Last November, I was lucky enough to spend three days learning to cook Umbrian food in the small town of Perugia, Italy.
Part of my maiden trip to Italy, my time spent at the "Let's Cook in Umbria" cooking school left some lasting tastes and memories.
Finding and deciding on a school was the hardest part; there are a myriad of Italian cooking retreats advertised on the internet, and it's not always clear which offers the best experience. Tuscany is perhaps the most famous "foodie" region; while we did spend five days in Florence exploring the surrounding small towns, we ultimately decided to choose somewhere quieter and more personal for our cooking retreat. Perugia lies in a valley situated in the only Italian region to have neither an international border nor a coastline.
I'm glad that we did choose this school; we enjoyed one on one cooking classes for the majority of our time there, with the same instructor every day.
Umbrian food is unique, as most regional Italian cuisines are. Local ingredients such as seasonal produce, game, pork, cheese and confectionery feature heavily in traditional recipes.
Arriving at the "La volpe e l'uva" farmhouse (the name means "the fox and the grape") I realised that I'd just come to a very special place. We'd spent the last few hours cruising up the highway from Rome (via Spoleto for lunch), and our first view of the farm was magical.
The view from our room.
On our first day, we were welcome by Raffaela into her house, and given an overview of how we would structure our time in the kitchen. We were told that we would cook four courses per day, and would have Raffaela's assistant keeping an eye on things simmering away, so we that could multi-task without worrying that something was burning in the other room. This was a huge bonus, and allowed us the time to perfect our pasta making technique later on.
We rolled up our sleeves and started cooking. Our entrée and main were pasta and pork, accompanied by some of the farm's organic red wine. All fantastic.
Dessert on the first day was Crostata, a pie with a filling of whatever jam or conserve you have lying around, then topped with a lattice of pastry. We used some homemade raspberry jam, but Raffaela said that most types of marmalade work well.
Crostata with local jam.
One of my favourite entrées from the following days (largely due to how easy it was to make), was the torta al testo. It's fresh flatbread, accompanied by whatever leftovers you may have lying around. We made the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich, sliced in half and stuffed with prosciutto and cheese!
Crostata with local jam.
One of the benefits of having a private class was that Raffaela was able to talk to us so much about our trip to Italy thus far, and what we were planning to do after leaving Umbria. When we told her how much we had enjoyed fresh truffle grated over pasta (in Spoleto, just before we arrived at Perugia), she went to the trouble of including a similar dish for the next day's lesson.
Home made pasta, topped with freshly shaved truffle.
As well as eating the finished dishes, a huge part of the value of this school was learning how to make and shape pasta. We learnt how to prepare, cut, and simple gnocchi from potato. We perfected our ravioli making until it was pretty consistent. And we actually made pasta spirals using the blades of our hands! My favourite was the semolina pasta – simply mix, knead, cut (with a special "pasta guitar") and then hang to dry. I could almost see myself making this regularly instead of using instant pasta.
Practice really does make perfect. And you get to eat all of your mistakes (and food is never a mistake)
Each day after lunch, we were then driven around sightseeing. There is a lot to see and do in Umbria; we went to the Baci chocolate museum, the Monte Falco winery, a local olive oil business, a ceramic workshop, and Assisi. All of these were fantastic, however it was the Franciscan monastery in Assisi that really stayed with us. The lovely frescoes inlaid on the rooves, the beautiful town built into the side of the mountain, and the two medieval castles are all sights that will stay with you.
Assisi is a wonderfully picturesque hill town, perfect for walking off lunch.
Raffaela can be contacted by email or phone. Emails were always answered promptly, so it's probably the easiest to way keep track of dates and arrangements. The website gives a good guide to what is included in your stay, as well as pictures of the accommodation and a calendar function.
Perugia can be reached by easily by train or car, depending on where you are coming on. The main railway station in Perugia is not on the fast train network however, and you would still need to arrange to be collected by someone and driven to the farmhouse. Perugia does have an airport, however international flights are limited to a few internal European destinations, and it would not be worth flying domestically within Italy to get here. If you are happy driving on the right side of the road, and want the freedom to explore, it would probably take around 3-4 hours by car from Rome (with a good break for lunch). Even better to arrange a private transfer, have that second glass of wine with lunch and enjoy the scenery rushing by.