We had spent two days in Arezzo, but Sunday, we finally experienced Tuscany. The Tuscany you think about when you hear the word. The countryside. Charming villas. An ancient village.
We took a short train ride to Camucia, then a taxi up the mountain to Cortona and finally took a taxi to the Relais Il Falconiere resort and spa, where The Dish received her biggest thrill of the trip — a cooking class with chef extraordinaire Sylvia Baracchi.
The Dish was adamant that I take the cooking class with her. Which made no sense. Sending me to a cooking class is like sending me to a calculus class. Shouldn’t I learn the basics before I start trying to follow a world-class chef? I could use a cooking class, all right. A remedial cooking class. I can fry an egg. I can make pancakes. We’re getting close to naming all my kitchen talents.
But the Dish wanted me along, so I went along, and we had a great time.
Il Falconiere is a gorgeous hotel in the Tuscany countryside, down the hill from Cortona. It’s a 17th-century manor with a Michelin-starred restaurant (I don’t know what that means but it sounds spiffy), a luxury spa and multiple pools. The estate has its own winery and olive groves. Rooms are in different locations around the property.
I don’t even want to know what it costs to stay there — actually, I just looked it up; 290 Euro to 480 Euro a night, not as bad as I thought — but it’s a beautiful place.
In the cooking class, we joined another couple, Rob and Shem, who live in New England. Sylvia and her helper directed us through more than three hours of cooking. We made tiramisu, an appetizer of zucchini flowers, from-scratch pasta with a great tomato sauce and lard-wrapped veal with pate’ in the middle.
Sylvia, whose family owns the place, is probably in her 40s, passionate about food and apparently quite good at it. She’s been from Kennebunkport to Russia, cooking and teaching classes. She’s good with people, too. I never got bored, I’ll say that. I got tired, standing around a table for 31/2 hours, but I never got bored.
The Dish is a fantastic cook (she needs no lessons; she could give lessons) but said she learned a ton. She took to everything right away and sort of served as my interpreter. I mean, for the first time in my life, I separated the yolk from egg white, I drilled a hole with a steak knife through a raw piece of veal and I pulled the center out of a zucchini flower. Actually, everything I did with a zucchini flower was a first. I had never heard of such before Sunday.
Zucchini flowers are zucchinis just before they bloom. Sylvia cuts the ends off, pulls back the flower buds and fills them with ricotta cheese and other goodies. They were surprisingly good. I don’t know if they’ve got zucchini flowers at Crest, but I’m going to look next time I go.
Sylvia serves wine through the class; I took a sip or two just to be social because she looked at me funny when I declined, but I have to say, I don’t care for the stuff. Let me bring a string of Sonic franchises over here, give me six months peddling root beer and I’d have the winery industry on the lam.
We made our veal and placed little flags in them to differentiate. Sylvia asked me what country’s flag I wanted. I told her didn’t matter, so long as it wasn’t France.
I didn’t make too big a fool of myself in the cooking class, until Sylvia showed us how to make a great-looking plate even when serving pasta. I don’t know why chefs are so into presentation, but they are. She made a nice little compact plate of pasta; looked as solid as a cupcake. Of course, it took Sylvia about four explanations to get me to do it right, during which there was quite a bit of laughter at my expense, led by her French friend who had stopped by to say hello. Made me glad I wanted my veal with anything but the French flag.
The tiramisu was good, by far the best I ever had, but I’m generally not crazy about it. Tastes too much like coffee, and I’d much prefer cinnamon on top instead of cocoa. But it was good. Not as good as the Dish’s custard pie, but good.
When the class was over, we went down to the world-class restaurant and basically were served our meal by the resort’s fabulous staff. No water bottles on those tables. You had water glasses and they filled them up constantly. I drank to my heart’s content.
Let’s see, our zucchini flowers were good; our homemade pasta with tomato sauce was excellent, best pasta I’ve had on the trip; the veal was good, except I kind of ate around the pate’; and the tiramisu was solid.
The cooking class was a gut punch to the pocketbook, 250 Euro each, but Rob said the meal, which included all the wine you could drink (I could drink none), might have approached that figure. So it was a great experience. If the Dish is happy, I’m happy.
ANOTHER ANCIENT CITY
Cortona is the town made famous by “Under the Tuscan Sun,” the Diane Lane movie. I like Diane Lane, but I haven’t seen the film.
No matter. I’ve now seen Cortona. It’s another ancient city. It’s a miniature Historic Arezzo. A little more touristy but not swarmed by tourists. Cortona sits high on the hill above Camucia, with a medieval wall surrounding the town.
Cortona’s history dates to at least 600 B.C., and some legends have Cortona hosting even Noah, who was a heck of a lot earlier than 600 B.C.
Cortona is unlike Historic Arezzo in that there is no contemporary city surrounding. Cortona is all steep, narrow streets, surrounded by the city wall, part of which dates back to the Etruscan area of 600 B.C.
Now, lots of people live on the hillsides outside the city walls, and the city population is 23,000, but there is no contemporary city. You have to get down to Camucia, 1.9 kilometers away, to find modern structures.
Cortona has two big plazas that sort of meet in their corners; one of them was housing some kind of military exhibit, complete with several U.S. Army jeeps and the like.
A couple of peace officers (I think they were peace officers and not military, but I can’t be sure) were driving around in an old Lamborghini was readily posed for pictures.
Cortona seemed to be a haven for restaurants. Sounds like a great place to go to eat. We had a small snack, but as you know, we had major dinner plans.
I have no idea what it’s like to drive in or fly around Italy. But all other kinds of Italian transportation are simply superb.
The trains, for example, run on time. No more than a minute off, and we’ve now been on six trains.
The train stations are interesting. We got back to the Camucia station about 10 p.m. for our 10:08 train, and it would give you the willies in America.
Depending on which track your train comes in on, you might have to take the stairs underneath the tracks to get to the other side of the platform. Either way, you wait outside for your train.
It’s 10 p.m., there are waiting passengers milling around but not a ton. Maybe 10-15. The station offers the look of something out of the 1960s; Arezzo, Bologna, Camucia, they all have the same look. Straight out of the 1960s. Makes you think of the great train station scene from “In the Heat of the Night.”
You wouldn’t dare hang out at a place like that in America. But in Italy, no big deal.
And the train rates are cheap. It cost us 3.60 Euro for a round-trip ticket to Camucia. From Arezzo to Rome is anywhere from 14 Euro to 25 Euro, depending on which train you take. Very affordable.
And the taxi service in Camucia and Cortona was fabulous.
We got off the train in Camucia with an elderly couple from Pisa, Italy. They asked if we wanted to share a cab ride, and we said sure. Cost 12 Euro total to go up the hill, which wasn’t bad. And the guy was driving a spotless black Mercedes van.
In Cortona’s town center, he dropped us off and said he’d have a cab waiting for us at 3:30 to go to Il Falconiere. It was there at 3:24, a very nice Volkswagen van that took us to the resort for 15 Euro.
A resort employee before the cooking class said she’d have a cab waiting for us at 9:50 p.m. At 9:45, there it was, another nice Renault. Cost us 15 Euro to go back to the Camucia station.
All the taxis were immaculate and, even better, on time.
We’ve got two more train rides — Arezzo to Rome, then Rome out to da Vinci airport — but so far, the transportation system has been phenomenal.
* A reader asked about “The Dish” nickname. My wife’s name is Tricia. I’ve called her Trish the Dish as long as either one of us can remember. Stole it from one of my favorite TV shows from boyhood. “One Day at a Time.” The Romano girls always were talking about their school chum, Trish the Dish.
* That egg I cracked in the cooking class? Orange yolk. They say chickens eat different stuff over here.
* One thing I’m not going to miss in Italy is the smoking. And it seems to me the women smoke more than do the men. I was sitting on the Arezzo platform, waiting for our train, and some old woman sits right next to me and lights up. The lung cancer rate in Italy has got to be high.
* I’m not going to miss the panhandling, either. Way more beggars in the streets than back in America. And it doesn’t appear to be just bums. At the Arezzo station Sunday, a nice-looking, hip-dressed girl in her 20s was asking everybody for money.
* I still don’t understand the siesta. In Cortona, the pharmacy was closed from 1-4:30 p.m. Reminded me of speaking at the Wewoka Lions Club awhile back.
My friend Jay Badry, then pastor of the First Baptist Church, had invited me to town. And after the meeting, he took me downtown to the cool old pharmacy, because the proprietor wanted to meet me. He couldn’t come to the Lions Club luncheon because state regulations require his pharmacy be manned throughout the day. Yet in Italy, they just close up in the middle of the afternoon.
* Sitting in Cortona, we saw a guy with an OU cap walk by. We didn’t holler at him, because he had two young boys with him and looked a little intense. Might have been someone from OU-Arezzo anyway.
* We stopped off at an Arezzo supermarket Sunday morning. Big place but no frills. None of the stuff you see when you enter an American supermarket. From the front door to the produce is about 10 steps.
But if it makes you feel better, the service wasn’t any better than at a Wal-Mart. You had to stand in line to check out, with no one in much of a hurry to get you through.