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Cooking School in Florence

Cecchini's first-rate selection of meats and salumi is augmented by a handful of cheeses (among them, a superb young pecorino) and three types of beans, including the small, round fagioli zolfini di Valdarno, slightly sulfurous in taste and delicious when cooked with rosemary, then tossed with new olive oil. But in the end it was Cecchini's profumo di Chianti—his own blend of salt and indigenous seasonings such as rosemary, sage, bay leaves, and coriander—that we all bought. Soon after my return to New York, a liberal sprinkling of it on some Cornish hens was all it took to persuade the friends I'd invited for dinner that I had acquired some new, hard-won culinary expertise.

And that, in fact, turns out to be not a lie but merely an exaggeration. I learned a lot. But, in keeping with one of the prime hazards of any education, I now have a much better idea of all that I don't know. What I still lack is the ability to take a recipe and make it my own—as Countess Lisa once did on an almost daily basis, when she would make olive oil cake for her children, each time flavoring it with different ingredients.

Friday—our last day—was devoted to wine. Nick Belfrage, a consultant to several vineyards in the area, provided a crash course that ranged wide, from the genesis of the new "super-Tuscans" (renegade reds that have developed outside the old standards for classification) to the local approach, in which wine is considered an adjunct to food—an attitude inconducive to the sort of wine cults that have sprung up in northern Europe, where wine is regarded as an entity unto itself.

Our graduation ceremony that evening was—what else?—a dinner, with a menu by George and Johanne, featuring as a first course their famous pizza cooked over a wood fire on the grill. Count Ugo delivered the commencement address, quoting Virgil, musing on the immortality of great books as compared to other, more ephemeral achievements. "Those of us who make wine and food," he said, "dedicate our energies to the pleasure of the moment." Well, I thought, let's not overestimate the value of literature. After all, the week's convivial delights—however fleeting—had succeeded in restoring my soul.

Then Willinger called out our names, one by one, and Countess Lisa bestowed our diplomas. "Barbara!" Faith announced. "A lapsed vegetarian. My kinda girl!"


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