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What to expect from a Tuscan Cookery Class?

  • ”Mess, don’t press!” Simone, chef-owner of the Ristorante Malborghetto, is showing me how to make a ragù.

    “This way we mix all the flavours – and we don’t burn the pan,” he smiles. He’s right. Although we cook the meaty stew for more than two hours, a little gentle coaxing with the spoon and a regular slug of water keeps the washing-up to a minimum. “Water adds no flavour and takes no flavour away,” counsels Simone.

    This is just one of the many tips, useful for a host of recipes, that Simone imparts during the three-hour cookery class my husband, Dean, and I have signed up for at his restaurant in Lecchi in Chianti. It’s a fun way to spend a morning of our villa holiday with To Tuscany.

    And the ragù is only one of the dishes we will prepare during the course of the morning in his professional kitchen. By the time we are joined by our friends for lunch – hungry to sample the results of our morning’s toil over a hot stove – we will be ready to serve up a four-course feast, featuring crostone di porcini, salsicce e fagioli, and tiramisu, too.

    Our session began earlier that morning with a chat over a coffee, gaining a little insight into how Simone had ended up championing the produce of his native region in this pretty stone hamlet in the Tuscan hills. Then, aprons on – embroidered with our names, souvenirs to take home – we got straight down to business prepping lunch.

    We started at the end, with the tiramisu, “to allow it plenty of time to set”, explained Simone. First, he got us separating the eggs like experts, shell to shell, then whisking the whites until we could lift the bowl upside down over our heads without risking a foamy new hairdo.

    In another bowl, we beat the yolks with some mascarpone and sugar. Then we folded in the whites to create a light cream and began assembling the dish, layer upon layer of sweet liquid and sponge biscuits quickly dipped in a bowl of watery espresso. “Just touch the coffee,” said Simone, “you don’t want it to be too strong, you want to give a hint of its flavour.”

    With the tiramisu in the fridge and the ragù underway, we turned our attention to the art of making gnocci, kneading a soft dough of potatoes, flour, egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a sprinkling of nutmeg. We rolled sausages of the mixture and chopped them into thumbnail-sized dumplings, rolling some into balls in our hands. Then we placed them on a tray for firming up in the fridge before their final destiny, the boiling water bath in the corner.

    Next, we browned a healthy pile of meaty sausages, from Simone’s favourite local butcher, in olive oil, garlic, sage and rosemary. The heady aroma infused the cannellini beans and tomatoes we added to the pan, slowly braising the hearty mixture with the help of our constant friend – “a zip of water”.

    Then Simone taught us a little frill, how to create a Parmesan basket to serve our ragù and gnocci in. Turning a pancake of molten cheese over a small glass bowl is not as easy as it sounds. But Simone had seen it all before: “Once you’ve done your first, it will become easier,” he smiled patiently at my initial lop-sided attempt.

    And finally, we reached the beginning, searing the crostone on Simone’s large grill, then assembling the earthy topping of porcini, garlic, rosemary and salt. “Just clean the porcini with a damp cloth, not too much water,” he advised.

    With our friends now seated at the table in Simone’s cosy dining room, we put our creations to the taste test, each course accompanied by an expertly paired glass of wine. The diners all agreed, we had, indeed, prepared a Tuscan feast – thanks to more than a little help from our new chef friend.

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