“She will be fast,” warned Colleen. “Four course lunch for 13 people, less than an hour. The woman cooks fast.”
For this, you envision a stout woman wielding a knife sharp enough to split atoms. A woman who runs a kitchen with military precision. A woman who is…pretty much like a man. Gordon Ramsey in pink chiffon perhaps.
Then you meet Isa.
The women of our group tower over Isa.
Yes, we (tall) Americans come from a cooking tradition that began with the French (and Thomas Jefferson’s love for the food and wine) and which continues seamlessly with Julia Child, who snuck onto the scene before Marchella Hazan and managed to stay well past her time on earth.
In any case, Isa doesn’t do French. While we spread around her kitchen work surface like sheep around a shade tree, she hands out the knives. They seem to have been taken off the tables. They are steak knives of questionable provenience.
A couple of us are to cut carrots. She demonstrates the size of cut she wants by slicing the carrot against her thumb with one of these abominations.
When she asks an assistant for a larger pan there is not the usual, “Yes, Chef!” you expect to hear echoing through the familiarly militant kitchen of the type they insist upon showing you on television.
Soon eggplant is being sliced impossibly thin, the carrots have been whacked, potatoes and bread diced—and fingers, miraculously, remain intact.
Then comes the part where your confidence in any language spoken in Isa’s kitchen is shattered. After she has tied the pork loin, she tells the assembled magnitudes that she will add, “un po di olio” which the interpreter correctly translates into “a little olive oil.” We wait a bit while the upturned bottle speaks to us. “Glug, glug, glug, glug,” and so forth. The loin is well lubed; the bones she has removed from the roast swim in it meekly while the tied-up loin glistens in its regal coat. Then she will add a little salt…
Let it be pointed out that diminutive Isa does not disparage her adoring minions. The single time a task isn’t being done fast enough for Isa, she rests an elbow on the stainless steel table, cups her chin in her palm and issues a wistful “Oggi”—meaning it would be quite nice to have the task completed before the day is out.
Finally, Isa shoos us out of the kitchen and we filter into a dining room with an enormous table and a view of everywhere. Soon we eat. The best Eggplant Parmigiana I’ve ever had. Creamy Ribolitta. Pork loin with pan drippings. Bones! Glorious, roasted bones: slivers of meat from the god of piglets. Sformata of potato and Parmigiano Reggiano. And then a blistering white panna cotta with berries and a spoon of warm chocolate on top. I see your Facebook inspired, “yum” and raise you a glass of Vin Santo.
And with our
hindrance help, she did all this in less than an hour.
You don’t have to live this little episode vicariously through my fractured prose. You can easily participate in a full week of getting to know how Tuscan women cook, experiencing some of Tuscany’s finest and most traditional dishes and meeting new friends to make pasta with all at the same time. It’s an orgy of cooking, eating, and learning the Tuscan ways of women who cook up a storm. And…let me tell you of a little secret: you can do it even if you have different plumbing. Yes, men are free to join in, just like I did, and even if, like me, you mostly diddled around with a camera instead of cutting carrots against the thumb, there’s no penalty. Except for some cutting remarks I mean.
You can also choose to stay at Relais La Costa in Montefollonico and avoid the carrots altogether, but you’ll be missing some fun.
We stayed at Hotel La Ciusa during the program and had an excellent meal there as well.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tuscan Women Cook program.