A brisk 18 degrees Celsius is welcome when the mercury is touching 36 degrees back home. But what tips the scales in favour of Lucca in April is an email from my friend, Dana Ewart. The Canadian chef who helped at my restaurant, Pumpkin Tales, for a couple of months this January, recommends I sign up for a new gelato-making course with Sapori & Saperi, an Italian food and wine tour operator that partners with chefs for curated culinary programmes. My guilt over my rarely-used Staff ice cream maker in my Chennai kitchen has me booking a flight immediately.
Lucca is a little over three hours from Rome by train, and I am picked up at the station by my lovely host, Erica Jarman, who runs S&S. The drive to the Piccolo Hotel Puccini (transport, accommodation and dinners are included in the course fee) comes with great views of the rampart surrounding the town, a relic of Renaissance defensive architecture. With a wide pathway hedged by massive trees, its park-like setting is ideal for biking, jogging and picnics. You can spend many an hour strolling the wall, looking down at the quaint alleyways opening up to piazzas filled with little restaurants and bars, with pretty patios and flower beds.
The right balance
The days begin early. At 9 am, I am at gelatiere Mirko Tognetti’s kitchen, sitting at a large wooden table, discussing fat percentages of milk and cream, and the different kinds of sugars that go into an artisanal gelato. Though the course accommodates up to six, as luck would have it, I am the only student. So, instead of working in his lab at Carpigiani (the specialists in ice cream making machines), we get down to crafting recipes at his gelateria, Cremeria Opera, which has been voted the third best in Italy.
In summer, locals prefer the ‘colder’ granitas and fruit sorbets, while the creamy gelato is a winter favourite. The Italians’ passion for them is infectious; it tops every dessert list. They even have it for breakfast, with brioche (much like the Singaporean ice cream sandwiches I grew up on). My first attempt is a granita, icy and crunchy, with lemon juice, sugar and water. Next is a strawberry sorbertto, each ingredient painstakingly measured. Thirty minutes later, it emerges as an unbelievably creamy sorbet — the perfect balance of water, sugar and fresh berries achieving what no cream or stabilisers can. A big change from the store-bought ones I remember from my days in Vancouver and Chennai. I am won over.
But the true challenge begins when we turn to the gelato. It is not as simple as following a recipe, dumping the ingredients into a batch freezer and churning it out. It is a balancing act: of solids vs liquids vs fats vs sugar. Calculations come into play — to work out the percentage of sugar and fat (for example, if a recipe needs 30 gms of the latter, I must calculate the fat in all my ingredients to the last decimal), and build the recipe with everything in the right ratio. The tiramisu gelato, in particular, is a trial. With milk, egg yolks, mascarpone cheese, coffee and sugar, right off the bat there are four items with fat; I go back and forth to get the numbers right. And mathematics is not my strong suit!
Each day ends on a high note, watching customers buy my gelatos — from fleur de lait and pistachio to chocolate, ricotta and tiramisu. On the last day, I get Tognetti to teach me the semifreddo (a semi frozen dessert which I have since recreated at Pumpkin Tales).
Evenings are beautiful in Lucca, discovering piazzas, sitting in open cobblestone patios and sipping refreshing Aperol spritz (the favoured drink there). Many of the restaurants have young chefs at the helm, giving a fresh new twist to Italian cuisine. Il Mecenate di Lucca, for instance, serves the most delightful risotto with pomegranate reduction — the sweetness and tartness of the latter cutting through the salty, creamy rice. Back in Chennai, I am putting my learning to good use. Just the Banganapalli gelato we served a couple of weeks ago, which went down a dream, made the course worth it. More Indian flavours are in the pipeline, and once I stock up on specialised equipment — the Carpigiani pasteuriser and immersion blender are on my wish list — this city will get a brand new gelateria.
The course is €2,400 for five days and €1,250 for three. Details: sapori-e-saperi.com.
The writer is a chef and the owner of Pumpkin Tales.