© Courtesy Anita Draycott
Flavours of the Veneto
Learn to cook like a local during a hands-on holiday at an agro-tourism estate in the historic area of Venice
It’s easy to be seduced by Italy’s la dolce vita. The laidback lifestyle where friends and family linger over sun-drenched meals, where the wine and conversation flow effortlessly. Haven’t we all harboured a fantasy to take off and live in a villa? My fantasy has come true.
I’m at the Susegana villa on the Borgoluce estate in the Veneto region about 50 kilometres from Venice and I’ve signed up for a stint with Flavours Holidays. A driver picked me up at the Marco Polo Airport and now I’m sitting on the terrace with my hostess for the week, Livia di Giovani, who pours me the first of many flutes of Prosecco to come. The orderly vines in the distance of this bucolic rolling countryside remind me that we are in the heart of Prosecco country.
By early afternoon the rest of our small group arrives. We have David, Vanessa and Gloria from different parts of England; Corné from Cape Town, South Africa; Rob and Mary who live near Toulouse, France. Lorne Blyth, Flavours’ director and founder, has dropped by as part of her whirlwind trip through Italy to visit other venues in Tuscany and Puglia.
Borgoluce is an agro-tourism estate that consists of 1200 hectares of woodlands, pastures, vineyards and grain fields in the province of Treviso. For a few weeks in spring and autumn, Flavours rents its Susegana villa for cooking holidays. Borgoluce raises its own buffalo, cattle and pigs. They produce buffalo milk products and charcuterie, plus wine, grains, olive oil and honey, all sold at the estate’s store. Having attended Flavours Holidays in other parts of Italy, I can vouch that this is no sterile cooking school experience. It’s more like being part of an intimate Italian house party where you’re welcome to raid the fridge for leftovers or brew a pot of tea.
Now that everyone has arrived, Livia invites us into the dining room where we have more bubbles and a light lunch of Buffalo mozzarella, cold meats and salads. Livia explains how our week will unfold, and distributes recipes and aprons to everyone. “A Flavours holiday is not about teaching you knife skills,” she says. “We want to give you a taste of the authentic flavours of the region.”
Gabriella Salvador, our chef for the week, lives on the estate and bakes all the bread sold in its store and Osteria. Her husband is the estate butcher. Gabriella doesn’t speak English so Livia, who is also a chef, does the translating. This afternoon we are welcome to take a stroll, go for a dip in the natural bio-organic pool up the hill, or perhaps have a nap. I opt for the latter, opening the windows in my large bedroom with its beamed ceiling to doze off to birdsong and the fresh country breeze.
Later, the popping of corks and aromas wafting from the kitchen draw us down to dinner where Gabriella has prepared some of her family favourites: potato and pea soup, roast veal, sweet spring braised onions, fried eggplant, and a platter of just-picked cucumbers and tomatoes. Dessert is a marvelous quince tart followed by a tad too much Grappa.
If our small convivial group has one thing in common, it’s a passion for food. We eagerly discuss favourite recipes and restaurants.
Venice here we come
The next morning we enjoy a breakfast of homemade jams and preserves, estate yogurt, fruit and warm bread. Gabriella arrives with all the ingredients for today’s cooking lesson: pasta from scratch for vegetable pasticcio, a sort of lasagna made with zucchini and béchamel sauce. If you have never tried to knead and roll pasta, trust me it’s hard work. My square of dough is uneven and keeps shrinking, but Gabriella’s deft rolling skills save the day.
Our main course is a savoury stew made with lean buffalo meat, root vegetables and a hefty splash of wine. We learn that that classic northern Italian dessert tiramisu means “pick me up.” It was created by a madam in a house of Venetian prostitutes to give her girls extra energy!
Due to its proximity to both the sea and lagoons, fish is prevalent in the cuisine of the Veneto region. On the menu this week is a dish made with salt cod and another of sardines that are salted and soured and left to marinate a few days in the refrigerator. Risotto is another popular dish, one that Gabriella likes with fresh sweet peas.
While there’s no lack of hands-on cooking experiences on a Flavours holiday, there is also ample opportunity to read, relax and explore the region.
On Monday, our merry group is driven to Venice. We take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal to the famous Rialto Market where we sample spritzes at Al Merca, a cupboard-sized wine bar. The spritz cocktail that originated in Venice is made of Aperol bitters, Prosecco, a dash of mineral water and garnished with a slice of orange or an olive. After a bit of shopping, Livia introduces us to cicchetti, Italian tapas on toothpicks, a cheap and cheerful way to mingle and munch with locals.
We stroll through the maze of narrow streets, and up and over countless bridges (Venice has 400 of them) until we arrive at the grand Piazza San Marco that Napoleon described as the drawing room of Europe. Livia suggests we go for posh cocktails at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani (belmond.com/hotel-cipriani-venice) on Giudecca Island so we hop aboard the hotel’s private launch for the five-minute cruise.
Opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice and inventor of the Bellini cocktail (Prosecco with peach purée), the Cipriani is where George Clooney and his lovely bride, Amal Alamuddin, celebrated their wedding reception. Livia likes to take her guests to the Cipriani for Bellinis because the gardens and swimming pool provide an oasis in a normally bustling city. Besides, maybe there will be a Clooney sighting.
When we arrived back at our villa, Gabriella has created a feast: pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) and a turkey casserole.
On Tuesday we shop for sardines and dogfish at the fish market in Treviso. With its meandering canals, narrow cobbled streets and stunning architecture, Treviso is like a mini Venice — minus the crowds. At a local bar, we down some cappuccinos and tasty pork sandwiches before heading to the Malibran Winery (malibranvini.it) for a Prosecco lesson with our guide, Vanessa.
The Veneto region is the birthplace of the glera grape used to make Prosecco. It’s a huge wine making region, but the finest Prosecco is grown in the 35-kilometre stretch between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene where the grapes are handpicked and gently processed, and the winemaking procedures rigidly certified. Only these wines carry the DOCG appellation. Prosecco from the rest of the Veneto have the DOC appellation.
Now that Prosecco is so popular around the world, here are a few tidbits that might impress your friends: Prosecco can be spumante (sparkling), frizzante (semi-sparkling) or tranquillo (still). If the label says “dry,” the wine will be sweet. If you want a really dry wine, buy extra brut. Unlike more expensive Champagne, Prosecco does not ferment in the bottle and grows stale. It should be consumed young, preferably within three years of its vintage.
Each day our group became more relaxed with each other and our animated dinner conversations carried on into the wee hours. We followed no regimented schedule. If we wanted to sleep late, go for a stroll and not begin cooking classes until just before noon, that was fine. One morning after indulging in a bowl of the previous night’s panacotta, Corné and I tramped up to the 13th-century Castello San Salvatore high on a hill on the Borgoluce estate and marvelled at the panoramic vistas.
Another night, after considerable amounts of vino, we asked Gabriella to give us her recipe for the wonderful rabbit casserole we had just consumed with gusto. Gabriella would utter a sentence in Italian and Livia (who is fluent in English and Italian) and David (who is learning Italian) would argue about every detail. Despite considerable chaos and chuckles we managed to write out a reasonable facsimile of her recipe. There was also much dialogue about the risotto and whether arborio or carnaroli rice was superior in the traditional risi e bisi (rice and pancetta).
The next day, revved up by the Drinking Song from La Traviata, we gutted and de-headed sardines that would be used in a classic sarde in saor, a dish of sardines, onions, raisins, pine nuts and vinegar. This dish was prepared by Venetian fishermen on their boats and solved the problem of preserving the fish for several days. During the Renaissance, folks started adding raisins and pine nuts to sweeten the breath. Another excursion took us to Conegliano, where the remains of a 10th-century castle dominates the pretty town where the Prosecco wine trail starts. After a bit of shopping, we stopped at a café for spritzes. It was Gabriella’s night off so we enjoyed a steak dinner at Osteria Borgoluce on our estate.
On the morning of our last day, we head up the hill to the natural pool for a dip. Later, back in the kitchen, we labour over bigoli (thick noodles), and a sauce of salted sardines and onions. The main course is a local dogfish flavoured with little prickly cucumbers, capers and parsley. For dessert we make a sublime strawberry mousse and Livia produced some already-aged Nocino. We learn a new Italian toast: A tavola, non si invecchia mai… se si mangia tanto. “At the table you never grow old… if you eat a lot.” I swear I had not aged a day.
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