By Carole Kotkin
The village of Follina is a sleepy Treviso hamlet with characteristic views of olive groves, vineyards and crumbling old villas. Villagers sip their morning cappuccino standing up at a counter, and the scent of garlic being sauted in oil wafts through the air. There aren’t many unspoiled scenes like this in Italy’s tourist hot spots, where visitors sometimes seem to outnumber the locals. In Follina, the few tourists are mostly out of sight-tucked away in the kitchen of Villa Abbazia, learning the difference between al dents and overcooked. Everyone knows you can eat well in Italy. But why stop there when you can spend your vacation digesting the fine art of Italian cuisine? As an alternative to tramping through churches, museums and shops, an increasing number of visitors to Italy are instead enjoying culinary tourism by enrolling in cooking classes. Lauren Scuncio Birmingham, whose Boston-based firm, Cooking Vacations International, says her clients want "an authentic experience. And the simplest introduction to a country is through the food." Her passion for food and wine sparked her to pursue the idea of creating this unique cooking vacation adventure. "In my family everyone is always in the kitchen before dinner-helping to prepare the dinner." The preparation and cooking part is just as important as the dinner. The kitchen is the center of conversation, laughter and fun. Italian cooking is a family experience and Cooking Vacations gives everyone the opportunity to experience great food, wine, music, and the feeling of being Italian. As they say in Italy, "it’s not healthy to eat alone."
The greenery of the Venetian pre-Alps surrounds the 17th century Villa Abbazia, a charming Relais and Chateaux hotel. Due to its favorable geographical position, it is not only well connected with the most important centers in the province of Treviso, but also offers the visitors a peaceful and relaxing stay. Chef Roberto Franzin, of the Ristorante La Corte at the Villa Abbazia, teaches the cooking classes. "Cuisine is part of every Italian," Franzin says, "It’s the history they are learning in the kitchen. It’s not just about recipes. The kitchen is filled with memories of life’s experiences. We all remember food we ate as children." As the chef assembled a layered eggplant dish, he said "It’s easy to get people to eat foie gras, but not so easy to get them to eat simple foods like eggplant." He sandwiched fresh mozzarella cheese and garlic infused oven-roasted tomatoes between deep-fried, long, thin slices of eggplant. It was simply delicious. A cooking vacation is also about the countryside where activities include an independent walking tour among the hills in the countryside of Prosecco, home of the Veneto’s sparkling wine; biking among historic villas, churches and castles scattered around the region. Jewel-like Palladium towns are within driving distance; Asolo, Possagno, Treviso, Conegliano, Bassano del Grappa and Venice. The Abbey of Follina, right across the street from the hotel, is one of the best-preserved monuments in Italy and today it is the setting for numerous musical presentations. Trattoria is to Italy what Bistro is to France; an informal neighborhood restaurant serving fresh, home-cooked meals. Just down the road from Villa Abbazia is Osteria al Castelletto, owned by the charming Clemintina. This is the Trattoria of your dreams-bouquets of fresh flowers, a wood-burning grill in the center of the room, and delicious food prepared just for you. In just about an hour’s drive from Venice, you can indulge yourself in the Venetian countryside lifestyle and discover the region’s passion for wine and art. Visit the Canova museum in Possagno, where a variety of expository buildings, and many collections of work by Antonio Canova are housed. Another enchanting possibility for the art lover is to visit the charming Venetian Villas of Palladio. Villa Barbaro in Maser, and Villa Emo Capodilista in Fanzolo di Vedelago.