The guidebooks all talk about how much everyone loves Lucca and they are completely right. It is a charming little town, the streets dappled with sunlight from the silver birch trees lining their edges and the buildings pale pastel colors. There are multiple piazzas, each one cuter than the next and unique in shape, size, architecture, and monument. The ramparts lining the city make for a lovely stroll or bike ride and the overall atmosphere is pleasant and peaceful.
My two classmates and I got up well before the crack of dawn to take a day trip to another cooking school in Lucca and the experience was more than worth the early morning. The school, called the International Academy of Italian Cuisine, is located on a small farm in the rolling hills just outside the town. One of my classmates had taken classes there before and they welcomed us warmly. The school was at the very end of their two month professional chef program, so we joined some very experienced cooks (decked out in chef's coats and hats) from all over the world for the day. Most of the cooks go on to an internship in an Italian restaurant after the program and then specialize as Italian chefs in their own countries. It was a totally different environment than the class I'm taking in Siena and felt much more like what I imagine a professional kitchen might be like. Whereas we cook at a leisurely pace in a large kitchen, this was much faster paced in a tighter space with more professional equipment and everyone was assigned to a clear task and knew how to execute it. The instructor, Mariella, still stopped for instructions and would call everyone together to demonstrate difficult techniques, like filleting a fish or tying up a crepe and she would constantly walk around the kitchen giving tips and guidance. While she taught the class in Italian, she couldn't have been nicer about periodically stopping to give us the quick English playback.
The menu for the day was centered around chestnuts, which are local in Tuscany and currently in season, and fresh seafood, since Lucca is located fairly close to the coast. We used incredibly fresh and high quality ingredients, often from the farm outside, which I could really taste in the food.
The antipasto was an insalata di mare calda, a seafood salad with tons of fresh vegetables served warm with a light olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. The cooks first chopped green beans, carrots, celery, artichoke, zucchini, and green peppers into super-thin juliennes and blanched them. Next they boiled the seafood in the vegetable water: shrimp, two kinds of squid, and octopus. The octopus had actually been prepared separately first because it takes so long to get to the right consistency – we boiled it for an hour with red wine vinegar, onion, celery, parsley, black pepper, and a bay leaf and the resulting texture was soft and supple and unlike any octopus I've had before. The salad was fantastic – the light citrus zest of the dressing brought out the fresh flavors in the seafood and the meticulously cut vegetables made you savor each bite.
Next was the primo, where I chose to focus. We made gnocchi con farina de castagne con salsa rustica, or gnocchi made with chestnut flour accompanied by a rustic sauce of porcini mushrooms, sausage, pancetta, tomato, and red onion. To make the sauce I browned the onions with a bay leaf, a peperoncino (a dried hot pepper), smashed garlic cloves, and whole kernels of black pepper, then added in the sausage then the pancetta. After the meat was browned, I deglazed the pan with white wine, added in the porcini mushrooms (which had been soaking in water to rehydrate them), a cinnamon stick, and a little bit of tomato and then simmered the sauce for an hour.
I was particularly excited to learn how to make the gnocchi. We used a giant marble slab to make the pasta, similar to what we use in Siena – sadly my kitchen at home is not (yet?) equipped with my very own 50lb marble pasta slab. We boiled potatoes and put them through a ricer and then made a dough with the potatoes, chestnut and regular flour, an egg, parmesan, and grated nutmeg. We rolled the dough into logs, cut thumbnail-sized pieces, and then rolled them on a gnocchi board, which is a small piece of wood with grooves that give the gnocchi its characteristic texture, which helps the sauce stick to it. We quickly boiled the gnocchi until they rose to the top of the pot and then put them briefly into ice water to cool. We did this because we weren't serving them right away – before serving we briefly boiled them again and then added the gnocchi to the saucepan and garnished each plate with fresh pecorino slices. I like all of the tips I am learning about how to prepare food 90% and then cook it the last 10% before serving – I always have a crazy rush of getting everything ready at once with guests already waiting so am definitely going to try out some of these methods.
The dish was amazing – the texture of the gnocchi was firm but elastic and the chestnut flour added another dimension of weight and flavor. The rustic sauce was a delicious accompaniment, each of the flavors of the ingredients blending into each other so that the overall taste was unified, and the texture was heavy enough to match the gnocchi but light enough to scrape the plate clean and still have room for the secondo.
The secondo was orata al cartoccio or seabream baked in parchment paper. The cooks cleaned and filleted the fresh fish, placed them on pieces of parchment paper, and then covered them with a mixture of breadcrumbs and parsley, boiled potato slices, tomato, salt, and a bit of olive oil and white wine and baked them. We learned a cool tip for tying up the parchment paper more easily – quickly soak it in water first and then wring it out to make it more malleable. The fish was lovely – delicate, flavorful, and perfectly cooked and presented in its parchment paper.
Dessert was a more professional affair than any dessert I've made previously. The dolce was fagottino di castagne alla crema di nocciole or crepes made with chestnut flour, filled with hazelnut, chocolate, and chestnut custard, served on a bed of vanilla-rum cream sauce. We tied up the crepes with blanched chives, so in addition to the multi-faceted semi-sweet flavor, we also had a delicate and very artistic presentation. While the individual steps of making the crepes and making the custard are not very different from what we've tried in my class, I'm not sure how well my attempts to replicate this one will go – but I plan to try!
The meal was at a different level than what we've been making in Siena and while I love my program (and it is definitely the right intensity for my beginner status), it was fascinating to see another school aimed at proffesionals and observe the differences in how they teach, what they cook, and how the program is run. After a warm round of thanks and farewells we headed into to Lucca for our sun-dappled afternoon of wandering around and walking off our amazing lunch. It was a really memorable and unique day and felt like a very special experience.