When in Italy, Cook as Italians Do

Lorenza de' Medici's classes stress `cooking instinct' and lifestyle over following a recipe. FOOD

`IN America,'' says Italian chef and cookbook author Lorenza de' Medici, ``they don't really know how Italians live.'' To remedy this, explained the elegant, slightly graying signora, the cooking classes she hosts at her sumptuous country estate in the heart of Tuscany's Chianti Classico region are designed to encompass much more than lessons on how to prepare Italian cuisine.

``The style of life is very important, too,'' she says. ``Students learn etiquette - how to eat spaghetti properly, how to serve. They learn what dishes fine, old Italian families have on their own tables, and learn to cook menus that can't be found in Italian restaurants.''

Ms. de' Medici is well qualified to teach both fine cooking and fine living. She traces her ancestry back to the Renaissance Florentine statesman Lorenzo de' Medici, and grew up in the florid but private world of the aristocratic Italian upper classes.

A food writer for more than 30 years, she was food editor for Vogue magazine's Italian edition in the 1960s, and since 1972 has published two dozen cookbooks.

These include the lavishly illustrated coffee-table size ``Italy the Beautiful Cookbook,'' published last year, and ``The Rennaissance of Italian Cooking,'' published last fall - a mouth-watering evocation of regional food and fine living among the Italian upper crust.

She has been married since 1953 to Piero Stucchi Prinetti, owner of the Badia a Coltibuono wine and extra virgin olive oil-producing estate.

The Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of Good Harvest) is also the family's country home - a sprawling 11th-century monastery which has been in the Stucchi Prinetti family for centuries.

For the past five years, Ms. de' Medici has conducted her cooking classes here in English.

``I'd written so many books that I thought it would be a good experience to do something more direct,'' she says, speaking in front of the fireplace in the Badia's cheerfully cluttered family room.

Her teaching method combines cooking demonstrations with hands-on student participation.

Each morning the class gathers in the big, brightly tiled kitchen to discuss and prepare a full-course meal. The antipasto, primo, secondo, and dessert are then eaten for lunch.

Mastering techniques and honing the cooking instinct are emphasized, rather than paying strict attention to recipes.

``It's not so much learning recipes, but learning cooking techniques,'' says Sigrid Tiedtke, a student from Winter Park, Fla., who took the course in August. ``There's never a measuring cup, it's never precise. It's tactile.''

The classes, comprised of about 12 students, are held 10 weeks a year. At $2,800 for a week's lessons, the cost is definitely upscale. But the fee includes all meals, accommodation, daily excursions, and evenings out.

Students stay in private guest rooms that line a grand, frescoed, 15th-century corridor on the Badia's upper floor, and have access to a swimming pool and sauna, a well-stocked library, a lofty living room with a piano, and large landscaped gardens.

``It's a house party atmosphere,'' says Ms. de' Medici. ``Everyone gets to know each other and become friends - they even meet and hold reunions back in the US.''

Most students know of Ms. de' Medici from her cookbooks, frequent demonstrations in the United States, and publicity for the Badia's products. The firm even markets an olive oil bearing her name.

Still, for many of them, Ms. de' Medici in real life is something of a surprise - much less stiff and severe than she tends to appear in publicity pictures.

``We didn't expect her to be like she is,'' says Becky Kukkola, from Benicia, Calif., who took the course last summer with her husband, Dirk Fulton.

``She is so relaxed and sweet that she puts you immediately at ease.''

Ms. de' Medici, her personality, her style, and her circle of friends - as well as her recipes and cooking techniques - form the centerpiece of what she calls the ``Villa Table'' cooking classes. These extras, as well as the atmosphere, set the classes apart from other fine cooking schools in Italy.

``The most fun thing I'm taking home is her sense of style - simply graciousness,'' says Mr. Fulton.

For many students, one highlight of the week is the evening program in which they can apply the lessons in upper-class lifestyle and cuisine taught during the day.

Each evening the class is invited to a full-course dinner at the homes of friends of Ms. de' Medici. These outings may include dinners in a lavish apartment overlooking the heart of Medieval Siena, or in the country villa of a local Tuscan Marchess - whose wife personally supervises preparation of such dishes as Minestrone alla Genovese (Genoese Minestrone) and Filetto ai Funghi Porcini (Filet of Beef with Porcini Mushrooms).

The most spectacular and elaborate evening takes place at the imposing Castle of Brolio, a battlemented fortress atop a hill overlooking Siena. Baron Bettino Ricasoli-Firidolfi and his wife, the Baroness Costanza, host dinner in a three-story hall that looks like something out of ``Ivanhoe'' or the Knights of the Round Table.

Waiters in white gloves silently slip one course after another before diners under the watchful gaze of frescoed knights and full suits of armor arranged around the room like sentinels.

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