When I saw the forecast for Thursday, I tried to switch the cooking class to Wednesday. Inside a warm, cheery kitchen would have been the perfect way to spend another miserable day.
But mercoledì (mare-coh-lay-dee) was the restaurant’s weekly giorno di chiusura (day of closure). So on a sunny Thursday morning I boarded the ferry for Varenna.
Ristorante Il Caminetto is up in the mountains, 12 tornanti (hairpin turns) from the ferry landing in Varenna. Detailed directions are provided on the restaurant website if you want to drive. Or you can use their shuttle service. The landing for the autotraghetto (car ferry) was just a couple of kilometres up the lake from my hotel, but like the rest of the group, I opted for the shuttle. I think it’s fair to say I have one of those love-hate relationships with driving – and not just in Italy. The car allows me to go to places I couldn’t otherwise manage. Places where public transit is so limited, it just takes too long to get there. Besides, the few times I’d been driven around by locals in the past had been fascinating, if unnerving experiences.
A white van pulled up near the dock and a middle-aged woman – typical, respectable type, with a decidedly no-nonsense demeanour – got out. Our driver. One of the few who were on their own, I ended up sitting shot-gun which gave me a wide open view of how that non-nonsense demeanour played out when she was behind the wheel. Every time she muttered in exasperation at how slowly the driver in front of her was taking the hairpin turns, I couldn’t help thinking how much bluer the air in the van would be if I’d been the one cramping her style.
I hated to go inside on such a gorgeous day, but Chef Moreno’s warm welcome and the offer of caffè or cappuccino before he started the lesson were encouraging. And as we milled around the espresso machine, a young woman set big jugs of wine along the tables where we would sit while we watched him work. A good start.
Once we were seated he did the the ‘go around the table, introduce yourself thing’, an apparently obligatory practice nowadays that always makes me cringe, even while I can’t help being curious about where the others in these randomly formed groups are from. Not surprisingly, most of today’s group were American. Because it was so close to Thanksgiving – even closer for me, the lone Canadian – he had chosen a boneless roast turkey for our secondo (the meat course). But first, the pasta for the primo had to be made. Despite having seen the process countless times before, it was as fascinating as ever to watch him work the eggs into the flour. As the doughy mound began to form, he explained the difference between pasta asciutta (ah-shoot-tah) and pasta fresca. ‘Dry’ pasta, the type sold in boxes, originated in southern Italy and is made with durum wheat and water. No eggs. Fresh pasta or pasta all’uovo (al-woe-voh) was, until the advent of home refrigerators, only made in the north, where even on hot summer days, cellars remained cool enough to store the egg-based pasta.
While the pasta ‘rested’, he prepared the secondo which, following the finely tuned choreography of today’s lesson, would cook while he continued with the primo.
As he worked he told us about his life. The restaurant is in one of a dozen frazioni (hamlets) that make up the comune of Perledo. When he was 14, along with all the other 14 year-olds from the various hamlets, he was taken on a school trip to the big urban centre down the lake – Bellagio. The goal of the outing was to help the young students choose a career. In Moreno’s case it worked. As soon as he walked into the cucina of the Bellagio Cooking School he knew what he wanted to do. His mamma cried when he told her. She, like many mammas of the era, had wanted him to pursue a more respectable, prestigious career – become an avvocato (which looks like a vegetable, but means lawyer) or a dottore. Moreno shrugged, it was 40 years ago. Who would have thought that chefs would one day be celebrities and cooking shows would be all the rage on TV?
Once the turkey was in the oven, he started on the sauce for the primo. Like so many of Italy’s best dishes, the recipe was short and simple – olive oil, garlic (which he smashed with the blade of a ceramic knife held horizontally over the cloves – fascinating to watch), coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes, whole cherry tomatoes (the computer gnomes keep correcting ‘cherry’, obviously preferring ‘cheery’ which is indeed how they looked – these were Italy’s finest – from Pacchino in south-eastern Sicily) and finally, pomodoro passato (tomato purée).
As he was stirring the sauce one of the students asked about the seasoning. Moreno, whose English was very good, started talking about the crazy weather and global warming. No-one said a thing. Not even the woman who had asked the question. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I didn’t care if it annoyed the others. I interrupted him, ‘No, no sta parlando delle stagioni, sta parlando delle spezie che ha messo nel sugo!’ He looked at me and asked, I condimenti? (another word for seasoning). I nodded. He shrugged and smiled. ‘You English, you have so many words and yet you use words that sound so similar for things that are so different.’ He then said some ridiculously flattering words about my Italian and some equally self-deprecatory words about his English, and told her what seasonINGS he had used.
Moreno’s overall philosophy was first you feed the soul, then the stomach, and always both with passion. A message that was repeated in the recipe booklet we were given.
After the pasta had rested sufficiently – the way to tell is to press the dough with your knuckles; if it doesn’t spring back it’s ready – Moreno brought out his roller. While he was rolling the dough, the church bell rang. For him it was a sad sound. It probably meant someone had died. The population of Perledo was 81. Maybe now one less. He continued rolling until he could see the stripes on the board below, a sign that the dough was just the right thickness. He cut the dough into squares – remarkably equal-sized squares – and then started piping a cheese herb mixture into the middle of each.
Then he showed us how to turn the squares into cappelliti (little hats). Fold the square diagonally to make a triangle with the point towards you. Thumbs touching, hold the outer points of the triangle between your index fingers and thumbs, then spread your elbows wide and the ‘wings’ will come together and overlap. Press to remove air – otherwise your little hats will explode in the boiling water.
It was absolutely delightful sitting there watching and listening to Chef Moreno. It was easy to see why his demos get such consistently high ratings and the food he prepared for us was even more delicious than it looked. On top of an already wonderful day, when we staggered out of the restaurant around 3 pm, the sun was still shining. The no-nonsense lady driver was waiting to take us back down to the ferry landing. Those of us who wanted to visit Castello Vezio nearby could get a ride with Moreno. The views from the castle were spettacolari and there was an ancient path that would bring us to Varenna. The thought of a great view and a chance to walk off lunch on this glorious afternoon was exactly what I wanted. Also, the path would take me to the south end of Varenna, close to the entrance to the garden I wanted to visit. The others, it turned out, were in a hurry to get back to wherever they’d come from – especially one of the Americans, the other lone attendee. We ending up sitting next to each other and he told me his story. Unlike me, who was really travelling solo, he had a wife who was back in Bellagio recovering from food poisoning – not from anything she’d eaten in Italy! They were on a once-in-a-lifetime, 25th anniversary trip that his wife had been planning for years. They figured it was something she’d eaten on the ferry from Greece. He carefully taped the whole lesson for her. When Moreno found out, he put together a generous take-away meal for the hopefully now recovered wife.
I felt badly when I learned I was the only one who was interested in the castle option and offered to go with the others, but Moreno would have none of it, so I was treated to the second ride in one day with a local and additionally, now that he could speak freely in his native language, to a lively commentary on the state of Italian cuisine (very promising), TV (terrible), the status of women (complicated) and how much simpler life had been when he was growing up.
With all those twisting mountain roads, getting to Vezio was not exactly an ‘as the crow flies’ ride and it took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I thanked Moreno profusely for going out of his way for one person. He smiled and said it was his pleasure, ‘Lo sa come siamo noi italiani per le donne…’ You know how we Italian men are for women…
It was a long, solitary walk down from the castle. Moreno had said it took about a quarter of an hour, maybe a bit more, but one of the fellows in the cooking class had said it had taken him over an hour. After a while I began to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere – there were a lot more upward parts than I would have liked. Had I ended up on one of those Club Alpino paths? To my great relief eventually I saw a sign for the Albergo Eremo Gaudio. The Hotel of Gaudio, the Hermit. Disconcertingly, the message on the sign was as unwelcoming as you’d expect from a hermit. It seemed I was not the first to have lost their way coming down the mountain. Passersby were advised that the hotel was private property, for registered guests only; access to all others was strictly proibito. But even more disconcerting was the possibility I might end up lost on this mountain. I walked up to the young woman behind the bar and in a tone I hoped was more confident than how I felt, pulled out a well-worn phrase, ‘Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma sto cercando la strada per Villa Monastero.’ (Sorry to bother you but I’m looking for the way to Villa Monastero.) Rather than the scowl I was expecting, she smiled and came out from behind the bar on to the terrace overlooking the lake to show me the way.
I’m always a bit leery when I see a garden described as eclectic. Eclectic can so easily be a polite way of saying hodgepodge. Add to that a Greek-style temple, a Renaissance loggia, Moorish pavilion, granite columns lying (ostensibly) where they were found and a grotto and I’m tempted to head for the nearest bar and order a nice glass of something local. Fortunately I don’t always follow my hunches. The garden at the end of the path down from Castello Vezio is in fact eclectic, but it’s also enchanting. So is its history.
Built in the 13th century for an order of Cistercian nuns, which was shut down in the mid 16th century, whereupon the six remaining nuns were transferred – somewhere – the property passed through the hands of a succession of private individuals who transformed it into what eventually became known as the Villa Monastero. Between the two World Wars it was donated to the public by its then owners, a Milanese family of Swiss origins, and in the ensuing tumultuous decades fell under the control of a series of government agencies until 1980, when, in an extraordinary demonstration of community spirit, the citizens of Varenna got together and purchased the property. For the benefit of the public.
Close to another pair of twisted pillars was the entrance to a small museum, but I had no desire on this glorious afternoon to spend even a second indoors.
In addition to the statues and architectural bits, there is also a serious collection of plants.
Next – the elusive Villa Balbianello and an ‘undemocratic’ restaurant