Until a few years ago, Italian families celebrated Sundays and all holidays lunches where the mothers, grandmothers and aunts competed with eachother by cooking the most mouth-watering meals for their men.

They began with appetizers and ended with dessert, for a total of seven or eight courses.

Elena was witness to these traditional “events” and even as a young child observed the expert hands of the women of the house. She took this wealth of knowledge to heart and turned it into a profession: first in her restaurant La Baraonda and now teaching it to students in her cooking school.

She combines her family experience with one of the all-time pillars of Italian cuisine, the book “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” by Pellegrino Artusi .

Elena is happy and eager to teach the culinary art that Tuscan women have had the good fortune to learn.

Read more about Elena: A Short Portrait of an Italian Cookery Artist

Elena: A Short Portrait of an Italian Cookery Artist
by Marzia Pieri, Professor of History of Italian Theatre, Verona University .

Elena does not look at all like a traditional chef.” As a matter of fact, she does not even look very Italian. “She is tall and thin, with very short blonde hair, big brown eyes and she’s a fast mover.” My first impression was that of a manager of a French women’s magazine. Of course, first impressions can often be very misleading, as I soon found out.

It was one of those beautiful, crisp end of winter days when we met at her cooking school. The school is in the hills surrounding Florence in a picture post card setting among olive groves and cypress trees. Elena takes me through the garden of the villa and we walk into two sunny rooms. The first one is a professional kitchen all in stainless steel with large working spaces and an enormous refrigerator. The second room is the dining area. The first thing I notice is the huge gilt chandelier, mirrors here and there on the walls and the tables perfectly set, reminding me of the film “Il Gattopardo”, in miniature. As I’m taking all of this in, I realize that my initial idea of the cook and the cooking school is completely off, so I’ll have to start from the beginning and ask Elena to tell me about herself.

Elena starts speaking quickly, interrupting her story with gales of laughter, making puns with typical Tuscan ironic humour. She grew up in the after war years in Florence in the 50′s. The years of cultural and economic boom: supermarkets started springing up everywhere, more and more people had cars and televisions, highways were built to connect Northern to Southern Italy, everybody could take summer vacations, birth control pills and divorce became part of Italian life. Italy was becoming modern very quickly, but the Italians still remained tied to their agricultural traditions, extended families, slow paced life style, hand made products, unique flavours and aromas from region to region, city to city and even family to family. Italy was changing though, and the first half of Elena’s life was marked by the change from the old concept of women as housewives only: she wore mini skirts, studied, worked in fashion, married twice and had children. This is where Elena’s roots are, hidden, but not too deeply, by her elegant and sophisticated manager look. In 1986 she decided to start all over again from her roots. Long before artistic cuisine, slow food, food tours and back-to-the-roots food became fashionable and big business, she opened a small, cheerful restaurant in the Santa Croce neighbourhood of the historical center of Florence and called it “LA BARAONDA” (which means hubbub, bringing to mind the pleasant sounds and noises of families at meal time). She began experimenting her own versions of age old family meals she remembered the women of the family preparing and offering them to a selected group of connoisseurs and food lovers.

Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil, basil, rosemary, garlic, onion, tomatoes, meat, pasta and wine: a symphony of the genuine flavours and tastes that are in complete contrast to nouvelle cuisine that was so much in vogue. The food was strictly Tuscan tradition, though wisely suited to the modern lighter diet using the new cooking technology available. Her specialties -meat loaf in sauce (the recipe remains secret), braised meats in white sauce , ragù, soufflés and Florentine style salt cod – have become famous the world over by word of mouth, articles written up in newspapers and specialized magazines.

Her restaurant “LA BARAONDA” quickly became a huge success. I was once again pleasantly impressed when I went to the restaurant a few days after our encounter. The atmosphere is lively and at the same time, elegant and colourful tiles decorate the walls in contrast to the antique style furniture and elegant multicolored dishes. Over the years Elena has continued experimenting and creating works of art. It came natural, then, to transform her creations into didactic material for guests / students who wanted to try on their own. So, she wrote a cookbook “LA CUCINA TOSCANA”, ed. Demomedia, printed in November 2000, which has become a great success. Cooking lessons followed, first in the afternoons only, at the restaurant then soon after as more and more people knocked on her door, in the country at CUCINA CON VISTA.

CUCINA CON VISTA offers cooking lessons for individuals and for groups up to 14 people. Men and women of all ages, nationalities and types whether artistic, food loving or just curious join in a delightful, delectable and definitely out of the ordinary cooking experience (I took part in one of her lessons). Elena is a great teacher and a great communicator. She immediately becomes not just a teacher, but a mentor, mother, friend, sister. She teaches with a firm hand, gently correcting mistakes, paying attention to each detail and involving the students each and every step of the way. Her enthusiasm and passion for the art of cooking and the aromas, flavors and tastes of Tuscan food are immediately conveyed to her students.

The hills surrounding Florence will soon be in full bloom with irises- the pale violet flowers that are the symbol of the city of Florence. One of the Florentine traditions is to make a characteristic and highly perfumed talcum powder from the iris.

I would suggest you try “Pasta with zucchini” and “Chicken liver paté on crusty bread” which are so delicious they cannot be described in words.

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