Cooking in Tuscany

I always wanted to go to Italy but not really sure why.  Okay, aside from it being ITALY, and beautiful, it was on the top of my list of dream travel destinations.  So when the decision was made and I was finally going to experience Italy once and for all,  I had to think a little harder and figure out not only what I wanted to do and see, but  what I was hoping to experience while there.  The only thing that came to mind was "Tuscany" and "Cooking" (aside from the 10 pounds I thought I'd put on from all the food and wine I was dreaming of). I pictured driving down some windy roads through fields and fields of sunflowers and poppy's till we got to our little villa and then sat down to watch the sunset while sipping a glass of Tuscan wine.  Unfortunately, my trip down the windy road was in late summer and I missed the poppy's since they bloom in the spring while I just missed the sunflower bloom in late summer as well!  I did however manage to shoot this shot above, from the passenger seat, driving down the windy road, head out the window, and snapping away while hoping to catch the last bit of life these sunflowers had in them!

The cooking part?  That was the "what would I do if I won the lottery?" part.  I would travel around the world and take cooking classes (and my camera of course) while away, that was a big part of my lotto dream.  Well, I haven't won the lottery, but I'm back on my feet these days and I wanted to spoil myself a little on this trip.  When my good friend, Norma had lent me a breathtakingly inspiring book on Tuscany (thanks Norma!!)  it lit a fire under me.  There was a section in the book on several cooking classes that were held at various spots in Tuscany. Apparently, I'm not the only one that's thought of doing this!  Things got pretty busy for me before leaving the big city for this trip,  so if I wanted to take a cooking class, I'd have to  organize it while away.  I had contacted the hotel, umm, sorry.... castle, that we were staying at  while in Tuscany, and asked for help.  Katerina was very helpful and sent me several contacts that I tried to narrow down while I had a few minutes on-line here and there in the various cities we travelled to throughout Italy.  Time was going by fast and I just couldn't get it together.  So when we finally got to our beautiful villa/castle, Castello Delle Serre in Serre di Rapolano (just outside of Sienna, another great city!)  it all started to come together.

While first arriving at the castle, we were met near the beautiful outdoor dining area by Salvatore, a kind smile and a glass of wine.
Salvatore, the delightfully charming owner of this beautiful little castle, found us wandering and lost and he immediately made us feel welcome. It was just as I had pictured it so far.  As we quickly got acquainted, I told Salvatore and Katerina (his daughter) that I was still hoping to take a cooking class while I was in Tuscany.   As they thought of what was available for the limited time while we were there, Salvatore had an idea.  He had a large group of people coming for lunch the next day and he suggested that he might need some help in preparing the feast.  I was all smiles and jumped at the opportunity to be his little "sous chef".  

The next morning, after breakfast, on a beautiful summer's day, I would put on an apron  and I would learn to cook a few new Italian recipes overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany! 

I'm ready, now let's cook!

We had a lot to do, so I was put right to work with quick explanations, a little history lesson here and there and a feeling I just couldn't explain.  I love to cook, so Salvatore didn't have to hold my hand during this process, he just had to give me some tips along the way.

Shaving the Pecorino cheese while having a good workout too!

The chicken cacciatore was made by lightly rolling  several chicken legs in flour, then carefully dropping them into a pan of boiling oil. Yes, this part scared me, anything to do with boiling oil!!  The long tongs definitely helped ease that concern!  The chicken was fried until the skin turned golden brown and then placed into a baking pan and put aside. The hot oil that remained in the stove top pan was then deglazed by adding some rosemary, sage, garlic, hot pepper flakes and lots of white wine!  This flavoured oil was then poured over the fried chicken in the baking pan and then placed into the oven to continue cooking.

Afraid to get too close while frying up the chicken for the Cacciatore!

The green beans were easy to make, and so tasty!  They were trimmed at the ends, boiled in salted water until tender (or you can try steaming them),  tossed with halved cherry tomato's, and dressed with a lemon juice, olive oil and fresh pepper dressing.

We move on to the salad consisting of lettuce's like radicchio, endive, and boston lettuce,  then topped with sliced pears, walnuts and shaved pecorino cheese.  The dressing was a mix of olive oil, honey, white wine vinegar and dried oregano.  A perfect combination of ingredients!!

Pear, Walnut and Pecerino Salad

I'm really getting into my job here!!
This dish was my favourite, so yummy and maybe took the longest to prepare but totally worth it!  I couldn't remember what it was called but it started with a "T" --Sal would be so disappointed in his student!  Thanks to Google, I think I've figured it out.  
Tortino de Patate e Zucchine.  
We made 2 large pans of this dish so we had a lot of slicing to do.  It was a sort of lasagna but made with sliced potato, tomato and zucchini instead of layered noodles.  First I had to crush the bread for the bread crumbs.  I finally learned how to do this the easy way!  Back home, I used to grate stale bread with a cheese grater, and inevitably shredded my fingers in the process! eek!  Salvatore handed me the large cookie sheet with chunks of dry, stale bread on it, and a palm sized, stainless steel meat tenderizer.  My job, hammer the crap out of the bread until I had a  tray of breadcrumbs.  Much easier than grating my fingers, plus I can get some aggression out!  So much fun!  When I finished making breadcrumbs, I was on slicing duty.  A mandolin might of been much easier for this part as keeping the slices equal were important in this step.  But no mandolin was to be found, and I had to do this the old fashioned way with a knife, my steady hand and an eye for measuring. I sliced the zucchini and put them aside. Sliced some tomato's, and put them aside.  The sliced potato's went into a bowl of cold water, to keep them from browning from oxidation and plus, the water removes some of the starches. 
Then the layering begun.  I covered the bottom layer of the rectangular baking sheet with a layer of potato slices, followed by a layer of sliced tomatoes, than a layer of zucchini topped with olive oil, breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, dried basil and oregano, followed by another layer of potato, tomato and zucchini etc..  When the layering was over, the veggies were topped with a final coat of breadcrumbs and other seasonings, drizzled with olive oil, then covered with tin foil and placed into the oven and baked for about 25 minutes at 350º. 

Lunch was served and went off without a hitch!   Not bad for a morning's work!!

Finished meal with Chicken Caccetore, Green Beans and Layered Vegetables!  Yum!!!

Aside from my impromptu cooking lesson, the rest of our stay at Castello Delle Serre was incredible.  The room we stayed in was everything we could imagine, the view was breathtaking, the personal, friendly treatment and advice on sites to see, places to go and restaurants to hit while we were visiting Serre di Rapolano made us feel very important and cared for and all together an experience I will never forget!  Thanks Sal, Kat and Antonio for making our time in Tuscany a very special one!

There was plenty of Lavender and Basil planted around the property, and while I walked by daily, I would take a deep breath  in and  enjoy the pleasant aroma.

Back in the kitchen,  Salvatore talks to me about Oregano. Being from Greek parents, I pretty much know how important oregano is to Greek cooking, and it sounds like it's just as important in the Italian kitchen as well! He also threw in a little Oregano history lesson which was nice to hear. 

After my cooking lesson and tasting, I took a quick dip in the pool, while my other half cools off with a book under the cyprus tree

The "Lounge" area at the castle.  I love the original hand painted walls!

This was the view from our room. We took a million pictures of it every day, but couldn't quite capture how breathtaking it was in person!
I could go on and on about Italy and how beautiful my time there was, but I think I'll keep the rest  to myself ;)  Although we had only visited a small portion of the country, it was all I needed to fulfill that dream....for now. 

Now, it's time to move on, there's so much more to see and do in this world, so much more on my list of dreams to accomplish.  Can you accomplish a dream? or should I call them goals?  I think my goals are my dreams. 

Tonight, I leave for Paris, France to work on a project for a beautiful little company that specializes in travels in Paris.   I'll be photographing the hotels, restaurants, cafes, food, markets and Parisian life.  Another check off my list?  Maybe, but I think I'll milk this one for a while ;) 


  1. I just love this post! It's exactly the kind of thing I'd jump at the chance to do. Go to Tuscany and cook in a castle- yes please! I can just imagine how fresh and delicious the Tuscan food was. Now that I'm back in Toronto, the fruits and veggies just don't compare with those in Greece :)

  2. @ Joanne
    Yes, something about the food away from home is so amazing! I hope Greece inspired you a little?
    And thanks for the nice things you say! Your comments always motivate me to work on my next posts!