Toffia is a small hilltop village with a current population of about 350 people, although their population swells closer to 900 people during the warmer months as many Romans like to keep summer homes there. Located in the ancient Sabina region, the area is an agricultural-rich area with primarily olive oil and wine production.
We were all picked up at the Fara Sabina train station, about 45 minutes outside of Rome, and driven by a cute Italian boy to Toffia, about 20 minutes away.
Sally met us at the entrance to the city and as we walked towards their home, gave us a bit of a tour along the way.
During our walk into the center of the village, one of the local "wine growers" passed us several times with his bounty of just-picked grapes.
All of the wine produced by the villagers is for "local-use" only, meaning that all of the residents basically bring their bottles and containers to be filled up after the harvest. They do a similar thing with the olive oil production with residents basically acquiring their year-long needs shortly after the harvest and production. I think that they actually pay for the wine and olive oil, but the amount is quite minimal.
Toffia features a community garden and we stopped there to pick some fresh herbs to use during our cooking lesson.
We arrive at Sally and Guido's home and after a brief introduction to Guido, our lesson begins. I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed our day so much here is that Sally and Guido were instantly like old friends. And the food we prepared was amazing!
I loved that we were kind of thrown back into an era where you actually knew all of the people that produced your food; they personally know (and are friends with) the butcher, the guy who grows the vegetables, the cheesemaker, the olive maker and the wine maker. I suspect they also acquired the flour from someone they know who mills it.
First up, we learn to make tagliatelle pasta (your basic egg noodle). April and I have made pasta many times, but this recipe varies slightly in that the ratio of eggs was a bit higher, and instead of using just all-purpose flour, it was a mixture of 50% all-purpose flour (European 00 flour) and 50% semolina flour.
This was the first time we had learned to make pasta entirely by hand, meaning that we didn't use a sheet roller to create the thin pasta sheets. I'm pretty sure my french rolling pin isn't quite long enough for this method, so I'm going to need some supplies when I get home!
After the pasta was completed, it was time to start the Ragu (a basic meat sauce). This is a basic staple sauce in most Italian kitchens and Guido told us that on Sundays, you can smell various wafts of Ragu from most kitchens in the village.
The sauce begins with a basic mire poix of celery, onions, carrots, then flavored with pieces of pork cheek (kind of like pancetta, but the cut of pork comes from the pig cheek) and fresh bay leaf. There was also a generous amount of olive oil. After this mixture was cooked down for a few minutes, we added some ground beef and wine.
Finally, the Italian version of tomato sauce, as well as a can of "San Marzano" tomatoes were added to the mixture and set aside to simmer while we prepared the rest of today's dishes.
Next up was the dessert, Ricotta cake. I loved how everything we did was made entirely by hand; no blenders, food processors, or mixers. Even the pastry dough for the cake was done on the board by hand.
I though it was an ingenious idea to keep the parchment on the bottom of the pastry to line the dish with.
Spread on the bottom was a locally-made (naturally!) cherry preserve that was more similar to a currant (the cherries are tart) then our sweet bing cherries. The ricotta filling was simply sheep's milk ricotta (apparently sheep's milk is sweeter than cow's), sugar, eggs, chopped chocolate (which was also made locally) and some fresh lemon zest.
And voila! In a matter of a few minutes, it's ready to bake and you have a very simple, but delicious dessert.
Finally, it's time to create the meat course: Veal Saltimbocca. It's amazing how something so simple to make can be so delicious. I definitely think it's the olive oil!
Paper-thin slices of veal are layered with a slice of prosciutto and skewered together with a fresh sage leaf. That's it! No salt, no pepper. It's then quickly sauteed (fairly high heat) with some olive oil (but of course!).
Paired with a simple arugula salad and an orange reduction sauce (which we also made), it was very delicious. Isn't your stomach rumbling just reading about these dishes? Guido told us a funny story about how he tried out his idea of the "orange sauce" to pair with the Saltimbocca on his Roman friends. Their basic response when tasting his version was "it's not like Nona makes." Apparently you can't teach a dog new tricks and they only want to eat something that's exactly what they're used to, and in this case, whatever their beloved grandmother's made. Hopefully my grandchildren will feel that way about my cooking!
It was now time to eat, so we all retired to their "taverna" which is kind of "cave-like" and very cool. What a great place to entertain! Sally told us that they're often asked by fellow villagers if they can host a party in their taverna! It's the perfect spot for a party.
From the flat area where the dining table is located, looking across the room is the entrance to their cellar, also a nice place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine.
Our meal, complete with a generous amount of local wine was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy. The day was perfect! It was warm and sunny, the class was fun and engaging and I am completely in love with Toffia. Remember the movie "Under the Tuscan sun" where Diane Lane's character is on vacation in Tuscany and she falls in love with the village and buys a villa there? I can see that happening! Seriously, this place is fantastic! But obviously, not very realistic for me, but one can dream!
It's now getting to be late afternoon and sadly it's time for us to go. Sally and our cute Italian driver accompany us to another nearby village of Farfa for a quick tour before we drive back to the train station. Along the way, we had some amazing views of Toffia.
The Farfa Abbey is one of the most famous abbeys in Europe. Farfa Abbey played an important role in the history of the Sabina area, having controlled, during it's "golden age", nearly all the nearby towns and villages. The monks of Farfa owned 683 churches or convents; two towns, Civitavecchia and Alatri; 132 castles; 16 strongholds; 7 seaports; 8 salt mines; 14 villages; 82 mills; and 315 hamlets. They even had their own army and navy. It's hard to imagine this fairly small abbey run by monks to have risen to that level of power.
As one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in Europe, it played a major role in the power struggles between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, opposing the power of the Papacy for centuries. With the crisis in the Benedictine order and the struggle for the Papacy in the twelfth century, the Abbey began to decline and eventually fell under the control of the Papal States. From here on it's history follows that of the Vatican and the struggles between powerful Roman families for it's control. In 1477 AD the Orsini family asserted it's growing power in the Sabina by expelling all the monks of Farfa and replacing them with Teutonic monks. In the following centuries the Abbey passed under the control of various Roman nobles such as the Barberini and the Farnese but it never really reacquired the importance and independence it once had. Finally, in 1841 AD its powers were definitively transferred to the diocese of the Sabina.
Farfa also became a focal point for trade with an important weekly market. After the reconstruction of the monastery by the Orsinis during the Renaissance, new shops were built around the monastery to accommodate the merchants, giving birth to a twice yearly fair lasting 15 days. These shops and the urban structure of which they are part can still be seen today and the street names reflect the original uses of each street, for example "via di droghe e cere" (street of medicines and waxes), "via di panni e sete" (street of cloths and silks) and so on. You can still see the characteristic stone slabs at the entrance to each shop which were used as counters by the merchants. The signage in the village is really lovely too; of course I loved the sign outside the bakery.
While we were visiting the church, a wedding was start about ready to start. We've actually seen quite a few brides during our travels in Italy.
It was an idyllic day. In addition to their one-day classes, Convivio offers 3 and 5-day courses, combined with accommodations in Toffia, either in a shared environment (room of local villager) or sometimes they rent out entire dwellings for the class participants. I'm pretty sure one of these options (3 or 5 days) will be worked into the planning process for a future trip to Italy.
Thank you Sally and Guido for such a fantastic day!