Plans are shaping up for our autumn AmorOlio program, October 21 to 27, 2013, at Villa Campestri (“the world’s only olive oil resort”), in the hills above Tuscany’s Mugello valley just half an hour north of Florence.
I’m especially enthusiastic about this program because we’ll be joined by my old friend, chef and food writer Deborah Madison, author of, most recently, Vegetable Literacy, a rich compendium of lore and recipes for all of us who want more vegetables on our tables. And Tuscany in the autumn is a wonderful place to learn about that. I should also mention that Deborah’s brother Mike Madison is a well-known producer of olive oil in California—so I’m sure she’ll have a lot to add to our tastings as well.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, AmorOlio is a unique, six-day intensive program, now in its third year, focussed on extra-virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet. Think of it as a graduate seminar for cooks, chefs, food writers, and anyone interested in deepening their knowledge of this remarkable ingredient: how it’s made, what’s good and what’s not, nutritional values and health impacts, how to recognize and describe flavors, and how to choose and use extra-virgin in the kitchen and at the table.
I developed this five-day/six-night program as an opportunity to explore one of the most widely used and most misunderstood ingredients in the modern (and ancient) kitchen. No specialized knowledge is required or expected, and skill levels of participants vary from beginner to expert, but everyone can profit from the classes, the discussions, the taste experiences, the whole package of ingredients that make up a fun-packed, learning-full, dynamic and exciting week.
Together, we’ll spend our days on this enchanted hillside, exploring the world of the Mediterranean Tuscan kitchen and focusing on super-premium olive oils that actually go “beyond extra-virgin” to a new level of high technical standards and outstanding sensory profiles.
What’s in store for the autumn?
- Hands-on classes in the Villa kitchen, with me, Deborah, and Campestri’s executive chef Luigi Incrocci, as we explore cooking with extra-virgin—braising, frying, sauteing, baking, making ice cream, as well as other uses of extra-virgin—garnishing, for instance, and preserving.
- The state of the art: recent changes in olive cultivation and olive oil production that are making fine extra-virgin more available for more consumers, and how to tell the best from the not so great, the true from the false.
- An introduction, through guided tastings, to the surprising variety of extra-virgins from around the world, all representing a program for olive oil excellence, all illustrating the enormous range of flavors and aromas included in extra-virgin.
- Wine tastings and a winery visit, plus visits to a fine cheese producer, to local markets, and to other gastronomic delights of the region.
- Meals in traditional restaurants and a chance to see how Tuscany’s expert traditional chefs use this precious ingredient.
- An exploration of the culinary heritage of this fascinating corner of Tuscany, known in Italy as the cradle of the Renaissance.
For more information, or to register, please go to: Food 52
Following is the breakdown, day by day
Day 1 — Monday, October 21: Introduction to Villa Campestri
- Olive oil tasting
- Reception and dinner
Start the week off in Villa Campestri’s Oleoteca (the old wine cellar) for Nancy’s introduction into how olive oil is made and how different types of intervention and different critical points in the process (from variety and weather, to date of harvest and processing method) influence the way olive oil tastes; followed by a structured olive oil tasting with agronomist Gemma Pasquali, who has a distinguished academic career studying the important characteristics of olive oil. With Gemma, you’ll gain new insights into the differences between premium extra-virgins and ordinary supermarket oils, what different flavors relate to (celery? artichoke? tomato leaves?), what makes them the way they are; then you’ll be introduced to the award-winning techniques developed by Paolo Pasquali (proprietor of Villa Campestri and Gemma’s father) to preserve oil’s freshness long after harvesting.
Once the tasting is over, we’ll share an aperitivo and then transfer to the Villa restaurant, l’Olivaia, for dinner, an introduction to the Mugello and its great culinary traditions.
Day 2 — Tuesday, October 22: La cucina toscana
- Farmer’s market
- A grist mill (mulino)
- Trattoria lunch
- Totally Tuscan cooking class
- Wine tasting with Burton Anderson
- Dinner at Villa Campestri
This morning we’ll visit the weekly farmer’s market in Borgo San Lorenzo to see what we can find there—and there’ll be plenty of choices as this is a particularly rich time of the year. We’ll probably find wild mushrooms and perhaps wild foraged greens, as well as the last of the late-summer tomatoes, beautiful and unusual squashes, and maybe some early cavolo nero (which we know as lacinato kale). And there will be a porchetta stand and even, for the bold among you, a stand selling the most famous (and most delicious) Tuscan specialty panini di lampredotto, aka tripe sandwiches.
After the market we’ll stop at a historic grist mill to see and sample the stupendous flour produced, then lunch in a lovely, traditional local trattoria. Returning to Villa Campestri, you’ll have a chance for a brief rest before an introduction in the kitchen to the fine art of la cucina Toscana with a sampling of pantry products that distinguish this simple, sober, but delicious way of cooking and eating–an array of local specialties including wild fennel pollen; a range of fresh herbs from parsley to rosemary to wild mint and sage; pecorino cheeses, fresh and aged; real ricotta and creamy raveggiolo; cured pork pancetta, rigatino, and prosciutto; wild mushrooms; honey; vin santo; and of course extra-virgin olive oil. (If there are Tuscan products or processes you’re wondering about, please let us know ahead of time so we can talk about them and taste them with the whole group.)
In a Totally Tuscan cooking class with Nancy and the Villa chef, you’ll prepare many classic Tuscan fall dishes, using fresh produce from the gardens and some of the pantry items we’ve tasted and discussed. Our menu might include gnudi (aka ravioli gnudie, or “nudies,” a kind of gnocchi made from spinach and ricotta); pollo al mattone (chicken under a brick), a famous Tuscan specialty, made with very small young and super-tender local chickens, or wild boar cooked in an old-fashioned chocolate sauce that harks back to Mexican moles; wild mushrooms in a sformato or soufflé; cavolo nero cooked simply and deliciously with a little chopped pancetta and extra-virgin olive oil; and we’ll finish with a classic panna cotta (cooked cream) with chocolate sauce.
Before dinner this evening, we’ll be joined by Burton Anderson for a structured tasting of an array of Tuscany’s finest and most interesting wines. Anderson, an American who has lived and worked in Tuscany for many decades, is considered Italy’s premier wine expert. He is the author of a number of books and a consultant to the Italian wine promotion board, and we think he knows more than any other person about the state of Italian wines today.
Burt and his wife Nancy will join us for dinner in the Campestri dining room, as we sample what we’ve produced in our class today.
Day 3 — Wednesday, October 23: Understanding Olive Oil
- Touring the oliveto, 2nd olive oil tasting in the Oleoteca
- Morning: olive oil cooking class
- Afternoon: bread, pasta and baking in the wood-fired oven
- Lunch and dinner at Villa Campestri
After breakfast this morning, we’ll stroll briefly through the oliveto, the olive grove, of Villa Campestri as Gemma explains the care and maintenance of olives and how that relates to the production of fine extra-virgin olive oil. Then we’ll repair to the Oleoteca once more for a second olive oil tasting to explore many of the typical defects to be found in oils—defects that are all too often present in less than scrupulous retail outlets, whether gourmet shops or supermarkets, and even in many restaurants. Musty, fusty, and rancid are the keynotes—but Gemma will be sure we leave with a good taste in our mouths.
The rest of the morning we’ll spend back in the kitchen, this time exploring how to cook with olive oil and the many ways to use it in the kitchen, from sauces to desserts, including sauteing, braising, poaching, and deep-frying with extra-virgin olive oil, plus gelato all’olio and maybe a torta all’olio (olive oil cake).
After lunch and a rest we’ll return to the kitchen, this time to look at bread (the puzzle of Tuscany’s salt-free bread), pizza, and pasta, using flour from the grist mill we visited yesterday. We’ll test our recipes in Campestri’s wood-fired oven for a real gustatory understanding of why these tastes are so seductive—bread, pizza, and a sumptuous lasagna that will be the basis for dinner this evening.
Day 4 — Thursday, October 24: Field Trip Day
- Selvapiana winery with Federico, Silvia & Nicoletta Giuntini
- Lunch at Selvapiana
- Caseificio (cheese dairy) of Massimiliano Mungilli
- Dinner at Campestri
We’ll begin a tour of some of the culinary delights of the Mugello valley with a trip to Selvapiana, about an hour by car from Villa Campestri. This noted wine estate is in Chianti Rufina, a DOCG zone and one of several sub-regions of Chianti (not to be confused with Ruffina, a brand name and wine-maker in Chianti Classico, on the other side of the Arno). At Selvapiana we’ll spend time with the charming wine-maker Federico Giuntini as we visit his hillside vineyards, the modern cellars, and the ancient cellars deep underground. We’ll taste new wine straight from the barrel, as well as a range of Selvapiana’s excellent, top-ranked wines.
Lunch at the winery will be prepared by Federico’s wife Nicoletta—with luck this may include her splendid acquacotta, one of the finest products of the Tuscan country table.
After lunch, we head back toward Campestri, making a stop high on a hill looking over the Sieve valley for a visit with pecorino cheese producer Massimiliano Mungilli who, with his family, makes fine pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses from the milk of their 800 or so pecore sarde (Sarda sheep). We’ll watch as he produces raviggiolo (sort of like junket) and ricotta (true ricotta, made from re-cooking the whey), then sample the freshly produced cheeses as well as Massimiliano’s aged cheeses, and learn why so much of what we call ricotta in the U.S. is really just curdled milk.
Dinner will be a light meal back at Villa Campestri. Tonight, if you wish, you may order from the menu.
Day 5 — Friday, October 25: Our Guest Chef Steps In
- Cooking class with Deborah Madison
- Lunch at Campestri
- Afternoon free for various activities, including trip to Scarperia
- Gala dinner in the Olivaia
This morning gives our guest chef an opportunity to pull together what we’ve learned so far this week and show us how she’ll use what she’s absorbed in her own kitchen back home. We’ll lunch at Campestri on the gleanings of the morning’s lesson.
The afternoon will be free to relax, catch up on your diary, take a walk with friends, or read a book; those who are interested might also wish to make a trip to nearby Scarperia, Italy’s knife-making capitol, to see Old World craftsmen at work and possibly buy a knife or two to take home.
Day 6 — Saturday, October 26:
- Olive harvest and making oil
- A brilliant gala: bistecca high up in the mountains
- One last tasting of extra-virgin olive oil
- Last dinner in the Olivaia
Weather permitting, those who wish to do so will be up early and out in the olive groves harvesting olives. Then we’ll go into Villa Campestri’s own frantoio where we’ll witness how fresh olives are turned into the finest oil. A chance to taste the oil directly from the press will show you what is missing from so much of the oil that is available for us commercially.
Later in the morning, we’ll take off again for a brilliant restaurant high up in the mountains between Tuscany and Emilia Romagna for a gala lunch of the highest quality beef steak (la bistecca toscana) cooked over an open fire and served with great panache by a young chef and his wife.
Returning to Campestri we’ll stop for a welcome rest, then just before dinner repair to the Oleoteca for our third and final olive oil tasting with Gemma. This time Nancy wants to challenge everyone to think about the ways we talk about oil and why phrases like “first cold pressing” and even “extra-virgin” are essentially meaningless when confronting a high-quality oil. We’ll talk about the mistakes that are conventionally made, whether in tasting or in description, and how to avoid them.
This evening will be our final meal together, a light meal focussing on the new oil—bruschetta, zuppa del frantoio, and an olive oil cake with olive oil ice cream.
Day 7 — Sunday, October 27: Departure Day
A last stroll around the olive groves, a last look in the oleoteca, and then it’s time for departure with a sample of Villa Campestri’s own lovely olive oil to take home. We are happy to make arrangements to get you to either the train or the airport in Florence.