Learning to cook in Lombardy

Kitchen-shy Rob Crossan learns a new skill
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The Independent Travel

"No, please; no, stop. Please. Robert stop!" This sort of thing never happens to Gordon Ramsay. Why is it that when he haphazardly throws ingredients into pots and pans, boiling water never leaps out and flies on to attractive Italian cooks?

Chef Manila, who I have just come close to mildly disfiguring, is getting rather flustered with me. A glass of wine is pressed into my floury hands. "Why don't you go and try the pasta-making machine again?" asks the translator. If this is an order – and I suspect it is – I wonder why on earth a callow, hob-shy Brit like me is being tolerated anywhere within firing range of an Italian home kitchen.

Italian food is intimidating. French chefs delight in making their work look difficult. Yet Italian cuisine seems even more daunting in the apparent effortlessness of its marriage of flavours and smells. Which is where Simona Mussio comes in. She is a former accountant who lives in a four-bedroom villa set in the densely forested hills above the village of Mappelo, near Bergamo in Lombardy. Simona has bravely opened the doors of her family home to hapless novices such as myself. The aim at the Casa Gli Amici del Bosco is to relax, but also to learn something about the highly distinctive local cuisine under the tutelage of Chef Manila.

"Tonight we cook casoncelli," says Simona. "It's the greatest dish in this region." Cook it? I can barely spell it.

Locals use the phrase "utero materno" when talking about Bergamo, meaning that like the rosy-cheeked mother so many Italian men pine for, she gives you everything.

Earlier in the day, I'd torn myself away from the chestnut trees, collapsing walls and marauding creepers of Mapello to travel the 10km to Bergamo in order to experience this "everything".

Nobody sits down in Bergamo. Women pound through the piazzas like stern librarians; workmen zip around myriad restoration and construction sites. The park benches remain resolutely empty despite the heat. It all seems most un-Italian.

Bergamo Alta is the upper, walled section of the town. Nearly 400 years of Venetian rule does much to explain the magnificently compact array of piazzas, frescoed churches and palazzi, all of which lie about 100m above the modern, lower district. The view from the city wall towards the plains is dominated by the washed-out blues of the sky and punctuated by the heavy greens that mark the remaining patches of wilderness in this, the most heavily developed part of Italy. The Prealps comprise a slate-coloured jumble of peaks and slopes, sheathed in mist.

In Bergamo Alta you're never more than a few footsteps from squares containing trattorias where the tablecloths on the terrace gently flap. Balconies bow under the weight of potted flowers. At street-level the broccoli-coloured shutters remain closed. I salivated at a baker's window: ricotta and ravioli, focaccia slathered with olives and oil.

For lunch I visited Trattoria da Ornella, a stone-roofed room with laminated menus and cheap napkins. The star of the show was the utterly sensational local speciality, polenta taragna, which is cooked with butter and the local – slightly nutty – Branzi cheese. This was followed by coniglio speciale ornella: rabbit cooked in a chipped red pot. The meat was crisp, and cooked with the kind of deceptive simplicity that I knew was impossible for non-Italians to pull off. How on earth could I compete with this?

The answer came later that evening. Hot jets of pain shot up my back as, attired in the first apron I'd ever worn, I bent over Chef Manila's pasta-making machine. I'd been asked to roll the thinnest-possible pasta (it's supposed to be just 1mm thick), then I had to cut it into circles. After that, I was to spoon little piles of salami stuffing – made up of mortadella, butter, sage and sausage meat – inside.

Manila's parcels looked like tiny, perfectly wrapped sweets. Mine looked as if dogs had been at the wrapping paper. Eventually, this would be the casoncelli.

"Originally casoncelli would be made with pear, grapes and amaretto," Simona tells me. "We are different here. We depend much more on what comes from the woods and on game than in the rest of Italy."

Pasta is not so prevalent up here as it is in the rest of the country. People in the Lombardy region are a lot keener to use rice in dishes; popular local favourites include risotto alla Milanese e ossobuco (saffron rice and veal) and risotto agli asparagi selvatici (rice with wild asparagus).

It turned out that the casoncelli was only the starter. The main course was left almost totally up to Manila who, after my appalling pasta-making, rewarded me with another Lombardy speciality: veal guanciale (cheek), made with local Valcelepio wine. The meat was soft but with a muscular kick.

As for my cooking skills, Chef Manila was remarkably coy: "You got tired very quickly but honestly your casoncelli-making wasn't too bad."

Traveller's guide

For more information and reservations, see italianhideaways.co.uk, or call 0845 602 5836. Weekend breaks cost from £790 per person based on two sharing. This price includes two cookery lessons, excursions, breakfasts, dinners, drinks and transfers. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Manchester, Prestwick, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted to Bergamo.