Chef who serves up culinary lessons on Italian mountain

Guests nibble on grain bread and jam in  between food preparation. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Guests nibble on grain bread and jam in between food preparation. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

The last thing I wanted to do during my brief stay in Italy over the holidays was attend an Italian cooking class.
First, I’m not domestic and although I’m not bad making my steamed sukuma wiki, I prefer not to cook.

I grew up feeling women spend far too much of their precious time in the kitchen and often with little gratitude or appreciation expressed.

But since I was in Italy and there was one visiting family member who was really keen to attend that Italian cooking class, I figured when in Rome (or Italy generally), do as they do.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I was not attending a boring class about how to make pasta and pizza. I was actually going on a delicious adventure.

First, we had to get to the class by climbing a steep mountain. Fortunately, we were in a car with heaps of horse power, and not on foot.

But still, the winding road was a single lane (although meant to be a dual-carriage way), and it slowly snaked its way uphill amidst a thick forest of trees that were swiftly losing their leaves due to the cold weather that hits northern Italy during December.

When we finally reached the remote village via dell’Angelo and saw the chef’s unassuming house, the scene did not look promising.

But then as soon as we walked through the front door of Trattoria All’Angelo and met our jolly Italian chef Mauro Canaglia and his charming American wife Bari, both dressed in white aprons, the cozy warmth of the solid wooden floors, walls, raftered ceiling and wood-burning stoves quickly restored my hope that our journey might be fun and perhaps even enlightening.

Having held these cooking classes for 21 years, the couple is a seasoned team who insist the four-course meal be made by the guests, under his careful tutelage.

Starting off our morning with a classic cappuccino, espresso or macchiato and a slice of his home-made seven-whole grain bread slathered with sweet apricot jam, all 20 of us guests were then given an apron and a printed booklet filled with recipes for each of the four courses we would prepare for our amazing meal.

As wine is cheaper than water in Italy, after each course was made, we all got to sit down and savour our culinary success with a glass of red or white wine (or sparkling water in my case).

The first course was a pumpkin strudel which we all got involved in making, either rolling the dough, spicing up the fresh pumpkin or just munching the little nibbles (with more wine) that were brought out by the chef after he had assigned duties to everyone.

It was the sweet savoury flavour of the strudel that got everyone’s mouth watering for more. So we were keen to get back to work preparing the pasta for the second course at the same time as some of us prepared course number three —  the yummy meat loaf.

Chef Mauro shows a child how to paint strudel

Chef Mauro shows a child how to paint strudel with egg whites. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

But frankly what I was waiting for was the creamy, chocolatey desert that we learned is an Italian classic called tiramisu.

First, we got out the eggs, divided the whites from the yokes. Then, we whipped the yokes till they were fluffy (our chef having all the best and most modern equipment). After that we whipped the whites until they too were creamy, light and fluffy. Then he had a special way of gently mixing them together, after which we began to make layers: first came the sweetened fluffy stuff; then came the sweet cookie that had been dipped in freshly made coffee mixed with a touch of sweet liquor; followed by another layer of fluffy stuff and finally each dish was sprinkled with dark chocolate slivers.

The tiramisu was amazing and by then all the guests now knew each other quite well, having shared not just a sumptuous meal but the cooking of it as well.

Bari and Mauro were such warm friendly people they were happy to tell us their back story, even how he’d studied culinary science for five years before starting work in several five-star hotels in Europe and Canada.

But then his Canadian company sent him to Saint Petersburg, Florida where Bari was waitressing to help cover her university school fees.

“We met and a year later, we were married,” said Bari who had always wanted to start a business. So they decided to return to his homeland of northern Italy.

“I gave him six months to find a restaurant that had the most potential where we could both work,” she said adding “My only condition was he find a place near his family since we had two small children and I wanted family support.”

That’s exactly what they did. Initially, their clientele was only Italians; but then one day in the late 90s an American marketer came and took a class.

He loved the course and quickly sent word back to Americans living nearby, and since then, they’ve been their main visitors; although ever since they got a website (www.tratorria-all-angelo. ) their business has gone global.

One thing that’s really charming about Mauro’s classes is that in addition to his being a master chef and engaging teacher, he’s encyclopaedic about Italian cooking, history and culture, so it was hard for us to leave after our meal since the couple had wonderful stories to share.

So I’ve revised my view of cooking classes, especially the Italian one that is both a rustic restaurant and cooking school called Trattoria All’Angelo in northern Italy.