Italy: A passion for pasta

By Kristina Rapley

Kristina Rapley tastes the good life in Tuscany.

Kristina Rapley gets into the swing of Tuscan cooking. Photo / Kristina Rapley
Kristina Rapley gets into the swing of Tuscan cooking. Photo / Kristina Rapley

It was pouring when I arrived at the olive grove but it didn't bother me one bit. I was in Tuscany and nothing was going to rain on my parade.

I had paid for a cooking class but, after a lifetime of fascination with Italian food, what I was really hungering for was insights into Italian food culture and living life the Tuscan way.

Melanie Secciani, my tutor in la dolce vita, was a former New Yorker and trained chef who fell in love with a gorgeous Italian man while on holiday, moved to Tuscany, got married, had three sons and built a life with him based around food.

Our introduction to the Tuscan food scene started with a tour around the Florence Central Markets where Melanie sources her organic fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood.

We stopped off at one of her favourite vendors for a tasting session and for the next hour gorged ourselves on wine, bread, cheese, olive oil and balsamic, prosciutto and other Italian delights. If I had died right there I would have been a happy lady.

With our tummies full we made our way to her in-laws' olive grove where the family produces olive oil and the class takes place.

This is Melanie's favourite place to cook and eat.

"There's an energy there," she says.

"That's where my family sits for several hours for lunch every Sunday enjoying the food we've made and each other's company.

"It's amazing to share my special place with people from all over the world."

By now the family, including Melanie's husband, had joined the three of us on the cooking course and together we set to work on a four-course Italian feast.

First we made bruschetta with slow roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.

Next up was home-made pasta with a fresh tomato sauce.

The main course was pork tenderloins wrapped in prosciutto, stuffed inside a baguette, and wrapped in more prosciutto, garlic and rosemary - yum.

And finally, no Italian feast would be complete without tiramisu for desert.

Melanie had a way of making us all feel like we were part of her family. We cooked together, laughed together, drank together and ate together.

There was no time limit and no structure and I think that's a big part of the reason why it was such a special day.

Melanie says that laid-back approach to life is why she fell in love with Tuscany.

"Tuscany has so much to offer - food, culture, history, art, fashion, nature - but for me the thing that makes Tuscany truly unique is the approach to living.

"There's an attitude that it's worth taking the time to find pleasure and joy in each activity.

"There's value in cooking a good meal and then sitting down together to enjoy it with a glass of wine."

Anyone interested in food knows Italian cuisine honours quality ingredients with a simple approach to cooking and Melanie's cooking style is no different. Everything we made was dead simple but amazing and delicious.

"Tuscans are passionate about their raw materials - it's intoxicating," she says. "Tuscan cooking isn't really about fancy techniques, which in a way makes it both one of the easiest and most difficult cuisines to cook well.

"Easy because the dishes themselves are simple, usually not more than a handful of ingredients cooked properly and difficult because there is nothing to hide behind."

You won't find them counting calories either and yet they don't have major obesity problems and have one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

"They think about food as food," Melanie says. "Something that should nourish the body, mind and spirit."

At the end of the day, as I paid a sad farewell to my new foodie friends, that's how I felt: nourished in mind, body and spirit.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly Thai Airways from Auckland to Bangkok, and Air France from Bangkok to Florence via Paris; or fly Air New Zealand from Auckland to Hong Kong, and Air France from Hong Kong to Florence via Paris. Florence is three hours' drive north by car from the centre of Rome.

Further information: Visit tuscancookingclassesinflorence.com for information on Melanie Secciani's class. She can pick you up from the central train station or from your accommodation if it's around the city centre.

Kristina Rapley made her own way to Tuscany.

- NZ Herald

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