June 27th, 2014
I just returned from a two-week holiday with my husband in Italy, on the famous Amalfi coast. As one colleague just asked, ‘isn’t that where all those James Bond movies were filmed?” Well, many films have been shot on that coastline, simply because it’s one of those most spectacularly beautiful strips of civilization and nature on the planet. I like to say I love everything Italian, except their politics.
I have been to different regions of Italy a number of times, always happily, but always wanted to visit the coast south of Naples, having heard so much from friends and fellow travelers about how beautiful it all is. I was not disappointed. June being the cruelest month in Newfoundland it’s also the best time to get out of here. Every day we woke to stunning views of sun and sea. Yes, it’s tourist-ridden and dense with mass-produced souvenirs, but even all that vulgar commercialism cannot mask the stunning beauty of the land and seascapes, nor the charm and grace of busy port towns like Sorrento and Salerno. Thankfully, there isn’t a fast-food restaurant or a Hard Rock café in sight –anywhere. After all, the international slow food movement began in Italy as a reaction to the hideous blight of the processed food industry, and of all the fat-bellied profiles it engendered. Italians know how to live. They certainly know how to eat.
My husband and I signed up for a cooking class at the first hotel we stayed in, where the restaurant had been awarded a Michelin star and the chef was widely known in the region as an innovator, making inspired dishes out of fresh local ingredients. We ate at the hotel almost every night, savouring his astonishing creations, and so we were excited to become students all over again, this time in a culinary classroom. We were not disappointed. Indeed, the experience was a major highlight of the two-week adventure.
As with all new learning experiences, we were a bit shy at first about how to talk to the teacher and his staff. They, too, were cautiously respectful of us. We were strangers to each other and, to be fair, here we were invading their special workplace. It’s always awkward when you’re new to something like that. But clearly they had prepared the lesson well. Around us, men and women were bustling with the day’s fresh produce, prepping food for the evening’s meal. But in the immaculate space we inhabited by the cooktop grill and the impressive industrial pasta machines all the attention was devoted solely to us. Things began slowly, in earnest, as three of the senior staff started to walk us through the essentials of ravioli-making. Beginning with the freshest of the eggs and the finest of flour, we watched as they demonstrated the art of folding the ingredients into each other and then masterfully kneading the dough to a buttery consistency. Then it was our turn. Getting our hands good and dirty, so to speak, we moved from tentative uncertainty to new confidence as the dough started to react to our efforts. I felt like a child in kindergarten, discovering the secrets of the alphabet. From there we learned how to roll the dough, stretching it to workable lengths, and then to cutting and shaping the little cases of ravioli itself. Then followed the stuffing of these tiny pillows with a pre-mixed salted cod concoction, the yummy ingredients of which we had been well tutored about beforehand.
This all sounds straightforward and obvious, but, in fact, it was incredibly challenging to produce the perfect pockets for the cod, and the perfect shapes for the plate. While all this was going on our conversation relaxed and became more informal. The chef got more and more animated as he recognized what good pupils we were, how enthusiastic and appreciative of his craft. Before long our hands were waving expressively, just as theirs always do, and we were blending Italian and English into a language as new and pliable as the dough in our hands. Meanwhile, the curious maître d’ of the restaurant whom we were also getting to know during our stay started pouring chilled local wine to accompany the lesson. Oh, that all learning should be this well liquefied. It certainly helped enliven the tone of the classroom.
Ultimately, after more lessons in how to tenderize, marinate, and slow-cook even the cheapest cuts of beef into melt-in-the mouth tasty morsels, and with a spontaneously delivered diversion of the region’s famous fresh local tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, we were escorted to the terrace to partake of a lunch of what we had just helped to produce. We knew we had passed the test with flying colours, our enthusiasm having carried the day, even overriding some of our more clumsy attempts to fold dough into perfect crescent-shaped pillows. The same is true for all learning experiences. Teachers respond to genuine interest, even when the skills still need a lot of development. Encouragement and reward often follow passionate expressions of appreciation.
The picture above is of a superbly prepared plate of fettuccine and funghi at another restaurant we visited in another town. I was so focused on learning and eating during and after the cooking class that I never once reached for my camera. But as with every meal in Italy, the ingredients of this pasta dish are simple fresh, the presentation is impeccable, and the care and pride in the preparation carries over into every mouthful.
Needless to say, this was teaching and learning of a very high grade. And this student is highly motivated to return to the classroom. How satisfying is that!