Cooking in the 'real Italy'
On the first morning of our cooking school in Italy, there is an almost-crisis over a few stalks of celery.
Ezio Gentile, the school's chef-tutor, is making chicken stock, and it absolutely must contain celery. Despite careful assembly of umpteen other ingredients, there is no celery in the house. Most of us would have made the stock without it. But not Ezio. He holds the line, the stock must be authentic.
So the call for celery goes out in the village of Vittorito, in the Abruzzo region, east of Rome. Many people and places are canvassed in the hunt, and thankfully some green sticks turn up at the home of cookschool participant Virginia Giovannitti's Aunty Maria. They are ferried up to the kitchen, we breathe easy.
This is how we learn the First Rule of Ezio: everything must be made from scratch, and everything must be authentic. He bats away the convenience of stock in a tetrapak, or stock cubes. ''I like everything fresh. So many (restaurant) kitchens buy frozen food in bulk and warm it up.''
His chicken stock simmers placidly on the stove for ages: chicken legs, water, whole black peppercorns, sea salt, carrot, garlic, onion, a couple of tomatoes for colour. And celery. ''Taste the difference,'' he says, offering spoons of fragrant liquid. This is the Second Rule of Ezio, taste everything, adjust seasonings, get it right.
The chicken stock sits at Ezio's right hand as he steps through his repertoire. It is ladled into a delicious zucchini and leek sauce that accompanies his gnocchi; also into his comforting dish of Pasta e Fagioli; likewise a mushroom risotto; a ragu; and it is used to loosen and enhance many other things. It is gone in no time, and Ezio patiently brews another pot. This time there is abundant celery to hand.
My friend Venetia Sherson and I are attending Ezio's classes during our recent holiday in Abruzzo. There are five sessions, each 9am-1pm, we cook and observe all morning, then plate up for a long lunch, enjoying the fruits of our labours, toasting each day's efforts with local wine.
The school is the result of a serendipitous connection between Ezio, and Kiwi bloke Wayne Hopkins, who met at a hardware store in Abruzzo. Neither he nor Ezio found the stuff they were after at the store, but they found each other.
Wayne lives in Geraldine, New Zealand, Ezio in Rhode Island, in the US, both have houses near the town of Raiano where they were shopping, and both spend several months of the year in Italy.
Wayne overheard Ezio and his wife Marie speaking English in the store carpark, he asked them where they were from. It was an excellent connection to make.
Ezio is an Italian chef, Wayne Hopkins and wife Gail run a bed-and-breakfast at their home in the village of Vittorito, and Gail was in the throes of setting up a cooking school. But due to unforseen circumstances she was minus a chef to run it, and opening day was close.
Ezio met Gail, he signed up, the cooking school was saved. That was last year, the second season is now in swing. So here we are at La Cucina Sotto L'Arco - ''the kitchen under the arch'' - at the hospitable Hopkins' Italian home.
The school is in the 400-year-old (or thereabouts) donkey stable underneath their house. You walk under a graceful archway that leads down the lane to the former stable, converted by Gail and Wayne into a chic training kitchen.
That's where we meet Ezio and his wife Marie, who are enjoying their summer in Ezio's home village of Prezza. Ezio, 64, went to the US as a young man, did his chef training there (after valuable learning in his mother's kitchen); he has spent his life in hospitality, owned a couple of restaurants, and is currently doing private catering.
Marie, a schoolteacher, is acting as his sous chef on this course. They are the perfect team, Marie the details woman, Ezio painting the big picture, and they have much to teach the class. On this round, there is Venetia and me, Roxana Elena Serban, Virginia Giovannitti, and Wayne Hopkins has signed up as well. ''I thought I'd better have a go,'' Wayne says. His parmesan baskets are a triumph, as is his tiramisu.
Virginia is nearly 16, she lives in Vittorito, and is on school holidays. She is already an excellent baker, taught by her mother. Roxana is Romanian, lives in Abruzzo with Jason, her American-Italian boyfriend. Jason has encouraged Roxana to do the course so she can cook more Italian meals (rather than Romanian). ''He pushed me into it,'' she says, ''he is very proud of what I'm doing.''
Each morning, we check with Roxana what she's cooked Jason the night before. Sometimes there are photos on her phone of Jason sampling new dishes. One day, Jason turns up to visit, and clearly he's very happy with everything on his plate.
That's another nice thing about the course, the visitors. Jason and his colleague Antonio - they are in construction - swing by on a wet morning when they are rained off the job. Alberto, a local policeman calls in to say hello. Irish couple Ann Marie and Tom Sheehan join us on the course for a day, Virginia's mother comes to the last lunch.
School organiser Gail Hopkins pops downstairs regularly to check how we're going. Gail is also very useful because she has rigged up a dumb waiter in the form of a basket on a rope that she can lower from an upstairs balcony in her home down to the donkey stable.
So when we need balsamic vinegar, for example, we shout upstairs, and Gail sends it down in the basket. At lunchtime, she has the table on her terrace beautifully set for us.
The hospitable Hopkinses are excellent hosts, and they like sharing their home with others. They've had their Vittorito property for about eight years, and Gail helps others like themselves find houses in the region. She is wedded to Abruzzo. ''It's heartland Italy, it's not a tourist destination, we like it like that. It's the real Italy.''
The Hopkinses Kiwi home is in Geraldine, but they have earlier lived in Timaru and Christchurch. Gail spends about six months of the year in Vittorito, she says she ''couldn't sit around and do nothing''. Hence the B&B, and the cooking school; these activities provide some extra employment in the village, they bring people to the village. Course member Virginia's mother praises Gail and Wayne's efforts, she likes what they're doing in Vittorito.
Vittorito is perfectly placed for a cooking school. It is a small medieval village surrounded by vineyards, olives, oaks for truffles, and almond trees. Home vegetable gardens grow tomatoes, artichokes, zucchini and more; the neighbouring village of Raiano is the cherry capital of Abruzzo; saffron - the ''red gold'' ingredient of a number of Italian dishes - is grown in the Abruzzi town of Navelli, red garlic in Sulmona, and so on. Gail shares with us a jar of intensely flavoured Raiano cherries steeped in alcohol, given to her by a man who lives nearby.
And down the street from Gail and Wayne's home is Pietrantonj, the oldest vineyard in Abruzzo, with a family history of more than 200 years of production. We visit, and enjoy their red and rose wines at lunchtimes.
Each morning, Ezio and Marie arrive with Abruzzi produce for the dishes ahead; Ezio's beloved pecorino romano (''always, always, there is cheese''), fresh squid from the coast, herbs, saffron, tomatoes, eggplant, mozzarella, pancetta, garlic, onions, veal bones, ground meats and mushrooms.
They're honest ingredients, Ezio guides us through honest Italian dishes. We make pizzas (from scratch, of course), ditto potato gnocchi and Ragu alla Bolognese. He talks through the art of kneading dough (Roxana is the best here, taught by her grandmother). We thread pasta sheets through our benchtop machines, we learn about Ezio's sauces and stocks, the importance of doing painstaking prep for a better result.
Ezio plates his dishes simply, there are no fripperies and silly garnishes. ''What matters is the food on the plate.''
We cook delicious risotto with mushrooms, sundried tomato and saffron; we serve it in freshly made parmesan baskets. We do classic pastas; pounded veal chops; switch to chicken for Pollo alla Marsala; then eggplant for Melanzano alla Parmigiano; squid for two more dishes. And so on.
There are about three or four things to make each morning, most of it detailed in the course cookbook. But Ezio slips in several more recipes for us. On the final morning, the challenge is for us to all cook something from our own repertoire for the shared lunch. Virginia demonstrates her baking skills with a stunning sponge cake flavoured with Strega (saffron-infused liqueur), and layered with strawberry cream and homemade lemon curd.
Roxana makes a traditional Romanian dish, Sarmale, vine leaves stuffed with ground turkey meat cooked in tomato and condiments from her homeland. She texts and calls her mum in Romania for advice as she works. She does what mamma says, with an excellent result.
Wayne adds homebaked sweet treats to the dessert table, Venetia and I collaborate on a warm salad of blanched green beans, just-cooked waxy baby potatoes, sauteed red pepper, onion, garlic and tomatoes, tossed with juicy black olives and marinated anchovies, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Ezio has cooked aromatic Pollo alla Marsala.
At the lunch table, we toast good food, new friends, new skills. This is the Third Rule of Ezio: Enjoy.
For more details, prices and packages, on Gail and Wayne Hopkins' Vittorito B&B and cooking school, see viasanrocco34.com.