There were days of sunlight, of food so good we stopped our talking and smiled, of cherries right off the tree and a little girl sitting in a windowsill eating as many as she could.
It was such a jovial time in Italy in May.
This is the second time I have stepped foot on this property and wondered if I wasn’t on a movie set instead of my own life.
It’s real. This is the villa across from ours, a mirror image of our home for a week, in a villa complex in the hills above Lucca, in Tuscany.
This is one of my places of peace.
Once again, we were in Italy to work with the good folks at Jovial Foods. They flew us over to Italy and put us up in that incredible villa to teach three cooking classes in one week. We taught a gluten-free baking class, a bread and pizza class, and a cooking with whole grains class to 20 people eager to be in the kitchen with us. We laughed and cooked together and figured out teff flour and made more food. These were good people.
The first night of that lovely week, we were fed well by Aurelio Barattini, the chef at Antica Locanda di Sesto in Ponte Mariano. The building housing the restaurant was built in 1388 and it has been in the Barattini family as a restaurant since 1911. In fact, Aurelio’s mother is still the pastry chef and the greeter at the restaurant, which we had the pleasure of visiting twice this visit. Aurelio made us some of the local dishes he loves best, including this fried polenta with mushrooms and truffles and this pomodoro with gluten-free bread.
The pecorino from the hills of Garfagna knocked us all out. We gathered in the ballroom for appetizers as strangers and stood up from the long dinner table hours later as friends.
The villa sits high in the hills outside Lucca, a beautiful walled town first founded in 180 BC. Lu still remembered it from last May and asked us several times on the airplane if we could go on the merry-go-round again. (“Ephelant!” she shouted. Her pronunciation of elephant is one of the few that still stays in baby talk. I want her to hold onto it for years, please.) We walked its streets, marveling at the women riding bicycles in stiletto heels and the street performer painted white as a ghostly centurion, at the slow pace of walking and strolling by store windows. Also, we ate at Grom gelato, where all the young people working take great care to make sure there is no cross-contamination with gluten for those of us with celiac. Their Sicilian lemon gelato is a puckery revelation.
Lu danced through the streets, in and out of sunlight.
One of the days that week, most of the group took a bus together to the Cinque Terra, one of the most stunning places I have seen on this earth.
I’ll tell you more about that day in a post next week.
One our days off, we walked through small towns with our dear friends Debra and Rod, who were there to photograph and make videos for Jovial. One day we meandered slowly through Barga, a tiny town no tourist seems to visit. As we walked through the narrow streets, we marveled at the silence. Partly it was because cars cannot drive in the old part of the city, so we could hear the conversations of shopkeepers instead of the roaring of engines. But mostly, the silence suffused the town because no one but us seemed to be speaking English. We all seemed to whisper as we walked, not wishing to be obtrusive.
In one piazza, an older Italian man opened the green shutters on his third-floor window, leaned out, and started speaking to me in Italian. With large gestures, he told me a story about the black cat wandering outside. Was it his cat? Did he want me to fetch it? I have only the most rudimentary Italian —— Danny says I gesticulate like an Italian —— so he lost me pretty quickly. When I shrugged, after a few moments, and told him I was American, he shoved his shoulders up by his ears and closed the shutters.
I laughed to think I somehow fooled him into thinking I was Italian for a few moments.
And then we five climbed the stairs slowly toward the church at the top of the hill, made our way to its front doors, and turned around. This is the sight that greeted us.
I can see why someone built a church on that spot, long ago.
As much as we enjoyed those meandering days, Danny and I loved best the days in the villa kitchen, cooking good food with people who love it. As we had last year, we were lucky enough to visit one of the wholesale markets in Lucca, one that supplies chefs and markets with the produce of the day. It astonished us again. Look at that display of onions!
When we pointed toward crates of zucchini blossoms, the man who ran the market shrugged and looked away for a moment. When I asked Carla, one of the owners of Jovial Foods (and one of our favorite people) what was wrong, she said, “If he had known you were going to buy squash blossoms to stuff them, he would have asked you to come earlier. He says these are too wilted. He doesn’t want to sell them to you.” Now that I had not encountered before.
One of the things I like best about eating in Italy is that no produce is sold out of season. Tomatoes are in the markets when the tomatoes are ripe. Artichokes show up in every restaurant for a month or so and then they are gone. It’s simply not possible to walk into the market and buy zucchini in March or cherries in January. Wait. Wait until the earth says it’s time to eat tomatoes and then go crazy eating them with everything.
I really wish this were true in the United States.
Pasta with sautéed fresh vegetables tastes better in Italy than it does here because every one of those vegetables offers its full taste.
And when you have waited months for fresh beans to show up in the market, I imagine there’s nothing more beautiful than those speckled red ones. The bowl of freshly shucked ones is pretty inviting too.
We made a lot of food together in those three-hour classes, especially the classes that stretched on longer because there were so many questions and good food ideas.
In our baking classes, we made these little lemon polenta cakes dairy-free to accommodate some of our guests. The taste was tremendous, since we used the Jovial extra-virgin olive oil, made from heirloom olives. The group went through bottles and bottles of it during the week. Several people told me they felt better at the end of the week than they had in years. I’m sure Italy had something to do with it. So did that olive oil.
And in our whole-grain class, we used a brown rice mushroom risotto to stuff the squash blossoms and coat them in buckwheat flour before lightly frying them. That was a good lunch.
I think everyone’s favorite class was the bread and pizza class. You might think every gluten-free person’s favorite cooking class would be the bread and pizza class. But this one wasn’t really about the bread and pizza. Sure, we talked about the miracles of psyllium, the texture of the dough for a successful loaf, the ways to make great pizza dough without stretching it out.
But mostly, the joy of that day was watching Danny put pizza doughs in the wood-fired oven with a long metal paddle and pulling out wonderfully chewy and crunchy pizza crusts. (He had to keep leaning in, because he was clearly taller than the person who built the stove, so he ducked his head inside to make sure the crusts weren’t burning. We all had a good laugh about the fact that the front of his hair was singed off.)
Mostly, I will never forget the joy of sitting at this long, white-tablecloth-covered table with 20 people who had become friends, sharing glasses of wine and good food in the sunlight.
This really is as good as life gets.
The bread wasn’t bad either.
The best part about this trip was these people in the kitchen.
Every time Danny and Lucy and I walked through the villa kitchen, we saw a group of people at the stove. Someone was simmering lamb stew. Another was making fresh pesto. There were bowls filled with pizza dough rising, fresh vegetables being chopped, and eggs sizzling in cast-iron pans. The long table was filled on both sides with new friends swapping stories and telling jokes about their driving adventures in the countryside. On their days off, these folks went out. But on the days we taught classes, this amazing group of people simply stayed in the kitchen, cooking and enjoying each other’s company.
Four or five days into the week, we decided to cook our dinner in the kitchen too. Lu had fallen in love with Jenn, who spun her on the green lawn at that lunch. “She is such a funny woman!” Lu said. Lu also loved Jenn’s husband, Mark, who took photographs of her cooking in the kitchen. “He is going to take photographs of me for 20 days, Mama!” (We all sighed at that. If only we had 20 more days in Italy together.) So Lucy played with Jenn and Mark while we began making our dinner.
Danny prepared a small chicken to roast. I started grilling zucchini and green beans, coated in that olive oil. We were busy working with each other, side by side at the stove, so we didn’t look up for awhile. I lifted my head and saw almost everyone in the group sitting around the long table, talking. Not cooking.
“Danny,” I whispered. “I think they all believe we’re cooking dinner for them.” He turned around, looked for a beat, and then said, “Well, let’s cook some potatoes.” He chopped up and boiled a big pot of potatoes. I swiped the pizza dough I had been meaning to refrigerate that night and started making grilled naan with it. We roasted both the chickens and put on more vegetables, then made a salad.
After an hour or so, we filled our plates, and Lu’s, and then put all the food out on the wooden island where we taught our classes. “Hey everyone!” I shouted. “We weren’t making dinner for everyone, but then it seemed you were hungry. So, come get some food!”
This is everyone digging in.
My friends who were there? We miss you. What a time this was.
I am profoundly grateful that we can bring our daughter to this place, to many places around the world. We want to show her that there are so many different ways to live, and opinions to have, and languages to speak. But when we sit at the table together? Something good happens. Always.
She loves those streets and that rain and that giant umbrella that lives in our villa. And gelato. Oh yes, gelato.
I hope somehow she’ll remember these days in Italy.
We’re thrilled to announce that we had such a tremendous time on this trip, as did the Jovial folks, that we’re teaching another week of cooking classes in that villa in the hills outside of Lucca this September.
We’d love to see you there.
Would you like to see a little of what this week was like in video form? Here’s the video Debra and Rod put together after being there with us.
Jovial is giving away one of these 8 day/7 night stays in Italy on their Facebook page. Enter now, because the contest ends on July 15th. All you have to do is like them on Facebook.
We’d love to teach gluten-free cooking classes in Italy to you. We’d love to share food with you.
Full disclosure. Jovial Foods is one of the sponsors of this website, because we truly believe in the food they make. They paid for airfare for the three of us, as well as putting us up in the villa and providing train tickets. All opinions expressed here are our own.