Culinary tours of Tuscany or Umbria that won't break the bank?
I've been looking at culinary tours in Umbria and Tuscany and the prices take my breath away (and none of them include airfare, even). Has anyone ever taken such a vacation without applying for a second mortgage? Please share! Thanks.
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My honeymoon was in Tuscany. We rented apartment that used to be an old barn, in a town just 20 minutes outside of Florence. We didn't have an agenda either. Just drove towards whatever town that we felt like. The process was the same for each town/city, park at the train station, go to the city center (centro), and explore. In the town of Greve in Chianti, we found a bulletin board of wine tours and cooking classes. We signed up for a wine tour of Castello di Verazzano. It was incredibly fun because the tour guide was so hilarious and it was a beautiful property. The wine tour included a 'light' lunch of prosciutto, tomato bruschetta, roasted pork loin, and vin santo with cantucci for dessert and lots of the estate wine. The cost at the time was about EUR 40 pp.
We also signed up for a cooking class at a B&B in Panzano in Chianti, called Fagiolari. Giulietta and Stefania taught us how to make fresh pasta, a fantastic turkey roulade, sage pesto, and a delicious & very simple apple cake. We got an apron, cookbook, and fabulous meal for EUR120.
Be flexible and ask your hotel or landlord (if you are going the self-catering route) for info on cooking classes, places to visit or tours. Our landlord offered a home-cooked Tuscan meal for EUR20, which we accepted twice. And check out the supermarkets. The one near our apartment, The Co-op, had spinach/ricotta crespelles that were insanely good for supermarket prepared foods. One day, they even had fresh porcini and chanterelles at reasonable prices.
If you are thinking of going into the Emilia-Romagna area, please remember that this area was hit with a pretty strong earthquake in May. Lots of heritage buildings were damaged. Thankfully only minimal human losses (17 people?). This is the area that produces the famous parmigiano reggiano. They were looking at a EUR 200M loss to the industry back in May. I don't know how much progress they've made in the last 2 months, but they are probably still rebuilding.
I'd actually recommend looking outside of Tuscany (in particular) for cooking experiences - for example Bologna or Piedmont.
I completely agree with Pierino that self-guided tours are the best way to go - not only from a price perspective but to design what you want out of a travel experience. I travelled for a year with basically nothing pre-arranged and rarely had a problem arranging a day tour or cooking class at short notice - even the night before. (Admittedly that style of travel does take a touch more flexibility than the average American vacation calendar allows).
I have spent much time in Italy, both traveling on my own and taking part in cooking courses. I almost always choose to travel on my own, but the cooking courses offer different experiences and the chance to get to know a location in a different way. I think either way is a good choice, just depends what you want to get out of it.
In the last few years, Umbria, unfortunately, has been discovered and prices have reacted accordingly. It is hard to miss it, since it is close to both Rome and Florence. Just because it is getting more tourism doesn't mean it is less charming, but it does mean higher prices.
I took one cooking course in Tuscany, near Cortona. It was good enough, but in the end it was the most expensive of the cooking programs I have signed up for and it was the least enjoyable, mostly because I found the participants to be totally unengaging. They had more money at their disposal than creativity or enthusuasm.
I highly recommend The Awaiting Table cooking school in Lecce, Puglia. Puglia is the heel of Italy and is a bit off the tourist trail. Sylvestro, the owner of the school, teaches the cooking sessions and introduces participants not only to the visually delightful, historic Baroque town of Lecce, but also to a host of people in the small shops, public market, and wine stores. Participants stay in comfortable B&Bs and begin the day in a bar (in Italy, a bar is a cafe, almost a community center, that serves coffee drinks, light lunches and perhaps granita as well as alcoholic drinks). Over cappuccini and cornetti, Sylvestro outlines the day's activities, and then the adventures begin. The mornings were devoted to gathering supplies for lunch and dinner. The cooking lessons followed at the school, located in a palazzo deep within the labyrinthine center of town. We learned about ingredients as well as techniques. Each person participated completely--with lots of hands-on work. During my session, participants got to know each other and genuinely enjoyed working together as a team.
Most importantly, though, you get to know Lecce and feel the warmth of its inhabitants and the daily rhythms of life. I still think of the cappucino, just squeezed orange juice, and cornetti I ate every morning for breakfast brought to the table by the smiling, gracious owner of the bar and of the long, happy meals gathered at Sylvestro's candle-lit table where the Puglian wines flowed. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I am going back in November. You can find more info at awaitingtable.com.