Today we had booked a cooking class with Letizia Mattiacci of the Agriturismo Alla Madonna del Piatto. We were to meet her at the shop named Terra Umbra in Santa Maria degli Angeli. Our hotel innkeepers had told us how to catch the bus to the town and when the bus ran. As usual, we arrived about 30 minutes early and found another bus that also showed the town so we decided to hop on it and go early. As we were getting on I asked an older gentleman if this bus went to S.M. degli Angeli. He said yes. We knew that it was a very short trip to the town, so we weren't sure if we were supposed to get off at the first stop. We asked him again, and he said no but motioned that he would get off at the place that we needed to. We have found everybody to be extremely helpful!!!!!
Upon alighting from the bus, we decided to walk around and find the shop and then returned to take a look at the church. We realized that there was a Mass in progress so we headed instead to the local market stalls that were just setting up. They included a wide variety of goods ranging from cookware to underwear.
After a quick peak at the church we walked back to Terra Umbra and met with our chef for the day, Letizia. We were the first ones there (go figure!!!!) and sat and talked to Letizia while we waited for the others to arrive. We found that she and her husband were both Entomologists, but had left the sciences and opened the Agriturismo 7 years ago. Her cooking background did not come from classes, but from her mother's side at an early age. The other members of our cooking crew arrived.... Helen, her husband John, daughter Nicole and sister Betty Ann.
Letizia invited us into the deli area of the shop and proceeded to tell us about all sorts of Umbrian foods, oils and other information. She told us that she preferred this particular deli because the owner only purchased items from small, local producers. She encouraged us to always buy locally if possible.
The first thing that we talked about was olive oil, which she called the "Liquid Gold of Umbria" She said that the oils were more flavorful when they were young and that the olives grown in different areas would produce different flavors and qualities of oil (just like wines). She told us that the olives were best picked when changing from green to purple and that they should all be picked within a few week period. She provided three different oils for us to taste, but said that it might be hard to distinguish between them because this was late in the season so the oils would have been stored for almost a year. The first two did not have much difference in flavor, but the third one (Morniolo brand) having a spicy bite to it.
The second tasting was of cheeses. The mildest of them was a cow's milk cheese. She noted that they don't have a lot of cow's milk cheese because they don't have good pastures for the cows to graze in. The next three cheeses were Pecorino which are made from sheep milk. The first was a light cheese, the second had been aged longer and was our favorite. The final one had been covered in ash as it aged and the flavor was really nice, but it was much drier and not as enjoyable.
Next came the cured meats!!!! We had Cingale (Wild Boar) salami, another aged pork and finally a prosciutto that had been coated in salt and pepper and aged for 18 months...it was DELICIOUS!!!!
One thing that she noted was that Italian bread doesn't have any salt in it and is basically designed to not have a flavor. This is because it is never eaten by itself, but is a base for other flavors such as oils, cheeses or meats.
Now we got to Balsamic Vinegar, something that we knew NOTHING about. She explained that the vinegar is put thru a series of barrels, each made of a different type of wood. The first one contains a sweet thickened grape juice. After a certain period of time, 1/2 of that is placed into the second cask. This process continues thru 10 (I think that was the number) barrels and ends in a sweet, acidic fluid.
We next sampled truffles (Tartufo) which sell for 2 00 Euros for 1 kilo (2.2 pounds). These used to be hunted by pigs, but she noted that it is hard to make a pig understand that YOU want to eat the truffle and not the pig. They now use dogs to search for them. She said that her dog was a truffle dog, but that he had never done it before. The truffles come in bottles of brine and have to be washed to clean the grit out. They are then chopped or sliced extremely thinly and used as a topping for breads or in various sauces. They have a musty flavor.
Before leaving the shop we purchased some of the Pecorino cheese, a vacuum pack piece of Cingale Salami (my favorite) and a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar.
We rode in Letizia's car to her home, way up in the mountains outside of Assisi. The views were beautiful and we enjoyed them while sipping on a wonderful white wine and watching a thunder storm roll in. The rain finally chased us inside and Letizia was soon ready for us to join her in the kitchen.
Our first task was to make Panna Cotta (means "cooked cream")...a simple custard type desert. She noted here that the most important thing was to have a thick cream with lots of fat as the fat was what helped it to gel. She began by adding cream, milk and sugar to a pot and bringing it almost to a boil. Then she added gelatin sheets...these are basically the same as powdered gelatin, but come in clear sheets that you soak in water and then they melt in the hot cream mixture. The cooled mixture was poured into individual glasses.
Now things got hectic!!!! She explained that we were making a Sartu (one pot meal)...we would call it a casserole. She put each of us to doing a different task. We made a dish with caramelized onions, ham and green peas.
Another one was sauteed mushrooms, where she noted that the mushrooms should be cooked quickly and over a high heat so that all of the liquids don't evaporate. We added crushed garlic and a bit of salt and pepper at the very end.
We made meatballs that contained finely ground pork, garlic, grated Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, parsley and 1/2 an egg. These ingredients were mixed together and formed into small meatballs about 3/4 inch in diameter. These were fried in a few tablespoons of Olive oil.
Here is a photo of lubricating the cook.....
Another pan of onions were caramelized, and then a top quality crushed tomato was added. Finally, a bit of basil completed this component.
There was a large pot of rice already cooked. She said that we should use Arborio rice which is designed for risottos and cooks to be very plump. To this we added the tomato sauce mixture, 1-1/2 eggs, and salt and pepper.
We made a Bechamel sauce in the microwave. We began by slightly heating the milk, but only until small bubbles formed along the edge of the pot. We melted butter, added flour and the the milk a little at a time. This entire mixture was put back into the microwave at 1 minute intervals until it was starting to skim over. She added a pinch of nutmeg and at this point it was finished.
Now came the layering. First we buttered and bread crumbed the huge dish, added rice to the bottom and up the sides. Then came the meatballs, sliced cooked sausages, mushrooms, pea mixture, mozarella cheese slices, and drizzles of Bechamel sauce. The rest of the rice was put over the top, sealing the mixture. The rest of the sauce was spread thinly over the rice, it was sprinkled with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese and baked for 20 to 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven.
She made a fun statement at one point...someone had asked if this was Romano cheese. She quickly answered "not Romano....this is GOOD cheese". When we laughed at her she said that Romano is not considered to be a finer quality of cheese, although her Dad loves it!!
Her assistant scurried around the kitchen, washing our dishes and getting the appetizers ready for us to enjoy.
We all retired to the dining room while this cooked and were met with plates of our favorites from the Deli, along with toasted bread with garlic and Olive oil. The Olive oil was made from their own trees. She said that there was a company who they could take their olives to and they would press the oil for them.
One interesting thing was that she served the cheese with honey and we were amazed at how nice the pairing tasted.
She served the Sartu in large slices and we enjoyed a nice red wine with it as well.
The Panna Cotta was served with a homemade Black Cherry compote that was wonderful.
At the end of the meal she asked if we wanted to try homemade Limoncello and we all said "definitely YES". Limoncello is a liqueur that is made from lemon zests. These are covered with a 95% alcohol (Ever clear) and left to sit in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks. The zests are filtered out and a sugar syrup is added to the remaining alcohol. The bottle is sealed and left for at least 2 months. It was a potent liqueur but had a wonderful, light flavor.
We left with a glow....both from the food, the wine and the new friends that we had made!!!!
Letizia has a blog associated with her cooking classes. Check it out at www.madonnadelpiatto.com