24 October 2016

Eating al fresco in the Tuscan countryside
The true taste of Tuscany
A master-class in Italian cooking awaited Peter Hardy and his family - but did they pass the pasta test?
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neading a giant lump of dough the size of a rugby ball on a kitchen table in Italy calls for strong biceps. It also allows plenty of time for reflection. ‘Deeper, stronger, like this - with the heels of the hands,’ urges chef Lando Decanini, who is effortlessly working the blob of flour, eggs and butter into a smooth, elastic paste. ‘A strong marriage, a good house and Tuscan cooking all have one thing in common,’ he adds. ‘They need sound foundations. Without them, you are lonely, homeless and hungry.’ Actually, you need a lot of dough to knead dough in Tuscany’s smartest, but simplest, cookery school.

Happily for visitors though, Lando’s earthy homilies flow free of charge. Villa Borgo Bernardini, tucked away in the hills outside the ancient walled city of Lucca, holds the secrets of an authentic Italian kitchen and a cellar presided over by a flamboyant master of wine, Raoul Ferrari. The surroundings are truly spectacular: The Renaissance villa is hidden behind electric gates in the hamlet of Coselli; it stands in its own grounds, with swimming and ornamental pools, fountains, statues and shaded courtyards. Vineyards and olive groves adorn the hillside above. When a recipe calls for a lemon, I step outside and pick one.
The pool at Villa Borgo Bernardini
They have been restored and turned into rental homes by local cheese manufacturer Andrea Fanucchi and his wife Lenka. According to Greek historian Herodotus, the ancient Etruscans emigrated here in the 9th century BC from Asia Minor to escape famine; it was they who brought the concept of pasta. My own journey to Lucca was rather shorter and more convenient - by BA from Heathrow to Pisa, followed by just a 30-minute drive to the villa.

It was inspired not by famine but a family discussion on how best to cook al dente spaghetti. Should you, or should you not, put oil in the water, drain the pasta when half cooked, or rinse it? ‘What I want to know is how you actually make the spaghetti,’ declared 13-year-old Barney, who has had a lifelong interest in cooking. Naturally, Italy seemed to be the place to find out. The beauty of the Coselli School of Tuscan Cuisine, which is held in Borgo Bernardini each spring and autumn, is that you don’t have to be an accomplished cook to complete it.

No need to fear the rants and rages of a TV celebrity chef for getting lumps in your white sauce or not knowing your fusilli from your fettuccine; anyone who has rudimentary knowledge of the home kitchen is welcome. ‘The idea is to teach the kind of simple but wonderful Tuscan cooking that is part of every household here, with recipes passed down from generation to generation,’ say Ledra Rosellini, who is responsible for marketing the villas and the courses. ‘An idyllic ambience and, above all, a family kitchen filled with camaraderie and friendship,’ is how the brochure describes it.
And so it is - but not without surprises. ‘Welcome to our kitchen,’ beams sous-chef Valentino and his partner Larisa, who is the villa’s housekeeper. ‘Tomorrow we make pasta with porcini; and fresh ravioli filled with spinach and cheese; along with tiramisu, the greatest of all Italian desserts.’

Valentino is dressed in immaculate chef’s whites. Deftly adding stock to our dinner risotto, he looks as if he has stepped out of the glossy pages of an Italian cookbook. ‘Were you born in Lucca?’ I ask, by way of a conversation ice-breaker. The great Puccini, creator of Madame Butterfly, was born here. ‘No, no,’ Valentino replies, ‘Larisa and I are both Romanian. Until five years ago, I wasn’t a chef: I was a policeman attached to the anti-terrorist squad at Bucharest Airport.’
In the villa the tiled interior sleeps 24 in palatial style, with elegant drawing rooms, dining room and billiard room. All 12 bedrooms have en suite bathrooms. Bernardini, originally a lodge for wild boar hunts, is one of half-a-dozen 16th and 17th-century villas in the countryside around the little town of Vorno.
Enjoy your sumptuous room
"Villa Borgo Bernardini holds the secrets of an authentic Italian kitchen."
Suppressed memories of an indigestible barbecued bear served at a tourist restaurant in the Balkan ski resort of Poiana Brasov came flooding back. I went to bed full of apprehension, to dream of Romanian spaghetti. But we need not have worried. Not only did Valentino prove to be a fine cook, but his kitchen was dominated the next morning by the unmistakably Italian presence of Lando. Barney proved much more adept than me at feeding the long sheets of pasta into the table-top machine that miraculously cut them into linguine, the shape of our own choosing. We learned that the secret to the sauce of porcini mushrooms lay in the combination of frozen and dried
ingredients. ‘The frozen ones provide texture: the dried ones produce taste and aroma,’ Valentino explained. Over the coming days we soaked up the essentials of Tuscan cooking. ‘Wine, olive oil and garlic are the basic ingredients of our cuisine,’ Lando declared as he liberally used all three.

‘If you have a full stomach and a full glass, the rest of life will soon fall in to place.’ Not all our time was spent in the kitchen. Each morning we ventured out to the market in Lucca with Lando and Valentino to choose our vegetables and fruit, and to buy half-a-dozen different types of bread at Il Forno d’Andrea. Meat, together with sausages and, for Barney, an instant lesson in how to make them, came from the butcher’s shop in Vorno.

After eating the huge lunch we had cooked, we found time to play tennis and explore the area. To Barney’s delight, we found in Lucca an exhibition of the machines of Leonardo da Vinci. Hands-on working models of his inventions, from helicopter to military tank, are on display throughout the year. We returned home with a fistful of Tuscan recipes and our own £20 machine - for making pasta the Italian way. No doubt it will look lovely in its box on top of the kitchen cupboards.

Original article published in Jun 2006. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"‘If you have a full stomach and a full glass, the rest of life will soon fall in to place."
Learn the secret of simple, but wonderful Tuscan cooking
Relax in the luxurious sitting room
Villa Borgo Bernardini
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