A day with an Italian chef in a 17th-century palace [Lucca]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Strolling the streets of the picturesque city of Lucca in the heart of Tuscany, we follow the passionate chef Giuseppe Mazzocchi while he leads the way through a maze of narrow alleys bustling with liveliness. A few tourists take in the richly-adorned façades of some of its 100 churches, as it is nicknamed. Others look up at one of Lucca’s characteristic towers contrasting with the deep blue Tuscan sky. Some opera lovers seem to walk towards the birth house of the world-famous composer Giacomo Puccini. Some locals enjoy window-shopping: the city of Lucca flourished thanks to the high-end production of silk textiles, closely collaborating with Genoa, and still today quality shops line its streets. However, the shopping that we are about to do with Giuseppe will have us explore Lucca from another perspective: the palate…

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Buongiorno!”, Giuseppe who is also the owner of Extra Virgin Cooking Classes is warmly greeted by the owner of Il Cuore, a well-known caterer and champion of slow food, most of which is sourced from the nearby Garfagnana area. A reference for the Lucchese for its refined gourmet selections, this shop is Giuseppe’s first stop to source the ingredients we need for the four-course meal we are about to cook with him. “Today we are going to make one of my favourite recipes”, Giuseppe announces enthusiastically. “And therefore, we will need some ricotta and Parmigiano cheese”, he adds in an impeccable English. While Parmigiano Reggiano has become much sought after, its quality matters as it is world’s most counterfeit cheese. Member of the slow food movement and professional chef, Giuseppe highly values the quality of the ingredients he uses.

A few streets further, we push the door of the oldest deli in Lucca that dates back to 1792 where another warm welcome awaits us. La Bottega Di Prospero has been proudly run by the Marcucci family for five generations. Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, lentils, pastas and an enormous variety of beans – that is a must for any decent grocery store in Tuscany: after all, Tuscans are nicknamed “bean eaters” – are showcased under the old beams.

At the Buccellato Tadeucci bakery, the same family has been baking the local specialty, the buccellato since 1881. This sweet bread with crispy crust and soft dough with anise and sultana raisins is best eaten fresh and cannot be missed during extensive Sunday lunches in Lucca. It is still warm when we exit, passing by the large wooden cabinets displaying jars of colourful candies, and a couple of elder Italians drinking their morning cappuccino at the counter and savouring a green yet sweet torta di erbe, a shortcrust pastry with swiss chard, pine nuts and raisins – another Lucchese specialty. At the Forno a vapore Amedeo Giusti bakery, it is the fresh focaccia cooked on a stone with high-quality Tuscan flours and ancient grains that we are selecting for our menu.

On our way to Extra Virgin Cooking Classes, Giuseppe invites us into the secret wine cellar of Vinni Liquori Vanni on Piazza del Salvatore. We soon find ourselves in an impressive brick wine cellar dating back to Roman times which stores no less than 55,000 bottles, each cherry-picked by the owner Paolo Vanni!

Right before arriving at the 17th-century palace where Giuseppe holds his cooking classes, we pick up some fresh zucchini flowers to complete our grocery list. The fertile Tuscany supplies the chef with fresh and high-quality ingredients all year-round, and he varies his menus based on the season.

A few minutes later, we marvel at the exquisite palace with its high vaulted and chestnut-beamed ceilings and antique wooden floors, where the chef fitted a fully-equipped professional kitchen with white Carrara marble countertops. In the dining room, the table has been set by Giuseppe’s wife, Liz, with the utmost taste and attention to details. Wearing our aprons, we are about to learn how to blend all these high-quality ingredients into a traditional yet refined Tuscan four-course meal.

Born at a mill in the Tuscan countryside that his grandfather operated to produce olive oil, Giuseppe is very attached to what is the basis to almost every Italian savoury recipe: he pours three different olive oils into white cups. We start by observing their colours, then we smell them and eventually taste them with attention, noticing their specific characteristics. Before starting on the recipes, we also taste the Noble Milk of Sienna, Amatrice and Pecorino Toscana DOP cheeses accompanied by pear jam, mustard and chestnut honey. Also a sommelier, Giuseppe opens a bubbly Fochir, brut nature that we appreciate to the sound of classical music to get in the mood.

As decided by Giuseppe and printed specifically for the day, we are about to cook fried zucchini flowers as a starter, followed by spinach and ricotta dumplings called gnudi served in a home-made tomato sauce, a truffle risotto and for dessert a vanilla custard with fresh red berries and buccellato.

While chopping the vegetables, mixing the spinach and the ricotta till the appropriate consistency, stirring the sauces, kneading and boiling the gnudi, delicately stuffing the zucchini flowers, preparing the batter, frying them, cleaning and grading the precious truffle, whipping the custard, slicing the buccellato, etc., we chat with our passionate and enthusiastic chef, sipping some brut as he precisely instructs us how to cook these Tuscan recipes to perfection. The professional cook who has an in-depth experience as a restaurant chef all around the world distils some of his key secrets to prepare these delicious dishes representative of the Italian, and more specifically Tuscan gastronomy.

Just when it seems like everything has magically been blended into the perfect mix for a four-course lunch, Giuseppe tops it off by opening a carefully selected bottle of Vermentino di Galluro D.O.C.G. which pairs brilliantly with the food we have just cooked.

After dressing the plates, we present the colourful dishes on a table honouring the silk tradition of the authentic city Lucca. It is time to enjoy this Tuscan meal for which we have cherry-picked top-quality ingredients and that we have cooked to perfection under the guidance of the experienced chef. “Cin-cin! Y grazie mille, Giuseppe!

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience and cook your own meal with the passionate chef Giuseppe, please refer to Extra Virgin Cooking Classes Lucca. Make sure to add a day to your itinerary while visiting Lucca and live this authentic experience far from the touristy path.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more around Lucca:

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