ON A SUNDAY NIGHT IN MID-NOVEMBER, the members of the coming week's class at the Capezzana Wine & Culinary Center, which offers cooking courses in the Tuscan countryside, have convened at a restaurant in Florence. The waiters bring each table a bowl of olive oil, freshly pressed, which is to your standard, store-bought, extra-virgin variety what Technicolor is to black-and-white. For those of us who are tasting olio nuovo for the first time, this is an epiphany. The oil, we are told, retains its peppery tang for roughly two months after it has been pressed; by January, the flavor will have evened out and grown more subtle—more like what we Americans, who tend to buy our olive oil months after the harvest and far from the source, are accustomed to. So we seize the moment, using thick slices of bread as sponges. Naturally, the conversation turns to olive oil. "My best olive oil story . . ." a New Yorker named Rosemary begins, and my heart sinks. A culinary rookie with no repertoire of olive oil anecdotes, I fear I'm out of my league.
All 16 of my classmates seem to live and breathe food. In their spare time, they attend department-store demonstrations by famous chefs. There is Michael, an interior designer from New York; Eve, a photographers' agent from New Jersey; Barbara, a housewife from a Boston suburb; Mary and Bob, a Canadian couple and Capezzana alumni, returning this time with Bob's mother. My own cooking "technique," if that's not too big a word for it, has been limited to omelettes and baked goods; on those rare occasions when I cook for friends, it is always the same menu—chicken roasted in mustard—and this effectively prevents me from inviting the same people twice. So my excitement about the course at Capezzana is tinged with a certain amount of trepidation. What if I flunk?
As it turns out, there was no cause for worry: the chief—perhaps the only—requirement for participation in the course is not experience or skill, but enthusiasm. The school's co-director, Faith Willinger, an American who has lived in Florence for the past 25 years and written two books, exudes a love of food—of Italian food in particular, and of the lore surrounding it—that transcends all our disparities. In five days, she would introduce us to the artisans, the ingredients, the wines, and the recipes that make Tuscan cooking so unlike anything back home. Dressed that first evening in an oversize yellow fleece jacket, brightly patterned leggings, and red sneakers, Willinger cut a somewhat eccentric figure as we made our way back through the narrow streets to our hotel; her short, graying hair belies her vigor.
Before registering for the program, I had briefly considered enrolling in two other popular courses, one taught by a stately aristocrat, the other by an imperious cookbook author. Both of these instructors, I was warned, would take it for granted that I already knew how to make a béchamel sauce. Willinger, for her part, takes nothing for granted, and she brings to her role as teacher the patience of a saint and the humor of a stand-up comic. Her ability to put people at ease convinced me instantly that I had made the right decision.
COOKING CLASS IS MY IDEA OF "ADVENTURE TRAVEL." I work in the fashion business, among an irreversibly skewed subset of the human species that regards eating (never mind cooking) as a sin and celebrates restaurants for their "scene." "You're doing what?" my incredulous colleagues asked. Going on safari they could understand, but this . . . No sooner had Donna Karan sent her final model down the runway, marking the end of the semi-annual monthlong marathon of collections, than I, utterly exhausted, hailed a taxi to the airport.
Monday, we boarded a bus that took us to the Tenuta di Capezzana, an estate 25 minutes west of Florence that would be our campus. The road passed through Carmignano, the nearest town, then wound high into the hills, climbing above the early-morning fog and affording us spectacular views of the landscape rendered in countless Renaissance paintings as the backdrop for noblemen and saints. A row of cypresses along a ridge, a lone umbrella pine silhouetted against the sky, the golden light that drenches the fields all contribute to an unmistakable sense of place: this is Tuscany, still true to itself despite the encroaching sameness that seems to beset the rest of the world.
The villa at Capezzana, built in the 16th century for a member of the Medici family, is typical of the region, with pale yellow stucco walls and a red tile roof. There are three dining rooms, one equipped with a grill, another with a wood oven for pizza. Throughout the house, the floors are paved with terra-cotta tiles; the furniture is a hodgepodge of different periods, amassed over four generations. Capezzana is now home to Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi and his wife, Lisa. Willinger calls him "the count from central casting"—handsome, dressed in the manner of an English country squire, adept at charming the ladies. Countess Lisa, though not as gregarious, is a lesson in seemingly effortless efficiency; the night before our arrival, she had held a dinner for 300.
The house at Capezzana is also the headquarters for a thriving business in which three of the seven Contini Bonacossi children take an active part: Filippo, an agronomist, supervises the production of the olive orchards and vineyards; Beatrice (known as Bea) handles marketing; Benedetta runs tours of the estate and the cellars. Bea's two-year-old daughter, Annalu, already shows signs of an affinity for the family business. Tagging along on a tour of the limonaio, where grapes intended for the manufacture of vin santo (the local dessert wine) are drying on racks, she silenced the visitors: "Shh," she told us, putting a finger to her lips. "The grapes are sleeping."
The Contini Bonacossis seemed to take our comings and goings in stride: the 17 of us were readily absorbed by the house and its everyday routine. The accommodations proved to be simple but comfortable, more along the lines of a dormitory (singles and doubles available) than a hotel—albeit a dormitory outfitted with antiques. A communal breakfast room also serves as a late-night lounge. The atmosphere is convivial, and apart from a jet-lag-induced nap that I stole one afternoon, I found that I spent surprisingly little time in my room.
The heart of the house is the kitchen, where everyone congregates, family and students alike, around the large central worktable. Patrizio Cirri, the resident chef, presides over preparations for lunch and dinner with an aplomb envied by those of us who still rely on recipes. He cracks an egg and deftly plops it into the center of the ring of flour he has shaped on the table's marble surface, then, with his fingers, gradually mixes a batter for biscotti. He sloshes olive oil into a pan. "How much was that?" we ask, already concerned about re-creating the dish at home. "A third of a cup?Half a cup?" Willinger estimates the quantities, which we dutifully record in our notebooks. Years of use have worn the numbers off the dials on Patrizio's oven, which for him poses no problem: he can tell the difference between 325 degrees and 350 simply by sticking his hand inside. For us, Willinger specifies the temperatures.