Tuscany, Italy 2006
I was traveling with three friends in the storied Tuscan landscape of Italy, walking through hillside vineyards, drinking wine under olive trees, and absorbing a lesson in Brunello winemaking, one of the region’s wine superstars. Ten days was not nearly enough time to taste, or fully appreciate a thousand year’s worth of red wine lore. Luckily though, the true character of the region was encapsulated one fall evening in a lively cooking class, in a tiny apartment kitchen in Montalcino.
We met up with Chef Teresa (pronounced like Ter-ee-zzzza). She had asked us to meet her in the town square at 6:00 pm and after introductions, she launched into Italian foodie history while we walked toward her apartment. She had stopped at the market for fresh herbs, and she very proudly spoke about her knowledge of traditional Roman cuisine, where she was originally from. We had to walk up several flights of stairs to earn our dinner since her apartment was on the third floor. Once in the apartment, I took a moment to sneak a peek out her open window. It was an amazing view of the setting sun behind patchwork vineyards and three of Teresa’s D-cup bras hanging on a laundry line! We were introduced to her roommate then, the four of us friends sat and listened to more history of indigenous foods of Italy, which ironically did NOT include tomatoes. Teresa was quite proud of her Roman heritage and she continued to gain flare and steam as she spoke. Our group of five now, moved into her very cozy kitchen. She explained we would make a group of appetizers including roasted peppers, fennel salad, then a variety of sauces for pasta and also a mushroom risotto. She explained, “You will learn to cook with passion like the Romans did.” Under her watchful eye, we became her choppers, stirrers, tasters, de-seeders and kitchen hands. I rolled up my sleeves and happily sipped my glass of red wine, which never seemed to go empty, refilled by a magic-Italian fairy that entire evening. Our chef got my trip mates – Theresa and Randee, started on the basic three sauces: Aglione (tomato with garlic), basic tomato (puréed tomatoes) and tomato chunks with onion. She was adamant about not mixing onion and garlic in the same sauce because she firmly believed the two distinct flavors competed with each other.
Somehow, Andrea and I were assigned the most difficult task in the cooking repertoire…peeling the roasted peppers. Our task was to peel and seed two roasted red peppers. As we took off the peppers’ outer layers, our fingers became very messy and sticky. I turned my pepper over to get a grip, all the tiny seeds seeped out near the stem into the bottom of the pan. Ever watchful, Chef Teresa leaned over, about a an inch from my ear and said, “Oh, this is most unfortunate.” Andrea and I looked at each other, swallowed hard and continued on our task. Teresa did hand me a small spoon to scoop out the seeds and continued on with her seed warnings by saying, “You must not let any seeds get in the serving bowl—No seeds in my peppers; it is like a knife in my heart!” She continued and added for emphasis, “When I go to a restaurant and order pepper salad, if I find one seed…just one seed, I walk out without reservation!” Was she serious or was this part of her class performance? I wondered whilst raising a brow. I think the pressure was too much for Andrea so she took a big gulp out of her wine glass. I wasn’t feeling all that confident either, after that diatribe on seeds. Theresa and Randee looked over in my direction displaying a smirk and suppressing a grin. Our chef certainly had a flare for the dramatic, like many Romans I experienced on that trip. I convinced myself I wasn’t going to get thrown out of a cooking class that I had paid for.
Thankfully, we had a moment to gather our wits as she called us all over to see the sauces being stirred and attended to by Randee and Theresa. We all walked near the bubbling pot and dipped our pinky fingers gingerly into the sauce, barely tasting a tiny bit on the spoon. Teresa piped in with a “No, No, No, taste it with passion; you don’t take a little bit like that, you need to really try it!” She demonstrated by spooning up some sauce then she dunked her finger in and slurped up a big mouthful. Our Theresa did not need to be told twice. She followed her lead with a similar enthusiastic taste, then we all followed suit to the delight of our chef. Chef Teresa looked at Andrea after her taste and said, “Andrea, what do you think… what does it need?” Andrea paused, looked upward and continued to ponder for a moment too long. Teresa gave up on her offering any suggestions and said impatiently, “You think about it and you write me.” I watched this exchange and suppressed a belly laugh and wondered if Andrea and I could still pass her seed test, yet to come. It was Theresa and Randee’s turn to laugh next as Andrea and I finally de-seeded the pepper and presented our pan to Teresa. She was pleased and cut them into strips, added olive oil and placed them on crusty bread with a bit of coarse salt on top. All four of us bit into this pepper bruschetta and immediately went to food heaven! It was an unbelievable taste and all my labor and stress from before melted away. I grabbed another and savored the flavor of the peppery olive oil and the richness of the roasted pepper.
The “pepper pressure” from earlier was lost in my memory and I savored my sips, feeling the glow and warmth radiating from my rosy cheeks. My experience left me a passionate believer, that Italian food and wine undoubtedly possessed magical qualities.