2006. A European heatwave. Three girls braving the backpacker route, and by “braving it” I mean staying in gorgeous old converted monasteries and doing gourmet cooking classes in the heart of country Tuscany…think an Under The Tuscan Sun style love affair with food.
After 10 years, a few uni degrees, overseas life experience, sharing in each others weddings, three toddlers and a couple more on the way, the three girls, who have swapped backpacks for nappy bags, and their awesome husbands, finally got back together in the kitchen and cooked up a true Italian feast, courtesy of Guiseppina’s cooking school, in Tuscany. I could not have pulled it off without the help of my two beautiful friends.
My Bondi kitchen was never going to replicate the very traditional Italian kitchen, and so I decided to give my meal a more modern twist, but with elements representative of our memories in Tuscany. I wanted the evening to feel organic and natural, as all Guiseppina’s produce was fresh from her garden, and nothing was too complicated or fancy.
Sight: Linen tableware, in muted tones of blue and stone, dressed the table. Small stone plates in similar tonal colours set the rustic scene, while long, curved platters on which the entrees were served, further created the relaxed feeling. Clustered around the table were vintage blue and green bottles, filled with bright yellow sunflowers and fragrant lavender. The girls immediately noticed this detail which reminded them of walking through the stunning stretches of sunflower fields and the lavender bushes growing in every quaint garden, including that of our hostel. The blue and green bottles were also a nod to the similar glass vases which were part of our hostel’s decor.
The food was presented on simple white and glass dishes, maintaining the uncomplicated atmosphere. Being able to see the food through the glass dishes creates excitement and the neutral colours showcase the vibrant colours of the fresh produce which are so vital in Guiseppina’s cooking.
Smell: I didn’t have to do much to create the authentic Italian aroma – the fresh basil and juicy ripe tomatoes, together with the fragrant garlic and lemon set the stage pretty well! The yeasty warmth of freshly baked bread sticks further reminded us of being in the Italian mamma’s home. I lit a blood orange candle, which added freshness to the rich aromas.
Sound: I love Spotify! I selected the playlist Café Europa, which wasn’t too cheesy, but the romantic music with foreign accents and classical nostalgic sounds definitely made us all feel like we were back in the heart of Europe! Of course, the conversation turned to reminiscing about our time spent there. There were many laughs and, when I brought out the old photographs, a few “OMG do you remember that!” exclamations, as well as comments from the occasional shocked sounding husband.
Touch: The organic feel of linen on your fingers provided the physical sensation of being in the countryside – understated luxury, a little rough but so romantic.
The different textures of the food, as always, play a vital role in how your “touch” sense is stimulated. It begins with the nibbles eaten with your hands – warm, soft bread sticks contrasted against the sharpness of hard pecorino cheese, which was also complemented by the gooey sweetness of onion jam. Entrees of arancini and fried zucchini flowers both had a crispy coating, the former with a melt-in-your-mouth inside but the latter, firm. These warm dishes were contrasted further by the cool, fresh deconstructed Caprese salad. This principle of hot vs cold, soft vs hard etc, continued throughout the meal, really stimulating your sense of touch.
Taste: Most of the menu was directly from Guiseppina’s Cooking School, however I substituted a few things to suit dietary requirements and increase diversity. I think the most important ingredient was LOTS of good quality extra virgin olive oil, adding a rich fruity flavour to the dishes.
Each couple brought an Italian drink, to complement one of the courses. I also served ice cold San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa as the non-alcoholic option.
Nibbles: Homemade breadsticks fresh from the oven, (which my Little B so enjoyed helping to make), with a gourmet olive selection, sharp pecorino cheese and the piece de resistance, delicious onion jam which had the perfect balance of sweet and tangy flavour. Harris Farm Markets make their own, which, luckily, was so similar to Guiseppina’s homemade speciality. It made my week when I found it!
Italian Prosecco perfectly balanced out these rich flavours.
Entrees: Wild mushroom arancini and crispy fried zucchini flowers served with a garlic aioli and a tomato dipping sauce. I used dried porcini mushrooms, which gave the most gorgeous depth of flavour. Guiseppina’s original menu included bruschetta. I didn’t want more bread as I had added in the breadsticks earlier, so I decided to re-work the bruschetta ingredients into a deconstructed Caprese salad. I used big balls of rich, creamy burrata, my absolute favourite cheese, and decadent buffalo mozzarella. Served amongst a medley of roughly chopped heirloom tomatoes, with fresh, fragrant basil and a good slug of evoo (extra virgin olive oil), caramelised balsamic vinegar and of course freshly ground himalayan pink salt and black pepper…so so yum! We also opened a bottle of beautiful chianti from Tuscany, a perfect accompaniment.
Mains: One of the most memorable pasta dishes I have ever eaten was the creamy pasta, made without any cream, in Guiseppina’s home. Fresh spaghetti with vibrant cherry tomatoes, basil and lots of garlic and parmesan cheese, combined with walnuts, both crushed and chopped, give this dish the most amazing texture and creamy taste. Ground walnuts and the oil they release mixed through pasta is definitely something worth trying! The combined effort and advice from the other girls (who have made this dish countless times) while cooking was so helpful, and not to mention fun.
For a bit of protein to complement all the carbs, I decided on a simple white fish (ling), cooked with good quality olive oil, fresh lemon juice and lots of seasoning, on a bed of thinly sliced red onion and topped with wholesome baby asparagus, all steamed in a foil parcel in the oven. The clean flavours were great together with the rich pasta.
The chianti continued to flow into the main course, balancing out all the beautiful flavours of Italy .
Dessert: Another dish that we still talk about, 10 years later, is Guiseppina’s tiramisu. This easy recipe delivers every time, its decadence and deliciousness even convinced the girls who are on a pregnancy “no raw egg” diet, to have a spoonful (or two!). One lesson that I learned that day in Tuscany which I will never forget, is that REAL Italian tiramisu doesn’t contain any alcohol, and I think its even better this way!
To contrast the rich creamy dessert, I added to the menu a sour cherry granita. The secret ingredient…balsamic vinegar! Both desserts were served in glass bowls, showing off the gorgeous layers of the tiramisu, and the stunning cerise pink colour of the granita. I picked a flower from my garden in the same shade of pink to garnish the chocolate dusted tiramisu – it looked pretty enticing.
I brought out my favourite glasses which I reserve for dessert wine and liqueurs (by now I think I have 16 different types of glasses in my house!), and we salute‘d to lasting friendship and delicious food over chilled limoncello (itself, in an amazing bottle, which will definitely be up-cycled soon).
Homemade (by my generous mum) almond biscotti were served to end the meal with fresh peppermint tea…always room for more it seems!
Good: we laughed and reminisced and had a lot of fun cooking together, just as we had done on our travels 10 years ago – this was the main goal of the evening, so I would say it was a pretty successful night. My girlfriends were of the same sentiment, while the boys were very complimentary of the food and the Italian experience in general. The small touches definitely didn’t go unnoticed. … so I was happy.
Not So Good: I hadn’t anticipated how long everyone would chat for over the nibbles, or how quickly the entrees would take to fry, so by the time we sat down at the table, they were a little cold, but still delicious. Timing is everything!