Saturday 7 January 2012

A cookery holiday in Tuscany

I've been digging around in my files, trying to inspire myself by reading about past prizes, and I came across this account I wrote  ten years  ago, after a trip to Tuscany that I won in a recipe competition run  by Merchant Gourmet foods.

The kind of surprise I like - turning up to find that I am to spend a week living in a working winery with an unlimited supply of the product! That's how my prize trip to Tuscany started.

 There were 7 of us on the cookery course - six Americans and me. We started with a guided tour of the vineyard and a look at the newly harvested grapes being turned into Chianti, then tasted a selection of the wines with nibbles made using the olive oil and honey also produced at the Palazzo. By the time we had had glasses of all seven wines (and grappa) we had become firm friends.

Dinner followed soon after - seven courses with more wine! We rolled back to our rooms at the end of the evening.

The following days followed a pattern - excursions during the day to local hilltop towns and food and wine producers, then a cookery class starting late in the afternoon, during which we made some of the many dishes we were served at dinner. The trips were fascinating; the cookery lessons lively and entertaining, and they removed a lot of the mystery from dishes I had previously thought very complicated. We were a lucky group in that we all had a great rapport which made everything (especially the wine) flow very freely. The chef and his translator made a great double act - they have recently recorded a programme for American television. I wish I could see it.

The weather was glorious, except for one day. The Tuscan countryside looked beautiful. The trips took us to all sorts of places, including a very memorable meal in an extremely expensive restaurant one day, and a peasant meal in an olive pressing factory the next - both so splendid it was impossible to say which was the better of the two.

The final day had no cooking class - we spent the day in Siena while the chef prepared a final feast for us. And what a feast! Another seven course blowout. For the first time, the dishes were from all over Italy instead of just from Tuscany. And in honour of the fact that two of our party were serious wine buffs, the owner of the Palazzo had raided his personal cellar for two bottles of the estate's own Chianti Reserva 1966. It was a treat and an honour to taste such an exclusive wine.

It would take too long to describe everything - the lovely Palazzo, its beautiful setting, the 17 cats, all the places we visited, the great characters among both the  staff and the other guests, but I had a wonderful time, never for a moment felt uncomfortable about having gone alone and am just hoping to win the chance to go back next year!

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