The first of the three Italian cooking programs I attended in September 2009 was Organic Tuscany. While the school is not vegetarian, it offers week-long vegetarian programs a few times a year. For €1,300 (the price has since gone up), the program included the following:
- 7 nights accommodation in a 19th-century villa
- 4 cooking sessions (2-3 hours each) followed by meals
- 5 additional meals
- Baskets of breakfast items to be shared among the group
- Guided walking tours of Florence and Siena
- Visits to two local farms and a potter
- Olive oil tasting session
- Wine tasting session
- Recipe e-book (after departure)
Participants are required to rent a car to get to the offsite visits, so that is another charge to keep in mind. The director helps arrange car sharing.
The villa, on a 340-acre organic olive and grape farm with a lovely pool and spectacular views, was more or less what I expected – not incredible, not shabby. Others in my group had much higher expections – at least one was annoyed that we didn’t have maid service. I found this particularly bizarre, as Organic Tuscany was one of the cheapest programs I found during months of research, so I never expected anything like that. There are programs that cost up to €5,000, and I imagine that the high end includes 5-star accommodations with luxury services and much more. For a fraction of that, I felt I got what I paid for.
However, I was surprised by the fact that the villa is only one housing unit among many on the property. I, along with most of the other cooking participants, had been under the impression that we would be the only guests on the farm, but in fact there were at least a dozen other people spread around in various apartments and guest rooms. The website doesn’t actually say that the cooking program is the only thing going on, but it certainly doesn’t spell out just how many other guests there will be.
One other surprise: the director told me via email I’d almost certainly have a bathroom to myself, or else at most I’d have to share with one other female. In fact, there were three of us sharing a bathroom. In addition, the size of the rooms varied tremendously – mine was barely large enough for the king-size bed and an armoire, while another room was twice as big. As far as I know, we all paid the same fee, so this didn’t seem quite fair.
Kitchen and equipment
The kitchen was large, with ample counter space. There were plenty of nice wooden cutting boards (many with a lip on one end so that they would “lock” onto the edge counter and not move around), all sizes of mixing bowls, pots and pans… everything we needed. The big oven/stove was apparently a bit fussy, but we students didn’t do much with it; we stayed mainly at the countertop burners while the teachers dealt with the oven. The dishwashing corner was manned by a third staff member, which allowed us to concentrate on cooking rather than cleaning.
Classes and food
The food was excellent – some of the best I’ve ever eaten, much less cooked, including a simple but delicious eggplant parmigiana, three kids of risotto, various crostini, soups, salads, and traditional desserts. The two teachers* were terrific: extremely friendly and knowledgeable. But I was bothered by a couple of things in the classes.
First of all, the website promises no more than 8 students, to allow each student a “chance to try their hand at every technique.” We had 9, but even 8 would have been too many. While the kitchen is very large, we were making so many different dishes at once that I was never able to be involved in more than 2 or 3 during any given session, and even then I felt more like an underling being assigned tasks (cut these onions, peel those potatoes, keep an eye on that sauce) than a participant in a teaching situation. Out of the 20 or so dishes we made over the course of the week, the nine of us all took part in only two: fresh pasta and gnocchi. Everything else was divided up – three students worked on the dessert, two did this, two others did that, all at the same time. And I don’t think I worked on a single dish from start to finish. In my opinion, 6 students would have made for a far better experience. Indeed, on the page of the site that talks about one-day classes, the participants are limited to 6, and that is what I was expecting, not realizing that one-day classes and the classes in the week-long program had different descriptions.
Secondly, and this is somewhat related to the first point, the director of the program refuses to allow students to have the recipes before or even during the class, because, as I understand it, she feels we’d be paying attention to them rather than to the teacher. I disagree with this for many reasons, but the most important are (1) if I’d had the recipes, I’d have had a better idea of what was going on around me while doing all of those piecemeal tasks, and (2) if the student wants the recipe, the student should get the recipe. People have different learning styles, and perhaps the director’s works well without recipes, but my learning style is visual, and seeing the recipe would have helped cement what we were doing in my mind. In addition, it would have been helpful to be able to jot notes about variations between what the recipes say and what we did during the class. Now that I have the recipes, I’ve noticed some discrepancies, but can’t always remember what we actually did.
The website says there are “shared baskets of organic breakfast goodies (bread, milk, juice, tea, coffee, fruit, honey, biscuits, oats, yogurt etc)” which, while not explicit, sounded to me like there would be enough for breakfast for the week. This was not the case – once we ran out after a few days, we had to buy groceries for the rest of the week.
Walking tours, Local visits, Tasting sessions
The other Organic Tuscany staff, including the guides for the two walking tours, were excellent. I really enjoyed the tours and the visits to the potter’s studio and the local farms, particularly the biodynamic farm Poggio Antico, whose cheeses were simply wonderful. The olive oil and wine tasting sessions were led by one of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She was truly delightful, and I wish we could have done more with her.
Expectations vs Reality
Organic Tuscany was part one of my three-part Italian cooking experience, and the most important thing for me was the food. In that, my expections were exceeded. I felt that the food we cooked as well as nearly all the food at other meals was truly spectacular.** I was also more than happy with the teachers and other staff, walking tours, and local visits. Additionally, while I knew that the farm and all the food would be organic, upon arriving I was happily surprised to learn that virtually all waste is either composted or recycled. As a strong believer in the inter-connectedness of vegetarianism, organics, and environmentalism, I particularly appreciated this conscientiousness.
Things that failed to meet my expectations were breakfast, the number of students, the lack of recipes until after the end of the program, and the shared bathroom. And I’m disappointed that our Organic Tuscany aprons aren’t organic, as cotton is one of the most heavily pesticided crops on the planet, requiring nearly 25% of all the insecticides used in the world. (Source: Pesticide Action Network)
Overall score: 9/10
*The cooking teachers, Tina and Manuela, also offer day classes at their own cooking school: Authentic Tuscany
**In the interests of fairness, I’ll share this: some students felt that there was too much salt and/or too much garlic. And several complained that there was too much food, period – a complaint which I found particularly bizarre as there is an easy solution. I can see complaining about bad food, or not enough food – those are things you can’t do anything about. But too much food? Don’t eat it.