Prologue: The Grape Harvest
It is 1993 and I have begun researching this book by spending the month of October on my cousin's farm in Tuscany, outside the town of Lucca. It is the end of the day of the grape harvest.
The fragrance of just-crushed grapes is seeping through the floor boards, rising from the wine vats in the barn below. At long tables crowded with food, seventy of us are feasting in the hayloft. Every person in this room has participated in this ancient ritual of bringing in the grapes.
From America, we, the children and grandchildren of immigrants from these hills, have returned to be with the children of those who stayed behind cousins Edda and Alcide. As every year, their friends have gathered to help, traveling from as far away as England and Denmark and as near as the next farm and village. Together we are drinking the wine of last year's harvest as the new wine is starting to ferment beneath us.
Four generations have been working in Edda's farm kitchen to prepare the harvest feast. Since yesterday, plied with strong coffee and biscotti, we family women have been cooking for the harvest party chopping vegetables and herbs, pounding beef cutlets and rolling pastry. Edda's mother, Amelia, two years shy of one hundred, nods from her chair. Edda's daughter, Antonella, and I share the big cutting board, while Antonella's toddler, Michèle, tries stuffing tiny fistfuls of bread into his mouth, missing half the time. Family is everything to Edda. She is the daughter of my grandmother's brother, and more sister than cousin to my mother since they first met as girls in 1928. That my mother and I have returned along with our husbands means to her that we are all finally together in our rightful home.
Our general is Francesca, Edda's older cousin. Though she adores Edda, Francesca will tell you, shaking her head, that Edda is hopeless in the kitchen. Edda laughs this is an old story between them. Francesca is the family's legendary cook. "She couldn't cook bad food if she tried," says Edda.
Planted between her two sauté pans, Francesca is frying off mounds of beef cutlets, tossing jokes and gossip at her crew while directing us in our chores. She is cooking in a pressed apron and pearls. "So what would you serve, la giornalista, Miss Professional Cook?" Francesca teases me, "What would you make?" Probably a simple buffet, light and casual, I explain. She stiffens. "Lynne, I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but that is barbaric!" She throws out her arms, embracing me, the kitchen, the vineyard, the world at large. "Lynne. From America, from England they come. Our neighbors give up a Sunday; everyone is here to bring in our grapes. A buffet! I would dishonor myself, and Edda and Alcide disgrace for the family."
Early that morning, Edda had taken me to the Vendémmia (grape harvest) mass. I knelt in the church where my grandmother, Enrichetta Pollestrini, knelt every Sunday until, at nineteen, she left Italy for America to marry my grandfather. Outside the church, the world she came from is all contained within the arc of the crescent-shaped ridge and the valley below. The church looks out from one end of the ridge. Across the valley at the opposite end is the sharecropper's house where Enrichetta, Edda's father and six generations of our family were born. The bread oven where my grandmother baked each week with her mother and sisters still stands next to the house. Bread bakes there still, made by old friends of Edda's, now the house's owners. On the slopes of the little valley between the two ends of the ridge's arc are the olive trees and vineyards my family worked. Crowning the center of the crescent's curve is the walled estate of the landowner who dominated their lives.
In the 1920s, Edda's father, Clementino, emigrated from the ridge to America. For him, the streets were truly paved with gold. He returned to the ridge wealthy and eager to claim his betrothed, and take her back to California. She refused to go: "I cannot leave my church. I cannot leave the hills." It was a refrain I would hear again and again as I traveled in rural Italy, talking with country people. For some it was prefaced with, "I will not leave my mother. I will not leave my village." Always home, family and the land kept them there.
So Clementino stayed, buying the farm over the ridge from where he was born. This son of a sharecropper became a landowner with sharecroppers of his own. He never saw California again; he is buried next to the church. After visiting his grave, Edda and I took the ridge road back home.
In grape harvesting, water and wine do not mix. Rain threatens. Everyone works fast, breaking away grape clusters with anything that cuts serrated blades of cheap kitchen knives, proper clippers, old scissors. No one stops. Children run snacks of cheese and bread out to the vineyard. My stepfather, son of a farmer from Piacenza and a retired New York businessman, roams the vineyard, a bottle of grappa tucked under one arm, a bottle of water under the other, offering pickers refreshment from the glasses he clenches in his fists.
Back in the kitchen, we are staggering. "We need air!" proclaims Francesca, leading us behind the house to where vegetables and herbs grow beneath the oldest vines, planted there by Clementino himself. Edda calls it the "women's vineyard." The family women have always harvested these grapes alone, perhaps because of their proximity to the kitchen. We begin twisting clusters from the vines. Jokes start. Francesca hums, goes into singing a bawdy song. Her niece and Edda's daughter, Antonella, winks as she starts singing. Sweet cousin Lahlia tries to scowl and look embarrassed. Edda finally leads us back to the kitchen for more coffee and cooking.
The grapes are in. Teenagers are relaying food through the garden and out to the barn's hayloft that Edda converted into a room for celebrations. Wet harvesters clamber up the hayloft stairs, shaking out slickers. A fire blazes on the wide corner hearth. Across the room, the pizza oven is stoked with wood, keeping pastas and meats hot. The ceiling's beams are thick tree trunks, the walls rough plaster. Wide floorboards slope a little east and a little west. Patiently, we bow our heads during the priest's blessing. Then pitchers of wine are being emptied into tumblers. Everyone is passing platters and huge bowls brimming with course after course of antipasti, pasta, beef cutlets, roast chickens, vegetables, salads, tarts, cookies and cakes. The harvest is in. We are together. All of us, friends and relatives, are family on this night. We are all home.
Copyright © 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Every time I drive down country roads in Italy, I wonder what people are cooking in those farmhouses I pass, what their lives are like, what stories they have to tell. With this book, I set out to find the answers to those questions. I wanted to learn about the home cooking of Italians who live from the land. I wanted to know what country people eat every day when they come together around the table, and what they reminisce about when they talk of the cooking of their parents and grandparents.
For me, these are the elements that make Italian food Italian. It always begins on the land and in the home. That link to the land tied into my longtime interest in organic foods and sustainable agriculture. Were any Italian farmers in those houses talking about these issues? And how were the European Union's new food production laws affecting their lives?
Another part of this curiosity must come from my heritage. I am the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. My grandparents on both sides came to America from Italy at the beginning of the century. My mother's mother was a Tuscan sharecropper's daughter, who married an estate manager's son from a nearby village. I don't think I wanted to acknowledge it at the beginning of the adventures that became this book, but my fascination with the farm and country food wasn't just about finding what I believe is the soul of Italian cooking, it was also the beginning of exploring my own sense of home.
My penchant for spending a lot of time in small, remote areas of Italy shaped this book. In over twenty years of exploring, I still have not seen all of Italy. One friend joked that when I was writing about the Emilia-Romagna region in my first book, The Splendid Table, it took me six months just to get out of one country village I kept discovering more to know. I love to linger in places where life changes slowly. So for this book, instead of, for instance, visiting all of Tuscany's farming areas, I couldn't pull myself away from the region's remote Garfagnana and Lunigiana mountains. Puglia, the region that is the heel of Italy's boot, captivated me for the same reasons. Most people still live from the land and the food always tastes homemade. To me, Puglia is the Tuscany of the South. It has the same kind of unadorned cooking that delivers an immediacy of taste. I dream longingly of Puglia tomatoes maybe the best I've ever eaten.
Few Americans visit the Alto Adige, the region that sits right up against Austria's border, but border food is fascinating and farm life there is governed by different laws than the rest of Italy I had to go. And I had to stay in a single village and thoroughly explore its valley and surrounding mountains. There was so much to learn. So this book tells about country life in the places I couldn't leave.
Country life museums all over Italy became one of my doorways into understanding something of how people lived from the land in each area I visited. In the Alto Adige, I found Italy's only outdoor farming museum a whole village of antique farm buildings brought from all over the region and spanning several hundred years. The museum's director is Hans Griefsmair, a professor and historian who understands country life from firsthand experience. He was raised in the mountains, the son of a local cowherd. One farmhouse he showed me was so welcoming I felt as though I could move right into the kitchen and start cooking. Even the butter churn next to the hearth was alluring, with its decorative carvings. When I told Professor Griefsmair it tempted me to try churning butter, he started reminiscing about how even when food was scarce, his family always had a mound of butter in the middle of the table. I realized that while he was eating butter to survive, in other parts of Italy it was pure luxury.
I told him how I constantly heard people waxing poetic over life in the cowherds' huts you find all over the region in the high mountains. He explained how cowherds were and still are entrusted with an entire village's cows. They herd them up to high pastures for a whole summer of grazing and cheese and butter making.
Italian country life museums can be deeply personal places. Nearly nine hundred miles south of Griefsmair's world, in Sicily, I found the remnants of a museum where a man who was a poet and schoolteacher attempted to touch the sense of home he believed we all share in common. As Antonino Uccello created his farmhouse museum in the country town of Palazzolo Acreide where he was raised, he tried to make tangible his belief that we all long for the innocence, imagined or real, of the past and have a common sense of home. He believed the farmhouse was the key, with its link to the land and universal rhythms of life, death and rebirth. This was not your typical museum. He called it La Casa Museo, the museum of home.
Uccello died in 1979. I never met him only read about him and heard his story from his admirers. I did visit what's left of Casa Museo, now run by the government. Governments don't search for the kinds of things poets do. If Uccello were alive, he'd probably have been a touchstone for me. But another man filled that place. He lives in a farmhouse in the hills outside the northern Italian city of Parma. His name is Ettore Guatelli. He brought home to me the resourcefulness and ingenuity I found in most country people.
Ettore Guatelli's in his mid-seventies. He's small and sturdily built, wears thick glasses and looks stern when you first meet him. He lives with his two brothers and their families on a rambling hill farm. They all grew up there as the children of a sharecropper. The big house where the landowner lived is across the barnyard.
Thirty years ago, Guatelli bought a pair of pliers his neighbors were getting rid of and from them he built a museum scholars consider a unique study of northern Italian folklife. Without coyness, he just calls it his collection. There is no sign on the buildings about the museum. Carved into the rough wooden door to his house is something to the effect of "Guatelli lives here. If you want him, ring the bell." I rang the bell. It took time, but after a while Guatelli started to tell his story.
After the pliers, he bought more tools and kitchen implements at local farm sales. He said he saw farm people getting rid of objects that revealed how they'd lived. I saw a homemade toy car fashioned from used shoe polish tins and tomato cans. Guatelli held up a pair of shoes repaired again and again. With their soles and top held together with nails, tacks and cord, they were sculpture to my eyes, but they must have been so painful to wear. I held in my arms a copper polenta pot that had been patched with scraps of metal and rivets through two generations of cooking.
In the 1960s, a series of new laws changed the sharecropping system in Italy. Instead of working for a landowner, sharecroppers were encouraged to either buy their land, which some, like Guatelli and his siblings, did, or hire themselves out to the industrial food producers who were buying up acreage from landowning families.
Either way, in Guatelli's part of Italy, the hill country of Parma province in the Emilia-Romagna region, many country people wanted to throw away reminders of the past. Living from the land wasn't easy. As Guatelli talked, I was reminded of my friend Paola Bini, whom I met while researching my previous book, The Splendid Table. Paola's farm, Villa Gaidello, is about a two-hour drive south of Guatelli's. When Paola inherited her grandmother's farm over twenty years ago and wanted to open a part-time restaurant where the local farmwomen would cook their traditional foods, she discovered the women found more status in working in the village equivalent of a five-and-ten than in making the phenomenal handmade pasta the region is famous for. The only way she could convince them was to pay very high salaries. Finally, when they saw people driving from faraway cities like Milan to eat at Gaidello and raving about the food, they began to appreciate the value of their own heritage. Paola said they had been ashamed of their cooking it was what peasants did, not people who were affluent and secure.
Guatelli told me the same thing. Some of his neighbors couldn't wait to leave the land. They wanted to live in new, shiny, sterile apartments in town and to work as mechanics at the local garage, or become shopkeepers. Who could blame them? Farming is hard work with no set hours other than the rhythm of the seasons and weather. As Guatelli's collection of the objects of local country life grew, he said, he realized it was turning into a tribute to his people and to how they found solutions to dilemmas and needs by using their hands and their minds. Many of them left the farm eagerly, but Guatelli's collection, which now is crowded into a huge barn and almost his entire house, documents their incredible ingenuity and their determination to survive, even prosper.
His objects seem to be bursting to tell their stories, maybe because once you break through his reserve, that's the way Guatelli is. He led me into what he calls the kitchen room, where he'd gathered all sorts of kitchen objects. There are cupboards made of hollowed-out tree trunks with shelves hammered into their interiors, and improvised bread ovens a lot like the clay cloches sold in our kitchen shops for baking bread.
He took me over to a collection of homemade cutting boards he'd arranged leaning against a white-washed wall. They were of thick pieces of hardwood cut from local oak trees. They reminded me of the ones I'd seen at my friends' farm in Lombardy. He said in these hills, people always claimed that when a cutting board was worn through, deeply grooved by the rocking motion of the half-moon knife, it was time to marry off your oldest daughter. According to Guatelli, it took about twenty years to wear out a cutting board just the right age for a firstborn daughter to find a husband. He lifted a small object from its hanger on the wall and showed me how old coins no longer honored by the government were turned into pasta cutters. Farmers notched them so they'd cut in a zigzag pattern, pierced their centers and secured the coins to hand-carved wooden handles.
The same ingenuity I saw in the tools and toys is at the heart of the food of every good country cook I've ever met. Whatever the land gives, the ingenious cook turns into good eating. Rosalba Ciannamea is this kind of cook but very different from the farmwomen at Villa Gaidello and Guatelli's neighbors in northern Italy. Born and raised in southern Italy's Puglia region, she comes to the kitchen and the land as a student of her own heritage. She is a city woman turned landowner who learns from the farmers working for her and studies the old scrapbooks of her olive estate's turn-of-the-century mistress.
This is one aspect of understanding Italy that, as an American, I find difficult to express. The past is always present in Italy. Italians might revere it, rail against it or just accept it, but the past is always there. People seem to have a oneness with what has come before. The dishes I've eaten time after time at the tables of farmers and country cooks are always linked to heritage. They might be inventive, but they always taste of the place where I'm sitting at the moment.
In the Naples countryside, farmwomen make a casserole of mashed potatoes mixed with salami and peas. Thick slices of mozzarella are buried in its center. Neapolitans love mozzarella. They have some of the best in Italy and it goes on everything pizza, potatoes, meats, pasta and anything with tomatoes. Far to the north in the Italian Alps, a cowherd's wife explained how she cooks her potatoes in buttermilk and finishes them with tablespoons of browned butter. Why buttermilk? I wondered. Why not? She has quarts of it every day, left over from churning the butter she sells to a local shop. Will the cowherd's wife ever put mozzarella on her potatoes? Probably not. She has no connection to it. It is not part of her world.
This sense of intrinsic "rightness" and the feeling of being connected to what has come before may be what naturally evolves for a people who are irrevocably connected to the land. Land is at the heart of all things Italian. City people almost always seek out a farmer or wine maker they will go to each year for their annual stocking up of wine, salami, hams and sausages. No patch of land behind a city apartment building or private home is ever without some kind of food growing. Everyone farms, even if it's a short row of tomato plants and a few heads of salad greens. The holiday in the country (soggiorno in campagna) used to be an institution. In high summer, city families would go to stay on a farm often a relative's farm, or that of a farmer they knew who rented out rooms. The guest farm is going through a renaissance. Recently the Italian government encouraged the guest farm by offering tax breaks to farmers who create accommodations for visitors. Staying on guest farms was another doorway for me into Italian country life, and it can be yours too. The farmers are usually wonderfully welcoming.
But why Italians' deep connection to the farm? My own theory is that by the time the Industrial Revolution came along in the mid-nineteenth century, Italy had been an agricultural society for about four thousand years. Industry and modern technology are merely the newest wrinkle. Food is the land; it is what the land gives. No wonder "new and improved" rarely succeeds as a food marketing strategy in Italy.
Three Italian expressions brought home to me the commonality I kept feeling among all the country people I met, even though they were so very different from one another. If there are keys to understanding Italy and maybe to what constantly draws so many of us Americans to things Italian, I think they are in this trio of expressions.
"Nostrano," "campanilismo," and "si sposa." Walk through any Italian market and see the produce and the cheeses, the seafood and the dried beans, the new chestnuts and even the sides of lamb with the occasional label "nostrano." Compliment your host at an Italian dinner party on a wonderful dish and hear "nostrano" somewhere in the response. Nostrano literally translates as "local," but it comes from nostro, meaning "ours." When we refer to "local" produce, we essentially mean geography. When an Italian says nostrano, she means from her own part of Italy. The green beans from a farm outside town are nostrano. Local is geography; nostrano is an embrace. Nostrano lays claim to food, saying this is from our land, from our place in the world. Italians are certain the very best foods are theirs, grown from their land, by people in their part of Italy. Nowhere else can equal that. And nowhere else does anything taste quite the same. One secret to know: Food is all about microclimates, changing from place to place which is why traditional, handmade and local are everything to quality in Italy. The culinary artisan is master, and the cheese is never the same from one side of the hill to the other.
Nostrano helped me to begin to understand campanilismo. The campanile is the bell tower of the church at the center of every Italian village. Within the sound of those bells is the land, home, family and the only people to truly be trusted. The food of this place is as much a part of an Italian's personal identity as family name and individual personality. This is where the eternal mamma cooks, even if her skills are more affectionate imagination than reality. In nostrano and campanilismo are two keys to Italy's deep regionalism.
Si sposa means "it marries" and is always used in talking about food. This is how a friend in Milan, where Risotto alla Milanese is almost a religion, explained si sposa to me: Imagine you are dining in a home in the Milanese countryside. Go to sprinkle a Sicilian sheep cheese over a plate of Risotto alla Milanese and watch your hostess bite back an expletive. Politely she will explain, "Non si sposa (it doesn't marry)." These foods come from two entirely different worlds and mentalities one the northern city of Milan, with its northern European culture; the other from Sicily, an island ninety miles from the coast of Africa with almost as much Arab, Greek and pure Mediterranean influences as Italian ones. One place is hot, the other cold. She could go on. Notice she's not gotten to how they might taste together. She is focusing on why they don't and never will marry. That they will not taste right in the same dish is a foregone conclusion.
We come full circle back to nostrano, campanilismo and the notion of what grows together goes together spiritually and in taste. Even with the expression "go together," perhaps we lose the wonderful intimacy of foods and traditions "marrying." It is for this reason that I think we are so drawn to the Italian table. Without knowing any of this, the direct simplicity of Italy's foods connects us to it all. This brings me back to Ettore Guatelli, whose tribute to his people in his collection of country objects is all about that profound connection Italians feel to the land, family and the will to flourish. As those objects speak to Guatelli, so I believe Italian food speaks to us in a way we can all understand. Somehow Italian food speaks to us of home.
Copyright © 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper