Mamma mia !
Ornella´s cooking class at Agriturismo Villa La Rogaia
Annette Greifenhagen, 2006
The sun is already setting behind the hills in the west. The cat is looking for a comfortable place under the rosemary bush in front of the kitchen door. It is all peaceful and quiet. Our small group, ten cooking enthusiasts from the United States, Austria and Germany, is waiting eagerly in the kitchen with the big open fire place. Waiting for Maestra Ornella who shall initiate us into the secrets of Umbrian Cuisine.
Suddenly the noise of a car, crunching gravel, squeaking brakes. Ornella gets out of the car. Olala! Some lush pounds on high heels and a big welcome laugh in the face. “Sono l´Ornella!” And the way she says it, she could say as well “Hey, it´s me!”. Everybody gets an embrace, a heartfelt “Ciao!”, and kisses on both cheeks.
Then she opens the trunk and starts to unload: On top a big basket with fresh eggs from a farm on her way; salad, with the heavy umbrian soil still sticking to it; two chests full of “funghi porcini”(edible boletus, literally “young pigs”) and, fine noses recognize it at once , truffles wrapped in soft paper. Look at this! Two pheasants, of course with feathers. Yet she has not finished. Flour, milk, sugar and on the very bottom two gigantic pumpkins, so big, that even our “strong men” have problems to lift them out.
Now we start: again a short presentation; Ornella tries to pronounce our foreign names. But then she announces, that certainly she will think of nicknames for everybody, that she will be able to keep in mind. Subsequently the wine waiter is nominated, one of the most important tasks of the week. The chosen one is sent at once to uncork the welcome prosecco and the red wine for dinner.
The program for the first lesson: Mushroom risotto with black truffles, a plate with ham from Norcia (the Umbrian town where Italys most famous hams and sausages are made), wild boar salami, lardo di colonnata (white bacon, matured in marble chests) and pecorino (sheep cheese). For dessert gratinated peaches filled with pine kernels and almonds. Everybody looks surprised: “And we shall eat all this?!” Ornella answers with faked indignation: “ Ma perchè siete qui?, What are you here for?” “For cooking. “And who cooks also has to eat, hasn´t he?”
Let´s get to work! Everybody gets one of the big white aprons, Ornella has sewn specially for her students. Then we have to clean the mushrooms, but carefully please! and without water, so they will not loose their aroma of the forest. We wash the salad, slice the onions and sauté them gently; we roast almonds and pine kernels. Everyone is allotted a share of the work, it is not allowed just to stand and look on.
Ornella is rushing through the kitchen on her high heels, showing little tricks, tasting here and there the contents of the pots and pans. Barely an hour is gone, when we finish our first preparations. Ornella is clapping her hands, shouting: “ Avete fame?”, “Are you hungry?”. In the presence of all the delicious things on the table we really can´t help to feel some appetite and our chèf de cuisine announces: “ Pausa e stuzzichino!, Pause and a snack!”. Still yet we have to get some strength for the work to come. She whisks some eggs and then serves a small, simple delicacy: scrambled eggs with freshly sliced white truffles and toast.
The cellerar is sent quickly for a bottle of cool Grechetto from the Trasimeno hills, and in a swinging mood we continue to prepare also the other dishes. The toasted pine kernels and almonds are caramelized with sugar and filled into the hollowed out peaches. “Too much sugar!” a participant groans. “So what”, Ornella laughingly wipes away the objections: “ La vita è dolce. Life is sweet.”
At eight o´clock everything is ready and we start feasting. The creamy risotto with black truffle is a dream and the flimsily sliced “lardo di colonnata” melts on the tongue. In front of the peaches the first ones surrender : “And tomorrow we will have to eat that much again?” “Ma certo!”, and with a twinkle of her eye Ornella asks again: “ Or what did you come for?” But then we already know the answer and drop into our beds, all satiated and content .
The next afternoon some of us are quite eager to know, where those tasty mushrooms are growing. “Avanti!” Ornella says, “Come with me!”, pointing towards the small oakwood behind the house. Looking at her footwear, the usual highheels, today in turqoise, we are thinking: This trip cannot go very far. But Ornella pulls a pair of big, black rubber boots out of the depths of her trunk and here she goes, so fast, we can hardly follow. Soon we are finding ourselves in between the tightest scrubs. Ornella is poking unerringly in the leaves and quickly finds some nice “funghi porcini”.
Half of our group has already given up and has strolled back to the house. Better to just watch the sunset from the terrace…
Today of course we have mushrooms again. A mushroom carpaccio with wild rocket, that Ornella has picked from the meadows. And then there is still a rabbit. It has to be filled with herbs, to be sewn and roasted for dinner. Two ladies already have left the kitchen, feeling pity for the poor beast. Umbrian country cuisine sometimes is not for touchy people. Nor is it specially made for vegetarians, in spite of the traditional, substantial pulse. Castelluccio lentils and beans are an Umbrian specialty, used with many winter dishes. For sewing together the belly of the rabbit our two “dottori”, two surgeons (and hobby chefs) from Nuremberg, are nominated for the job. Ornella is delightfully amused about the experts’ quarrel about how to make a correct skin seam. Finally Wilma from Hannover grabs the needle and sows the little animal with her housewife’s expertise. In the end everybody loved the rabbit “del buon ricordo” “of good memory”. And there are even volunteers for plucking the pheasants tomorrow.
In the meantime Ornella has observed well and found nicknames for all of us. Georg, who is nibbling cheese all the time, is called “topolino” (little mouse). The reserved elderly lady from northern Germany, who loves pepper now is called “pepe”. Ornella with affection wishes her more “pepper” not only in cooking but in life. Albert from Vienna, who always sticks his nose into the pots, is baptized “Pinocchio”, He gets as a present from Ornella a cooks cap to prevent him from shaking his flowing mane over our pots.
Next day we are going to make “pasta” and Ornella brings along her aunt Zia Beppa. Because we are “naturalmente” not so experienced at rolling out the dough, she needs some reinforcement to make sure we have enough noodles for dinner. And of course she wants all of us to bring a sufficient stock of homemade pasta back to our beloved ones.
So the two matrons are standing with sleeves rolled up at the big wooden table and show how to work up flour and 40 ( ! ) eggs into a supple paste, and how to spread it out.
To speed this up even more, a little bit later arrives Franco, Ornella´s husband, bringing a “macchinetta”, a small, old fashioned noodle machine. To operate it however, you require a “tecnico”, a technician, i.e. her husband. The little machine rolls out the paste crackling and moaning, Franco standing proudly next to it, waving in his hands the flimsy dough stripes and jesting with the ladies. All at a sudden the crackling stops and Franco has to use the crank, swearing and laughing. Ornella finds herself confirmed in her conviction, that kitchen machines are superfluous and only spoil the quality of the fine ingredients. And after all, she remarks, one has a husband at home who can whip the egg whites by hand. So we go on by hand, until the pasta stripes are hanging everywhere in the kitchen and an enormous number of lasagne sheets is prepared for the “canneloni con spinaci e ricotta” (canneloni with spinach and ricotta) we will have tonight.
And what when we don´t cook or eat? Until 5 p.m. we may enjoy and just relax. Taking long walks in the beautiful surroundings of La Rogaia or on the shore of Lake Trasimeno, not without sipping a cappuccino on the promenade.
Or we can gormandize even more. For example at the Eurochocolate in Perugia, the biggest international chocolate fair which is being held every year in autumn . A big temptation, seeing the 100% cocoa pralinés, with truffle and chili taste, the famous “Baci” (kisses) of the “Perugina” chocolate makers, or even enjoying a chocolate massage. And for those who want do to penance for the pounds gained with Ornella’s help: go for a pilgrimage to the hermitage of Saint Francis at Assisi at the slopes of Mount Subasio.
On our last evening Ornella awards to us our cooking diplomas. She has dressed up for this evening, even has been to the hairdresser who heaped up her abundant grey hair on her head like a spaghetti mountain. Of course everybody has passed with “summa cum laude”, the highest scores. We have learnt to cook a lot of delicious dishes, not haute cuisine but hearty original Umbrian “cucina casalingha”. There were not just complicated recipes but a lot of easy going food for everyday. Our three American ladies have brought along a small book, an introduction into Italian gesture for foreigners. Looking at the photographs we try to imitate these gestures and Ornella has to guess what is meant. Unfortunetaly we fail almost all the time and Ornella is shaken with laughter. At one gesture performed by Helen in complete innocence, she is almost falling off her chair. Susanna, our translator, normally never at a loss for the right words, blushes a little. Then she starts to laugh and lets us know, that she wouldn´t recommend to make this gesture anywhere else…
The farewell from Ornella is loud and heartfelt. After this week we have become a little bit like a family. We can still hear her honking three times and then she disappears behind the hills. Mamma mia Ornella!