Sarina Lewis discovers the innate simplicity and seasonality of Italian cuisine, as she signs up to learn about the time-honoured culinary traditions at four Italian family cooking schools in Victoria’s King Valley and Alpine regions.
By
Sarina Lewis

10 Oct 2013 - 8:01 PM  UPDATED 13 Nov 2013 - 11:28 AM

A Tavola! Cooking School

Katrina Pizzini moves with ease in her family winery’s impressively equipped kitchen. In the time it’s taken us, her students, to cut a higgledy-piggledy row of potato gnocchi, she’s whipped together a mixture of ricotta, pan-fried silverbeet and egg yolk, and has already begun moulding and cutting perfect diamonds: a gluten-free alternative to gnocchi that we enjoy later with a rich and creamy blue-cheese sauce, alongside stuffed quail and a crisp, green salad picked fresh from the 250-hectare Pizzini estate.

Karen works with such grace, cooks with such surety, that it’s difficult to believe she herself is not Italian-born. “We married when I was 17 years old,” Katrina says, smiling at the memory of her long-ago wedding to Fred, the son of Roberto and Rosetta, immigrants from northern Italy who established a tobacco farm here in the 1960s. The family later turned to grapes, and Fred and Katrina established the Pizzini wine label in 1994, after Fred’s parents had retired.

Living under the Pizzini roof as a young wife and mother (the couple had four children by Katrina’s 24th birthday), Katrina had little choice but to learn the ways of an Italian household, “especially if I wanted Fred to sit in my kitchen, and not the kitchen of his mother,” she says with a grin, but one senses the truth behind the punch line. Fred wanders in, attracted by the wonderful aromas of the food in mid-preparation – clearly Katrina’s efforts to ensnare him in her culinary net have proved effective.

We, too, are captivated because Katrina is a natural-born teacher. Her cooking instructions are clear and precise, her encouragement is frequent and her guiding hand is strong, especially when the pupil’s conversation drifts away from the task at hand. The pace is leisurely as we learn to make perfect risotto (cook on low, simmer heat with no stirring), roll gnocchi, stuff quail and make our own apple strudel, “one of Nonna’s favourite recipes,” adds Katrina.

Katrina’s relaxed teaching method is a soothing antidote to celebrity chefs and their obsession with speed. She encourages us to work slowly, allowing us the time we need to really enjoy the process. “For me, cooking is about thinking of what can be done in one hour and then spreading it over three hours,” she confesses.

Certainly it makes for a pleasant experience, culminating in sitting down to a beautiful yet casual meal at the communal table in the adjoining tasting and dining room: a bite of salad, a nibble of gnocchi, a few forks of juicy quail and a sweet finale of golden, spiced apple pastry. And a tipple of vibrant Pizzini sangiovese, of course.

Katrina Pizzini runs cooking classes throughout the year on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Pizzini Cellar Door, 175 King Valley Rd, Whitfield, (03) 5729 8030.

 

Politini Wines

The story of Salvatore “Sam” Politini’s life is written in his hands. Large, capable and rough from hard work; hands you canimagine building a life for his wife and children at the King Valley farm they call home. They show evidence of the effort to maintain economic pace once government quotas stunted his tobacco profits, the cherry orchard he planted as a replacement, then ripped out, and the scenic vineyard that still stands today.

But it’s the promise of salami that’s now attracting the crowds. Every weekend, enthusiastic visitors descend on the house to debone pigs, mince kilos of meat and mix spices under the expert tutelage of this hands-on Sicilian family.

Sam’s infectious laughter leaves you in no doubt that his recent venture has only added to the pleasure he finds in life. “It happened by accident,” explains Sam’s daughter, Bianca. “In 1999, we had some friends over, who wanted to make salami.” Up until that point Sam had made it perhaps four times in 40 years. “I agreed, but only if they did it exactly my way, without questions, then everyone would love it.” Sam says, his grin as broad as his hands. “And they did!”

The salami itself is eye-opening – spiced with black pepper, speckled and made rich with just the right amount of fat. “We Italians like to make our food from scratch,” explains Sam’s wife, Josie, as Bianca demonstrates twisting the rope around the salami the family has just stuffed, the skin softened and made fragrant in her custom mix of slowly simmered water, lemon, bay leaf, black peppercorn, cinnamon quill, cloves and apple. “And people seem to want to eat whatever we make,” she adds.

And it’s not just the salami the students love. It’s the Politini family, too. The easy, welcoming manner; the steaming bowls of caponata, arancini, cannelloni and polenta-topped stews laid out for lunch; and then there’s Sam’s serenading on the piano-accordian while enthusiastic salami-makers linger over coffee and ricotta-stuffed cannoli.

Salami-making courses run most Saturdays from June to August.
Politini Wines, 65 Upper King River Rd, Cheshunt, (03) 5729 8277.

 

Patrizia Simone Cooking School

A matriarch of Umbria’s impressive culinary scene, Patrizia Simone is a passionate cook who, clearly, still feels a frisson of delight at frying up fresh zucchini flowers or foraging mushrooms from nearby hills. It’s an excitement upheld in her custom-built cooking school kitchen, an inviting space of wood, stone and steel attached to the back of her award-winning restaurant, Simone’s, now run by her son, Anthony.

“This is what the grandmothers traditionally make as a snack for their grandchildren, sprinkled with sugar,” she says as she whips up a thin batter of flour, water and salt, into which she tosses zucchini flowers before frying them in hot oil. For us, she sprinkles these small discs of floral pleasure with salt, a treat to keep appetites whetted during her four-hour class.

Not that time lags. Between explaining simple cooking techniques (how to hollow and seed a cherry tomato), further tastings (Anthony’s sourdough doused in olive oil from her father’s grove in Umbria), and

a whole lot of hands-on cooking, it seems as if lunch is upon us in an instant. And what a lunch. The sun is shining and, settled under the shade of a Japanese maple, we share pancotto di pomodoro e pane (tomato and bread soup), eggplant parmigiana and gnocchi (our own) in a Taleggio-gorgonzola sauce, echoing with the faintest bite of chilli.

A single bottle of wine, chosen by Simone’s husband George, soon turns into a second as we enjoy a pre-prepared dessert of tiramisu – with all our chatter, the chance to prepare dolce (sweets) has escaped us. Not that anyone minds. It was well worth it to hear the story of Patrizia’s move from Italy to Melbourne, and then from Melbourne to Bright, more than 25 years ago. “When we first talked about it, I thought ‘Bright’ meant ‘Brighton’, and I couldn’t figure out why we kept driving further from the sea,” Patrizia laughs as she remembers her excitement at the thought of moving to live by the water, so very different from the mountain landscape of her Italian home.

Simone’s pleasure in her adopted home is evident in her ready smile and generous way with food. “Although there’s always something alluring about the landscape of your childhood, I’ve fallen in love with living here. It is a beautiful place to call home,” she muses.

Patrizia Simone runs cooking classes throughout most of the year.
Patrizia Simone Country Cooking School, 18 Riverside Ave, Bright, (03) 5755 2266.

 

Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina

“You can’t swing a stick around here without hitting a Pizzini.” This comment by a food-loving local springs to mind as I head up the driveway to meet Adam Pizzini, owner and head chef at Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina restaurant and cooking school. Adam laughs when I repeat the line to him, admitting that the Italian clan does indeed have a long culinary reach over the region. 

Adam’s father, Rinaldo (brother of Fred Pizzini of Pizzini wines) sadly passed away when Adam was just 12 years old. Although Rinaldo Senior was a farmer, not a chef, he was a keen cook and Adam named the restaurant after his father, as a way of keeping him close.

As well as specific dishes, the extensive three-hour cooking class at Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina aims to teach techniques, including deboning chicken and knife skills. We knead silky pasta dough by hand, roll chicken around a creamy mousse to make chicken ballotine and learn how create a semifreddo base.

“I learned how to be a chef through my apprenticeship,” Adam explains of the job he undertook as a cooking-obsessed 15-year-old.

“But I learned how to taste from my Nonna,” he adds. His Italian-born grandmother was undoubtably a culinary inspiration, a woman who tossed parsley by the handful over every finished dish (a tradition Adam has continued), and whose instinctive feel for food made her a natural cook.

Cooking classes are held at the restaurant between lunch and dinner service, stationed at a long table overlooking the front window. While we enjoy a delicious afternoon tea (a mix of homemade Italian-style biscuits and coffee), the food from the class is packaged up for us to take home. Adam also encourages students to stay on and book for a celebratory dinner in the restaurant of the chef with whom they have shared their afternoon. “It’s really all about having a bit of fun,” Adam says of the classes, “and getting some techniques across to give people something to build on at home.”

Adam Pizzini’s classes run from May to October.
Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina, 8/10 Tone Rd, Wangaratta, (03) 5721 8800.

 

The hit list

 

Eat

Simone’s Restaurant
Rustic Umbrian cuisine and wines in a fine-dining atmosphere.
98 Gavan St, Bright, (03) 5755 2266.

Ginger Baker
Enjoy meals by day and tapas by night in a riverside setting framed by willow trees.
127 Gavan St, Bright, (03) 5755 2300.

Tani
A touch of modern Asian cuisine crafted from local produce.
100 Gavan St, Bright, (03) 5750 1304.

Dal Zotto
A family-run vineyard, cellar door and restaurant with regional Italian food. The Friday night pizza, pasta and vino night is a must-do.
4861 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, (03) 5729 8321.

 

Experience

Milawa Cheese Company
A great selection of fresh and matured cheeses made with cow and goat’s milk.
17 Milawa-Bobinawarrah Rd, (03) 5727 3589.

Bright Brewery
Tours and tastings every Friday at 3pm or by appointment.
121 Great Alpine Rd, Bright, (03) 5755 1301.

Myrtleford Butter Factory
Grab a bite to eat at the cafe or join in the guided tour every Thursday at 11am.
15 Great Alpine Rd, Myrtleford, (03) 5752 2300.

 

Stay

Casolare at Politini Wines
Meaning “little house in the country”, this two-bedroom renovated B&B has a wood heater, modern kitchen and cute deck overlooking the King Valley on the Politini Wines estate.
65 Upper King River Rd, Cheshunt, 0427 567 377.

The Sorting Shed
In the middle of a working Angus cattle stud, this three-bedroom house has a modern kitchen, sauna and deck with mountain views. It’s one of three properties available to rent through The Kilns.
Cavedons La, Porepunkah, 0400 733 170.

 

Photography Sean Fennessy