Learn to Cook Just Like Mama at Home in Italy
By John D. Adams
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener
For so many of us, what begins as a carefully planned Italian getaway quickly becomes a race against the clock. “How many sites do we have time to see today?” becomes a vacation mantra. In our zeal to get every-thing under our belts, we often come back with little more than a blur of monuments. What if you could take a vacation as if you were visiting old friends? What if you could immerse yourself in another culture by learning to cook regional dishes alongside locals and other travelers? Now that would be an unforgettable experience.
All in the family
Michael and Paola Kovnick, founders of Culture Discovery Vacations, certainly believe so. Michael, a Los Angeles native, and Paola, born and raised in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy, were together 25 years and living half the year in Italy, before they realized they could share a culture that most travelers never experience.
“We often had friends and families visit us while we were in Italy,” says Michael. “We would take them to our favorite restaurants, introduce them to our friends – one of whom makes olive oil – cook together and have parties. We would take them to see nearby towns, but not in a guidebook tour way… just as friends going out for a stroll, stopping in a cafe, enjoying time together. Instead of talking about the history of a particular building, the tendency was more to talk about our personal connection to where we were.”
Once a few real estate investments became available, Michael and Paola decided to offer vacation rentals with a personal bent. In 2006, the couple opened “Discover Soriano.” It was an instant hit. “Just as had always happened with our friends and family, our paying guests left with the same feelings and comments. We quickly realized we were really on to something, so we put it all together. Cooking classes, excursions to famous sites and hidden treasures, immersion into the local culture, unique hands-on experiences, and small groups…all tied together by what we had always done: Those who come would be treated like friends and family, not customers…but in the truest sense.”
A Culture Discovery vacation is quite different than most travelers are accustomed to. And that’s a very good thing. These are not sightseeing tours. With group sizes that never exceed 18 people, you become a member of the family while experiencing “quite literally a symphony of rich cultural experiences, local immersion, family, friendship, bonding, and a balance of new and largely uncharted destinations mixed in with a dose of popular sightseeing.
Our goal with each vacation is to make you feel a part of the place you are visiting,” says Michael.
Cook like an Italian
You will collect a lifetime of special memories, and perhaps even come away with some authentic Italian cooking skills. “Our cooking classes are not demonstrations,” stresses Michael. “They are 100 percent hands-on, four- and five-course meals. We cook, we drink, we laugh, we eat, we dance, we sing…” Depending on the travel package, you might visit the Perugina Chocolate Factory for a private, 3-hour chocolate-making class right in the factory. When you cook fish, it is fish that you have caught yourself that morning. When you make pastries, you’ll use the ricotta cheese that you made the night before.
Still growing, still exploring
Now in their seventh year, Michael and Paola continue to hone their hosting skills while expanding travel options for guests. “In 2011 we opened our second location in the town of Norcia, in the heart of Umbria. Then in 2012, we opened in Sicily on the tiny island of Favignana, off of Sicily’s west coast… another popular spot for Italians, but unknown internationally. For our 2013 season, we have opened up a location in the north: Barolo. Famous for Barolo wine, of course.
“On our Norcia excursion, we spend an afternoon with a local shepherd in the mountains there and make cheese together,” says Michael. “We have also added an evening in Norcia, during which we have a BBQ at a local farm with the locals. The meats we grill are from the pig farmer and the butcher whom we get to know while there, and their families come to the BBQ. It is an absolutely amazing evening, and our guests really get the feeling of what a local Italian party is like. I just did it for the first time in September, and it was absolutely amazing. We do something similar with a grill on the cliffs in Sicily.”
With no end in sight to their hospitality, Michael and Paola are working on a location on the Amalfi Coast. “We will be launching the itinerary in the next several weeks on our website. Additionally, we are going to be opening a location in Chianti, Tuscany, next year.” We’re already packing our bags!
To learn more about Culture Discovery, visit their website at: www.culturediscovery.com