Italian Lessons

Italian Lessons : The owners of the Inn at Little Pond Farm welcome guests for an instructive culinary fête
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Tucked around a bend in the picturesque hills north of Valle Crucis along N.C. 194, the Inn at Little Pond Farm exudes simple luxury. Inside this refined and expanded former farmhouse, white-washed bistro tables, bead board trim, wide-planked, French oak floors, and layered shades of white, cream, and gray create a sense of calm sophistication.

The gorgeous, oversize kitchen, with marble countertops and stainless steel prep tables, is the perfect canvas for bursts of culinary color, including crimson tomatoes, sunny yellow peppers, emerald field greens, and all the other glorious foodstuffs that take the stage during the inn’s culinary classes.

On any given week, budding foodies can brush up on knife skills, learn to create Italian desserts (including gelato), or how to host  French and Italian cookouts.

While Gaye Luaces, who owns the inn with her husband, Frank, refrains from calling the courses a cooking school, the Florida transplant has plenty of kitchen experience to draw upon, having spent vacations abroad learning Tuscan and classical French culinary techniques.

The couple hosts a monthly supper club, bringing in a rotating lineup of chefs, including tonight’s guest, Chef Travis Sparks of Seed to Plate catering, who teach and prepare meals while guests watch, take notes, and participate.

The Luaces each have specialties in the kitchen, too. For this Italian country dinner, Gaye cuts and seasons a tray of tomatoes and pops them into the oven to roast slowly. Meanwhile, Frank creates a latte gelato. His secret for the best flavor: cooking espresso grounds in milk to create a “mud” that he pours through a fine coffee filter. For the next step, he makes crunchy pizzelles by drizzling a thin batter of butter, egg whites, vanilla, and sugar onto a special iron, filling the kitchen with a sweet aroma.

Sparks arrives to prep the main ingredients, bearing tender arugula and mesclun from his family’s Ashe County farm. First, he washes and wraps veal tenderloin in pancetta, tying it neatly with twine.

Greeted by Gaye and refreshing glasses of prosecco, guests gather around tables set with nibbles that introduce great flavor combinations, such as fig jam and creamy Gorgonzola on seeded cranberry crackers, the sweet, roasted tomatoes, and zippy lemon-zested ricotta on toasted olive oil French bread.

The supper club members and their friends hearken from Nebo, Charlotte, Yellow Mountain, and just down the road. After introductions, they settle onto stools around the spacious marble-topped island, which gives everyone a view of the chef as he works. At each seat, the hostess has placed a charming little green envelope that holds tonight’s recipes, making it easy to follow along during the lesson.

“Your hands are the best tools, especially with young greens,” begins Sparks, gently tossing the salad with a dressing he whips up as the group watches. “Otherwise, they will bruise and become slimy.” The instruction is filled with simple, helpful tips like this one. As he pits a mound of pert nectarines, he explains that less ripe fruit is best for grilling. “It’s going to hold together on the grill better.”

Gaye chimes in with explanations as well, sharing that the French feta in the salad is creamier and sweeter than traditional Greek or Italian. “It’s made from goat’s milk as opposed to sheep or cow’s milk; that’s the difference,” she says. Between sips of verdicchio, a crisp white wine from a small premier vineyard in central Italy, some students intently take notes.

Another cheese makes its debut in the second course: a rich fettuccine. The Dolce Gorgonzola from the Piedmont region of Italy is creamy and sweet, with a subtle bite. It and a broad chunk of butter commingle in a warming pan. Sparks invites one of the diners to assist by zesting a lemon, which will counter the creaminess of the dish. Handfuls of fresh, fragrant rosemary are tossed into the sauce. The long, thin tagliarelle noodles cook quickly and easily soak up the rich sauce, imbuing the pasta with a pure and delicate balance of flavor. It’s a light and surprisingly refreshing dish.

The group splits up, with some following Sparks to the back patio to observe him grilling asparagus and tenderloin (which he first seared over the stove), while others remain to tend a marsala sauce reducing on the stove.

Dusk has turned to dark by the time the club reconvenes on the veranda around a simply set picnic table. The outdoor lamps alight and the sound of Italian retro-pop filters outside. As guests sip an Italian red that is a perfect match for the veal, they chat about the challenge of attempting the meal at home. By dessert, it’s clear their attention has settled on enjoying the balmy High Country evening and each others company as they savor velvety spoonfuls of gelato from pizzelle bowls.

“This is usually how it ends up,” Gaye says with a smile as some of the ladies sway to the music under the pines that shelter the wide veranda. “They dance at every class.”