‘Life is a combination of magic and pasta’ (Federico Fellini) Food is, and has always been, a way into a country’s or a place’s local culture. Our Rome based writer Catherine Simes finds a local run cooking and language class rolled into one.
The cookery classes, Cooknspeak are run by Sandra from her cosy home in a suburb of Rome. After seeing the ad on the Friends in Rome website and a brief phone call to discuss what I would like to cook and for Sandra to gauge the level of my Italian, I was good to go. And so I went along to my first lesson without really knowing what to expect.
A typical lesson goes something like this, you spend a couple of hours preparing, cooking, learning; then sit down to your very own home-cooked meal with a good bottle of wine, putting your language skills to test with a little conversation. Sandra is a good talker. You come away feeling proud, as if you’ve really achieved something and as my friend Bethan once said, ‘one of the best things I’ve done in Rome’.
It’s a unique experience. This is not a one-off, isolated cookery lesson, but an opportunity to broaden your knowledge of food, the Italian language and of Italy itself. Sandra’s kitchen can accommodate no more than three people so it’s an intimate, hands on experience. You talk with Sandra about what you want to learn. With Italy’s wide variety of regional specialities, the choices are inexhaustible.
I’ve cooked beef stews, rich with butter and served with polenta, medieval rabbit casserole with chocolate, hearty Tuscan soups, gnocchi, pannacotta with orange sauce. I could go on and make you even more envious and hungry. The lessons are also extremely reasonably priced, so much so that we used to go once a week. You build up your cooking skills and your language knowledge with every enjoyable week that passes.
Quite possibly, I have learnt more Italian from Sandra over the past two years than from anyone else. The idea for Cooknspeak came to Sandra when one of her friends suggested that she share her love of cookery and combine it with her talents for teaching. And so just over two years ago, she did just that. Away from traditional language classes, language learning put in a context helps you enormously and it certainly takes the pressure off. When you’re cooking, eating, drinking you’re not learning, just enjoying the things that you love. For the tourist or one-off lesson, Sandra also speaks good English, but it’s more fun if you try the full Italian version.
When my friends visited from England last year I took them along for a class. ‘Loved the fun, informal yet practical way of learning Italian whilst receiving an expert cooking lesson. It was a super evening and one which I tell all my friends about. If we lived in Rome I’d go on a regular basis,” said Sarah. Sandra’s pasta with puttanesca sauce has become one of their weekly tea-time treats. Whilst Sarah spoke a fair bit of Italian, her husband did not yet he still loved the lesson, could follow the instructions and even most of the conversation.
After my friends’ visit I was fascinated even more, just how does Sandra do it? How does she manage to conduct a cookery lesson, to give instructions in Italian to a non-Italian speaker? With a mixture of pointing, gestures, modelling and context – there are only so many things you can do with a onion for example. Sandra’s skill and enthusiasm for what she is teaching overcomes any lack of language you may have. I took along two new colleagues (who are just starting to learn Italian) as guinea-pigs to put Sandra’s methods to the test. ‘If I speak slowly in Italian, you will understand,’ Sandra told them. Her confidence is totally reassuring, you believe her. She puts you at your ease. You do understand.
Sandra starts by taking you through the ingredients, explaining the provenance of each and the history of the recipe. She enjoys the variety of Italian regional cookery and is keen to impart her knowledge – it’s not all spaghetti bolognese, in fact it’s never spaghetti bolognese ever. Although Sandra will abide by certain Italian food rules, her recipes are always fresh and inventive.
We began by cleaning an artichoke, Sandra makes it look easy. At first the guinea-pigs were not convinced they could manage it, but within minutes they were expertly cleaned. Add a ‘pizzico di sale’ suggests Sandra, a ‘pinch’ of salt – what else could it be? By taking her students through each part of the recipe, step-by-step, it feels like child’s play to follow. Because the classes are so small, she is on hand to help, assist, laugh, teach new vocabulary.
And the classes work both ways, Sandra loves her lessons and each student brings something different. ‘I meet so many people from different cultures who are united by this one thing – cooking!’ she says. Conversations over dinner mean an exchange of stories, culture, food, language, travel, wine. It depends where the evening takes you. You leave with a smile on your face, nicely full and best of all, Sandra with the washing up!