Linguini as silky as Sophia Loren's hair
An amateur chef spices up his vacation with some sizzle and some class - cooking class, that is
LUCCA, ITALY — How do you determine the sex of a fennel? In the midst of a recipe, we needed to know.
Our cooking maestra quickly explained: "Only the female, the one with the bigger hips, is edible. The male is useless."
The only man among 12 women, I feared the worst.
I had joined a cooking group at Vallicorte in the hills of northern Tuscany (about 10 minutes' drive from Lucca) for what our teacher, Valentina Harris, promised would be "the most fun you can have with an apron on."
Like painting, cooking starts with a canvas, and Italy's culinary canvas is pasta. As I tentatively mixed my egg and flour into pasta dough, Ms. Harris - an Anglo-Italian with an operatic passion for gastronomy - urged me to lose my reserve: "Italians have been pummeling pasta for 2,000 years."
Forget the delicate approach.
With the dough ready, it was time to shape the pasta. The more intrepid used a rolling pin, while the rest of us reached for the pasta-making machines. "No homemade pasta is ever the same," maintains Harris. "It depends on your age, your sex, your mood. But it should be silky thin. Your linguine should be as silky as Sophia Loren's hair."
Unfortunately, my first attempt was more akin to Bob Marley's dreadlocks.
With the Tuscan sun drying the pasta on the balcony, we moved on to the sauces.
The scent of freshly ground basil pervaded the room as we prepared traditional Pesto Ligure (with pine nuts) and Pesto Trapanese (a Sicilian variation using almonds). But the most surprising topping was lemon and cream sauce - its light, refreshing texture complementing the fresh pasta.
The meal ready, we gathered in the dining room to sample the day's work. Our hosts, John and Berenice Bonallack, fell in love with Vallicorte while on vacation. They bought it, restored the 400-year-old farmhouse, revived the olive terraces, and planted an herb garden.
In the United States, super- markets offer many of the same vegetables 12 months of the year, but Italy still observes the seasons. I visited in October, when Tuscany is rich with porcini mushrooms, grapes, and the sweetest of peppers.
Day 2 for the kitchen crew was "risotto day." We split into teams, each choosing a recipe. My group decided on mushroom risotto.
Valentina and the Bonallacks formed a jury for the risotto competition. A fresh-tasting pumpkin and zesty lemon risotto left our mushroom dish in last place. Official protests were lodged when ours was the first bowl to be emptied, but the jury stood firm. We took consolation in the tiramisu.
The next day we set out for Lucca, where we headed to Da Leo, an elegant trattoria where locals wile away long lunch hours.
There is a saying in Italy: "Show me what you eat and I'll tell you where you're from."
Tuscans have earned the title mangiafagioli - "bean eaters." If the bean soup at Da Leo is anything to go by, they can be proud of their nickname.
Lucca was once a powerful medieval city-state, and its battlements give it an Old World quiescence. Lucca's walls are the perfect venue for the Italian passeggiata - the evening ritual of strolling while carefully observing what everybody else is doing, wearing, or saying.
The unbroken walls have the additional bonus of allowing you to join in the passeggiata without a care for where you are going - eventually you end up back where you started.
The next day began with a discussion about what Harris describes as the fuel on which Italian food runs: olive oil.
The cultivation of olives is a job best suited to Methuselah. The trees can be harvested only every second year and must be 50 years old before they produce good oil, she says. For an oil to be taken really seriously in Italy, it should be from a tree that has celebrated its 150th birthday.
We tried four oils. The first was extra-virgin. This is the first pressing of the olives, which yields little acid. For the second and third pressings, more pressure is applied - and the olive stones release acid, producing a low quality oil.
Our extra-virgin oil had a golden sheen, good body, and high quality. The second-pressed oils were visibly thinner, while the last pressing was a frying oil that rural Italians are known to use as lamp fuel.
The following day we woke early for a trip to Tuscany's "engine room": Florence. Our first stop was the market at San Lorenzo, which covers two floors of a large palazzo. Its size is reflected in a diversity of products: just-harvested vegetables, fresh pasta in limitless varieties and colors, and mountains of cheese and breads.
Listening to the conversations, cooking tips, and culinary debates echoing around this temple to the taste bud, I realized that the Italian relationship with food is passionate.
Where an American would discuss politics, or an Australian the surf, Italians will defend their views on gastronomy as a point of honor.
Loaded with bags and bottles, we headed for Trattoria Angelino. Here I had an epiphany: an insight into the simplicity and ingenuity that characterize Italian food.
My antipasto was Pecorino con Salsa Etrusca, a slice of Pecorino cheese topped with honey and pine nuts. This was the essence of what allows this country to boast the world's greatest cuisine - a simple combination of foods that is subtle, surprising, and magical.
Arriving in Vallicorte that evening, we sat around the long table for our last meal. Harris hosted the dinner with animated zeal. As we moved out onto the farmhouse balcony for a last view across the sea, a small tornadolike burst of wind spirited itself across the Ligurian sea.
As darkness sank over the valley I reflected on my time here.
I had eaten good food, and prepared it with a knowledge of its history and culture. There's no better way of getting to know Italy, I decided, than getting to know its food.
• For more information, go to www.vallicorte.com and click on "programme."