LUNCH WITH RAFFAELLA COVA
Born in Como in northern Italy, Raffaella’s first career was in TV and film production in Milan before she moved to the Val d’Orcia in 2003. Sharing her Tuscan life with Montalcino architect Marco Pignattai and their two sons, she finally has the time to knead all the pasta, pizza and pastry dough she always wanted to.
Raffaella’s cooking is based on seasonal ingredients and the distinctive flavours of Italy’s regional recipes, which have been handed down from generation to generation. In her kitchen taste is king, but looks aren’t unimportant either.
She runs personalised and seasonal cooking classes and Italian food experiences in Tuscany.
You moved from a very urban setting in 2003 to a very rural setting in Montalcino. Looking back, what has this shown you?
No doubt the move meant I got back in touch with nature and its natural cycles. I was looking forward to this, but it was also inevitable. Our two children were born soon after we moved and since both of them are boys the best way to get through a day with them was to be outside so they could get rid of their surplus energy by exploring the woods surrounding our house. It was worth it though – they have grown to spot porcini mushrooms, wild asparagus and edible flowers way before my husband and me!
What is your favourite time of the year in the kitchen and why?
Impossible to choose one! The change of light and colour and the particular food and tastes unique to each single season – honestly, I love them all.
You cook with seasonal ingredients. How do you suggest people living in cities navigate their way around the best produce when everything is available all year round?
This is something we often talk about during cooking classes. I enjoy the fact that living in the countryside, I get to know the local producers and can choose to work with farmers whose ethical and sustainable approach I support. But a lot of new opportunities have come up in cities. A British client told me about the Community Supported Agriculture project and guests from California knows a school garden in their city where they can buy seasonal fruit, vegetables and even flowers. And recently, during a Tuscan pasta making class, clients from New York told me about a rooftop gardening project that supplies them with herbs and a selection of vegetables. These approaches may not yet be available everywhere, but farmers markets are having a revival too and this is definitely where I would start if I moved back to the city. Talk to the people behind the stalls, ask them for recipes and information about the produce they sell. Some people don’t care whether they sell t-shirts or tomatoes, but once you find a butcher, fishmonger or fruit and vegetable seller who is passionate about what he or she does, you’ll keep going back for good quality even if the selection is more restricted.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I don’t see happiness as one big entity but something that is made up by small everyday pleasures – and in my case these pleasures often consist of finding tasty and sustainably produced local food.
What is your greatest extravagance in the kitchen?
I might at times end up spending more than the family budget allows on seafood or – during the season – truffle. But it never feels like an extravagance; let’s say like a Gucci bag – since I know that I splash out on something that will be enjoyed by my husband and children too.
You undoubtedly use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in almost all of your dishes… can you think of a recipe that is great for new season, fresh from the mill Olive Oil that you would share with us?
A bruschetta! A piece of roasted bread dipped in fresh EVOO is one of the simplest things you can do with new olive oil, but also one of the best. In fact if you visit an oil press (frantoio) during harvest season you may run in to farmers tasting the new oil on a piece of bruschetta. And ‘buona bruschetta!’ is what the workers in the press will salute you with when you leave with your batch of freshly pressed oil, since this is the thing everybody is looking forward to whilst the olives are being picked (which is hard work!). So toast a few slices of bread and pour the new EVOO generously over it (there should be some left in the plate afterwards which you can mop up with more bread). A glass of red wine on the side and everybody is happy. It’s an autumn ritual, which conveys much more than just the two ingredients it’s based on.
Do you use a variety of different olive oils in your kitchen? Can you talk me through this?
I only use olive oils from Southern Tuscany. I usually buy them from friends who produce their own oil and I’m often surprised how much the taste changes from one to the other producer even though they are at times only located a few miles apart. This isn’t just because of the different cultivars that are used on the slopes of mount Amiata and in the Val d’Orcia but also due to the many microclimates and terroirs, which are particularly varied in Tuscany.
Are there any ingredients you miss living in the heart of Southern Tuscany?
Yes! I’m originally from northern Italy and hence sometimes yearn for some of our great cow’s milk cheeses (Tuscany produces mostly sheep-milk cheeses), good butter (which isn’t easy to find here) and polenta taragna and Pizzoccheri.
What do you dream of making in your kitchen in 2017 that you haven’t done before?
I have many plans, but right now they have less to do with testing out new recipes than with changing the set up of my kitchen. At the moment my cooking classes mostly take place in our home, which only allows for small groups. But I’m planning to set up a bigger kitchen studio near Montalcino where I can also organize events and tastings of olive oil, cheese and of any food that is carefully produced in the Val d’Orcia and the Maremma. But like a good broth or sugo this project needs slow cooking. The new space will probably only be ready by 2018 but I’m looking forward to all the decisions to be made next year about tiles, furniture and most importantly for a cook – the utensils and general layout of the new kitchen workspace.