Cook, eat, drink, repeat

I’ve come to enjoy taking a cooking class when I travel. Since I’m an uninspired cook at home, this doesn’t exactly follow as an ideal activity for me. But cutting and chopping are more fun than chore-like when you’re hanging out with other people and a pleasant instructor with a charming accent is teaching you how to make a new dish.

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The lovely Mallory manhandles a chicken and Fran holds rosemary for the roast potatoes at our cooking class in Rome.

My friend Fran got me started when we went on a Mediterranean cruise in 2012. We spent a few days in Rome after the cruise and her daughter, Mallory, joined us there. The three of us took a cooking class conducted by the talented Chef Andrea Consoli. About a dozen of us squeezed into his Trastevere restaurant’s tiny kitchen to cut up chicken, knead pasta dough, and chop a variety of vegetables to produce the delectable homemade fettucine alla Norma and chicken cacciatore we devoured for lunch. You’ll find plenty of cooking school options in Rome, but I can personally vouch for Cooking Classes in Rome. Mangiamo!

On two later trips with my buddy Sue we’ve had somewhat different experiences. When staying in Ribeauville in the heart of France’s picturesque Alsace region, we asked our Airbnb host, Sophie Sipp, if she could recommend a class or workshop where we could learn, well, anything. The food in this region is a very tasty cross between German and French cuisine, as one would expect, since this part of France borders southwestern Germany.

Sophie and Kate

Our dear Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)

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Sophie’s apple custard tart

When Sophie was unable to find a local class for us, she asked her mother to make a traditional Alsatian apple tart. She brought it to our apartment along with a bag full of the necessary ingredients so she could show us how to make it ourselves. This was typical of Sophie’s generous heart and  willingness to go above and beyond expectations to make her guests feel welcome. This luscious tart starts with a buttery, flaky crust that is filled with a layer of rich vanilla custard and topped with sliced, fresh apples. Bake until the apples are cooked and the crust golden and – voila.

You might want to consider Alsace for a less touristy experience of France. The link will give you a little snapshot of the area but I was surprised to see that it does not mention Ribeauville. We absolutely loved staying here and it’s a great central location to call home as you explore the area.

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Sue in the roasting room with bags of coffee beans.

In 2017 Sue and I headed out again, this time to Pistoia, Italy, which is a small city just west of Florence. Our apartment was two blocks from the train station allowing us to easily hop on a train (well, easily after we figured out how to buy tickets and interpret the train schedules) for adventures each day. We spent time in Lucca, Pisa, and other smaller Tuscan towns, and of course – Florence.

We signed up for the Discovery Course at the Espresso Academy which is located at a hard-to-find place on the other side of the Arno River in Florence. It was worth getting lost and finally hailing a cab to get there. This introductory class taught us a little about the history of coffee, the different types of coffee beans, and how they’re grown and processed. We visited the building’s roasting room where beans were blended and roasted, carefully selected from the array of aromatic burlap sacks containing coffee beans from around the world.

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A pretty cappuccino NOT decorated by me.

Then our instructor taught us how to make the perfect cappuccino, complete with a design in the creamy froth on top. I think the design was supposed to be a heart, but if I remember right, mine looked more like a butt . . . . No barista need fear competition from me and I gained even greater respect for the art of coffee making.

On my most recent trip to Puglia (picture the heel of the “boot” of Italy), I signed up for a pasta-making class with my dear friends and travel companions Ginny, Sue, and Sue’s partner and stud muffin, Dan.

We found this class to make orecchiette – “little ears” pasta – through Airbnb’s new service offering links to all kinds of experiences available in places where you will visit. Our instructor, Simona Ciccarese, hosts this class as well as other tours in the area through her company, Nord Salento Tour. You can follow the link or check Airbnb for information about her offerings.

Simona teaches the pasta class with her mother, a lovely lady who speaks NO English, but is able to communicate very clearly in pasta language. Simona holds the class at her home in the countryside near Ceglie Messapica. This wasn’t too far from our rented home in Cisternino, but once we got to the town, the car’s GPS basically said, “I dunno.” After driving in circles for a while and offering unhelpful suggestions to the driver, we pulled into a gas station to ask for directions.

Although no one spoke English, some guys standing around drinking beer on the porch of the gas station/bar (yes, that’s right) were amused as Sue and I pulled up maps and addresses on our cell phones and attempted to mime our dilemma. Eventually, they were able to point us in the right direction. In the meantime, Ginny and Dan couldn’t figure out how the gas pumps worked until a nice lady bounced out of her car at an adjacent pump and called out, “CASH! CASH!,” to explain why the payment thingy wouldn’t accept Ginny’s credit card. After handshakes, group photos, and handing out fresh beers to the helpful fellas, we were on our merry way.

But we were close to an hour late for the class.

So by the time we rolled into her driveway, the other participants, with Simona, her mom, and boyfriend, had just finished making little beef roll-ups and sauce and were ready to start with the main event – making the orecchiette (which actually suited us perfectly, though we apologized profusely and expressed our regret at missing the first part of the class).

There was a couple from Ireland, another couple from Slovenia (the good-natured husband wore Simona’s white, frilly apron), and a young woman from California. (Note: none of these people had a problem finding Simona’s house. Just us. Go figure.)

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Ginny making some nice-looking little ears and tubes (penne-ish?)  Mama just called “macaroni.”

We worked outside under a bright white tent attached to Simona’s tiny trulli home, creating a spacious outdoor kitchen and dining area. At a long table, each workstation had a wooden board, small serrated knife, and a cup of water. Mama and Simona circled around pouring a ring of Durum flour onto each board. We were instructed to pour a little water into the center and start working the flour into it. We kept adding a bit of water at a time until the dough was the right consistency to knead – which we did for a while. I’m hoping when I try this at home (I ordered Durum flour on Amazon) I’ll remember how it’s supposed to feel when it’s ready to form into pasta. At that point, you grab a small blob of dough and begin rolling it into a snake, about the thickness of a cigarette, if you remember what those look like.

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Sue and Dan, kneading the dough.

Then, you cut the snake into small bits about a half inch long. Using the knife, you press down on the little chunk of dough kind of to one side, then drag the knife across so the dough rolls up and begins to fold over itself on top of the knife tip. At that point, you’ve basically made a cavatelli, which is probably as far as I’ll go when I am ready to experiment, myself, because the next step is tricky. When you get to the cavatelli stage, you slide your thumb under the dough, against the knife, and stretch the dough up so you make a little cup-like indentation. That’s one orecchiette. One. For every single decent-looking orecchiette, at least five had to be discarded (pressed back into the large dough waiting to become a snake.)

Think about how many of those little suckers you need to make to feed even just a few people, and you’ll be tempted to stick with the cavatelli, too. (Unless you’re Simona or her mom who can whip those puppies out in a flash.)

I doubt I’ll ever make enough pasta to become adept at forming little ears or anything else. But, man — were those things delicious! After each person finished making her little pile of sad, misshapen orecchiette, Mama lightly dusted them with flour and gathered them up into a bowl to bring to the stove. In no time, we were eating lunch since fresh pasta cooks in boiling water for two minutes or less. Simona served our little lovelies with the homemade tomato sauce and tender little beef rolls and it was the best pasta (though not the prettiest) of the whole trip, if I do say so myself.

Orecchiette, fettuccine, cavatelli, whatever. There really is no substitute for fresh pasta. Squisito!

Note:  Squisito is Italian for “exquisite” and is another fun word to say:  skwih -ZEE-toe. Say that to an Italian when you taste something delicious in Italy and they’ll laugh at you. But in a good way.

So, if you’re looking for fun things to do wherever you travel, consider a food- or beverage-related class of some kind. It’s a great way to learn about another aspect of local culture and more often than not, you’ll get something really yummy to eat out of the experience while you’re at it.

Have you taken a class somewhere that you’d like to recommend? I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for stopping by. Ciao!

About katemahar

Freelance writer and event planner by trade . . . mother/daughter/sister/friend . . . passionate traveler . . . compulsive reader
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2 Responses to Cook, eat, drink, repeat

  1. Ginny says:

    OMGOSH Kate what a fun day that was. Even though we were late, I wouldn’t have traded the adventure at the gas station for anything!

    Great article my dear wordsmith!

  2. katemahar says:

    The gas station was the best! I was thinking, gee — I spend a fair amount of time getting lost when I’m traveling. Duh. But, that’s not always a bad thing! Thanks, Ginny — xoxo

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