Life Lessons from a Lowly Dishtowel

 

Excited for our pasta-making class, I amble into the main dining room of the exquisitely restored 16th c. Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli in Marittima, Puglia, a crossroads aspiring to be a town happily situated about as far down the stiletto heel of the boot of Italy as you can travel. Lovingly restored by Lady Athena McAlpine and her late husband, Lord Alistair McAlpine, the Convent is a luxury B & B that does double duty as home to their extensive art collection featuring textiles, paper mâché, and other curios from around the globe.

The 15-foot long communal table, which just moments ago masqueraded as an edible still life, laden with freshly pressed purple grape, bright red watermelon and crimson pomegranate juices, mottled green bosc pears and tart red apples, sweet and savory regional pastries, and, best of all, house chef Pierluigi's incredible homemade yogurt and muesli, is now covered in wooden boards, austere ceramic bowls, and oversized metal trays, each draped in a crisp white linen dishtowel.

The only connection between this snowy tablescape and the bounty of the quirky, colorful, exotic breakfast table is the tasteful AMcA monogram at the hem of each linen. The former gastronomic eden now feels more like a surgical suite. I recoil a bit in surprise, then wonder at my reaction. I realize it's the dishtowels. They're throwing me into a tailspin. I want fun, messy, crafty, and they're screaming, order, organization, cleanliness. Very soon, much to my delight, I'll find the two are not mutually exclusive.

There's almost nothing more useful in a busy kitchen than a dishtowel, in spite of what the Man from Bounty says. I have a drawer full of them--linen, cotton, terry, in a rainbow of colors. They do double duty as napkins, potholders, aprons. They strain yogurt, cheese and chicken broth. They collect condensation dripping from the bottle of wine I popped into the freezer last night, now defrosting on my countertop this morning, that second glass of wine I was speed-chilling it for all a pipe dream. Sometimes, they even dry dishes.

We're a dishtowel family. Part legacy and family tradition from the days before paper towels, part environmental consciousness, part habit from work in professional kitchens. For the most part, I have a happy relationship with the dishtowel. There are two exceptions, and I think they are shaping my reaction to the pasta-making. Call it a Proustian moment gone awry.

My first dishtowel-related memory is of my sisters and I as we were handed dishrags, two big and dry, one small and damp, and directed to a pantry-sized washroom to begin the monumental task of washing the dishes for a 40-person family dinner at my grandmother's house. This, while my seven male cousins were left to happily raise hell elsewhere.

The second, while working the line of a very fancy restaurant on a busy Saturday night, after the first rush, hoping to get ahold of a dry dishtowel, only to find that the chef's nightly allocation long gone. A clean, dry rag a luxury the kitchen budget couldn't bear. My damp rag and I were on our own to tackle hot ovens, pan handles, and plates until close. Scarring experiences both, and I have the burn marks on my hands and the chip on my shoulder to prove it.

Our teacher, Cecilia, walks in, a dishtowel (what else?) in hand. Today, we're making three types of pasta: orecchiette, the ubiquitous "little ear" shaped pasta of Puglia, famously made by women in the streets of Bari; a hand-shaped maccheroni, the more rustic relative of the machine-extruded tubular pasta, ours formed around a thin iron rod, or ferra; and a rolled pasta, le sagne torte, hand-cut into 12-inch lengths, each strip twisted, then circled into little bracelets to dry. All three are paste sagre, Ceci tells us, the pasta that are served during the street festivals of Puglia. I station myself behind a cloth-covered board. Let the wild rumpus begin.

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Ceci (pronounced Che Chee) is house chef Pierluigi's mother, a woman who marks time by the passing of the seasons, the harvests and the holidays. Athena shares pictures of Ceci's family during the tomato harvest late last summer, three generations working together over two days to make thick, rich tomato paste, and boiling and sieving tomatoes for sugo; jarring both for use over the next year. The tomatoes are in good company. On other days there will be olives for oil, grapes for wine, wheat to be ground for pasta flour; each destined for the dispensa, the pantry.

Like all Italian cooks, Ceci uses what's seasonally and locally available. It's "second spring" here in Puglia now, not quite as warm as summer, but definitely not a New England October Fall day. So warm, in fact, we were swimming before breakfast in the local acquaviva, the fresh cold water springs that feed into the grottos the Adriatic Sea carves into the limestone coast line. Refreshing and wonderful.

What's fresh in the second spring are walnuts as large as golf balls, their meat tender and intensely flavorful, wild mushrooms, foraged by a family friend, bright, tangy broccoli rabe, and a subtly sweet fresh pecorino, a young, pale ewe's milk cheese. The broccoli rabe will sauce the orecchiette, as is tradition, the sugo a perfect foil for the maccheroni, and a light-as-air walnut, pecorino and wild mushroom pesto will bless the sagne torte.

Soon, the dishtowels, sprinkled generously with semolina, are thick with our three types of pasta. Ceci is a pasta-making machine, easily rolling, twirling, cutting, and shaping literally pounds of fresh pasta in under an hour. Our little group, not so much. Our maccherroni stick to the ferra, our orecchiette, instead of looking like perfectly conical little ears, look sadly thick and misshapen. We're successful, really, only with le sagne torte, all of us having had some childhood experience with twisty bracelet making. 

And the dishtowels? They prove to be our friends. They keep the dough moist and workable, offering up vital friction as we try to coerce the dough to do our bidding. They gently nestle our finished paste, lovingly swaddling it as it awaits its plunge into the boiling water.

We've met several of Athena's friends and business colleagues during our stay, and she invites them to join us at lunch. We convivially share the fruits of our labors, a taste of Puglia's agricultural culture and gastronomic history, with local wines, stories, and laughter. 

As the meal ends, I dab my saucy chin with my napkin cum dishtowel cum pasta cloth, my faith in the utility and pragmatism and history of simple traditions restored, even in the lowly dishcloth, the ubiquitous AMcA monogram all the better in the company of the many food and wine stains left behind by a very satisfied diner.