Cook in the Tuscan Sun: culinary adventures in Italy’s epicentre of cuisine

February 8, 2024

My romance with Tuscany began when reading France’s Mayes’ wondrous novel, Under The Tuscan Sun. Mayes’ writing was cleverly romantic and captivating, making the reader feel your feet were planted on Tuscan soil, your soul was being nourished by the warm breezes of Tuscany and you were comforted by the soft morning kiss of the Tuscan sun. Little did I know when I first read this book that my life journey would find me actually living in Italy and living the script of the very book that likely inspired my fate.

I had a chance meeting many years ago with Jan Stackhouse, who has now become a dear and lifelong friend. Jan is a high-energy New Zealander who arrived in Italy 40 years ago, married an amazing doctor 25 years ago (her life partner Emilio) and never looked back.

Jan spends her time between Roma and her country house in Porto, Umbria, with a foot inside Tuscany. She is a passionate cook and lover of all things Italian. High energy with her fabulous high-pitched voice, she energizes every room she enters. Jan launched “Cook In The Tuscan Sun” two years ago and has put together a fabulous package of cooking, eating and wine tasting that will please even the most ardent culinary aficionados.

Hosted from her second home in Porto, adjacent to Lake Trasimeno, dominated by the medieval hill town and castle of Castiglione Del Lago, Jan provides accommodation in traditional antique rural hospitality villas or estate mansions, as well as diverse venues for the cooking lessons in Toscana. These cooking classes are tremendous fun, great learning and great dining to wrap up the day.

I joined Jan and one of her chefs recently to make classic Toscana dishes.

The region of Toscana is renowned for its heavy population of Cinghiale (Wild Boar), so naturally the first course and lesson was making a sumptuous Ragù (pronounced ragoo or ragout). Only North Americans tend to call it “Bolognese”, which is a term most Italians have never  heard of. The base is, of course, ground wild boar meat, braised in a pot with a few whole peppercorns and finely chopped onion, carrot and celery. Vegetables and herbs from the garden are gently simmered to make a delicate stock and, naturally, with a good dose of Italian white wine and, of course, you must have a glass while employing it as a key ingredient. Next is the seasoning and browning of the meat to finish off the ragu in its white wine sauce. Then comes the real work: no dry pasta from a box here. Fresh egg, farina and a few drops of olive oil are worked into a stretchy dough with the energy akin to a decent workout at your local gym. The dough is then rested (while you have yet another glass of the local wine), rolled and rolled and rolled until paper-thin, then sliced into 20 cm lengths to form the tagliatelle. As the cinghiale slowly simmers on the stove, the fresh pasta is dropped into boiling salted water and voilà … Tagliatelle con Ragù di Cinghiale.

The next course was “Polpettone Bollito” or typical Tuscan-style Meat Loaf. Dried bread soaked in milk and crumbled, grated Italian parmesan cheese and egg with a medley of seasonings with a kilogram of lean ground beef or pork are mashed together and again, the workout begins. I always wondered how Italian cooks stay thin, now I understand this with every dish being a workout. The meat mixture is formed into a meatloaf shape by hand and gently dropped into the pot of boiling vegetable stock. It sounds horrible, but I assure you it tastes fantastic.

Lastly, I made the best Tiramisu I’ve ever had. Mascarpone, 5 eggs, cocoa powder, a couple of pots of “Mokka” stovetop coffee laced with a liqueur (can be marsala, a fortified wine or a coffee liqueur such as Kahlua) and ladyfingers (a kind of dried sponge biscuit) form the base ingredients, with layers of creamy Mascarpone lining the pan after dipping in the liqueur concoction (which naturally I had to drink, too, purely out of respect for the process). The biscuits are layered into the pan and another layer of sumptuous mascarpone is layered on top, repeated by another layer of these components. A dusting of cocoa powder is applied, and the dish is best set aside overnight for the liqueur to properly soften the biscuits. We couldn’t bear to wait, so we gorged ourselves that very evening on this classically Italian dessert that my cardiologist would have had a heart attack simply looking at.

The cooking lesson lasted around three hours and the eating, drinking and conversation for about another two days (here in Italy, they say “you never grow old at table”)!

Cooking is such a big part of the culture in Italy and it’s often a family experience. At Jan’s “Cook in The Tuscan Sun” class, you feel very much part of an Italian family. At the end of the first day’s session, everyone, including the host, sits at a large table, emptying countless bottles of amazing big Italian reds, laughing about the day’s endeavours and leaving with a heart filled with joy and great memories. Typically, these culinary vacations include day trips to local wineries in Montepulciano, Montalcino or the spectacular city of Orvieto with its impressive gothic cathedral, tasting visits to a local prize-winning Olive Oil Mill, several days of cooking classes, fabulous accommodation, and days and days of drinking in the Tuscan sun.

If the food and wine aren’t enough, expect to leave steeped in Italian history and lore, as Jan is an academic of the highest order in Italian art, culture and history.

Buon appetito!

Photos by Thomas Pigeon & Unsplash.


Story by Thomas Pigeon

One Comment »

  • Jan Stackhouse said:

    This zesty article by friend Thomas really leads you into the spirit of the fun everyone has doing this experience! I have already had a group of 9 lovely ladies from Guelph Ontario this past summer, so Canadians really seem to want to try this sort of thing. I look forward to seeing more of you here!

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