Tuscany is an extraordinary part of Italy – it’s romanticized in movies, immortalized by famous authors and artists, and on the bucket list of many who dream of drinking vino and dining al fresco under a Tuscan sunset. For some of us, that dining experience would include copious amounts of homemade pasta, tangy cheeses, sauces and sweet gelato.
In 2019, I was fortunate enough to be one of those lucky foodies when I spent a week experiencing the all-inclusive Cook in Tuscany, an indulgent experience that immerses its guests in all things Tuscan.
Editor's note: this trip was taken before COVID-19 restrictions. Always check local travel restrictions before booking a trip and follow the latest government health advice.
As a professional travel blogger I have the enviable job of traveling the world and trying new experiences. I also have no shortage of friends and family willing to carry my luggage. After years of hints from my sister Susanne, I surprised her with a trip to Italy to attend the week-long cooking school. This was Susanne’s first time to Europe and it could not have been a better introduction. Both of us thoroughly enjoy cooking, from a competitive perspective to see who can outdo the other, but also as a way to bond and spend time together over a good home-cooked meal.
We flew into Rome and drove a couple of hours north to the small hilltop village of Montefollonico, where we checked into the host hotel La Chiusa, a property that dates back to the 12th century and is quintessentially Tuscan. The structure is made of stone and brick with large archways, wooden shutters and French-style doors that let the earthy outdoor aromas waft over the space. Our two-room suite had a large terrace patio overlooking the fertile farmlands and rolling hills of Tuscany.
We ventured upstairs to a terrace overlooking the vineyards and olive groves for a welcome dinner where we met our fellow guests, all from other parts of the world. Over several courses of food and wine, we all got to know each other. The owners of the hotel and cooking school, George and Linda Meyers, shared their story about how they left their professions behind to fulfill their dreams and passion for food and travel. Both came from corporate America and were tired of the rat race. They decided it was time to experience life, not just live it.
Under the Tuscan sun in Cortona
The next day we boarded a private bus to the village of Cortona where we would meet with local chef Antonietta Wingate of Netta’s Kitchen. If you’ve ever read the book or seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), Cortona is where it takes place. The cobblestone streets and bustling square lined with shops and cafes seemed like the ideal setting for our first cooking lesson.
Antonietta took us to a local market where we picked up some fresh ingredients we would use to make our lunch. With thinly sliced prosciutto, vibrant eggplant and brilliantly red ripened tomatoes, we were off to the kitchen. She taught us how to make fresh pasta by rolling it to the perfect thickness and slicing it in such a way that when it was picked up by the back of our knives, it would drop evenly on both sides, allowing us to hang it on a drying rack until it was ready to be cooked.
That day in Cortona set the scene for the upcoming week. Each of the next several days were filled with excitement as we visited nearby villages, with time to sightsee, as well as meeting with the local chefs. The energy at each of our cooking classes was palpable. There was often music playing, and dancing was encouraged.
Hunting for truffles
One of the most memorable day trips was a truffle hunt, wine tasting and al fresco dinner at Tenimenti Andreucci vineyards. The afternoon started with an introduction to one of Italy’s most renowned truffle hunters and his two dogs. We hiked through the back of the vineyard, which was thick with oak trees and tall grasses. It didn’t take long for one of the dogs to catch the musty but fragrant scent of a buried truffle.
At the trunk of a tree, both dogs started digging feverishly. The truffle hunter would have to reach the hot spot quickly, otherwise the dogs would devour the prize. In no time we had a dozen high quality truffles.
While our truffle-infused meal was being prepared, Flavio Andreucci, a 7th generation wine-maker, took us on a wine-tasting extravaganza like none other. He believes the vessel is important and he paired each of the seven wines with a specific glass. According to Andreucci, a taster’s mouth should open in different ways so that their pallet is prepared to extract each note of the wine. Throughout the tasting, the glasses got larger and larger. By the end, the wine glass was so enormous I could nearly put my head inside!
Another remarkable trip we took was to Podere Il Casale in Pienza, a hilltop farm that raises goats, sheep, pigs and other animals to produce an array of cheeses and cured meats. While there we took a cheese-making class, then learned how to make the perfect pizza dough.
We took our ingredients to a hot wood-fired oven; the yeasty breads were pure heaven! After our contributions, we regrouped at a large shaded table overlooking the rolling hills below, feasting on our freshly made dishes while drinking decadent wine and enjoying each others' company.
Cooking with a Michelin-star chef
On our last day at Cook in Tuscany we took over the kitchen at La Chiusa where famed Michelin-star chef and cookbook author, Dania Chiusa, taught us a few things; how to pick the perfect ingredients from the on-site garden, how to properly marinate chicken breast, how to make the perfect risotto. During our final cooking class we made stuffed squash blooms, risotto, fresh ravioli, biscotti and a chicken dish so tender you could cut it with your fork.
Our week-long cooking extravaganza at Cook in Tuscany was an experience that surpassed the expectations of even this seasoned traveler. We left knowing how to make homemade pasta, cheese, sauces, gelato and other Italian cuisine and ingredients. We all started out as strangers and we left as friends. The entire experience left an indelible mark on my culinary and traveling soul.
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Mike Shubic is a road trip travel blogger with MikesRoadTrip.com