The Fine Art of Tuscan Cooking
February 6, 2020
Mary Noe pays a visit to Tuscany’s famed Scuola di Cucina di Lella and learns a thing or two about Tuscan cooking
Tuscany is the birthplace of some of Italy’s most beloved dishes, and the traditional foods of Siena are vibrant and flavorful favorites in a country of exceptional cuisine.
After eating our way through several different regions of Italia, my friends and I returned to Siena, a beautifully preserved medieval hill town in central Italy’s Tuscany region. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Siena is known for the Palio horse race, the stunning Piazza del Campo, and its delicious food.
We had fallen in love with the regional culinary specialties, and were excited to experience a foodie’s dream come true – learning authentic recipes and cooking secrets from one of Tuscany’s top chefs. Several local recommendations led us to Lella Cesari Ciampoli, a Sienese native who has been teaching cooking lessons at her Scuola di Cucina di Lella since 1996.
Tuscan Cooking at Siena’s First International Cooking School
Scuola di Cucina di Lella is located in the historic city center, just a short distance from Piazza del Campo and the Duomo of Siena. Built in 1200, the building has been renovated over time and has recently been restored. Lella’s culinary specialty is Tuscan cooking, and she has a special love for medieval cuisine.
Lella and her staff strive to “maintain the tradition of Sienese and Tuscan cooking and the recipes that were passed down to us from our grandmothers.” Lella’s lessons combine “a mixture of both ancient and family recipes, coupled with only the healthiest and most authentic local ingredients.”
Class choices include Le Paste Fresche (fresh, homemade pasta and accompanying sauces), Pizze e Focacce (pizza and flat bread), and I Dolci Tipici Senesi (traditional Sienese desserts such as ricciarelli and panforte).
Cooking, Camaraderie, and Chianti
We booked the most popular group class, Menù Tipico Toscano, and would learn to cook a traditional Tuscan meal from starter to dessert, including handmade pici pasta – a local Sienese favorite. The experience would conclude with a full dinner of the dishes we prepared, accompanied by exceptional local wines.
We arrived for our lesson, eager to learn Tuscan recipes we could replicate at home, and met Lella, her assistants, and the other students. Our class of eight was a varied, international group – a young couple from Nigeria, a solo female traveler from the UK, and my friends and me from various points in America. Our class was conducted in English and Italian to suit our group (translators are also available for lessons in Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese).
Stepping into Lella’s kitchen, we were enveloped in the warm hospitality of a Tuscan home – the vibrant red local tomatoes and bright green basil heaped on the counter, the crusty loaves of country bread resting on the cutting board, the welcoming hustle and bustle of a large family kitchen. The inviting space was decorated in white with wood and red accents, and stainless steel utensils edged the counters. Overhead mirrors made viewing the demonstrations possible from anywhere around the large center island.
“We want our customers to be comfortable – they must feel at home. The lessons must be fun, interesting, and, above all, comprehensible,” says Lella.
For over 20 years, it is this attention to detail that has drawn hundreds of students to her classes each year. Her outstanding reputation is based on “the seriousness, the professionalism, and the high quality of the products” used.
Fresh Seasonal Ingredients
Indeed, Lella’s menus are designed around the variety of fresh, seasonal ingredients Tuscany is famous for.
“Foreign customers always ask for Tuscan cuisine,” says Lella, “and we offer typical seasonal dishes all made with our best local produce.”
A summertime favorite is panzanella, a bread and tomato salad. Traditionally, Lella says, “Sienese peasants never threw anything away. With the hard, stale bread in the summer, they invented the salad, adding tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and basil, all seasoned with a great extra virgin olive oil.”
During the fall months, Lella offers “typical autumn menus, including courses on bread, soups, and pastries.”
For our lesson, Lella had chosen a traditional Tuscan menu that included pappa col pomodoro di Lella (tomato and bread soup), pici al sugo bianco di Cinta Senese (pici pasta in a white Tuscan pork sauce), arista di Cinta Senese in porchetta con patatine arrosto (roast loin of pork), and tiramisu di Lella (a classic Italian dessert).
A Consummate Culinary Instructor
Lella expertly demonstrated techniques passed down through generations, while sharing stories of the local ingredients and customs. She deftly swirled aromatic, local, amber olive oil into a hot skillet as we leaned in to study her steady technique. One turn per person, she explained through her translator, indicating the amount of oil necessary for the number of people the dish would feed.
Soon, the heady aroma of fresh garlic simmering in extra virgin olive oil permeated the room as we paired off to prepare different components of the meal. The lesson was hands-on, and we stirred, simmered, and sautéed our way through the afternoon.
Lella and her staff offered the perfect combination of warm hospitality and professional instruction. She watched with an eagle eye as students rolled out pici pasta (a thick, hand-rolled, spaghetti-like strand) and sautéed fresh tomatoes for the papa col pomodoro.
In the relaxed kitchen atmosphere, we were not worried about making mistakes, but knew that we were being watched over by a professional with a keen eye for following traditional techniques. She encouraged us to make these regional specialties our own, while intuitively tweaking ingredients to create the most flavorful combination.
Our afternoon ended with a boisterous, convivial meal shared by strangers who had become friends. The satisfaction of knowing that we had prepared these timeless recipes ourselves only made the food more delicious.
No excursion to Siena would be complete without a chance to learn authentic Tuscan cooking, and Lella will be your perfect guide. She will teach you to combine simple, fresh, local ingredients into dishes bursting with delicious aromas and flavors. With the warm, familial atmosphere and friendly, professional staff, strangers become friends and friends become family at Scuola di Cucina di Lella.
Clients can choose from a variety of courses, and can attend one or a series of classes. Group, private, and customized lessons are available, and families and children are welcome. Class prices vary, and include local wine. Lessons are generally three-four hours, and students receive a recipe packet printed in English so they can take notes and add to their personal recipe collection. Email is an efficient way to contact Lella and arrange your lesson ([email protected]).
Lella is a member of the IACP (International Association of Cooking Professionals), is an AICI teacher (Association of Teachers of Italian Cuisine) and is the President of the “Lady Chefs” of the FIC (Italian Federation of Cooks Siena). Her school has been awarded a 2016 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence.
Contributor Mary Noe is a freelance writer who offers a fresh approach on local happenings, keeping readers current on travel, community, and lifestyle trends.