Bridging the Language Gap with Food: An Italian Cooking Class

Written by Jessica Yeager
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Cooking classes are an excellent way to immerse yourself in local food culture when traveling abroad.  For an even richer experience, try taking the class in the country’s native language.  Nervous that you may not be able to follow along or understand the instruction? You might be surprised to find that food is a universal language and quickly bridges the language gap.

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Mimmi’s Bed and Breakfast is located in the small town of Mercatale di Cortona, on the border of Tuscany and Umbria.  Attached to the bed and breakfast is Mimmi’s Trattoria, which is widely known by local residents and out of town guests for its homemade pasta, flavorful wood-oven-roasted meat dishes and signature desserts, like the heavenly Tiramisu.

Cooking with Mimmi

Mornings are my favorite time of day here at Mimmi’s.  Waking up, I feel the bright Tuscan sun shining through the window, warming my cheeks.  And I listen to the quiet sounds of the women downstairs in the kitchen preparing for the day ahead.  I hear the dog next door barking at the man delivering freshly baked bread.  The smell travels up to my room, but instead of lingering in bed today, I will be joining the ladies of Mimmi’s for a cooking lesson.  The lesson will be taught mainly in Italian, which might be challenging, as I only know common phrases and words.

Making my way downstairs, I greet the ladies in the kitchen.  “Buongiorno!”  I say, in my best Italian accent.  Mimmi, sitting at the counter on a stool, welcomes me with a smile and gestures me to come in.  She is an older woman, the family matriarch, and a fountain of knowledge.  I feel honored to be cooking with her; yet, nervously, I wonder if I will understand anything at all.

Another couple enters the kitchen to join our class, and my nerves calm.  They don’t speak Italian either.  Wasting no time, we put on our aprons and get right to work.

Mimmi begins the process of making dough for a variety of pasta—lasagna, cannelloni, and ravioli.  She pours the flour, or farina, on the counter, making a tall mound with a well for the eggs in the middle.  After combining the eggs and flour slowly, she begins kneading the dough.  Handing each of us a ball, she motions to try it out.

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Looking over our shoulder every now and then, she smiles to let us know we are doing a good job.  “Fatto bene.”  Well done, she says.  Then she stops us for a moment and teaches us a little trick.  She presses her thumb lightly into the ball of dough.  The impression slowly comes up.  She waves her hand out, signaling that the kneading is finished and the dough is ready to be rolled out.  Mimicking her, I place my thumb in the ball of dough and watch it slowly come up. “Brava,” Mimmi says.

Moving on, we begin rolling out the dough to make the cannelloni and lasagna.  The pasta machine creates thin sheets that I then place in a large pot of hot water for one minute.  Sinking first, it then begins to rise to the top. Pointing to floating yellow sheets, Mimmi signals me to scoop it out and place it directly into the large pot of ice water. Almost immediately upon dropping it in, she’s urging me to quickly scoop it out again.  Getting the texture to be just right is important, and Mimmi encourages me to taste my creation so far.

“Perfect,” I say smiling.

“Al dente,” Mimmi says emphatically, swiping her hand through the air.

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To my surprise, the language isn’t hindering me at all. Simply watching first, then trying the technique myself is the key to learning; the words are just added details.

Time has been flying by and I cannot believe we are onto the dessert now—Mimmi’s famous Tiramisu. After combining egg yolks, sugar, and mascarpone together, I begin mixing by hand.  Ten minutes pass and I’m still mixing.  This is when a Kitchen Aid mixer would come in handy—but then that would negate the authentic experience.

Finally, I am handed a spoon, for what I’m not sure; I can only assume I am going to learn another special trick.  Motioning me to place the spoon in the mixture and then let go, I notice the spoon stands straight up.  Surprised, I look up and Mimmi says, “Finito,” as she pinches her fingers together and holds her hand in the air.  A spoon standing straight up is a welcome sign—I can finally rest my arm from mixing.  My mouth is already watering for a taste.  However, I will have to wait until the evening when together we will enjoy the food that we created.

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No Need for Translation

By no means was this a wordless cooking lesson.  Quite the contrary, the ladies spoke rapid Italian throughout the class.  However, rather than trying to translate or hanging onto every word that was said, I paid attention to other things—facial expressions, gestures, and the intonation in someone’s voice.

Meaning was not lost on me.  Instead, the food conjured up my own experiences and allowed me to find understanding.  When Mimmi continued to use the phrase, pizzico, I recalled memories of my own Grandmother using spices as she cooked.  A pinch is a pinch no matter what language you speak, and food is the universal language, enabling us to communicate with ease—no translation needed.

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Have you ever taken a cooking class in a foreign language while traveling abroad?  Do you think food is a universal language?

About Jessica Yeager

jessica profile pictureJessica Yeager is a Jersey girl, pure and simple. But it’s her love of world travel, meeting new people, and exploring sun-drenched elsewheres that takes her beyond state lines. A teacher by day, storyteller by night; she enjoys sharing tales of her adventures that inspire and awaken the traveling spirit in others. Stop by her blog, Traveling Through Life, to read more from this Jersey Girl.

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3 Responses to “Bridging the Language Gap with Food: An Italian Cooking Class”

  1. I also believe that food bridges cultural differences. A traveler can learn so much in a country and its culture by eating their native food or visiting local bars and restaurants.

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