Cooking class in Tuscany: Lessons from an Italian kitchen

To end our Tuscan trip, I had planned a special treat for Marlon: a one-day cooking class in Tuscany, in a real Italian kitchen.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany

It’s no secret that in our home, Marlon rules the kitchen and I am mostly useless merely his lowly assistant. I knew he would love learning the secrets of a real Italian kitchen hands-on, from a real Italian mama. I may be bad at cooking, but I’m great at finding things online! So, after searching for a one-day class that would fit our schedule and budget, I found Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking, run by Eugenia and Massimo from their home in Sesto Fiorentino near Florence.

The plan was for me to babysit Tala in Eugenia’s lush herb garden—which by the way contains the happiest, healthiest rosemary I’ve ever seen in someone’s home—and keep her entertained…

Cooking class in Tuscany Tala in the herb garden

not to mention happily fed with the occasional snack of prosciutto…

Tala eating prosciutto

while Eugenia and Marlon worked on our four-course lunch.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany near Florence

And, boy, did Marlon work. “I’m a little scared of her,” he whispered to me before I took Tala out for a walk. Well, if there’s anyone who can intimidate a big man like this, it’s an Italian mama who is the queen of her kitchen! You should have seen his face when she told him that the onions he’d been furiously dicing just weren’t diced finely enough.

But that’s precisely the great thing about doing a cooking class like this. While Eugenia has generously made her recipes available on her blog, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning. How a ball of pasta dough feels in your hands when it’s just right; how long to let the flavor of a ragu develop (or even what “fully developed” flavor is); what the freshest, top-quality ingredients really taste like; the little hacks and tricks picked up over a lifetime of cooking—these are things you just can’t pick up from a Youtube video or blog post.

I like to think Marlon absorbed some of Eugenia’s personal standards and stories that day. All of it just inspired him to cook even more. Some of the techniques he learned have found their way into the other things he makes at home, even dishes like Indian curry or Filipino kaldereta.

Oh, and our onions are really, really finely diced now. They’re practically invisible.

But enough about that. You want to see the food, right?

Cooking lesson in Tuscany roast pork with guanciale and potatoes

Let’s begin. Buon appetito!

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Day trip to Lucca

After spending most of our recent Tuscan trip in charming little towns, doing a day trip to Lucca was a refreshing change. It’s a city, but nothing as big and complex as Florence, making it manageable for families like ours, who are traveling with a baby. Renaissance-era walls enclose the Cittadella, the historic heart of Lucca, marking an easy target for day-trippers and reminding me strongly of Manila’s own Intramuros.

The real highlight for us was getting to take a walk along Lucca’s city walls. If you imagine treading carefully along a narrow, crumbling brick wall, take a look at this picture and think again.

Lucca city walls park

Lucca’s formidable walls have been transformed into a wide, tree-lined city park for walking, running, cycling, and just relaxing in the Tuscan sun.

Lucca rooftops from city park

Taking a long afternoon stroll with Tala here made me feel as if we had slipped into the real, day-to-day life of the city—even for just a little while. It’s also a unique vantage point from which to see Lucca—peering into gardens, walking by laundry lines, looking out over rooftops.

Lucca Torre Guinigi

Speaking of rooftop views, all the guide books will tell you to climb Torre Guinigi for the best city views. But we discovered something better…

Lucca rooftops from Sant’Alessandro Maggiore

… which is to climb the tower of the Chiesa e Battistero de San Giovanni e Santa Reparata. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) With 110 steps, it’s an easier climb than the Torre Guinigi’s 230 steps. Plus, you actually get to see the Torre Guinigi from here. Kinda like going to the Top of the Rock, not the Empire State Building, for the best views of New York.

Lucca Sant’Alessandro Maggiore archaeological site

San Giovanni also has ornate ceilings, a small chapel to St Ignatius (of interest if you’re Jesuit-educated, like myself) and a multilayered history. This 12th century church was built on top of a church from the earliest days of Christianity, which was then built on top of a Roman temple, which was then built on top of even older Roman houses. Still with me? The entire archaeological excavation is on display for your viewing pleasure.

Here are a few other highlights from our day in Lucca, the walled city.

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San Miniato: Tuscany’s truffle town

If you’re driving from Pisa to Florence (or vice versa) and looking for a pit stop in between, may I interest you in the lovely hilltop town of San Miniato?

Because, truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany pasta with black truffle

San Miniato is the center of Tuscany’s truffle-producing belt, an area responsible for a whopping 25% of all of Italy’s truffles. That alone should tell you this little town shouldn’t be missed.

Marlon and I stopped here for lunch on our way to K and J’s Tuscan wedding; because we liked it so much, we dropped by again on our way back to Pisa airport. We had truffle everything. I’m not talking about that nasty chemical impostor, truffle oil, either. In San Miniato, generous shavings of the town’s signature product make even the simplest lunch—from fried eggs to a parmesan-and-olive-oil pasta—a sublime stopover.

San Miniato Tuscany white truffle

You can also buy San Miniato’s precious white truffles to take home. At 90 Euro cents per gram, or about €100-135 per piece, white truffles are a bargain right here at the source. But beware: truffles must be used up within four days from the date of purchase. That’s not a whole lot of time!

By the way, San Miniato hosts a white truffle fair during the last three weekends of November. Too bad we were a few months too early.

San Miniato Tuscany black truffles

Black truffles are a more affordable alternative. But they also have the same use-by time frame as white truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany truffle salsa

We decided to go for bottled truffle products, such as truffle oil, salt, butter, honey, salsa and more. Although they have a longer shelf life, they must be consumed within 10 days of opening (even with refrigeration). It makes more sense to buy multiple smaller jars instead of one or two big ones, so that’s just what we did.

Once we got our truffle fix, it was time to turn our attention to the rest of San Miniato. Yep, there’s more to this town than just truffles.

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A wedding in Tuscany

My first gig as a flower girl was when I was three, maybe four years old. I cried for days leading up to the wedding, and cried all the way down the aisle, because I believed with every fiber of my being that I was meant to go home with the newlyweds as their child. I seriously thought that was how mommies and daddies got kids!

Where I got that notion, I have no idea. Imagine my relief when I still got to go home with my mom after the wedding. *whew*

Tuscany wedding Il Poggio alle Ville Raffaele Edlmann

Our friends K and J invited us to their wedding in Tuscany, with a special request for Tala to be a flower girl. I accepted the invitation over a year ago, not knowing if Tala would start walking in time. Thankfully, she did! She took her first steps just two weeks before the wedding. I sent a video of her first steps to K, with the message: “I sure hope you have a short aisle.”

Tuscany wedding mother and daughter flower girl

A few notes from my first stint as mother of the flower girl:

First, set expectations with the bride and groom. She might walk, or she might not. Children, especially toddlers, are notoriously moody and fickle. Keep communication open to placate even the most stressed-out Bridezilla—not that my friend was one, but they do exist.  I updated K every now and then (we have her dress, she’s walking, she’s teething and miserable, we’re practicing walking today) and I think she appreciated that.

Second, keep it light and playful. No pressure. Tala didn’t want to hold flowers, but she got really excited about my handbag. She loved putting it on her shoulder, saying “dag!” (Dutch for “bye!”) and waving to everyone before we walked. So I just let her—never mind if it’s vintage Dior and she dragged it down the hillside. Whatever makes her happy.

Third, it’s not about you. I dressed to match the wedding motif, but moms are invisible. I don’t think anyone was cooing and sighing over me, but the upside is nobody thought I was a bad mom because my 18 month-old wouldn’t walk by herself. Cuteness will always save the day.

Tuscany wedding flower girl walks down the aisle

Fourth, having a goal helps. Tala’s goal was to reach Marlon, who we agreed would stand at the end of the aisle. She was extremely attached to him all week, so she wanted nothing more than to reach Papa. It worked, and she got a big cuddle after.

Tuscany wedding Papa and his flower girl

The rest of the wedding was a dream. Click through to see more pictures from this gorgeous wedding in Tuscany.

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Life outside the semicircle

I moved abroad seven years ago, after Marlon and I were married. In those seven years, I’ve missed many things from abundant sunshine and ripe mangoes, to good restaurants and sharing wardrobes with my mom and sister. But the biggest hole in my heart was the one I made when I left the Ateneo Chamber Singers.

With ACS in Riga

Before the competition in Riga

Since I left, my ACS family—because that’s what it is, really, a family—has changed. Many of my closest friends have moved overseas and moved on to other things, replaced by many people I don’t know very well. Still, I jumped at the chance to be reunited with them in Vienna and Riga. Sitting in the audience, face to face with what I had given up to pursue this life, I felt quite confronted—by loss, reality, I don’t know what to call it. It’s more than nostalgia, and more than I could ever recreate by joining another choir or making new friends.

Ateneo Chamber Singers at the World Choir Games Riga 2014

Sitting in the audience at the World Choir Games

I wondered why I was sitting outside the semicircle, listening to beauty instead of creating it. I wondered why I wasn’t singing anymore. I wondered: what is my song? What am I an instrument of? Listening to my friends’ voices soaring, I wondered if I had maybe, somehow, over the years, lost the part of me that could soar. (There are very few experiences that allow one to soar. So if you find one, seize it.)

ACS wins Musica Sacra at the World Choir Games

Victory!

Yes, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster— a contemplative, almost spiritual experience. The sound of ACS singing tends to do that to people. After all that wondering (and quite a few tears), the answers came. There were no words, only pictures—images of everything I love about living here.

ACS in Riga

I’ve been away from home a long time. I don’t hide from the sun anymore.

Life requires different things of us at different times. Once it demanded me to let my voice soar in packed churches and concert halls, together with the voices of friends I knew so well that I literally knew when they would breathe. Now life asks me to hush and sing softly to my baby in the silence of her room, for an audience of one.

Seeing what I’ve been missing out on was confronting for me. But confronting the result of my choices made me realize that that’s what being an adult is all about. We live with the choices we make; we make the most of them; and we make a life we love out of them.

With Tala and Marlon at the World Choir Games

Keeping Tala quiet (and occupied) during the competition

So this is what my life as a choir groupie was like. It inspired me to return to my “real” life—to Marlon, Tala, Amsterdam, Europe—with a renewed commitment to what I’ve chosen, and a deeper determination to make it truly worth what I’ve given up.

Related reading: For an insider’s perspective, check out this blog post by ACS alto Trina Belamide.

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