Guest review: Elaine shares her cooking holiday experience in Tuscany
Without a doubt, our cooking holidays in Italy are the most popular holidays on our site. And Chef Rita and her cookery breaks, based in the charming town of Barga in northern Tuscany, are highly sought after.
Recently, we were able to sit down with Elaine, who had just returned from her all-inclusive cooking and wine break in Tuscany with Rita.
We chatted about her first experience with an all-inclusive learning holiday, her thoughts on Italian food and wine (emphasis on the wine) as well as her local host, Rita.
What inspired you to go on this holiday?
Early in March, my UK-based friend took it upon herself to pressure me into flying to Europe for a very special holiday. This holiday would involve pigging out and overdrinking in Tuscany. In an entirely new region, and having never done an all-inclusive learning course before, I was hesitant.
As the type of traveller who is used to mapping out my own way and making my own choices while travelling with my husband, it took these magical words from my friend to get me to go: ‘You’re now retired and I know how much money you’ve just inherited, so don’t give me that shit.’
And, voila! A few weeks later, I’m in Liverpool ready to depart on a trip incorporating our friendship’s greatest common bonds — prosecco, red wine, seafood, cooking, new recipes, and all-you-can-eat 3-course meals.
What places did you go that weren’t touristy and you wouldn’t have otherwise seen?
Most of what we saw was very much off of the beaten track — driving around the area itself gave us amazing views. We visited a monastery (called Eremo di Calomini) set on the edge of a rocky cliff and almost entirely excavated in the rock, which is roughly 1000 years old.
We found the enchanting village of Castiglione di Garfagnana, which offers stunning views over the valley, with its San Pietro church dating back to 723.
The most impressive thing was Rita’s knowledge of every medieval town. No matter what time of day, or how empty the cobbled streets were, our host knew where to eat, the best it had to offer, and the doors would open, be full of locals, all of whom Rita knew. That is something I very much struggle with as a tourist!
What is it in Europe that makes people disappear in the afternoons?
What was Rita like?
Rita is absolutely charming! She thrives when she is working with people in the kitchen, or showing them her favourite spots. A native to the area, she spent her childhood and high school years in Glasgow with her parents, then moved back to the Lucca region to begin her tourism business.
She oversees your entire holiday from picking you up at the Pisa airport (which is rare, I find), to spending each day around your needs. She is extremely flexible and patient and is willing to work with you to give you the perfect holiday. Rita will cook what you want, use the ingredients you want, and take you to see what you want.
We actually had a difficult time paying for anything… and we can handle A LOT of wine. Did I mention she bought us both dried regional mushrooms, air packed, to take home? SO SPOILED.
Who did you meet (other travellers)?
Although we were the only 2 booked on the course, Rita has a strong following. She is so well known, that her old clients often pop in for a special dinner that she cooks especially for them. Throughout our stay, we met about 6 others, and joined them for dinner (with wine… Always with lots of wine).
What was the best cooking tip you picked up?
For me, my favourite part was working with seafood. Rita bought it all because I specifically told her I wanted to use it. I can never find a wide variety at home, so this was heaven for me.
We made a pasta with clams, squid and mussels, and a lovely potato octopus salad. Cooking octopus was a must for my friend, as she has never prepared it.
For me — a pasta and pizza fanatic — the Zuppa de Farro was my absolute favourite. I actually now buy Farro off the internet to make Rita’s recipe. Also, both my friend and I have really upped our Ragu game.
What were the highlights of the holiday?
This will sound ridiculous, but the supermarket blew my mind. I was like a kid at Willy Wonka’s — the fresh selection of seafood, the wall of cheese, the beautiful produce — I never wanted to see a Tesco or Walmart again. It was a great opportunity to stock up on things we can’t get.
We are also history dorks. Rita would go into a town or city with us (Barga, Lucca, Castle Nuovo) and set us loose so we could get our fix of churches and museums. It’s a medieval paradise. Afterwards, we would meet up with Rita for — you guessed it — wine and even more local treats. That she insisted on paying for. Again.
Then, we would head back to our home, cross the street, and go to the wine cafe — yes, a cafe, but with only wine, cheese, and locally produced cured meats and cheese. After tasting about 6 wines, we would then choose which bottles we should drink. This seriously happened every night and we didn’t pay for any of it.
Do you have any advice for future guests?
My advice to travellers is to have no expectations. Ever. Let your mind be blown. Also, do not expect things to be cosy, perfect, or like where you’re from.
Eat the new food, try the ‘larda’ (yes, just put that precious fat on whatever you’re eating), take a cold shower, have a broken conversation or dance with a local. Get bombed on Limoncello.
It’s a holiday. Who cares?
Are you ready for your mind to be blown in Tuscany? Elaine and Lee joined Rita on her Italian cooking and wine short break.
Alternatively, you can browse our full range of amazing cookery and wine holidays in Italy.