The scent of garlic simmering in olive oil beckons you from the doorway of this hidden Amalfi treasure. The aroma, one Chiara calls the "Chanel of the kitchen" leads you directly to the source of one of the most fundamental fragrances in an Italian kitchen. Mamma Agata and Gennaro give a boisterous buon giorno from behind the stove, and Chiara gives you a hug with one arm and a turn with the other putting you face to face with a plate full of eggplant rolls and a glass of red wine.
Prompted to taste before I could even reply to my greeters, I savored one, or two, of Mamma Agata's involtini di melanzane. Fried and meaty melanzane rolled around provolone & arugula, and another, this time rolled around a soft creamy cheese and sun-dried tomotoes. An appropriate start to a most fabulous day cooking, eating, drinking and lapping up all the flavors that this sensory playground had to offer. I was on the Amalfi Coast and cooking with Mamma Agata at her cooking school in Ravello.
From the kitchen Chiara led me to the terrace, a lush garden and dining area where a long table dressed in white linen and Amalfi lemons led out to the garden. The garden is a thing of beauty in its own right, greenery & flowers crawl up trelisses that line one side and the other side has a mouth-dropping mezmerizing view of the blue Amalfi sea and its coastline. We spent the afternoon there dining on the terrace, perched high atop the hillside with the family's fruit & vegetable gardens and then the deep blue sea below us. And we ate, and ate, and ate, dish after dish of Mamma Agata's specialties.
Chiara Lima, Mamma Agata's daughter, had invited me as their guest for a day at their cooking school. The cooking school is entirely a family affair. Chiara was our hostess/translator/storyteller. Mamma Agata and Chiara's husband Gennaro, also a sommelier, handled the cooking demonstration part of the class. Chiara translated and added many family stories, anecdotes and Mamma's secret tips for each dish. All the fruit and vegetables we used came from the family's garden located on the terraces right below the house. The fruit & vegetable garden is managed by Salvatore, Mamma Agata's husband and Chiara's father. Mamma Agata has been cooking for others since she was 8 years old! Many of her specialties are family recipes handed down to her from her mother and her aunts.
Class starts at 10:30am when guests are greeted with food, of course, upon arrival, a huge slice of Mamma Agata's treasured lemon cake. (I arrived a little later, thus the reason I had the just-made eggplant roll appetizers.) You cook, with Mamma Agata overseeing it all, and recreate a many-course meal of her famous dishes, some of them served and loved by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Pierce Brosnan, just to name a few. Mamma Agata's knowledge and experience is evident in the way she knows exactly how to coax the most flavor from each ingredient. She has a secret for perfecting every one of her dishes, and throughout the course of the day, she shares each of them with you.
Our meal was one flavorful and perfectly cooked dish after another. Mamma Agata's cooking philosophy is based on simplicity, quality ingredients and love. Each dish used only a few quality ingredients - all the fruits and vegetables came from their garden.
Here's our meal, in photos:
***We also had one of the best eggplant parmigiano dishes I've ever eaten. I gobbled it up before remembering to take a photo.
Chiara has created a cookbook of Mamma Agata's recipes - both a great gift for those who can't make it to the cooking class and a special souvenir for those who have enjoyed cooking with her. Each of the dishes we made and more are included in Mamma Agata's cookbook. Along with each recipe, there are step-by-step photo instructions and Mamma Agata's tips. For example, when making her pollo al limone, she advises that you add the lemon juice at the very end of cooking to get the best lemon flavor. Adding it at the beginning causes the lemon juice to have a bitter taste. The instructions and the tips are so clear it's extremely easy to create dishes as delicious as if Mamma Agata had made them for you.
The cookbook is in English and full of all the recipes above, yes even the limoncello! There are so many others; many of Mamma Agata's take on the traditional dishes of the Campania region and some of her own creation. All look delicious, but some of my favorites include: the risotto al limone, stuffed and fried zucchini flowers, gnocchi alla sorrentina, the veal roast, stuffed squid (totani imbottiti), fried pizza, and Mamma Agata's zeppole (doughnuts)! In addition to the easy-to-follow recipes, there are stories about each family member, family photos and stunning photos of their home, the hidden treasure, and the Amalfi Coast.
I definitely recommend both the class and the cookbook; both would make fabulous Christmas gifts for that food-loving Italophile in your life! The book is 29,50 euros plus shipping. You can order it directly from Mamma Agata online here: Mamma Agata Simple and Genuine Cookbook. You can also book a class directly on Mamma Agata's website.
The Cookbook Giveaway: For the holidays, Chiara and Mamma Agata have been so generous as to offer you an autographed copy of Mamma Agata's Simple and Genuine cookbook. All you need to do to win is leave a comment below telling us what your favorite Italian dish (or dessert) is. The contest will end at Midnight P.S.T. on Wednesday, December 19, 2012. I'll randomnly draw a name from the comments using www.random.org and will announce the winner on Thursday, December 20, 2012. Each person may enter the giveaway only once.
Good Luck and Happy Holidays!
UPDATE on Dec 20, 2012: We have a winner and she is Janie (comment #29)!!! Congratulations Janie, an autographed Mamma Agata's Simple & Genuine cookbook is on its way to you!
Thank you all for your commments and letting me know what your favorite Italian dishes are. And yes, I understand how very difficult it was to choose. Every dish each of you chose, ranks among my tops. I was also so touched to see the comment from Lydia, one of our guests on the Food Lover's Tour in Puglia, and that now some of the Pugliese foods she had on the tour are her favorites!
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