Towards the end of our garden tour, Carmen looks at her watch, exclaims we are running late and says it’s time for us to head to the kitchen. Promised a hands-on experience, we are excited to see what’s on the menu and roll up our sleeves. First we meet our teacher, Loredano, a bona fide Italian grandmother-type, who used to cook full-time at Spannocchia, but is now retired.
We soon discover that the kitchen is her home. She’s deft, brisk, in charge, a tad bossy, very chatty and hyper efficient. Loredano speaks only Italian and we listen to her via a translator, Arianna, who is one of a handful of interns at Spannochia. The entire building has a medieval, built of the ages (and stone) feel to it, and the kitchen is no exception.
In the center of the kitchen is a huge well-worn square marble work table, which we all gather around. To the left, a much-used commercial cooking range, and under the window, a beautiful shallow, yet huge kitchen sink. This too is made of marble, and sensibly, the water faucet is operated by foot pedals on the floor. Side note: it strikes me that in the U.S. we install Carrara and other marble surfaces in our kitchens and then try to keep them pristine, panicking when a splash of lemon etches the patina or red wine marks the surface. But I think we’re missing the point. They are meant to do a job: keep dough cool, offer a smooth work surface and last for centuries.
Back to Loredana’s kitchen. While it looks like it produces a lot of food, it doesn’t have the militaristic order of many commercial kitchens. Used pots are placed on the floor, and the sink is quite full of dishes and vegetables – overall it feels busy but homey. We examine the menus after donning aprons. It looks delicious and ambitious – it’s already 10.45am and I’m starving.
– Crostone pere e gonzola (toasted bread with pear and gorgonzola cheese)
– Gnocchi al pomodoro (gnocchi with tomato sauce)
– Rotolo di petto di pollo (rolled, stuffed chicken breast)
– Sformato di bietola (swiss chard “pie”)
– Panna Cotta con le fragola (no explanation required – with strawberries)
With this much work ahead of us we are going to be eating at 2pm! We get to work on the panna cotta which needs time to set in the fridge. The key here seems to be using leaf gelatin, which I’ve not seen often in U.S. supermarkets although you can find it on Amazon. (Shhh don’t tell, I snuck six packets in my suitcase to get us through the winter). If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a transparent sheet, which has an almost glassy quality to it. Brittle at first, you soak it in water to soften. Then it’s wrung-out and added to the heated cream to dissolve. Another trick is dial up or down the amount of sugar you add to the cream base. I prefer more creaminess and less sweetness myself.
Next the strawberries are diced, sprinkled with sugar, doused with a splash of brandy, and then brought to a quick boil to make a simple syrup. Then we turn off the heat and set aside to cool and serve later.
Up next, we work on the chicken. Loradena teaches us how to butterfly a skinless chicken breast and flatten it out. The filling consists of a thin egg omelette, cooked swiss chard or spinach, a sprinkle of pine nuts and parmesan. The resulting layers are then rolled and tied, before being baked for 40 minutes in the oven with butter and olive oil. Again, there’s a secret step which pulls the whole dish together. Five minutes before the end of the cooking team, we pour a glass of wine into the roasting dish and turn off the oven. The result is a delicious sauce which keeps the whole thing moist.
We combine chopped and boiled Swiss chard with béchamel sauce, cheese and eggs to create a batter of sorts, that’s poured into a baking dish and cooked until firm. A cross between an egg tortilla and a quiche without crust, this is another filling dish. In fact, there’s no fear of anyone leaving the table hungry.
By now, many of us are hungry, so we quickly prepare the crostone. The gorganzola wheel is oozing and creamy in the middle vs. the rather hard stuff that we’re usually faced with back home. Thinly sliced pear is put atop a slice of bread, and then finished off with a generous amount of the cheese before being put in the oven for 10 minutes or so, until the edges of the bread are toasted and the cheese nicely melted.
Once ready we head out to the garden for a glass of the local rose and our appetizer. To say this is dreamily pleasant would be a big understatement. Life was meant to enjoy days like this. For reals. Put this on your bucket list if you haven’t already. We chat amongst ourselves, learning a little more about our companions for the day, enjoying the mild buzz of the noonday wine. While it’s not super sunny, it’s temperate outside and the stone walls and the grass add to the elemental feel.
All too soon we head back into the kitchen. Unfortunately, there are rather a lot of us on this particular day, so we don’t get to do as much hands-on work as Monkey and I would have liked. Nevertheless, when it comes to the gnocchi we all get a chance to roll and shape. Based on mashed potatoes (pushed through a ricer), which is then worked with flour and egg, the dough should be handled carefully to avoid it getting tough. Loredana shows us how to use a little wooden paddle to give the gnocchi a distinctive pattern.
She’s less than impressed when we all make pieces of different sizes and reminds us that they should be lined up neatly on the towel-lined tray. Once we are done, they are placed in gently boiling salted water and when they rise to the top of the giant pan, they’re ready to be scooped out, tossed with the reduced tomato sauce and topped with parmesan.
Finally the meal is just about ready to serve. Thinking we’re headed back to the garden, we move in that direction, but no, we are brought into a wonderful old dining room with a gorgeous view of the fertile valley below. First we eat the gnocchi – I’m not usually a fan because I find it a little heavy – but it’s hard not to enjoy knowing you’ve contributed to its production. Next the rolled chicken which is cut into slices. The addition of the egg and the chard is a great way of making a small amount of chicken go a long way. Plus I like the irony of the chicken and the egg in one dish. It’s delicious and the chard pie is pretty yummy.
At this point, I’m stuffed. But the panna cotta looks so seductive, quivering as it does on the plate, not quite holding its shape after being turned out of the mold. Topped with strawberries and the delicious syrup, it’s perfect. I’ve tried making it since, but I need to play around with the gelatin amount. Mine was good, but not as delectable as this one.
Afterwards, when it’s quite clear that only a post-prandial nap will do, we head out to lie by the pool despite the foreboding clouds overhead. While Monkey dives into the pool – they say you don’t really need to wait an hour to swim after a giant feast – I quickly fall into a slumber, Kindle in hand. I’m rudely awakened by giant, fat raindrops landing on my face, but really, there are far worse ways to end a perfect day.
For information about Spannocchia visit its website.