A Whiff of Whimsy: Picking up a Spatula in Tuscany

*Jakarta Globe, Sept 2009

I stumbled by chance across Asvanara, a horse farm in the heart of Tuscany, Italy’s famed wine region.

Here, where the sky is home to clouds as fat as Gorgonzola cheese-filled gnocchi and the air is crisp as freshly baked French baguettes, I wear the various hats of dishwasher, housemaid and sous chef.

As the farm teaches courses in natural horsemanship it is always filled with boisterous Italian equine aficionados clad in jeans, fringed leather chaps and cowboy hats. The owners have freshly-scrubbed faces, ride bareback, practice yoga and are prone to performing morning meditations in the buff.

Days are filled with everyone’s constant greeting of “ciao!” punctuating the air, the hypnotic swishing of horses’ tails and the hopping of crickets guiding my way through the farm’s grassy terrain.

Lining the slopes of the farm are quaint wooden bungalows, named after planets, set aside for students. Pink popsicle-colored hammocks are slung around the trees outside, complemented by the arresting vista of Tuscany falling sleepily into autumn.

It is in this postcard-perfect place that I have discovered my passion for the kitchen and homemade cuisine.

On the road I’ve experienced my share of kitchens. In fact, I make a habit of gravitating toward them.

In Bujumbura, Burundi, I crouched besides a wooden fire cooking gruel with three African girls in a dimly-lit mud hut. I sipped hot chocolate and shared laughter with three generations of women baking apple pie in a creamy New Jersey home. I peeled potatoes by the bucketful to earn my dinner in the blisteringly hot kitchen of a temperamental cook by the Dordogne river in France.

In any home, I find kitchens are more than just where food is created. They are where friendships are formed. Within those four walls is the sense of something new and, also, a sense of comfort. The kitchen is as warm as a mother’s womb and full of tastes and smells reminiscent of youth.

On my first day at Asvanara, I had a taste of the local grub, a simple meal of creamy cauliflower soup and spaghetti dressed with fresh tomatoes and spices. But the chef’s homemade concoctions with his secret slips and slaps of spices gave me an insatiable appetite. It was love at first bite. You could say, he had me at spatula.

From that moment forward, I knew that being the housemaid wasn’t going to cut it. I volunteered for extra kitchen duty. I wanted to learn how to cook.

For a girl who once charred the ceiling of her apartment because she didn’t know how to work a gas stove and had eggs blow up after attempting to cook them in the microwave, this may not sound like the best idea. During my time in Jakarta, the only time I stepped into a grocery store was to purchase a Magnum ice-cream and the extent of my cooking skills as a bachelorette in London were limited to adding soy sauce to a daily diet of buttered salmon fillet and sauteed spinach.

But I thought I’d chance it this time around. After all, I had a kitchen god in Asvanara in the form of Udo, an Enid-Blyton-reading-yoga-master-vegetarian-chef from Germany. As fate would have it, Udo even has a connection to my homeland. His first kitchen was in an Indonesian restaurant in Berlin and one of the first dishes he learnt was gado-gado (mixed vegetables with peanut sauce).

In order to be in the presence of Udo, my other, not-so-coveted, chores required me to wash dishes and clean the dining areas. From the crack of the fog-filled dawns until the blue high noons, I tackled dishes and the perpetually soiled mess hall floors, courtesy of the cowboys.

The hard work paid off. Gradually, Udo began to trust me to handle food.

I discovered that the kitchen flirts with every sensory faculty.

It sings. Heated butter gurgles, pots and pans argue noisily when washed, ovens hiss and plucked basil sighs. The aroma of chopped parsley, the scent of grated lemon and sprinkled cinnamon wafting through the air, filling the room, teases the nostrils and cavorts with the senses.

And there are tactile sensations attached to the preparation of a meal. To feel the chill of the cucumber’s skin, the juicy seeds tumbling out of a ripe tomato, the slippery heat rising from cooked pasta and the pillow softness of whipped cream are to be in touch with the life source that is food.

Soon I was assigned baking duties. Within a week I knew how to bake bread, creating six baguettes a day for over a dozen hungry cowboys and ranch hands, and learn the secrets of making chocolate from scratch.

But after weeks of pizza and pasta, not even Udo’s culinary talent can prevent them turning bland upon my Spice Islands tongue.  Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a bowl of Indomie noodles right now!

(Photo courtesy of Ocean of Life)

columnsTitania Veda