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To immerse yourself in a country, you must understand its food culture. Nowhere is this more true than in Italy.
So when you visit Florence, one of the Italian food capitals, make sure to discover what is special about local Tuscan cuisine.
How do you do it? Take a cooking class in Florence with an expert guide. You will take home the ultimate souvenir – the skills to recreate the dishes at home.
After all, taste and smell are senses that can transport you to another place and time in an instant.
A half day Florence cooking class
One of my favourite things to do on our travels is to hire a local guide who has in depth knowledge of their subject and region. Patrizia Cantini, our expert guide and teacher in Florence, has a passion for Tuscany and its cooking traditions that is infectious.
A food and wine journalist, cook and author, Patrizia led us on a voyage of discovery of local produce, recipes and traditions during our Florentine cooking class.
Visiting the market
We started our day exploring the Sant’Ambrogio Market found in the Piazza Ghiberti near Santa Croce. Most visitors to Florence head for the San Lorenzo market and Mercato Centrale but Patrizia explained that sadly, the produce and stalls no longer cater for locals.
At Mercato Sant’Ambrogio we browsed the stalls, looking for in season produce and local delicacies. The covered market has both indoor and outdoor stalls of fruit and vegetables, meat, cheeses and fresh pasta.
A visit to the market is an absolute treasure trove for food lovers and I recommend going when you are in Florence.
Crafting a menu of traditional Tuscan dishes
It takes a seasoned host to pull together a menu that will appeal to all their guests – especially when they’ve just met. Patrizia expertly balanced the tastes of our party of four with what was available at the market.
Oozing ripe figs provided the inspiration for our appetizer, while the late season tomatoes were deemed perfect for our pasta primi piatti (first course). Trying the traditional Tuscan recipe ‘peposo’ or beef stew with pepper was a priority when we heard the recipe was 600 years old. Our final dish was a simple crostata or jam tart.
We went from stall to stall carefully choosing what we needed, learning about traditional Tuscan cooking along the way.
Respect for local and seasonal ingredients is central to Italian cuisine, from Venice and Lombardy in the north to Sicily and Campania in the south. In Italy, this concept is a passion and of course it’s present in Florence too.
Patrizia explained that the food of Tuscany is simple fare using the freshest and best ingredients. Beans and pulses are often used in cooking as well as game meats, rabbit, hare and pigeon.
Of course along the Tuscan coast, seafood is plentiful and prepared in many delicious ways. And each province and hamlet has its own salami, sausages and cheese.
Famous dishes from Tuscany include bruschetta – toast with freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil and toppings, minestrone soup made with white beans and vegetables, and bistecca Fiorentina – Tbone steak Tuscan style.
The food we prepared during our class included several other classic Tuscan dishes.
Learning a 600 year old recipe
After visiting the market we headed back to Patrizia’s home to begin making our feast. Due to the long cooking time required, we began with our main beef dish.
Peposo is a simple beef stew with a long and wonderful history. The recipe comes from Impruneta in the Chianti region near Florence, also famous for making the terracotta tiles that form Brunelleschi’s famous dome on the duomo.
Traditionally made with secondary cuts of beef, wine and lots of peppercorns, the stew is cooked for several hours in a terracotta pot until the meat is tender. Legend says that the workers building the dome were fed peposo and that it was a dish that Brunelleschi himself enjoyed.
Tomatoes were added to the peposo recipe probably around the 18th or 19th centuries when they first appeared in Italian cooking.
If you are interested in learning about Italian food history I recommend John Dickie’s book Delizia
We followed the tomato based peposo recipe and let me tell you, it was absolutely delicious. The meat was tender and rich and was perfectly matched to the spice of the peppercorns.
No Italian cooking class would be complete without a pasta lesson would it?
We made fresh tagliatelle using flour, eggs, water and salt. Rolling and rolling the dough to remove air bubbles is one of the secrets we learnt during our cooking class. This ensures the dough doesn’t break when it is rolled through the pasta machine.
To accompany our pasta, we prepared a simple sauce of fresh tomato, basil and garlic.
A Tuscan dessert
In Italy, if you have an abundance of fruit you make jam or marmellata. Patrizia’s home made cherry jam was the inspiration for our crostata jam tart dessert. The jam was quite tart and the perfect foil for the buttery sweet pastry made to a generations old family recipe.
The process of making the tart was quite the revelation in minimal cooking – only one dish was used in the making of this dessert!
The finale – eating and drinking
Enjoying the meal we created together in Patrizia’s home, at her family table, was a highlight of our time in Florence. I don’t know about you but sharing a meal with family or new friends is always one of the most memorable experiences on our travels.
Apart from the savouring each course and the fabulous local Chianti Rufina wine, we learnt a little more about Patrizia and our fellow travellers, an American couple honeymooning in Italy. We laughed, ate and drank our way contentedly into the afternoon.
I look forward to reliving that wonderful Tuscan meal when we recreate the dishes in our own home.
Learn the recipes from Tuscany at home
One of the things we learnt about Patrizia was that she was inspired to self publish a book of recipes to preserve her family’s cooking traditions. Written in English, there are 100 recipes from Tuscany and Emilia Romagna where Patrizia’s mother was born.
Of course there are oodles of fresh noodle or pasta recipes in Patrizia’s book, as well as the famous peposo beef stew I mentioned earlier. If you can’t make it to Florence to eat at her table, her book is the next best thing.
There is even a recipe for the amazing crostata. It’s Patrizia’s aunt’s recipe because it is better than her mother’s. She told us that with a cheeky smile. You can find Patrizia’s Italian Cookbook: 100 recipes from Tuscany and Emilia Romagna on Amazon.
Discover Tuscan cooking in the countryside
If you have time, and I would definitely try to make some, head to the hills and explore the Tuscan countryside for the ultimate foodie discoveries.
To the south the area around the Val D’Orcia is a gourmet paradise. The wine regions of Montepulciano and Montalcino offer delicious fare to complement their famous wines.
If you visit in autumn don’t miss the famous pecorino cheese rolling festival in Pienza – a stunning hilltop town.
Heading north west of Florence, the hills surrounding Lucca offer another insight into Tuscan cooking and it’s where I saw the biggest mortadella sausage possibly in world.
Spending a week doing cooking classes in Tuscany is near the top of my Italian bucket list – I hope I can update you on that very soon.
In the meantime, why not browse these classic day trips from Florence – it’s the best way to discover more of the cuisine in Tuscany.
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