This year, I gave my husband the gift of an Italian cuisine cooking class at a local cooking school for his birthday. We spent the evening creating a meal of white bean tapenade smeared on crostini, porcini roasted beef, and bianco risotto cooked in saffron and vermouth. Together we sliced and diced vegetables for the radicchio fritelle, and quartered strawberries for the crowning glory of the meal, a mascarpone torte with prosecco berries. It was every bit as wonderful and full-bodied and delicious as you might imagine.
On the drive home, I asked my husband what he thought of the end results of our labor, and he replied that everything tasted amazing, but a meal born in a test kitchen could never rival the single most delicious Italian meal he’s ever eaten. We’ve eaten an enormous amount of Italian food on our travels throughout Italy: good, bad, and everything in between.
I asked what meal he was thinking of, and he said, “You remember. The meal cooked by the housekeeper at the villa we rented in Tuscany.” As he spoke, the memory of that particular meal rolled over me like a wave. Rich flavors and textures flooded back—tomatoes grown ripe in the southern sun, herbs harvested from local gardens, profiteroles swimming in fresh cream and chocolate sauce.
We hadn’t known what to expect when we rented the villa. We knew it was in the middle of nowhere, and it came with a housekeeper who cooked meals a few evenings. I was sold on the idea immediately—no cooking or cleaning on vacation sounded like the height of luxury.
When we arrived we discovered the villa was an old family home, surrounded by thick walled gardens in the middle of an olive grove. From every window, scenes like a portrait emerged with villas rising from rolling hills covered in olive trees and sharp-cylindrical cypress. Horses snorted in the distance and a lone dog’s bark echoed down the single lane road at night. Hidden from view down a stone path, sat a small family chapel, tucked into the garden. Icons, an Italian bible, and prayer beads remained on the altar with a fine film of dust covering them.
Inside the villa, marble lined the floors and a spiral staircase led up and up and up. Faded prints and cracked oil paintings lined the walls. I felt as if we’d stepped into a work of art that unfolded from the imagination into reality. It was nothing like I expected, and more than I hoped it would be.
Every crooked garden wall and antique oil portrait shouted to us of beauty, and that alone would have been more than enough to feast on, even without the home-cooked meals. I often limit art to what takes place outside of the kitchen, but our cook for the week gave me eyes for the beauty and bounty on our table.
Each day, she shopped at the local grocery store and the farmer’s market. She brought home simple goods—thick wedges of pungent cheese, fragrant bread, and tomatoes ripe from a recent harvest. She filled the kitchen with lemons and olives picked from Tuscan vines, and wine grown from grapes warmed by the strength of the Italian sun. She arranged fresh fruit in a bowl and stacked containers of herbs and spices on the kitchen shelves. Some days she cooked, and some days she left us to our own devices.
On our last evening, she prepared a homemade meal and served it to us al fresco. Earlier in the day, she quizzed our kids on their likes and dislikes, and spent the afternoon shopping at the local markets. She returned to create a one of a kind meal made of fresh ingredients for us. We ate the most delicious meal my husband can remember while sitting under an arbor of wood and vines. As we ate, horses grazed and olives ripened on the trees.
Our meal was a work of art on plates and platters. Many years later, I can taste the bruschetta with perfect recall, and remember the scent of red wine at dusk on a Tuscan evening. In my mind’s eye it remains a blur of laughter and color, smudged with the smoke of citronella coils in twilight.
We may never eat another meal like it again, but I will always remember what it feels like to be offered a labor of love, a feast for the senses, a simple masterpiece.