Overlooking the great Renaissance city of Florence from one of the surrounding hills, the Villa San Michele was originally a monastery built in the fifteenth century by the Franciscans on land donated in the middle of a forest by the great Davanzati dynasty. After the dissolution of the monastic orders imposed by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, it was transformed into a private residence, and so it continued until 1982. Then, this building that is classed as National Monument and boasts a façade attributed to Michelangelo, was re-opened as an exquisite hotel with its own school of cookery.
Since the Chef Attilio Di Fabrizio took the reins five years ago, all kinds of "kitchen assistants" have attended, from groups of girlfriends wanting to learn the secrets of homemade al dente pasta, kitchen rookies who are afraid the pans will bite, couples sharing a love of good food, and even children, taking their first steps on the gastronomic ladder.
Each year, from April through to the end of October, the monastery's old lemon-drying room becomes the stage for these brief adventures in the culinary arts where each participant, under the supervision of the chef, has the hands-on experience of preparing the starter, main dish and dessert that they will later enjoy along with their fellow learners in the restaurant, with views over Florence, that occupies the aristocratic loggia of the villa.
The shortest of the courses is a single morning and is also open to those who are not fortunate enough to be staying at the hotel itself. In just over 2 hours, on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Di Fabrizio teaches groups - never more than ten students at a time - to prepare dishes that can easily be reproduced back at home. Dishes such as the typical Tuscan panzanella or potato gnocchi carefully kneaded by hand and accompanied by a deceptively simply tomato and basil sauce. Not forgetting the desserts such as tiramisu, of course.
The four-day Symphony of Pasta course is exclusively for guests at the villa and includes three nights lodging. As well as a class with Di Fabrizio focusing on Tuscan specialities, Domenico Di Raffaele of the Hotel Caruso in Ravello teaches some of the most typical Mediterranean dishes of the south of Italy, and Renato Piccolotto, Chef at Venice's Hotel Cipriani, brings his international experience to the table.
Also scheduled through the year are brief forays into the delights of local wines under the guidance of the Villa's sommelier, special courses for kids aged eight to 14 and others designed specifically for singles interested in eating well without spending long hours in the kitchen. For this years programme, there's a new offer launched with the title Heart in a dish, where a chef, a cardiologist and an immunologist will join together to compose menus as healthy as they are tasty.
Try your hand at panzanella
All you need to prepare this typical Tuscany peasant salad is: 250 grammes of day-old bread (preferably good quality unsalted baker's bread such as ciabatta, not medium sliced), 120 gm of tomatoes, de-seeded and diced, 30 gm of onion and 100 gm of cucumber, both diced, 1 dl of extra virgin olive oil and the same quantity of white wine vinegar, salt and a bunch of fresh basil. Dilute the vinegar in a bowl with a couple of litres of cold water, and put the bread to soak. Mix the chopped vegetables in a bowl. When the bread is ready, squeeze as much water as possible out of it and shred it roughly. Add to the vegetables and mix together with the oil and salt to taste. Just before serving, shred five large basil leaves and add to the mixture. Use two large spoons to arrange three spoonfuls of the salad in a star shape on each plate with a sprig of basil in the centre.
The former monastery of Villa San Michele, a national monument and now exclusive hotel with just 46 rooms, is set among the woods and gardens of the Fiesole hill around 15 minutes from the centre of the city of Florence. Free transport to the city s provided for guests several times a day.
The programme, price and full description of courses on offer can be found on the hotel web page villasanmichele.com. The shortest, which takes place in a single morning and is open to non-guests, costs 170€ and includes a meal in the restaurant with the dishes featured in the class with the chef. The highlight of the 2010 season is the Heart in a dish course which teaches healthy cuisine under the supervision of a chef and health experts. The price of 1,870€ is per person in double room and includes three nights half board. Additional nights can be reserved.