Casual Cooking With an Italian Countess

tuscanyClaire Wrathall, The Daily Telegraph, March 6, 2014

The past year has seen a number of Italian aristocrats open their ancestral piles to paying guests. A principessa (of Savoia-Aosta) by birth and a contessa by marriage, Bianca Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga and her husband, Giberto, have had the lower storeys (they still live upstairs) of their Venetian home, Palazzo Papadopoli, turned into an Aman Resort .

In Florence, Alessandra Camugliano and her husband have just transformed their exquisitely restored 16th-century family palazzo, just off via Tornabuoni, into a bed and breakfast, Al Palazzo del Marchese di Camugliano .

While in the Veneto this summer, Contessa Ghislaine Brandolini d’Adda will be hosting residential cookery courses in the handsomely equipped kitchen of Villa Casagrande, the supremely elegant 15th-century residence she shares with her husband Annibale. An hour north of Venice in the village of Cison di Valmarino, on the so-called Strada del Vino Bianco, it is an inviting place for such a pursuit thanks to the number of flourishing wine estates in the area.

The Contessa won’t actually be teaching. It’s hard to envisage her elegant form sweating over a buttery saffron risotto (the secret is in the stirring), the only thing to serve with osso bucco, which should, contrary to some English recipes, never include tomato. So there’ll be staff to do that. But she will be on hand to greet you with a Bellini and will show you the house.

Taught in English, the six-night courses are the brainchild of two Britons, Sarah Roberts (who used to run the courses at chef Alastair Little’s cookery school, La Cacciata, in Umbria) and Patrick Obert. No doubt inspired by the setting, the emphasis is not on trying to emulate the cheffy standards of perfection that might be taught in a restaurant-based course, but on preparing the sort of food one might cook at home – risotto, pasta, polenta, robust meat dishes (beef in amarone, guinea fowl with peppery salsa peverada) and Adriatic fish (cuttlefish stewed in its own ink, sole in a sweet and sour marinade).

Each course will include seven hands-on sessions in the kitchen, tutored by the likes of Sophie Braimbridge, the Roux Brothers-trained chef, writer and cookery presenter, whose CV includes stints at the River Café and Chez Panisse in San Francesco, and Giuseppe Silvestri, head chef at Harrods. But there’ll also be tours of local cheese producers and wine estates and a day in Venice to visit the Rialto fish market, as well as an optional trip to a neighbouring privately owned Palladian villa.

Happily, too, some time will be set aside simply to enjoy the surroundings, for the house is beautiful – a sensitive fusion of ancient architecture, 19th-century frescoes (even in some of the bedrooms), antiques and contemporary Italian design. There are also two acres of grounds, with a rose garden and a 18-metre swimming pool. Just as well given how much one will surely be tempted to eat.

The cooking course costs £2,400 per person via Stirred Travel, based on two sharing, including accommodation, tuition, food, wine, trips, tours, tastings and transfers to and from Venice Marco Polo airport, but excluding flights. Six courses are scheduled to take place between June and October.