Italy: Cooking where the olive trees grow

By Jennifer Grimwade

Lessons in Italian regional cuisine include party time, writes Jennifer Grimwade.

Sitting down to our first lunch, al fresco at the Italian Cookery Week, Elizabeth from England says to me, "This is my fifth cooking class, but I'm not here just for the cooking."

And Elizabeth is not the only student who has been here before: half the class has attended Susanna Gelmetti's lessons, and most of them aren't serious cooks.

But they're all gregarious souls who enjoy hanging around the kitchen having fun. In fact, it's hard to decide who is having more fun, the multinational students or the predominantly Australian staff.

Besides enjoying yourself, this class also appeals to anyone wanting the company of a group, but not keen to rush around on a tour. If you prefer to stay in one spot, in comfort, learn about the regional cuisine and take in the local sights, then this is it.

Breakfast is served on the typical Italian terrace. If there is a bit of a breeze, we all look like we've been to a wedding. The ancient olive trees are in full blossom, and our hair is decorated with tiny four-petalled cream olive flowers, just like confetti. There's even heavenly-scented lemon tree petals on the tiled table top, laden with crusty, holey white bread and tangy, home-made marmalade.

The classes are conducted in the corner of the terrace shaded by apricot, pink and purple bougainvillea.

It's all rather rustic, rather homely with chipped pottery and some of the bowls are even cracked. Obviously the head of the school, Gelmetti tries to create the feeling of a family kitchen. It's not unusual for her to run off to answer her mobile phone, or stop to read the headlines of the newspaper.

Gelmetti conducts three classes every year, each one in a different location to feature the regional cuisine. Instead of attending her classes in Puglia or Umbria, we chose the pretty Amalfi coast, just south of Naples.

Our class is led by Liberato Urro, second chef of the adjacent, and well-known Quattro Passi Restaurant. Liberato speaks little English, so while he cooks, Gelmetti interprets. Each day we spend the morning cooking our lunch, and the evening cooking our dinner, often with a cocktail in hand.

The menus showcase the traditional regional fare, and focus on favoured local ingredients, such as tomatoes, aubergines, zucchinis, including the flowers; fish and seafood, and of course, many ice creams.

In the south, Italians tend to use oil rather than butter and every time Liberato picks up the olive oil bottle I can't help but get the giggles. He splashes it around so liberally, I am not surprised to learn in each session we invariably use a litre of oil.

Olives are everywhere. Ancient, nobbled olive trees thrive on the nearby steep hillsides running down to the coast. Old fishing nets are strung between them to catch the olives as they ripen. It's hard to know if there are more olive than lemon trees.

Everything is growing in abundance, tomatoes are flourishing alongside grapevines and colourful wildflowers make afternoon drives along the twisting, cliff-hanging road to neighbouring towns such as Positano and Amalfi a real treat.

Guests are also encouraged to party, and one night we take a moonlit midnight stroll to the beach. On our way, brilliant fireflies dance around the wildflowers and at the seaside there is a flurry of activity with fishermen desperately trying to bring in their boats before the approaching storm.

The following evening we are oblivious to the rain, as we taste wines and enjoy freshly baked focaccia and excellent parmesan cheese in the Quattro Passi cellar. Fortunately the rain stops before our pizza class on the terrace.

Of course, we begin with Italy's most popular pizza, the Neapolitan, named after Naples, the home of pizzas. Not surprisingly, it is absolutely delicious, with local tomatoes, fresh basil and the ubiquitous mozzarella. Many of the dishes demonstrated include mozzarella and we even visit a mozzarella factory in Sorrento.

It's fascinating watching men of three generations stirring a huge drum of curds and whey, with a wooden paddle big enough for a boat. And it certainly looks like a real art as they stretch handfuls of elastic white cheese and tie it into fancy knots or little plaits.

On the way "home" we stop at a cooking utensil shop. It is jam-packed. There are gnocchi mashers, parmigiana graters, pasta scoops, pizza trays, even pizza paddles; you name it and you can buy it.

Equally entertaining is the weekly morning market at Amalfi. A weather-beaten old man does his best to persuade me to try, and then buy, a bottle of the local liquor, limoncello.

Less interested in a sale is the handsome young man, his truck bursting with half a dozen vats of olives, parked between the bloke selling lacy black knickers and a van dangling with salamis.

Little old ladies scurrying home with trays of basil seedlings remind me of some of the tips we learnt at the Italian Cookery Week. If you're cooking tomatoes and basil, first add just a little basil to the oil to flavour it, and save the rest of the basil to toss in at the end. To ensure tomatoes retain their sweetness, don't cook them too long, and don't stir them too much or they will bruise.

Finally always remember, if the wine doesn't taste nice to drink, then you should never cook with it. For the best Italian cooks cook only with the best Italian ingredients. And then it is guaranteed to be simply delicious.

- NZ Herald

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