What It's Like to Cook with an Italian Grandmother
It was a lot of flour.
Not just a bit more than I imagined for a pasta recipe, or an errant flour spill that was eventually going to be put back in the bag. No. The effusive, confident Italian woman leading the cooking class I was taking on a gorgeous day in Tuscany was clearly not concerned about carbo-loading our lunch: The flour was in Close Encounters-eque piles in front of each of us, and before I knew it, I was mixing it together with egg and water and potato to make what would eventually become gnocchi.
I watched from the end of a massive table as my classmates, too, attacked their own piles of white powder, a shifting wind occasionally reminding us that just out the open doors was paradise: a sweeping vineyard in the middle of Italy, looking like an unwritten Eat Pray Love sequel.
"More flour," the chef's charming winemaker husband said, making the rounds. "Do not be shy."
It was my last day at Tuscan Women Cook, a weeklong crash course in which a group of 15 students cook in a different kitchen each morning, learning the ins and outs of lasagna, pici, ravioli and more from real Italian nonnas—including one with a Michelin star.
Not only had I never seen this much flour in one place before, I'd never cooked fresh pasta, ever. Despite a decade of food-writing experience, my hands-on kitchen prep was mostly limited to slow cooker chilis and simmering eggs, with a stray roast vegetable or grilled meat thrown in there if feeling particularly inspired.
The rest of the group—mostly a generation older than me and exclusively more experienced at cooking than I was—seemed confident from day one. My first pici, on the other hand, broke when I spun it, and my early pappardelle cuts were uneven and too thin; I may be a man who loves to eat, but I've never been known for sweating the details, which, here, were glaring at me from the end of each broken strand of pasta.
"Thaaat looks good," the winemaker said to me, his accent thankfully enunciating his positive point. "Now roll." He looked at my girlfriend Claudia's batch, touching the strand with the tip of his fingers. "Ees sticky," his words rolled, his mischievous smile creeping up his face. "More flour."
It's not just flour Italians are not ashamed of: On the day we made lasagna at an inn down a cobblestoned path, windblown olive trees just outside the kitchen door, the chef and her helper glugged their way through a liter of fresh olive oil as if it were nothing, sizzling a sauce of pork, beef, celery, onions and carrots for four hours. Glug, simmer. Glug, simmer. Glug, simmer. Wine break. Glug. Simmer. Another wine break. Glug. Simmer. Extended wine break.
In fact, that lasagna also ended up being the only "less-is-more" moment of the whole week: The nonna's layers of finished meat mix were sparsely divided atop the many thin layers of pasta. I assumed we'd be finishing the dish with ladles of red Bolognese before popping the tray into the oven. I was wrong, of course; instead, it was the nonna's béchamel sauce, rich and creamy and decadent.
I decided that that lasagna would be the first dish I made from the trip at home: I've been back for more than a month, though, and still the rollers, spices and tools I bought have gone unused, sitting on the kitchen table waiting for a full day of pasta making that may never come.
I'd love to do it sometime, but let's be honest: I won't have four hours set aside solely for sauce making. I won't have a pantry shelf with enough clearance for a liter of olive oil. I won't have the demonstrable affirmation of a 65-year-old pasta pro whose hands tell the story of the years they've spent in the kitchen.
I will, however, forever have a healthy respect for flour.
Jeff Miller was the editor of Thrillist LA for more than a decade and the host of Trip Testers on the Travel Channel. Hit him up for pasta recipes on Instagram at @jeffmillerla and Facebook at @journalistjeffmiller.
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