Culinary getaways are all the rage these days. They allow you to experience the most intimate and timeless secrets that a country has to offer: taste, spice and culture. In Italy, food is a way of life. People pour their hearts and souls into the dishes they make, which are usually shared with friends and family ? and a nice bottle of wine. This is why I was so thrilled to take part in the Jovial Gluten-Free Culinary Getaway in the heart of Tuscany, Italy. Here I would learn first-hand how to make amazing gluten-free meals?from homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli and authentic wood-fired pizza to a traditional Tuscan meal.
In addition to the delectable food, I would be able to explore the breathtaking views of the Tuscan countryside and visit Cinque Terre?a stretch of five towns along the Italian Riviera.
This week-long culinary adventure, offered each spring and fall, is a gluten-free foodie?s dream and a trip of a lifetime. Let me take you through my journey.
Gluten-Free Culinary Getaway
As we approached the 18th century villa in Lucca for our culinary adventure, its elegance and beauty left me speechless. Carla Bartolucci, who founded Jovial Foods with her husband, Rodolfo, makes it her mission to provide each guest with a welcoming and inspiring vacation, full of camaraderie and cooking ? all gluten-free and all exceptionally delicious of course. This is an intimate affair; each Culinary Getaway has about 15 to 20 guests. And Carla goes to great lengths to accommodate each guest?s dietary restrictions beyond gluten, which this week included eggs, dairy and oil. Each day she was happy to make multiple versions of dishes so that everyone could enjoy the feasts.
Starting with the exquisite breakfasts offered each morning, the culinary getaway provides a unique learning and cooking immersion experience for people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and the people they love. The itinerary of lessons is designed to allow guests to go home and prepare the same authentic Italian meals in their own kitchens. This is hands on ? or hands ?in? ? teaching, as Carla wants to familiarize us with how the various pasta and bread dough should feel, so we can be successful at home.
Our first evening at the villa began with a lovely reception in the villa?s ballroom, followed by a typical Tuscan meal in the dining room, catered by a local chef. This was a lovely way to meet the other guests, start our week together and unwind from our long journeys. At the reception, guests were offered polenta with porcini mushroom sauce, chestnut bread with a ricotta cheese topping and a spring vegetable flan. Dinner began with a traditional minestrone soup, followed by prosciutto stuffed beef filet and eggplant parmesan. A decadent panna cotta with caramel and caramelized fruit completed the meal. This was a great preview for the rest of the week and provided a great introduction to Carla, the villa, the other guests and the many great meals and memories to come.
Sunday is Pasta Day
Sunday evening?s lesson was all about pasta. The end goal: spinach and ricotta stuffed ravioli and tagliatelle with local porcini mushrooms. First, we prepared the spinach and ricotta stuffing. The most important take-away here was to aim for a mixture that at first seems a bit too salty?this means it will be just right once cooked inside the ravioli. Carla demonstrated how to weigh and mix our own ingredients for fresh pasta, using her own special blend of gluten-free pasta flour.
I?ve always measured ingredients with cups and spoons, but I learned the value of using a high-quality electronic scale. We also learned the importance of knowing how the dough should feel since the quantities you need may be affected by several factors, including the type of flour you are using as well as the day?s humidity. After gently massaging our dough to arrive at the correct consistency, it was time for the hand-cranked pasta machine. Cranking our handfuls of dough through the pasta machine was surprisingly fulfilling. This was followed by learning how to pipe the filling on the flat dough and seal with a bit of egg yolk.
Monday Ends with a Starter
After having the day to explore the local countryside, the group met in the evening to learn how to make a sourdough preferment for the next day?s pizza, using Carla?s own personal sourdough starter that she has nurtured for years. Sourdough is used as an alternative to modern yeast because it is easier for the body to digest. This ancient skill was new to many of us and it was fascinating to see, smell and touch.
Tuesday is Pizza Day
Pizza day was on the top of many of the guests? list of what we were looking forward to most. Not to mention we would be cooking in an authentic wood-fired oven on the villa grounds. Using the sourdough preferment we prepared the night before, each guest rolled out our own pizzas and topped each with sauce and fresh mozzarella. Then, they went in the oven (on pans to protect them from the non-gluten-free stone oven floor), emerging shortly after to appreciative ?oohs,? ?ahhs? and occasional applause.
Wednesday is for Walking
Wednesday was a free day to allow guests to explore Italy. Some guests went to Florence, some went to Sienna and other surrounding cities ? our group chose Cinque Terre, a series of five small villages that seem to cling to the cliffs overlooking the coast. For the outings, Carla provided suggestions for restaurants that are certified to prepare gluten-free meals. This helped the guests feel safe and content enough to enjoy some of the authentic and delicious local restaurants.
Thursday is Tuscan Dinner
Thursday?s lesson was designed to replicate a traditional Tuscan dinner, which includes a small first course of pasta or grain, followed by a meat and vegetable dish. We started by making dessert, a traditional Italian pastry tart called a crostata. We rolled out the pastry dough and gently set it into fluted pastry pans. After spreading fruit jam, we topped the tarts with strips of pastry and popped them into the oven.
The first course was risotto made with a local squash (similar to Kabocha squash) served in the squash?s beautiful shell! We learned that the success of the risotto rests on two things: the quality of the rice and the quality of the stock. Carla recommends the rice they use in Italy, vialonenano, which may only be available online in the U.S. or in specialty stores, as well as making your own stock when possible. There are two schools of thought for risotto ? stirring in small amounts of hot stock as it cooks and pouring in the whole amount at once. The second school of thought is the ?fix it and forget it? school, which I applaud since it frees me from standing and stirring. The meal also included braised veal shank with shallots and carrots in a reduction sauce, and carrots cooked with onions, chicken stock and a splash of wine. It all tasted amazing.
Friday is Farewell
Friday?s farewell lesson included several typical northern Italian favorites. Guests got to practice their new learned skills with the pasta machine, rolling out fresh dough for lasagna, made in the northern Italian style with a b?chamel sauce instead of ricotta. Next came chicken cacciatore and a beautiful assortment of thinly sliced raw vegetables to dip in extra virgin olive oil. Carla also brought in her special tigelliera, a flat portable oven that bakes small flat rounds of rolled dough between two hot surfaces. The resulting bread is called tigelle, and used for sandwiches with assorted dried meats. The meal concluded with a rich apple pie and assorted sorbetto.
This week was more than I could have hoped for. The villa?s ambiance added a sense of style, luxury and history to this culinary adventure. Carla?s passion for great food that is both healthy and healing, as well as her dedication for sharing and teaching, inspired all who attended with new insights and confidence to make these magnificent foods at home. The opportunity to get to know the other guests over the week made this gluten-free culinary getaway truly unforgettable, leaving me with this last thought, when can I come back?