Looking back to look ahead.

As I grab my vacuum, I reach past a coat I bought 500 years ago, long since relegated to the no-man’s land of the third floor closet, where old bridesmaids dresses and graduation caps and gowns go to die. It’s a relic, out of style. The cut, color, length and trim, all fashion-forward once, are valueless today. I shrug it on, but it doesn’t fit, not really, not anymore.

Still, I can’t let it go. It’s the memories, woven into the worn fabric. It's the smell, mostly perfume with the faintest whiff of baby spit up. It’s the coffee stains and fast-food driblings from the days when my car was more home, table, and office than transportation; the on-air personalities on NPR my constant companions.

4,306 miles away, my grandfather’s old coat, the one that holds his secrets, the story of the boy who grew into the man who became my father’s father, sits high atop a mountain in the remote sixth century village of San Mauro Forte, in Basilicata, Italy. I’m on my way to shrug into that coat.

Haven’t heard of Basilicata? No surprise. It doesn’t get much attention or respect. Just a day before my drive from Amalfi to Puglia, by way of Basilicata (essentially from the front shin to the stiletto heel of the Italian boot) I meet a couple with the same plan. “We’re not looking forward to it,” they say perched atop the rubber seat of the zodiac boat we share, as it scoots across the turquoise water. “The guy at our hotel told us to fly. He says there’s nothing worth seeing, it’s bleak, desolate, ugly.”

For the first time in my life, I say nothing. I’ve made the drive before, so in my mind’s eye, I can see what they might see. It is autumn, after all, and the endless wheat fields that crown every hill and carpet every valley are shorn close to the earth, like prickly gray five o’clock shadow on an old man’s face. Distant plumes of white, grey and black smoke arise, like portents, as farmers burn refuse. Cows, sheep, and goats roam free, ancient brass and copper bells hanging from their necks, clanging their proximity to the road and my car. For me, these vistas are heaven, to others, perhaps one of Dante’s circles of hell. Mussolini certainly thought so, he treated Basilicata as his own personal Siberia, exiling critics there during World War II.

Still, I have an appointment with my past and I’m keeping it. I pull into the piazza, and park between the Norman tower and 16th C. church of Santa Maria Assunta. A small cluster of short, silver-haired men and women stand huddled together against the wind, talking. I immediately have their attention. I step out of my car into the group, and like Alice through the looking glass, directly into, if not my grandfather’s coat, then at least his closet, into the embrace of his past.

I bend at the waist to offer the prerequisite two-cheek kisses and full-on hugs. Already this feels familiar. 'Hmm,' I ask myself, 'as I age, am I destined to shrink at least a foot, just as my grandfather, my father, and apparently every relative I have in Italy has?' It looks that way. As I’m introduced, their names float in the air: Leonardo. Filomena, Pepino; these are familiar names, found on my grandfather’s side of the family stateside, a nod to shared ancestry.

I once asked my father why my grandfather was so terse and stern, an outlier in an otherwise open and loving family. My best conversations with my father happened in his garden, him, on his knees, grubby and dirty but happy; me, knowingly intruding in his sanctuary, leaning on a rake, treading on his plants.

“Poppy had a tough childhood,” he said, not looking up, “he was fostered to a local family for three years when his mother emigrated with his sister to join his father and brother, who were already in the Hartford. He was only 10. He worked in the fields, lived in barns. He did odd jobs. In one, he was lowered deep into the water wells in the country. Suspended above the water, his job was to scale the stone of limestone deposits. The wells were filled with black snakes. He’d be down there for hours. He never told me that story, my mother did. He didn’t emigrate until he was almost 14 years old, in 1910.”

I walk with my relatives along the cobbled streets; we pass my grandfather’s old family home. Its owners now are a family from Great Britain who use it during summer holidays. It is the exception. Little else has been updated or renovated, sold or repurposed. Chickens roost just beyond the street level doors of several homes, the only shelter available during winter months. The former grandeur of several palazzi betrayed by sagging shutters, broken windows, stooping stairways. Still, they are magnificent and charming. I am enthralled.

We arrive at Filomena’s house, one she uses only occasionally to visit friends here. The table is set for the five-course meal they have prepared to welcome us. They tell us these dishes are the specialties of San Mauro Forte. I nod, knowingly. I have eaten these same foods, prepared in the same way, at tables this large, my entire life.

We tour the house. Each corner, each cupboard, is it’s own archeological treasure of my family’s history. Birth certificates, death certificates, hunting licenses, military service records. Generations of schoolbooks and catechisms, their bindings cracked and musty with age. A calendar from 1985 hangs on the wall, just above a tube TV. I am convinced "I Love Lucy" would be playing in dubbed Italian if it were turned on. 

There are piles of photographs that span generations, including one of my grandfather, circa 1970, during his first trip back to his village. He’s wearing a pink shirt and a wide tie. He, too, is pink and wide, age and sickness having not yet reduced him to pale skin and sharp bones. I almost weep; I wonder what childhood memories he carried with him as he walked these streets as a grown man. I wonder at my own memories of him, and how they will be influenced by this trip.

In the basement, a fire roars in the kitchen hearth, the only heat for the entire house on this brisk day. A trove of ladies fill the space, all gossiping madly in an Italian I can barely understand, curious about the visitors from America. The back room, where the animals were formerly sheltered, is stacked with old furniture, including three giant tin trunks.

They seem incongruous. They serve no practical purpose. I comment on them. Leonardo tells me that as immigrants returned to their roots, they brought the family they had left behind goods from the US. “We were so poor here,” he says, “after the war. We were barely surviving.” The trunks languish, dusty in a corner. At the time, there was nothing of material value to offer in return, reciprocity would come decades later, in visits like this one.

Just as my old coat is a memory of my life as a young, working mother, so, too is this village an expansion of my memories of my grandfather. My coat and this village are powerful memories of the past. Still, they are a not-so-subtle reminder that today, this present, the challenging, endless, tedious stuff of daily life, will soon find its place in history, like my coat in it’s closet, and my grandfather's legacy, in the streets of his village.

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.

pastaiwithceci.jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The One I Love Best

I love my first-born best. Taboo, I know. But my first was so special, so magical, so transformative that I just can't help it. 

In 2013, I started a travel business, one that focuses on unique, intimate and unforgettable food and wine adventures in Italy. It's been a life-long dream to share the magic of off the beaten path destinations. Now, I do it several times a year with trips expertly curated and personally led by me and my husband, Jonathan. When we travel, we set a very high bar. Others noticed and asked how they could do it, too.

Ultimately, we knew that if we could satisfy ourselves, we could more than satisfy others. 

For us, one experience (one very special experience) helped to launch an entirely new part of our life. This life centers on introducing the art of slow living, through personally guided travel to Italy and Spain featuring wine, food, immersion in local cultural activities, with the added bonus of creating new friendships along the way. Our travelers tend to be very busy people, but people willing to slow down long enough to enjoy a unique experience. 

Jonathan and I first visited Slow Food's Salone del Gusto in beautiful Turin in October, 2012. Soon after, we began to bring travelers to remote and often less traveled parts of Italy. In 2014, we brought out first group to Salone, and neighboring Piedmont, where the Barolos and truffles couldn't be ignored.

Now, it's 2016, it's my dream's third birthday, and Salone time again. MorsoSoggiorno will be front and center, partaking of education, Michelin-Star dinners, sought-after wine tastings and much more in cultured yet often overlooked Turin (which Condé Nast Traveler calls "the Paris of Italy"). 

This trip, which takes place from September 21 through October 1, packs fun, food and wine into ten extraordinary days and nights. On our first three days, we'll explore incredible Turin and Salone del Gusto, Slow Food's semi-annual gathering of over 1,000 artisan food, wine, cheese, and other heritage producers from every region of Italy. 

From there, we'll spend three days exploring the beautiful rolling hills of the regions of Barolo and Le Langhe. We'll hunt truffles, sip red wine, have a private dinner and cellar tour in Barolo and luxuriate in a 12-bedroom feudal castle and spa. Finally, we'll journey north to experience an Italian autumn in Lake Como, criss-crossing the lake from our villa in our own private motorboat to visit the picturesque towns that dot the shores.

We eat, we laugh, we walk, we drink, we have conversation (remember conversation?) and we hang with sheep, horses and truffle-hunting dogs. But perhaps most importantly, we are reminded over and over that in a world that moves too fast, slow travel can take you to some very special places indeed

If you'd like to learn more, visit here, or contact me and I'll be happy to send you additional details or chat with you by phone.

Our new trip: Madrid and Basque Country

First off, some housekeeping.

I took my own advice and consolidated my on-line life, here on morsosoggiorno.com. So, you'll find all my adventures in one place:  the blogs, the trips, the recipes, the acerbic observations.

Here's what you have to do to stay in touch:  follow me here on MorsoSoggiorno.com. You'll continue to get my blogs and an occasional newsletter, but other than that, I won't bother you. If the spirit moves you, you can check in about trips and recipes at your leisure.  

Thanks in advance for keeping up with my goings on.

In June, one of Jonathan's dreams will come true: we'll bring a group to his beloved Spain. With so many great regions to choose from, we finally landed on Madrid and Basque Country, the perfect combination of urban excitement and pastoral pleasure. The trip sold out almost immediately, and over plates of jamón serrano and queso Idiazábal, we finalized an amazing itinerary.

One stop will be the Marques de Riscal Winery, where we’ll enjoy a private lunch on the terrace of the Michelin star restaurant set within a striking Frank Gehry-designed building. For dessert, we’ll take an English language tour of this venerable Spanish winery, with wine-tastings of their award-winning reds and whites along the way.

Check back for highlights. You'll see we've carefully crafted a blend of cultural, culinary and wine experiences guaranteed to immerse our guests in the unique destinations we visit. 

 photo credit: @hotelsandresorts

photo credit: @hotelsandresorts