BARGA, Italy — The damn birds wake me. Tweet tweet tweet. I pad to the veranda and am stunned by the view from my mountaintop aerie. The Serchio Valley has disappeared in a thick river of clouds illuminated by the rising sun. As the sun climbs higher, the fog slowly dissipates and the medieval town of Barga reveals itself. First the limestone tower of the Collegiate Church of San Cristoforo, then the pointed tips of cypress trees, and finally the 12th century, terracotta-topped buildings stacked tight like pastel Legos. I’m not religious, but have to acknowledge a mystical sense of wonder at a scene I imagine has been occurring for hundreds of years. Thanks, birds.
Located in a lesser-explored mountainous area of Tuscany, north of Lucca, the thriving farming community around Barga is known for its pecorino cheeses, porcini mushrooms, pork, wild boar, prosciutto, and honey. In an attempt to better experience the local cuisine — not just by eating out in restaurants, although I love that, too — I signed up for a one-day cooking class offered at my hotel, Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
After breakfast, a small group of fellow hotel guests and myself board a van for the short drive to Barga where we’ll buy ingredients for the class. We alight near Porta Mancianella, one of the historic gates into the walled city, and embark on a brief walking tour led by Chef Alessandro Manfredini. A maze of narrow streets and steep stairways lead in several directions but it’s difficult to get lost. Head uphill toward the Romanesque church tower for spectacular valley views, and take any downhill path — past small piazzas, shops, and restaurants — to circle back to where you started.
The winding stone paths within the walled center are completely different from the wide streets with tall Georgian townhouses in the newer part of town, which is where we head to find grocery stores and markets selling regional specialties. The city is a surprising blend of sophistication (with jazz clubs and summer opera festival) and small town charm. (Barga is sometimes referred to as “land of wolves and outlaws,” because of its location on the edge of broad chestnut forests.)
We stop at several shops. All of them cause me to swoon. In a meat market, rows of aged prosciutto dangle from steel rods above displays of sausages, fresh cuts of meats, and an almost-holy litany of salumi: mortadella, prosciutto pratomagno, pancetta, coppa, lardo, mondiola, biruldu. Even if I don’t know what something is, I want it. In the vegetable store, artichokes, fava beans, radicchio, tomatoes, carrots, leeks and squash blossoms are so artfully arranged as to shame any Whole Foods market. At a small outdoor market in the town square, dozens of rounds of variously aged pecorino cheeses compete for my attention with enormous bags filled with dried porcini mushrooms. Our last stop of the morning is at Alimenti Caproni. Open since 1913, this family run shop selling wine, cheese, dried legumes, coffee, fresh and boxed pasta, salami, olive oil and more, is operated by the personable brothers Enrico and Agostino Caproni. Would I like a taste of pecorino and a small glass of wine while we shop? Why yes, yes I would. Grazie.
Too soon, we head back to the hotel to begin preparing lunch. I’ve taken cooking classes abroad where the chef does most of the work and the class mainly watches. This is completely different. Within minutes of arriving, our hands are damp with flour and eggs to make “maltagliati,” translated as “bad cut” pasta. (Once rolled out, the dough is haphazardly cut into wide strips, giving the pasta its name.) While some of us in a prep area are finely chopping a sofrito of celery, carrots, and onions for a traditional Barghigiana meat sauce, and then shelling fava beans and peas for a 16th century Garmugia Lucchese soup, I realize that half the class has gone missing. I race to the stove where Chef Manfredini is supervising scalding milk with sugar and vanilla for panna cotta.
Once the panna cotta is poured into individual serving cups, and stowed in the refrigerator, the real chaos begins. And I mean chaos in the best possible way. Every burner of the stove is put to use. A vegetable stock of parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, celery, carrots, and onions simmers in one pot. In another, chopped onions, ground beef and pancetta sizzle and pop, releasing a heady aroma. The sofrito, tossed with olive oil, glistens as it heats. And what would a cooking class be without at least one vegetarian? In a wide sauté pan, smashed garlic and porcini mushrooms — rehydrated with boiling water then squeezed dry — are tossed with fresh marjoram, thyme, and, eventually, cream for a meat-free pasta sauce.
While the soup and sauces are cooking, we return to the prep area for one last task. We roll out short pastry — the only item prepared in advance — and cut the dough into fanciful shapes (stars, flowers, clovers) to make typical holiday cookies topped with almond and anise marzipan.
Aprons off, hands cleaned, we descend to the hotel dining room and the luxury of being served the multi-course meal we have prepared. I’m in a tizzy, because my handwritten recipe notes are as illegible and foggy as the valley in the morning. That’s when the first course and the wine are served, and I’m handed a printout of our menus. I stop worrying and start eating.
Indigenous Culinary Experiences at Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, $200-$300 per person. www.renaissancetuscany.com/en
Necee Regis can be contacted at email@example.com.