.

Along the way, we pick up plenty of culinary tips. Luciana's artistic side is balanced with a practical streak. Our summer menu features recipes using zucchinis, from frittata to stuffed zucchinis to basil-rich zucchini puree.

"When zucchinis are ripe, you have endless amounts of them," Lucia shrugs elegantly. "It helps to know different ways to use them."

The zucchini puree, a lighter, creamer alternative to pesto, surfaces in the pasta course, where it serves as a bed for the pasta, which, in turn, is topped with tomato sauce.

It's an example of how Luciana tweaks traditional recipes to create unexpected results.

Pasta is, of course, the cornerstone of any Italian cooking lesson. The secret to good pasta is kneading: the dough has to be worked thoroughly to be smooth and light. We slap the dough on the table, then roll and roll and roll, regularly turning it to ensure that it remains even.

Luciana and her assistant, Aurora, teach us to use all our senses to monitor the pasta's progress. How smoothly or not your rolling pin glides over the pasta is one way to measure your progress. Your eyes provide another gauge. When the pasta is so thin you can see the grain of the wooden board through the pasta, you're getting close.

We keep rolling, and rolling, and then rolling some more. Luciana and Aurora show us how to hang a large sheet of pasta half on, half off the table: this lets you push more heavily down on the end that's on the board. Then you flip, and work on the other end.

When our meal is ready to eat, we're not surprised to find that Luciana sets a beautiful table. The bread is served in burlap bags, and sprigs of olive leaves decorate the table. The dishes are served on colourful plates, a different one for each course - a reminder that a good meal is a feast for all the senses.

LESSON THREE: GIANNA'S FAMILY MATTERS

Lecce seems an odd place to learn about la cucina povera, the simple cuisine of Italy's least fortunate.

In this grandly baroque city, the streets are lined with imposing palazzo and ornately decorated churches. Yet while Lecce's aristocrats built themselves grand edifices, the peasantry of Puglia - the heel in Italy's boot, and long one of the most impoverished parts of the country -made do with simple shelters and equally simple food.

I'm learning about Puglia's culinary traditions from Gianna Greco. Gianna has some heavy-duty credentials - she's a qualified sommelier and a qualified olive oil taster - but like every good Italian, her passion for food dates back to her childhood, when her grandmother taught her how to cook.

We start the lesson with a spot of shopping. As we add glossy-skinned eggplant and super-sweet datterino tomatoes to our basket, Gianna points out that Puglia's peasants had a very different way of gathering ingredients.

"They foraged off the land, using herbs and vegetables which grew wild. For protein, they would cook snails," she explains.

In the bottle shop, Gianna introduces us to Puglia's typical grapes, such as negroamaro and primitivo. "Puglia's red wines don't have any tannins, unlike the wines from the north," she says. "They're smooth, but still full-bodied."

Gianna explains that the locals often drink their red wine chilled, a hangover from the days when wine was stored in large terracotta amphorae in the basement, which kept it cool.

Gianna's kitchen is in the basement of a 17th-century monastery, but there's nothing formal about this class: it feels more like a girls' get-together, thanks to Gianna's wicked sense of humour and the freely flowing wine. "Wine is very important in Italian culture - it's drunk with both lunch and dinner," Gianna says. Also during the preparation phase, it seems.

Gianna is generous with cooking tips - eggplant should be salted after frying, not before; remove the core of the garlic clove to avoid bitterness - and with samples.

As we cook, we happily munch on datterino tomatoes, as sweet as strawberries, and try the tangy ricotta forte, a pungently flavoured soft cheese that is delicious swirled into tomato sauce.

"Through our cuisine, our recipes, I'm trying to involve people in our traditions and our lifestyle," Gianna says. "Good food makes for a good life."

The idea of family, of meals made to be shared, has been at the core of all our cooking classes, but in Gianna's class, it's front and centre.

Her kitchen feels warmly welcoming, the comfortable space around which the entire family gravitates. So we are not surprised when Gianna's teenage son, Gianluca, bursts through the door. He has come for the car keys, but stops for a chat, before heading out again.

As we talk about the central role the family plays in Italian culture, I realise that the elaborate meals that Italians eat every day - the antipasto, the pasta, the secondi, the dessert - are not just culinary feasts, but they are the glue that binds society together.

Food relaxes people, as we see again when Gianna's daughter, Maia, drops in.

She is also heading out and, like any teenager, has come to hit her mother up for money. Yet she is content to watch us making pasta for a while, before going to join her friends.

"Ah, orecchiette," she says, as we attempt to master this ear-shaped pasta. "They're difficult."

They sure are. To shape the orecchiette, you need to roll small pieces of dough backwards over a knife, keeping the pressure smooth and steady. For the first 10 minutes, I produce one unhappy-looking curl of pasta after another.

"It takes practice," Gianna says encouragingly. I continue doggedly, until suddenly, without quite knowing how, I produce one perfect orecchiette, then another. Pausing only to have a celebratory swig of wine, I start churning out textbook orecchiette.

A voice behind me compliments me on my perfect curls. It's Gianna's husband, Pepino, who has also stopped by for a chat and a glass of wine.

The evening has flown by, and we suddenly find ourselves with a table full of food that's ready to eat.

As we tuck into the meal, I ask Gianna if she remembers what the first thing was she learnt to make as a little girl. She flashes me a cheeky grin. "Orecchiette!"

The writer travelled with the assistance of Living Italy and the Italian State Tourist Board in collaboration with Puglia Promozione.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Ute Junker, a regular Traveller contributor, tends to plan her travels on a food-first basis, which is why Italy is always on the agenda.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies three times a day from both Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai, with daily onward flights to Rome. Return fares start at $1952 from Sydney and $1938 from Melbourne. Phone 1300 303 777; see emirates.com/au.

COOKING THERE

Gianna Greco's Cooking Experience classes in central Lecce can be booked at cookingexperience.wix.com/cookingexperience-it, or as part of a wider Puglia itinerary through Tour Nel Sud. See tournelsud.com/en. Prices start at €150 ($214) a person (minimum two people) for a six-hour class. Lecce is five hours by train from Rome. Cooking classes with Ettore Benedetto del Rio and Luciana Cerbini are part of the week-long Umbrian Appetites program offered by Living Italy. Guests make the 90-minute train journey from Rome to Foligno, before being transferred to their accommodation. Prices start from $3162 a person including accommodation, most meals, activities and transfers. See livingitalytours.com.

STAYING THERE

In Lecce, the Risorgimento Resort is in the city centre. Rooms from about $220. See risorgimentoresort.com. Accommodation for cooking classes with Ettore Benedetto del Rio and Luciana Cerbini is at the family-run Camiano Piccolo, part of the package above. See camianoagriturismo.com.

MORE INFORMATION

italia.it

agenziapugliapromozione.it.

FIVE COOKING CLASS TIPS

HUNGER FOR SUCCESS

Don't eat beforehand - there'll be plenty to eat at the end.

PIN BACK YOUR EARS

Pasta is always on the menu, so be prepared for some serious rolling.

KNOW YOUR TOMS

Italians use different tomatoes for different dishes - pay attention to which ones you are working with.

GET THE BACKSTORY

There's usually a story behind each dish. Ask your teacher when it is traditionally eaten, and why.

PREPARE TO SHARE

Italian food is meant to be shared, so join a group if you can - six to eight people is ideal.

FIVE MORE CULINARY ADVENTURES

SICILY

Dinner at Cin Cin is considered obligatory for anyone visiting Palermo; smart cookies also sign up for a cooking class with chef Vincenzo.

See ristorantecincin.com.

TUSCANY

Cook a Tuscan feast in a kitchen set amid an olive grove. In the autumn, mushroom hunts can be included. See tuscancookingclassesinflorence.com

ROME

In her Aventine apartment, Daniela shows you how to prepare classics such as pasta e ceci and eggplant parmigiana.

See danielascookingschool.com.

AMALFI COAST

She's cooked for the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor; now Mamma Agata is ready to teach you how to make Humphrey Bogart's favourite lemon cake.

See mammaagata.com.

VENICE

Master some Venetian classics during a half-day or full-day cooking class in an 18th-century palazzo.

See enricarocca.com.

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