If you ask any Italian where is the best place to eat in a town, they will always say “at my mom’s”. There is really nothing like a home cooked meal in Italy. If you are not lucky enough to have your own Italian mamma, the next best thing is to take a cooking class while you are in Tuscany. It also solves the problem of what to bring people as a gift, as there is really nothing better than inviting people to share a meal at your table and spend time together reliving your trip with tastes from your holiday.
Classes can be arranged at many farmhouses or wineries that own a restaurant. Most will teach you how to make fresh pasta, learning the tricks from experts that have been rolling their own pasta for years. Some teach you to roll it out with a rolling pin, like grandma made it, others use the classic rolling machine most people have. There are regional pastas like Pici, which need a machine and can be easily made by kids. I really enjoy getting everyone into the kitchen to help prepare the pasta. It makes it easy if you don’t have to do it all yourself.
When you take a cooking class, you get a chance to meet a local, and not just learn a recipe, but make friends. To cook, you stop and enjoy the preparing of a meal, learn about local specialties and the seasonal regional dishes. The best part of the class is sitting down and enjoying your meal with a glass, or two, of local wine. Often a cooking class at a local winery will feature a wine pairing with each course.
Buy ingredients to recreate the meal at home
After you take the class, I suggest shopping for local ingredients. When you get back home, it is not always easy to recreate the dishes without the special extra virgin olive oil, or perhaps some special spices or herbs. A stop at a local grocery store is my favorite place to get gifts for friends.
Many of the local wineries can ship directly estate produced extra virgin olive oil and wines, which make the meals so much more special for your guests.
The traditional Tuscan meal for parties is long, starting with a choice of antipasti, then pasta or risotto (large parties will have a tris, three different dishes), followed by the meat course with vegetables, often twice-cooked spinach, roast potatoes with rosemary, slow cooked Tuscan white beans and a salad as well. Desserts are not always part of the meal, often being substituted by serving cheese and fruit.
Tuscany is famous for their sheep’s milk cheese called Pecorino, which can be soft and fresh to a harder version which has been aged. It is not to be confused with the Pecorino Romano from Rome which is very salty.
To recreate a meal at home, and your Tuscan Pantry, besides Estate-produced extra virgin olive oil and wine, I suggest getting some basic pantry products at a grocery store while you are here too, such as sea salt (look for the fior di sale, the best salt crystals to use as a finishing salt). From the dried herb and spice section I would get oregano, tiny chili peppers and nutmeg which comes with its own tiny grater.
You cannot bring back any meat products to the USA, but you can bring back aged cheeses which have been vacuum packed. It is easy to get 24 month old parmesan cheese or one of my favorites, a round of truffled pecorino cheese.
To accompany the cheeses, you can also find some fun fruit compotes, made from fig or quince (cotognata) to serve along with the cheese. Your friends will thank you.