As in most any society, then women have the power – at least in the kitchen. Have you ever dreamed of learning to cook in a traditional Italian kitchen? Tuscan Women Cook, in the small Tuscan village of Montefollonico, brings travelers to Tuscany for hands-on learning in the kitchens of the masters – Tuscan grandmothers or nonni. Host Kathy McCabe pays a visit to Montefollonico to meet owner Coleen Kirnan nonna Laurella Torrosi to learn the secrets of How Tuscan Women cook.
Recipes from this Podcast:
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Transcript with Show Notes Embedded:
Coleen Kirnan, Tuscan Women Cook: Come to the table. Come now. This is something that you feed people with love through food and I think the Italian women do that the best. They are just. They’re the best at providing love and food to people.
Kathy McCabe: This is Kathy McCabe. Welcome to the Dream of Italy Podcast. You know me from the PBS travel series, Dream of Italy. And the award-winning website and publication. Join me as we explore the sights and sound of Bell’Italia. From the canals of Venice to the piazzas of Puglia. From the fashion houses of Milan– Ciao Bella! … to the vineyards of Tuscany. Hop on! It’s going to be a great ride. Andiamo.
Kathy: First, some words from our podcast sponsors.
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Kathy: I’m so lucky to be here on the most perfect summer day here in Montefollonico, which is the home to Tuscan Women Cook and I’m here with one of the co-owners, Coleen Kirnan. Coleen, how did this happen for you? How did you come to run a cooking school in Tuscany?
Coleen: Well I like to say I hit the lottery because that’s exactly what happened, and we’re so happy to have you here, Kathy. It is a beautiful day. If you could see what we’re seeing right now, you would just swoon.
Kathy: There is vineyards and…
Coleen: The birds are singing.
Kathy: Flowers, poppies. And we will put photos on a Dreamofitaly.com/4 podcast on the show notes for this episode so that you can see what it really is like.
Coleen: It is. And photos sometimes don’t even do it justice. To be here is really the ultimate experience. So we’re just thrilled.
And again, I was in the commercial real estate world for 30 years, and Rhonda was also in the corporate world and we met through a mutual friend and it was real kismet. The owners of the company were ready to sell and he had gotten sick, so they chose us to take on the legacy. And we’re just absolutely, absolutely so grateful for this opportunity. We’ve been doing this in our little village of Montefollonico for many years now and just couldn’t be happier with our relationships that have grown here. And Tuscan Women Cook has been here for almost 20 years, just in this little, little village of Montefollonico. So our nonni teach our classes, they teach us the authentic recipes that have been handed down from their nonni. And their children are making it, and we get the opportunity to send these recipes out into the world. Our guests come from all over the world and we’re just so grateful to be able to be part of this community.
We go to their baptisms, we’re really enmeshed in the community. Our trip is a very authentic experience. There’s many, many cooking schools in Italy and even in Tuscany, many, many.
Kathy: That is true.
Coleen: This is a really true authentic immersion experience. Even our are nonnas don’t speak English. We need a translator. If you’re kneading the dough, Kathy saw it today, if you’re kneading the dough a little bit differently, she’ll slap your hand and say, no, no, no, no, this way, this way because they really want you to get it right because it’s been handed down from hundreds of years, and simple, simple recipes.
Kathy: Today we’re making panzanella, gnocchi.
Coleen: Today is a fabulous day. We’re outside. We have our station here. They’ve set it up for us. Our first recipe that we make is panzanella. And this is a traditional Tuscan campania, a countryside meal that the farmers would, they’d come in during the day, it’s a fresh lunch for them where you use day old bread. If you remember, Kathy, you know this, that in Tuscany it’s traditionally a very poor region, so what they’ve learned to do is to make the most out of what they have in their homes. You can make pasta for 15 people with a little bit of flour, maybe one egg, and a potato. And you can feed 15 people, which is what we’re doing today when we make our gnocchi.
So we’ve, we’re making a panzanella which is a bread based tomato, basil, little bit of onions, some olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s it. Very simple. The freshest ingredients you can find. They’re coming from the land. And then our gnocchi is the same thing. A potato. It’s a potato and flour and egg and we’re feeding 15 people. And then we make a ricciarelli cookie today, which is a traditional Christmas cookie. Very simple again.
And then interspersed, our winery here is just so lovely and generous with us, in between the recipes and meals that we’re making, they’ve created a schiacciata, which is a traditional fried bread that we eat with the cold cuts. It’s extremely delicious. And other cold cuts and cheeses and jams interspersed with the about eight wines that we’ve taste.
Kathy: And that’s what you’re hearing. We’re at an active popular vineyard here, right, in Montefollonico.
Coleen: So they do a private class for us. So what you’re hearing, the activity, is just our group.
Kathy: I think it’s all the wine. So how many different nonni or grandmothers do your guests meet in a week?
Coleen: Well, if you go to our website, which is obviously Tuscanwomencook.com, you can see the history of our nonni. Some of them have retired and some of them have passed, but we cook every day, and in the mornings we cook with our nonni. And then we eat what we’ve made that morning paired with wines of the region. And then in the afternoons we tour this beautiful Tuscan countryside. We go to UNESCO world heritage sites, we visit Siena, we visit Pienza, we go to Montepulciano. And we go to Vin Santo makers. Very busy, busy week. And we’re just thrilled to be here.
And when we go into the restaurants and the stores, these are our friends. So these are friends of ours. They know our children, they know my husband, our husbands. So Rhonda and I feel really blessed to be able to be part of the community.
Kathy: And what do you think your guests learn or take away at the end of the week besides some new recipes?
Coleen: This is really the best part of this whole experience is they’ve made a lot of friends. So they learn, not only these recipes that they’ll make… And of course we give them all the recipes and we have notes and many, many of our guests send us their photos of what they’ve done with their families, their own families. This is going on all over the world, which is that is gratifying. But our guests make friends for life. We had friends, just last week, they traveled to Monte Carlo together just on a spur of the moment. We have people that end up being friends and traveling on or go to one another’s homes. So this is just something that makes us feel so grateful.
Kathy: And what is it about this corner of Tuscany? Because of course you say Tuscany, people love Tuscany, but Tuscany is a thousand different towns and each one is so different. And I do think Montefollonico, I do think it is in one of the most gorgeous corners of the world, really.
Coleen: It’s one of those things, Kathy, that I kind of don’t want to tell anybody because our groups are very small. But Montefollonico is unique in that there’s no tour buses, we’re off the beaten path and it’s just a lot of rich relationships. If you know of Montefollonico then you know of it. If you don’t, it’s really not on the radar for a lot of people. And we’d like to kind of keep it like that. Because our groups are small, but you’re right, it is a just absolutely… We’re centrally located too, so it’s a great place to stop in and go. You could get to Siena very easily, Montepulciano. You can be on either coasts via train very easily, a couple hours.
Kathy: And are these recipes simple, or tell me about, not just today but all of the group of things that you’re making.
Coleen: Our recipes are very simple. And what we try to do is, I think, I don’t know about you, but when I was first learning how to cook, pasta was extremely intimidating, right? So we just really want to make pasta something that’s accessible to everybody. And homemade pasta and homemade sauces that you can do. And our nonni teaches how to do this in a very simple way with very fresh, simple ingredients. So I think the takeaway is this, I mean these recipes, most of them are less than five ingredients. So it’s not French cooking. We’re not reducing a lot of sauces other than our sugo, which we’ll cook for several hours, five to six hours. But in general they are very simple but delicious and straight from the heart.
Kathy: Are there ingredients that are surprising? Because today for instance, we’re using, I think it’s the essence of almonds.
Coleen: The essence we use in the ricciarelli cookie. There’s Amazon now, I don’t know, you can probably find things anywhere. But this essence of almond we get in our little market here. It’s a much more potent, it’s not an extract. So the essence is a different flavor that you’re going to get out of anything. Vanilla, almond, orange, lemon. So the essence really shines through in these recipes.
Kathy: Are there any other ingredients throughout the week that-
Coleen: Well, flour.
Coleen: Our flour is the biggest thing we use with the pasta and then people ask because there’s double zero, all-purpose. This comes up a lot. We generally find that the all-purpose works really well. And then once you start making pasta, you learn it to do it your way. Our nonni teachers do it in the volcano with the eggs and you incorporate all the way through. But at the end of the week, a surprise for our guests is, look, you can put it in the Cuisinart and you can let it rest and roll it out and it’s just as delicious. So we want you to be able to take this home and do it at home and not be intimidated and make it part of your life and your daily, not daily obviously, but you know, weekly or even monthly meal where your kids and your family and your friends are expecting you to make some fresh pasta sometimes.
Kathy: So I have a funny question. When you do the volcano, as we call it, do your guests do it right on the board?
Kathy: So this is a funny story. Tuscan Women Cook is obviously a sponsor of Dream of Italy or the Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special. And I’ve been coming to Italy for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing cooking lessons. I’ve done cooking lessons on TV, but on the show I do a cooking lesson with Michelin Star chef, Silvia Baracchi, and she gave me a bowl for the volcano and I’m like, this is life changing. Because I’m always making a mess. I’m not really a professional.
Coleen: And some of our nonni use the bowl, some don’t, some wouldn’t be caught using the bowl.
Kathy: I was about to say, for many, it’s sacrilege, But it’s just interesting that even if you have done this many times, had other cooking class experiences, you always have a different experience, especially with a different chef.
Coleen: And there’s little things, the little takeaways that are so subtle. We use a dry grill for vegetables. There’s little things. When you come to our program at Tuscan Women Cook, there’s these takeaways that are subtle, subtle, subtle, but will stay with you forever.
Kathy: So today we’re cooking with Lorella, I guess. Is she a nonni?
Coleen: Oh, yeah. Lorella is one of our favorite nonni and she has a wonderful family. She’s Montefollonico through and through. And she is one of our favorite nonnibecause… We have an interpreter in every class, and Lorella is a woman of few words, however, her words are very forte. She’s very strong with her words because she really wants you to understand why you’re doing something wrong.
Kathy: Not just that you’re doing something wrong.
Coleen: And how to do it right. You have to eat it. You have to eat it.
Translator for Lorella: Whole bottle. Whole bottle of water. In this, how do you call this?
Translator: Bag. Bag. You have a. Take it out and put it inside the water and deep it.
Translator: So my name is Lorella. I live in Torrita de Siena.
I have two children. So they are adults because they have children. So you have grandchildren. Sorry. She has grandchildren too. So they are a grown up, her children, sorry.
Kathy: How many grandchildren?
Translator: Two. Two grandchildren. Two daughters and two grandchildren. So two boys. No, it’s a boy and the girl.
Kathy: And how did she learn to cook? Who did she learn from?
Translator: When she was a child she just enjoyed to cook, and so at home. She had always to cook.
So she has been cooking for the family, for friends. So from a passion it has become a job.
Kathy: Is there a dish that she remembers from her childhood that she loved to cook?
Translator: Lasagna. That here in Tuscany we call them pastel forno. That’s her favorite dish.
Kathy: And what is her secret for it?
Translator: So she makes the pasta handmade. Using the rolling pin. She makes her own special meat sauce with cheese. A meat sauce.
Kathy: Even if it has meat in it you call it sugo?
Translator: Yes. We could call it here, when we are talking about sugo, we are talking about meat sauce, about a ragu.
Kathy: So how long has she been teaching?
Translator: 10 years.
Kathy: What is Tuscan food famous for? It’s the Cucina Povera? If she could explain a little bit of that.
Translator: Yeah, because… The poor cooking, for example, we wouldn’t have a sugo, the meat sauce every day. We would have just once a week or every 15 days. So we have poor ingredients like beans, vegetables. We have learned to recycle food. For example, we don’t throw bread away. We use stale bread, which is still good, it’s just dry, and we make soup with that. We make a vegetable freshness, salad like the panzanella, for example. And so on.
Kathy: Can you tell me about the panzanella and how that’s made and how often she eats it?
Translator: She saying that panzanella in the past and was made much more often the now even because even the quality of the ingredients were much better. Because for example, we wouldn’t use both bread, but we would make our own bread. So even if the bread was leftover, it was stale, not moldy but still good, it was still a higher quality of bread. And especially when people were working in the fields, it was a very popular dish because it was a light dish and very simple to make it.
Kathy: And what about the gnocchi? What role does that have in Tuscan food? How popular is that?
Translator: Especially in this period, when we are… My family lives in the countryside. So we sow our potatoes, we harvest our potatoes. So with the new potatoes… So we make gnocchi very often, especially in this. We use them even in winter, but especially now we make them much more often.
Kathy: Now we’re making gnocchi.
Translator: She is going to show you how to… This is another very old tradition because in the past they were so poor that they have only potatoes and flour in the kitchen. And they made this dish that is called gnocchi. Gnocchi is made with potatoes. We use red potatoes because the consistence of this kind of potatoes is more useful to prepare the potatoes, the gnocchi, sorry.
Cut in half and put it in your razor and squash it. We use now one potatoes most per person because now you are going to see how many gnocchi. You’re going to have a lot, but consider that for one kilogram that are 2.2 pounds of potatoes, we add one kilogram of flour most and one egg, one whole egg, salt and pepper. Now you’re going to have one potatoes, one spoon of egg, some flour. It depends how much the potato needs to be worked. Salt and pepper. That’s it. With one kilograms of potatoes, one kilograms of potatoes, you can feed 10 people, 10 people. One spoon of egg.
You put the potatoes on the cutting board. On your cutting board, put some flour on your cutting board like she does. And then you put your potatoes on your cutting board and you start to work it with your hand. You have to add the flour as soon you see that your potato have incorporate all the flour. And then when the cutting board is sticky, we add the flour on your cutting board. Like she does, this way. You have to fold, fold the potatoes, not crush it like this. Look, not like this with the hand. You have to fold. Take on the top and fold the potatoes with your hand, how you call this part of the hand?
Translator: Palm. Now she’s going to pass. One by one she’s going to let you taste what she did.
In front of you you have your bowl with your…
Translator: You have done your your bowl of potato. Now this bowls you have to cut it in three pieces. You have your knife and you cut in three pieces. And take one pieces in your hand and roll it like she does. And roll it. Then you put it in your cutting board and roll it like you make a pici. Like pici. Like pici. And you have to make it that the thicker, like your finger, the thickness like your finger. Like her, like she does, like this. Now she’s going to pass and help you to roll it.
This one is a very, very old tradition of Christmas cookies. They are borned in Siena, near Siena. Now it’s transported here in this part. And these ones are cookies that we make here at Christmas time. They are coming from Italy. Where? Now you you have to work it with your hand and you have to make a ball.
Now we are going to make the shape of the ricciarello. We put this little ball in between these two finger and we crush a little bit on the top and with the other two fingers you are crashing in the middle like this. She’s going to pass through you and help you if you need help.
You take aluminum pan, you cover the aluminum pan with powder sugar. You add your ricciarelli on and then you put your… on the ricciarello. Yeah, like this. And then you put inside the oven 10 minutes, not more, at 170 degree…
Kathy: Sauce is so important in Italian cooking. What is the secret to her sauce? What kind of sauce does she like to make?
Translator: We use very often the tomato sauce with basil, fresh basil. Like a meat sauce, the sugo we have been talking about. Or sauce with pancetta and cheese, parmigiano cheese. And garlic, chili and olive oil. We call it .
Kathy: Oh, that sounds…That sounds very, very good. Tell me about the ricciarelli.
Translator: Ricciarelli is a typical cookie of this area. Especially maybe in Siena and in the province of Siena. Usually it has always been a Christmas cookie, but now we make it. It’s made of almonds, almond essence. Sugar, eggs. Not the whole eggs, we use only the whites actually. Whipped up. The whites whipped up.
Kathy: And where does she buy her food? Does she grow it? How does she get her food?
Translator: She has a small vegetable garden. Especially in this season, I have the most of the vegetable. In the past we would go… Now she lives on her own, so she’s not… Before my husband help, and now he died, so I have to look after the vegetable garden on my own.
So she has her vegetable garden and if she can, she goes, for example, to see other farmers, that they might have fresh vegetables available. So she prefers to do that instead of going to… Before she would breed chickens, ducks, rabbits. Before she had everything. So practically, yes, she was much more independent about food.
Kathy: And what is her secret for frying zucchini flowers? How does she make those?
Translator: She makes a batter with water, sparkling water. Flour and salt. She mix only flower, sparkling water. Sometime she can add some beer.
Kathy: And I’d love for her to tell us about the scacciata. How do you say it?
Translator: She makes a dough. She uses a kilo of flour. 350 grams of water. 14 grams of yeast. 200 grams of milk. Then she makes the dough. She says she starts to knead ingredients. She let it rise, this dough for one day and one night. From time to time she kneads again the dough.
Kathy: It’s delicious. What do you like about teaching the guests who come here from far away?
Translator: So she likes to make, for example, a pot roast with boar meat. But it takes a long time to do it because you have to smoke it overnight, you have to marinate it in wine. You have to marinate it with the celery, carrots, onions, parsley for at least 24 hours. Then you have to rinse it. Then you cook it again with all the herbs and the wine that has been marinating. Then it takes us six, seven hours to cook it and it’s very good.
Kathy: So when I come back you need to make it for me.
Translator: In winter…
Kathy: It’s the perfect dish.
Translator: The winter, she’ll…
Kathy: So is she tough when she teaches? Does she correct everybody?
Translator: No, I don’t think so.
Coleen: So we love her and we’ve loved her for many, many, many years. She’s been part of this family for a long time.
Kathy:So it does become like a family?
Coleen: It is like a family. You know what, Kathy, one of our favorite events, we host a Mother’s Day luncheon at our little theater and all the women of the village come. So we want to honor… It’s Tuscan Women Cook, right? So we want to honor the women of the village. It is the most… I don’t have the words for it, but I will start to cry. To see them, and they’re 80, 90. We had a 98-year-old in May on Mother’s Day, in the theater and the husbands come out and serve the food and everyone’s there to honor just them, just the women. And they’ve never done that before. We just feel so honored to be able to be hosting that for them and giving back to this community who gives so much to us.
Kathy: Well, what is it about the women in Italian culture?
Coleen: It’s the neck that turns the head. They have a graciousness about them, but a steel spine. I have seen women walking… They take a passagiata, which is every afternoon at approximately four o’clock people walk. And they are walking up and down these hills. You’re here and these hills are not any small thing., And every day religiously, they will take a walk on things that you and I would be huffing and puffing, and 80, 90, 100 years old, every single day doing it with a smile on their face and an appreciating where they are. They have a great life here and they know it and you can see it, and they say it. They say it. We have a great life. We love it.
Kathy: I think it’s not only the physical strength, the emotional strength and the women are the center of, even if they’re not out front, really, the center of the family. And obviously that’s true all over the world, but there really is something about Italian women.
Coleen: It is. One of our churches that we… In our village here is one of the oldest churches in Tuscany, San di Bartolomeo. And it’s a decommissioned church now and it’s a beautiful ceramic shop, but overhead there is a symbol of a woman and it’s really something interesting to see. But way, way back women were the religious symbol of the world. So I think Italy has this going back before any type of organized religions. So they would appreciate the fertility of women and the productivity of women.
Kathy: And not only is it the women, but the food that brings people together or Italians together.
Coleen: Come to the table, come now. This is something that you feed people with love through food. And I think the Italian women do that the the best. They are just . They’re the best at providing love and food to people.
Kathy: Well thank you so much for letting me cook with you today.
Coleen: Thank you. So glad you could be here. What a beautiful day. Can’t describe it.
Kathy: And I learned a few tips, especially the fried zucchinis. Or the fried zucchini flowers.
Coleen: Zucchini flowers.
Kathy: To use sparkling water or beer in the batter, or both.
Coleen: Another thing, I don’t know if you’ve learned this, but in the zucchini flower, the flower is the male of the fruit, so the female produces, again, the female produces the actual zucchini that we eat and the male producers the flower.
Kathy: Very interesting…
Coleen: As in nature.
Kathy: Given the theme today. Thank you.
Coleen: Thank you, Kathy.
Kathy: For show notes on this episode visit Dreamofitaly.com/4
Thank you to our podcast sponsors. Thanks, Fruits&Passion CUCINA. These olive oil based elevated kitchen products are biodegradable, eco-friendly and never tested on animals. Save 15% at fruitsandpassion.com with the promo code DREAMOFITALY15.
And thanks again to Misto Lino. They offer luxury European bedding and high quality Italian ceramics. Family run for more than 25 years, the owners work closely with artisans from the hill towns of Tuscany to produce beautiful, handcrafted custom designed pieces. Visit Mistolino.com and save 10% with code DREAMOFITALY.
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Recipes from this Podcast: