Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Miracle of Place

“I really want to get the miracle of this place into everybody’s mouth right from the start.”
—Odessa Piper

While perusing the library here at Spannocchia, I came across a book that instantly piqued my curiosity. Entitled The Tuscan Year, by Elizabeth Romer, the book was published in 1984. I, of course, am only here for the Tuscan Three Months, but I was curious how much of the book would cover things that I had already experienced. I also wondered if the book would still ring true twenty-five years later. A lot has been changing in Italy in these last few decades— the first fast food restaurant, the advent of the Slow Food Movement in response, the very slow trickle of “foreign” food restaurants into various cities, and the backlash against them, not just from citizens but also in the form of laws. Traditionalism, globalization, protectionism and tourism have met in Italy and run headlong into one another.

Romer addresses that immediately, right in her introduction:
When we first came to the valley Silvana did her ironing with an antiquated tall hollow iron that was filled with wood embers. One day when I wandered into the fattoria, she was using an electric one and chuckling with glee at the ease and convenience of the new iron. Then I realized that this old fashioned life could change; perhaps the next generation of country women would forget how to make cheese, maybe the prosciutto would be bought from the store and the old skills would be gradually forgotten [emphasis added].

Of course, this was before such an organization as Slow Food existed, but the danger is still present. Happily for me, the prosciutto at Spannocchia is made in the traditional way, from a heritage breed of pigs, the Cinta Senese. The tradition is still very much alive.

The very safeguards put in place by organizations like Slow Food which are meant to protect traditional methods might also deal them a deathblow of sorts. For as long as humans have been around, they have been interacting with other cultures and trading food traditions. The tomato, which much of the world associates with Italian cuisine, is a New World food that didn’t make an appearance in the country until the mid-1800s. Is it realistic to freeze a cooking method in time? Can that method remain authentic if it is artificially kept static? That will be a question for everyone, producers and consumers alike, to consider in this confusing world of food.

I’m quite pleased that I happened upon Romer’s account of a year in Tuscany, and it was an appropriate read at the halfway point of the internship. I’ve been here long enough to have a substantial exposure to many food traditions, and for my remaining time I will have a renewed appreciation for what I am eating and why. The Tuscan bread, which is known in all of Italy for being terrible, is cardboard-esque for a reason. Peasants for hundreds of years would fire up their bread ovens once weekly, and omitting salt from the dough ensured that the bread would not attract humidity get moldy. The bread was also designed to accompany salty foods like prosciutto, or well-seasoned soups swimming in olive oil. Tuscan butter is unsalted for the same reason. That knowledge doesn’t particularly comfort me in the mornings as I eat semi-stale saltless toast with unsalted butter, but at least I know.

Romer also discusses a few production methods. Her explanation of the butchering and curing of meats mirrored much of which I witnessed firsthand in Spannocchia’s “transformation room.” I smiled as I read her account of soprasada, or what I’ve been calling “spare-part sausage.”

Then the butcher takes the pig’s head and part of the belly and kidneys and he cuts them up and cooks them in the great cauldron over the fire. When the meat has been boiled to a state of tenderness he takes out the pieces and lays them all on a the bare, well-scrubbed wooden table . . . he quickly chops the meat into small pieces [and] seasons this medieval-looking mixture with chopped fresh orange peel, salt and a great deal of black pepper to make a deliciously perfumed brawn which is a real delicacy (13).

Romer’s contrast of “medieval-looking mixture” with “delicacy” sums soprasada up exactly, truth be told. When she talked about making pecorino, which is sheep milk and absolutely delicious, I had a newfound knowledge and appreciation for it, having visited the Azienda Agricola Sant’Anna for a tour only days before. As Romer explained, rennet is a necessary ingredient to make the milk coagulate and form curds. Rennet was discovered through the slaughtering of lambs who had, basically, the beginnings of cheese in their stomachs, and it is harvested from sheep and cow intestines. There is, however, another way to get rennet, and I had no idea about it until just days ago [and then heard it from two sources one after the other]. A substance found in thistles produces the same effect, and can be extracted by drying the flowers and then soaking the stamens in hot water. During our Sant’Anna tour we were able to sample a fresh, raw milk pecorino made with the vegetarian rennet, and it was delicious! I also did not know that ricotta was made with whey, the leftovers that would otherwise be wasted during the pecorino-making process. Waste not, want not.

Oddly, the pattern of learning about something just before reading about it in this book continued throughout. Carciofi fritti, fried artichokes, is apparently one of the most popular ways to serve artichokes. Last week the interns had a cooking class where we prepared a traditional Tuscan lunch, and carciofi fritti was one of the sides we made. “The artichokes are sliced . . . then dipped into flour for a light dusting, then into a bowl of beaten egg and lastly plunged into a pan of oil . . . The slices must be dipped into the egg and fat individually or the whole thing will coagulate into a mass that will spoil the appearance of the dish” (61). That was the same warning, almost exactly, the interns received from Loredona, the woman who taught our cooking class.

Needless to say, my curiousity as to the potential similarities and differences between this book and my life here at Spannocchia was sufficiently satisfied. I seem to be experiencing many of the keystones of Tuscan life, and the things I am learning about food here are classic, time-honored. Even the Cerotti family that Romer followed for a year in Tuscany is an uncanny mix of all the people I interact with here on the farm, for my three months at Spannocchia.

New pictures are up! Here, here, and here.

And a little video of one of the newest lambs on the farm:

And look for a post soon about the fantastic day I had today!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Can you believe that I just had a discussion about the freezing of traditions??? Weird.

Anyways, now every time that my day is not going so great, I'm going to watch that lamb, so adorable, and the true definition of "to frolic."