Today we wrap up our 5 week focus on Italy with a post about Toscana Saporita, a cooking school outside of Pisa. Our guest blogger is Camille Cogswell, an up and coming pastry chef in New York City. In her bio and in her post below, her all-consuming passion for food is clear, whether it be within the buzz and fizz of the NYC food scene or in the lush and rarefied environment of Toscana Saporita.
You'll be hearing a lot more from Camille. Beginning next week, under a tab labeled 'NYC Diner', Camille will do a monthly review of a New York City restaurant. She has a terrific point of view and all the passion of a true artist. I think she will be a great resource...oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, Camille is not just any talented young chef. She is also my niece. I am positively thrilled silly at this chance to collaborate and so without further ado, I will now introduce you to Camille Cogswell ...
My name is Camille. I'm a pastry cook in my early 20s and living in one of the most exciting food meccas in the world, New York City. As a professional cook, I get paid roughly the same amount per hour as high schoolers probably do at their summer jobs. Even in the fine-dining restaurant industry, which is the path that I've decided to pursue, most of these top tier establishments pay the people preparing the food alarmingly low wages. But that's the thing, cooks and chefs are some of the most passionate and inspiring people I've ever met. The intense love, bordering on obsession, and work ethic that I've witnessed in my peers in this industry is what makes working these physically demanding 10-16 hour days, 5, 6, sometimes even 7 days a week, while getting paid so little, possible for us, and believe it or not, fun too! Outside of work, I find myself spending the majority of my minimal free time and disposable income on eating, drinking, and binge cookbook buying. I feel that I can never get enough, never learn enough, never eat enough, and I'm always curious to experience more. Food is life, and I'm gonna live it.
Recently my boyfriend snagged an amazing opportunity to be a Chef Instructor at the Toscana Saporita Cooking School in Tuscany for one of their three month semesters. Which means that I subsequently made sure I would have the chance to visit him there.
Andrew first heard about Toscana Saporita and its owner and head chef, Sandra Lotti at The Culinary Institute of America, where we both went to school. This year Sandra is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of founding Toscana Saporita with her cousin Anne Bianchi. Since its start in 1994 the school has gained extensive recognition. Sandra is a cookbook author and contributor to Intermezzo Magazine. When she is in NYC she cooks and teaches at The James Beard House, Degustibus, The International Culinary Center, and Eataly, and she is supported by chefs such as Mario Batali and Mary Ann Esposito. But foremost she is the perfect balance of vibrance and passion that makes a wonderful teacher and host.
Sandra graciously agreed to let me come stay with Andrew, inviting me to participate in all meals, classes, excursions, relaxing, or otherwise that I cared to. The set up for a pretty perfect vacation. I arrived on a , although the students come through for their week-long program. I was blown away by the villa where Toscana Saporita is located outside of Pisa. The Agriturismo site encompasses many acres of farmland with fruits, vegetables, herbs, sunflower fields, olive orchards, and a family of livestock that includes cattle, goats, horses, chickens, and even a peacock.
The first night I arrived I had the best meal of my whole trip. It was seafood night at the school and it seemed like a welcome feast. Beautiful Prosecco and Pinot Grigio were poured alongside servings of black rice with a bright seafood salad, a seductive stew of cuttlefish, octopus, prawns, and mussels, and a decadent lobster risotto. Suffice to say, this place had me in love the first day.
Most days I would lounge around the pool, sip espressos in the courtyard and read, wander around the property and say hi to the goats, and sit in on a couple of cooking classes, not to mention getting fed beautifully prepared multi-course meals three times daily. Classes were taught by Sandra, the two guest Chef Instructors, Andrew and Scarlett, and Sandra's son and a co-owner Alessio. My favorite lesson was pizza day. There is a small open air room on the property that houses an old wood-fired pizza oven. Alessio and Andrew teach the students how to make beautifully rustic and delicious Neapolitan-style pizzas from start to finish, including making the pizza dough, learning how to build the fire, work the oven, shape the dough, build the pizzas, and watch them cook in 90 seconds. We all attacked each fresh pizza, delighting in their thin, chewy crust crackled with bubbles from the flame and their incredibly simple, sigh-inducing toppings.
The students take trips every afternoon with a tour guide to other cities in the area. On the list are unique towns like Lucca, Viareggio, and Pietrasanta, but my favorite outing we went on was on my second day in Tuscany. The professional truffle hunter, Lucca, and his dog, Giotto, from the Savini Tartuffi family company brought us along on a morning black truffle hunt. Tramping through the woods and unearthing prized specimens of gastronomical decadence was a pretty magical experience.
The day only got better with a lunch where fresh and preserved truffles overwhelmed our plates and perfumed our noses in the Savini tasting room. Somewhere between the truffled pecorino cheese drizzled with white truffle honey and the tagliatelle pasta tossed in truffle cream and topped with a fluffy mound of freshly grated black truffle, I lost sight of reality. Showcased were the superb preserved truffle products that I couldn't stop myself from grabbing practically every one in sight to share back home.
Though I spent the majority of my week at La Casa Rosa, I can't withhold mentioning that I went on an incredible trip to the Cinque Terre filled with rock beaches, swimming in clear harbors, ferry rides, gelato, pesto focaccia, and Aperol Spritz.
Grazie Mille to Sandra and everyone who provided me with a no-less-than-perfect vacation. Check out her website and go visit!