As a vegetarian who loathes cooking, taking a cooking class in Italy wasn’t high on my list. Wouldn’t I much rather sight-see in Rome and take in my long afternoon eating gelato and getting lost in Trastevere?
I loathe cooking so much that if my husband weren’t around to cook for me, I’d either eat out and watch my bank account dwindle or snack on chips and avocado slices everyday, all day. While both of this options aren’t really healthy, it just goes to show how much I despise being in a kitchen and putting food items together. Luckily, my husband is a talented and passionate cook and finds great pleasure in whipping up a new recipe. So, when my husband mentioned his interest in attending a cooking class on our recent trip to Italy, I was skeptical.
We met Claudia and her husband Bruno in Zagarolo – a tiny village just a 30 minute train ride from Rome – for a local vegetarian cooking experience at their home in Italy. Warm, passionate and fun-loving, my creative hosts’excitement for teaching us how to cook vegetarian dishes quickly eased my cooking nerves. Bruno entertained us with piano tunes, and upon hearing that I loved Queen, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Joel played me an array of hits. We chatted away enthusiastically about seeing Hendrix live, Billy’s lyrics and the recent film adaptation of Queen’s story in Bohemian Rhapsody, while Alex happily cooked away with Claudia. It wasn’t that I was trying to avoid cooking (okay, maybe by the middle of it I was…) but play me some Billy Joel, and I’m hooked!
Claudia, followed loyally by her eager-to-please pup, led us to the backyard to pick wild herbs and plants for our lunch. I was in my happy place taking photographs and writing down a list of the plants we’d use for our homemade ravioli. Any traditional, local cooking class in Italy would teach you to prepare a meal, but how many would show you their personal family vineyard and olive trees in their backyard?
I snapped away as she pointed and told us what each plant was used for. We picked stinging nettle for our ravioli, dangerous and painful to touch but delicious after it’s cooked well. We inhaled the delicious scents of sage, mint, ruta, parsley and wild argula and picked terressaco yellow dandelions to clean it them. After stuffing her basket to the brim with wild plants, she washed them religiously with baking soda and water.
My patience for cooking was thin, but kneading and stretching the flour and egg, smashing it flat with a rolling pin and mixing the fresh cheese and herbs together for the filling was surprisingly pleasurable! I found this sudden, new simple joy in cooking fresh ingredients, in compiling a dash of this and dash of that.
I found particular enjoyment in tasting and testing the dishes as they were being prepared – mostly by Alex and Claudia – and nibbled on their nutty, homemade goat cheese while sipping on wine from their vineyard.
I sang along loudly to Bruno’s Uptown Girl and helped out every so often with the eggplant Parmesan, adding the layers of mozzarella and chunks of sweet Italian tomatoes to the dish. Lastly, after the raviolis, artichoke, salad and eggplant were finished, Claudia chilled the coffee and layered the whipped creamy foam with the cake layers: hmmm my favorite, coffee-drenched tirimisu.
While it took 3 hours to cook, the meal was well worth the wait – even on an empty stomach! I found myself eagerly soaking in each bite and sentence from my new friends, learning about their travels and growing up in Rome, and my favorite – their love story.
Bruno and Claudia were friends in their younger years, but later got married to different people, eventually finding each other again much later in their adult years. They’ve created this harmonious friendship and partnership. While seemingly different, their appreciation for each other and their unique gifts and talents were obvious. I admired how Bruno and Claudia are both passionate creatives, in love with their separate endeavors: Claudia with her interior design (her house was incredible!) and teaching others to cook and Bruno with his composing and performing music. They inspired Alex and me to continue sharing our gifts with others and encouraging one another to pursue our independent dreams and interests.
As Alex and I waved goodbye cheerfully to Bruno as our train pulled away from the Zagarolo train station and picked up speed towards Rome. We smiled at one another, sad to say goodbye to our new friends.
“I’m going to miss them,” I said wistfully looking out over the green Italian countryside, spattered with rolling hills and vineyards. I’m so glad I took a chance on cooking and booked our local cooking class in the Italian countryside with Claudia. While the process of gathering plants, cooking the ingredients and eating was wonderful, it was the experience of meeting and connecting with locals that left a mark on me. It was in sharing laughter, communicating in the limited ways we could, and connecting with music that I’ll remember most. I may not remember the taste, as delicious as it was, but I’ll remember the feeling. We always remember how people make us feel.
For me, I’ll always remember the experiences and connections I shared with others, for relationships are what I value most.
It doesn’t matter how exciting our trip to Rome was or the process of cooking in the Italian countryside that delighted me; it was in sharing the love and connection we have for food. It was in this commonality: this mutual passion for enjoying a good meal, that affected me deeply and spiritually.
And it only took a bit of courage and open-mindedness to discover that gift.
So, if you’re like me and are on the fence about trying something new, or rather trying something you don’t often appreciate, I encourage you to take a chance and try it anyway. You may discover a life lesson like I did, a gift, hidden just underneath the surface.
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June 7, 2019
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