Grano & Farina Scuola di Cucina: Part 1

On my impromptu quest to step out of my culinary comfort zone and learn new things -- which, I think, has made for the blog's most interesting posts yet! --  I stumbled across the cooking school Grano & Farina, and, well, it might just be one of the very best things that's happened to me so far this year.

A big statement, I know, but such a true one! Before I get ahead of myself, let's start with the basics, shall we? G&F -- located in the picturesque Trastevere neighborhood -- is owned and run by couple Pino (Italian) and Julia (American, though by now very much Italian) Ficara. Julia is a sfoglina, or expert pasta-maker, one who works without the use of a machine but rather with a rolling pin, producing fresh pasta (tortellini! fettuccine! ravioli!) equal to that of any Italian nonna -- even more impressive given she's from the U.S!

Pino is a mathematician and computer wiz turned chef who worked and trained in Milan, NY, London, Paris and Tuscany (both in restaurants and in catering) before coming to Rome with Julia to open up the school. He is a know-it-all in the best sense of the word, a chef with an incredibly wide range of abilities and a profound knowledge of anything and everything to do with cooking and baking (not surprising, given his idea of bedtime reading is technical texts and professional cookbooks). He is the master behind some of the best bread, pizza, and pastries I've ever tasted.
Together, they make for a little school that packs a serious punch, offering classes on pasta (Northern, Southern, filled -- take your pick) desserts (French, Italian), pizza (Roman and Neapolitan), bread, risotto, sauces, and more. Most interesting to me -- and getting back to my bold statement above! -- they also teach classes that are more specific, more particular, and therefore more appealing to us food nerds, lessons on knife skills, making your own charcuterie, macarons, chocolate, and croissants and cornetti, plus classes on olive oil, or rather, the sort of things I simply don't know anything about and would've never attempted without their expert guidance. It is a cooking school a cut above the rest, one that goes way beyond what the majority of schools offer here in Rome, and all lessons are hands-on, educational, and superbly executed, exactly what you would expect from people as knowledgeable and experienced as Julia and Pino. The icing on the cake? They are two of the loveliest, funniest, and most generous people I know, and a class with them is, from start to finish, not only super informative, but also a pleasure to be a part of. 

With no further ado, here's a look at a few of the more unusual classes I've participated in at Grano & Farina -- Croissant vs Cornetto, Chocolate, and an EVOO tasting. All are subjects that I previously had the most basic knowledge of to start, and left the school with my head buzzing with new information and ideas. The end results of all were pretty darn delicious, too.

CROISSANT VS CORNETTO
Croissants have a reputation for being impossibly tricky; they're a pastry known for their many steps, time, and required technique, and though I love to bake, they'd always seemed elusive, far too difficult, and therefore best left to the professionals. The same went for their Italian cousin -- the cornetto -- something else that I had never considered attempting to make at home. When I came across Grano & Farina's Cornetto vs Croissant -- a class that teaches you how to make the traditional French croissant and the classic Italian cornetto, examining the differences between them -- I signed up right away, intrigued to see if my assumptions could be proven wrong. Pino (who, aside from being Italian, also spent 8 years in France and knows a thing or two about both pastries) took us through each recipe step by step; the proofing and resting of the dough, the making of the infamous butter block, the correct rolling technique to assure the presence of characteristic flaky layers, and how to fold and cut our dough to form both the moon-shaped croissant and the twisty cornetto. We used the very same dough to make choco suisse, a crazy good apple strudel-croissant hybrid, and pan au raisin, to name just a few. In the end, the previously intimidating pastries became downright doable, approachable, and yes, we got to sample all of our (freshly baked!) goods after class. Double swoon! 





OLIVE OIL TASTING
Olive oil is an ingredient I use often -- even in sweets! -- and while I knew there was such a thing is really good olive oil/not so good olive oil, I had never given it much thought, almost taking it for granted. That all changed in a big way when I signed up for Grano & Farina's Olive Oil tasting, led by Johnny Madge, international olive oil expert and judge, who lives by the motto Don't Drizzle, Pour! With Johnny, I learned that olive oil, much like wine, can be sipped, sampled, and studied; there is a wide world of olive varieties (just like wine's grape varieties) and that different olive oils have their own very distinct flavors, again not unlike wine. For example: one olive oil we tasted had the EXACT flavor of a raw, fresh pea, sweet and wholesome and Spring-y; others were on the bitter side, others spicy, still others were fruity. We learned the technique to be used when tasting the olive oil -- warming it one hand with a twisting motion, covered, taking a whiff of the olive oil's scent, and then taking a sip using the recommended method, hard to explain, so see here! -- and it was positively enlightening. Johnny also taught us all about his experiences judging olive oil competitions (everywhere from Greece to Japan) and explained to us the wide and varied range of olive oil defects one can come across (who knew!) Best of all, we enjoyed our olive oil with different food pairings, prepared by Julia and Pino, everything from a drizzle on mozzarella di bufala and simply prepared chickpeas to a more elaborate asparagus and saffron risotto and a perfectly cooked filet of beef, to name just a few. I don't think it gets better than that, now does it? 


CHOCOLATE 
While I very much liked the idea of making my own chocolates, it was (much like croissants!) seemingly beyond my skill set, never anything I had even imagined attempting before. Enter Grano & Farina who, once again, made the previously presumed difficult possible. With Pino -- and a great group of ladies, Carla Tomasi among them -- we learned about the importance of good quality chocolate (Valrhona is the way to go here) and the varied characteristics of white, milk, and dark chocolate, how to temper chocolate (not nearly as hard as it looks, once you've had a little practice!) plus various filling options one can use, among many other things. Under Pino's guidance, we went on to make large chocolate spheres, filled with chocolate mousse, a giant chocolate Easter egg, chocolates of all different shapes and sizes, some filled with praline, others with ganache, chocolate bars topped with puffed rice or walnuts for crunch, and last but not least, a gold plated chocolate ribbon (!!!) just because. When we needed something savory to break up our chocolate-y sugar fest, Julia saved the day and stepped in to make us lunch -- scrambled eggs (eggs superbly fresh, from their very own chickens) washed down with a little white wine. Check check and check. 
 
 
 
I'll be taking more classes at G&F --  stay tuned for a post featuring Julia and more adventures in pasta making  -- but in the meantime, humor me and allow me to show off these croissants, baked up in my very own kitchen, and served with a side of Carla Tomasi's out-of-this-world, spectacularly delicious strawberry jam, plus a few other photos taken at the school. To get more information on classes at the school, head to www.grano-farina.com.