It’s about this time of year when Villa I Tatti opens up their kitchen to the professors and their wives/husbands/partners (covering all bases) and lets them come into the bowels of the building to see what the chefs get up to every day. I of course put my name down for such a tour and yesterday was my turn to take a look into the I Tatti underworld (a.k.a main kitchen). We were a group of four and managed to get right to the crux of lunch time, snack time and afternoon teatime preparations.
The lovely Anna met us at the heavily secured biblioteca and escorted us through to the main kitchen where our chefs were waiting. Like all chefs I have known they were busy getting on with the daily prep. However, you couldn’t help notice the calm of the kitchen and the relaxed nature of the chefs, especially considering they had about 70 people to feed in a few hours time.
All the bread is made on the premises and we came in just as Chef was stuffing some semi dried tomatoes into dough and cutting them into rolls. I was feeling very much at home with a feverish urge to push in and have a go myself, alas, I restrained myself and stuck to taking photos. The schiacciata is always wonderful to see drizzled in olive oil and salt, because you know how good it will taste when it comes out of the oven!
I know, from long experience, that people who aren’t chefs love to get a peek into professional kitchens and to learn a few tricks of the trade, so here are a few things that I picked up. The more I read, ask questions and watch Italian chefs in action the biggest difference I can see between my cooking and Italian cooks is the amount of time they take to cook and develop flavours. I have been taking more time and keeping the burners lower than I normally would to reproduce the deliciously rich flavours I am eating here, and I am loving the difference in flavour. I noticed the guys cooking a simple porcini and prosciutto cotto pasta sauce, backing up my ‘slow it right down’ theory and seeing it in practice. We were also told a way to increase the flavour of the sauce with your pasta: just before the past is almost ready (cooked in salted water, of course), strain the pasta and finish cooking it in your sauce. That way the pasta has time to absorb the beautiful flavours you have created.
A very simple step but one I am sure many of us miss because we are so used to doing everything quickly. You never stop learning in the kitchen, I think this is one of my favourite aspects about being a chef, cooking doesn’t get boring, you just have to keep learning.
I did manage to sneak a peek at the kitchens ‘bible’, it is a book stacked with recipes they have been using for the past 12 years, the tried and true ones. So, I thought I would take my time and translate this recipe and give it a go! I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Once the bread was made and the pasta sauce was simmering away it was time to whip up a batch of cookies for afternoon tea- the fellows are so spoilt! Chef made the cookie mix in a matter of seconds (I’m thinking he could do it with his eyes closed!) and then we got a lesson on piping the dough around the edges of the baking paper first so it holds down the paper while you pipe the remaining and the paper doesn’t ride up- nice!
I didn’t catch all that was spoken but it didn’t seem to matter, I was still learning and enjoying myself as were the other guests, and while chef was popping on the red cherries you know I was gunning to do that job too. I can’t tell you how hard it is to stand in a professional kitchen and not do anything!!
Thankfully the cookies didn’t take very long to bake, and so I joined in and ate as many as I dare…come on, fresh out of the oven how do you resist that?
After eating a few too many pieces of schiacciata and cookies we then went around to the stores to see the workings of the kitchen and I was surprised to see such a small storeroom for their dry goods, along with the fridge space. We were told that the fruit and vegetables get delivered daily, as does the fresh meat. On average they feed about 70 people a day and serve two to three different menus. The I Tatti fellows get morning tea and schiacciata, a two-course lunch and then afternoon tea in the drawing room, so all in all that is a lot of food to be prepared, not to mention feeding the staff of I Tatti, including gardeners, librarians, office workers, farmers and a few others who I have forgotten.
I really enjoyed the guided tour and seeing how the kitchen operates but if I ever get the chance to go back again I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold back on doing some cooking! It makes me want to cook for large groups again. So Sydneysiders, Melbournians and Launcestonians, after July pop on over to camillabaker.com and book a class or dinner with friends and I will come to your place and cook up your very own Tuscan fare.