Thursday, August 11, 2011

Day 6: Cooking with Lemons, Wine & Olive Oil Tasting, and Don Alfonso's

A Perfectly Packed Day:
I woke up easily, excited for our second major cooking class with Salvatore and friends. I opted for the usual yogurt and cappuccino for breakfast and quickly gathered my apron and notepad, preparing for the morning. Once at Il Ritrovo, Salvatore greeted us with his usual chipper demeanor, but he seemed a bit tired. He let us know that he had been at the restaurant till 4am the night before and then came back 3 hours later to start his day. Oh the life of a chef! 

After another round of caffeine, we started cooking. Our first lesson was in making mozzarella from scratch, which requires obtaining fresh unpasteurized milk. And as per typical Salvatore, when we inquired about how to get our hands on something like that at home, his reply was "go to the farms"... Not as easy as it seems! Unfortunately I don't think I'll be able to try this recipe again anytime soon unless I decide to acquire a couple of my own cows. Regardless, it was a quite interesting lesson in cheese making and hopefully someday I'll be able to try it again.

The dried curds made from the milk,
acid, and rennet 

Ladling in hot salted water smoothes out
the cheese into it's well known texture

To be able to get the cheese into the round clouds we usually see it as, the water has to be super hot and it nearly burned my little hands! However, I didn't mind... when in Italy, do as the chef's do! 

After our mozzarella lesson, we moved onto risotto, which has always been difficult for me to cook perfectly. I always end up letting it cook a bit too long and then it turns into soggy mush. One thing I didn't know is that Salvatore doesn't use the typical arborio rice for his risotto. He used a more starchy variety that he prefers because of it's added texture. There are actually lots of different types of rice that can be used for risotto other than arborio and those include, carnaroli, padano, vialone nano, and baldo. Arborio is still perfectly acceptable and probably the easiest to find here in the states. 

We started by pouring the rice of heated butter and thinly chopped onions to toast. Salvatore specified to use butter and not oil because of the flavor properties of the fat. I had always figured that Italians stuck to using olive oil for just about everything. While toasting the rice, Salvatore tossed in whole carrots, celery,  and more onions into a huge pot of simmering water. He also added a good bit of saffron, turning the water a beautiful yellow hue. He told us how important it was the add all the depth of flavor through the water because as the water evaporates and begins to plump the rice, the concentrated onion/saffron flavor remains. It also seems that risotto really needs a lot of love and care. Its not something you can throw in a pot and set the timer for 20 minutes and then presto, it's ready. You have to constantly stir and add water slowly to get it to the perfect consistency. We of course had not set a timer and relied on Salvatore's since of food readiness to know when it was done, which if I had to guess, was around 20 minutes. 

Stir Crazy!
Once the risotto was perfect and plump, we started on a new dish that I cannot wait to make again! We took our fresh mozzarella and sliced it into long plank-like pieces that were about a half inch thick. Mary-Lou, Salvatore's aunt and kitchen helper, brought in some lemon leaves from their garden and washed them for us. We first dredged the cheese in some flour and seasoned the pieces with a little oregano, salt, pepper, and some garlic powder. We coated the bottom of a pan with light oil and turned up the heat to about medium-high. Once hot, we place the lemon leaves in the bottom of the pan and put the mozzarella atop each one. Once the cheese began to melt and stick to the leaves we did a little flip to fry the other side. The tangy smell of lemon filled the air as the oil from the leaves began to seep into the cheese. 

 We then went on to make a lemon fish, using a tilapia like meat with lemon rind and juice. We browned the fish in a pan after dredging it in a little flour and seasoning with the rind and salt and pepper. And then, surprisingly, added some of the risotto water, and steamed the fish under a pot top, adding lemon juice and more rind. I would have never thought to steam the fish after browning it so perfectly, but it kept the fish so moist and lemony! We also made two flourless cakes, one chocolate and one lemon. Instead of flour we used dark almonds and white almonds that we ground in a food processor until they were the consistency of flour. What a great alternative to the typical fluffy cake! The almond flour we made gave the cakes a denser quality and a lovely almondy flavor that really complimented both the lemon and the chocolate.

Once all our cooking and baking was complete, we retired to the patio to enjoy the fruits of our labor, or rather citrus :) The mozzarella had to be my favorite, but everything was fantastic and wonderfully lemony without being too overpowering!

After lunch and a round of espressos to keep us from the afternoon slump, we headed further up the mountain to enjoy a wine and olive oil tasting put on by the company that organized our tour, Cooking Vacations. We tasted the olive oil to start, which was first cold pressed, meaning the olives were only crushed once during processing and the oil was never heated over 80 degrees when made. We tried two oils, both extra-virgin, indicating that they are of the purest state with no chemicals or unnatural additives. One oil was wonderfully peppered tasting, while the other was lighter and had fruity undertones. Both oils were actually made on site, using the olive groves on the property, making it all the more special. We then moved onto the wines, all varietals from a vineyard in the area called Tenuta San Francesco. We tasted a rose, a rich red, and a light white called Per Eva, which was specifically made for one of the partner's wives named Eva. Nearly all the wines from the Amalfi region are varietals, a combination of grapes, and are not your typical pinot grigios or pinot noirs. Aglianico, piedirosso, and coda di volpe are typical red grapes in the area and falanghina, fiano, and grecco di tufo are often used in whites. 

A closer look at what we tasted

View from the olive groves

Once we had our fill of wine and olive oil, we went back to our hotel to get some rest and get ready for our trip to the Michelin 5-star restaurant, Don Alfonzo, 1890. The restaurant is located in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi just south of Sorrento and is about a 45 minute drive from our hotel in Positano, so we had to hire a cab to get there, making this an even more special night. After a short nap, we got all gussied up in our best dresses and hopped in our car. The drive was beyond gorgeous as the sun was setting just over the sea at the time we left. The restaurant is situated on a large parcel of land as it is also a hotel and has a very extensive wine cellar that tunnels deep underneath the earth. When we arrived, we were escorted into the library where we enjoyed a glass of prosecco and were given a chef's tasting bite of something quite divine, but I still don't know exactly what it was.

Please excuse the blurry photos!
It wasn't ideal snapping pics in this light
The library was beautifully decorated with gorgeous antiques contrasted against more modern color schemes. There was also a video playing describing the history of the restaurant and more about the chef and his family. After finishing our drink, we headed into the main dining area, which is separated into several different rooms. The room we were in was a shocking pink color, but had beautiful chandeliers and floral fabric chairs. Looking through the menu, we were a little overwhelmed. There were just so many choices and everything looked incredible. Thankfully, they offered both a seven and fourteen-course tasting, which would give a good variety of the best things on the menu. We opted for the seven courses and a bottle of pinot grigio suggested by the sommelier. 

A selection of different breads from
tomato to rosemary to dip in house
olive oil

Mozzarella soufflé with oregano and tomato sauce
and a basil crisp

Crispy lobster with vinegar dip and
sweet and sour sauce

A tasting of "grandma's" favorites: fresh
homemade cheese, sliced cured meats,
a stuffed pepped, pork filled pastry,
and a mixture of ground pork and
breading shaped into a pear sitting
in tomato broth with chocolate

Eggless ricotta ravioli in tomato sauce with basil coulis

Poached rock fish in a tomato broth
with crostini

A selection of cheeses accompanied by honey, jam, and nuts

A pear sorbet palate cleanser

Espresso and chocolate pastry

Lemon custard with lemon froth inside of a hollowed lemon 

Assortment of pasties

Two very full, but very happy girls!
The food was absolutely delicious and incredibly creative. Everything was a play on traditional Italian home cooking with imaginative modern twists. After stuffing ourselves to the brim and getting to meet both Don Alfonso and his wife, we finally got to tour the grounds and the famous wine cellar. The cellar dates back to the fifteenth century when it was originally used as an Etruscan escape route to get to the sea if attacked by enemies on land. The cellar literally goes on for what seems like ever deep into the earth and as you travel further into it, the older it gets.  

They keep the cheeses and
cured meats in a cellar
at the very bottom
After being in total awe of the Don Alfonso wine collection and massive cellar, one of the hostesses gave us a tour of the grounds and the beautiful tiled kitchen. Just as we were about to say goodbye, Don Alfonso's wife, Livia, rushed out and gave us a huge hug and a kiss, gushing that we had to come back very soon! What an once-in-a-lifetime experience with even more amazing people!