I barely have time to recover from my jetlag before I am loaded into a little Peugeot and I’m off on a mission to find the wild fennel that grows abundantly in this part of Italy. I am told the fennel is essential for a recipe we will cook on our first day of culinary school at the Ital.Cook School of Italian Regional Cuisine. Located in the small town of Jesi, nestled in the rolling green hills of the Marche region, Ital.Cook is the first ever culinary school to emphasize the regional cuisine and food traditions of Italy. The goal of the school is to educate non-Italians in the authentic cuisines of Italy so they can bring the genuine article back to their countries. I am about to take part in the first ever session of the school, which is a joint project between the international Slow Food movement and the town of Jesi. Our classroom is located in a beautiful palazzo built right into the fourteenth- century city wall, donated by the town to the school.
My classmates and I come from three different continents and we arrive in Jesi with experiences and goals as diverse as the countries we come from. Anni Arro, 19, from Tallinn, Estonia, arrives with little professional experience but a love for cooking as well as a restaurant at home awaiting her return to open its doors in October. Katsuhiro Ota, 22, and Keisuke Kurokawa, 31, are both from Tokyo, Japan. Keisuke has experience cooking in both Japanese and Italian restaurants. Ital.Cook will be Katsuhiro’s second Italian culinary school experience after year-long course in Piedmont. I hail from St. Louis, Missouri, having spent my college summers cooking in local restaurants. I hope to learn a great deal about cooking, but my main aim is to discover the cultural and economic factors that make it possible for Italians to eat fresh, local, delicious foods, while in most parts of the USA it is a constant struggle to find a piece of fruit that has not made the long journey up from South America or a restaurant that makes its own tomato sauce.
At first the language barrier makes group cohesion difficult. There is no single language that all four of us speak: we get by with a little English, a little Italian and a little Japanese. Thankfully, food is an international language, and by the end of the program I have shared a glass of thick green tea brought with the Japanese students and have taken up the habit of starting the morning with a traditional Estonian drink of honey, apple vinegar, and warm water.
We study the cuisine of a different region of Italy each week for ten weeks. On the first day we succeed in finding handfuls of fragrant wild fennel hidden just below a layer of downy January snow. We make a beautiful dish of rabbit, ‘coniglio in porchetta’, a traditional preparation of the Marche region characterized by the pairing of fennel and meat, poultry or fish. Over the next ten weeks, under the tutelage of top chefs who travel from regions as far away as Sicily and Piedmont, we learn the history of dishes and taste the local specialty products, often hard to find anywhere outside a region. From the wild boar prosciutto of Tuscany to the cream-filled burrata cheese of Puglia, the ten weeks of tasting open my eyes to a culinary world far removed from Spaghetti and Meatballs.
The colourful characters I met were as much a part of the experience as the exotic foods and regional wines I tasted. With Simone, a big jolly chef from Tuscany, our cooking lessons soon degenerated into an Iron Chef style tripe cook-off. Sergio Falaschi, a butcher from San Miniato, came with a whole hindquarter of veal in tow, and proceeded to cut the 120-pound hunk of meat into more recognizable steaks and fillets. From Naples comes Antonio Tubelli, former chef at ‘Il Pozzo’, one of the few restaurants to change the face of eating in the city, and now owner of ‘Timpani e tempura’, a deli specialized in old-fashioned Neapoitan street food. Peppe Zullo, a very animated chef who has owned restaurants in Mexico, America and Italy arrived from Puglia with baskets of fresh wild greens picked from the lands surrounding his restaurant. He enjoyed drinking wine as he cooked, and insisted that we all take part in this practice. A whole entourage of housewives and their husbands arrive from Castelfranco Emilia, a town in Emiglia-Romano, to teach us the art of hand rolling pasta and making tortellini. I don’t catch on fast enough and one of the group laughs hysterically every time I roll a delicate tortellini around my pointer finger, aiming for the perfect little navel and coming up with a lopsided blob.
At the end of the ten weeks, my address book has filled with names of chefs from all over the country, promising me a good meal whenever I am in the neighborhood. I have learned the finer points of olive oil tasting, the science of pairing wine and food, and how to make mean pumpkin-filled tortelli. I have acquired a stack of recipes from all over Italy and cannot wait to try preparing them in my own kitchen, without the watchful eye of a master chef around. As for my goal of discovering the secret to Italian cuisine, I think I’ll have to stick around a little longer to figure that one out.
Sarah Weiner, an economics major at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she hopes to learn all the secrets of the country’s regional cuisines.