Monday, November 15, 2010

Italy: Discovering The Meaning of Slowly Prepared Food

It all began with a conversation in February, 2010 in Siena, Italy. Not a time of year when leaves are on the trees - but a spell of an unusual snow fall and howling wind!  I struck up a conversation with a young man who noticed I was wearing a Cittaslow button on my coat.  Oh - he said my father heads up Slow Food, Siena.  So - off I began my journey to find a meaningful place to take 24 travelers to engage in a cooking experience. Marco Bechi, who heads up Siena Slow Food diligently held conversations with me through the blessing of the internet and several hilarious exchanges between Italian and English translations.  All made much easier by my Italian co-journey leader, Dorene Lucchesi. Marco got my vision that I was not just looking for a cooking course in Italy - but a place to travel to with a group of twenty-four (24) clients in October to have a rich connection with the people, place and perhaps uncover the deeper meaning of What is all the fuss about Slow Food

In America - the family sitting around a dinner table seems to have disappeared.  Not anyone's fault, just the reality of progress and how families no longer all live in close proximity nor  have the resources to purchase fresh - non processed foods. Perhaps many of us who have picked up the mantel of the deeper meaning of Slow Food are those that no longer have children at home; have work-lifestyles that conflict with the dinner hour - or simply live on their own and find cooking for one person less of a ritual.

Beyond the word catcher: Slow Food, there is a yearning for those of us that desire a method for bringing ourselves, family and friends together to enjoy rich conversations and new found food flavors. So this movement to gather people together for informal dinners is bringing us all back to the table.. a pause in our segmented lives.  The act of choosing to make the time to allow the feelings that arise from just simply gathering friends who cook well or not is a process of uncovering what it means to commune together at the table.  I call it a revival of reclaiming the act of community.  It is  growing one table at a time, one community at a time.  

My vision for our group of travelers was realized with one spectacular day at Fattoria Di Corsignano, in the countryside of Siena.  It became one of the highlights of our twelve day journey throughout Tuscany.  It was one of the treasures we uncovered.  

Elena, Mario and their two children Niccolo and Elisa live on a eco-compatible winery estate of  50 acres outside Siena. The wine and olive estate has been held in Mario's family for generations.  Mario oversees the tradition of growing and maintaining the local vines of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino which he so proudly shared with us and  I dare say quite a few bottles with some to go at the end of the evening. The essence of the fruit balanced with just enough alcohol was by far something my palate keeps searching for since my return home to Sonoma, California.

The estate exists on energy provided by solar panels.  This is not an easy life - but one Mario and Elena are passionate about - and it shows with the glimmer in their eyes as they eagerly wanted us to experience all they had laid out for us that day. The beauty, generosity and hospitality they created for the day together was more than I could have imagined. 

Elena creates the recipes and leads the cooking courses. She has the able assistance of Cristina (an American girl) who moved to Italy in the late 70's and has become their on-site manager that oversees the operations. She is great in understanding the American traveler.

I cannot begin to thank Elena, Mario,  Cristina and Marco from Slow Food Siena, and Cristina for what they did to prepare for our group cooking experience.  The preparation of setting up enough cooking areas and burners for us to chop, cook and stir was sensational.  Everything was what you dream about in Italy: color and simple-elegant country pottery. The kitchen was immaculately prepared for us to begin our lessons.  We were all given aprons and Elena guided us to choose aspects of our menu to team-up and prepare. She was incredibly patient and her instructions were clear and fabulously fun!  We could move between stations to watch, learn and smell the flavors of fresh sage, porcini mushrooms, cippolini onions, tomatoes, all aspects of some of the ingredients in the recipes.  I have never seen so many eager cooks regardless of culinary experience all jump in and learn. Everyone was committed to making our family meal fit for one another.  We laughed and prodded each other through the preparation.. stopping to soak in the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, cypress trees and mesmerizing sunset through the windows.

Elena never had so many people cooking at the same time that were so engaged. She was thrilled with our enthusiasm.  Mario danced between all of this - assisting and then lead us into his wine tasting rooms and cellar to sample his wine.  His passion and commitment to making wine that can be enjoyed today, tomorrow and for as long as his legacy permits - would be a good enough reason to return.  Just being with him and understanding the slow methods for maintaining and producing wine - without all the additives and sulfides have me dreaming of a return in the near future.  Drinking without a headache seemed to be the common response from our group throughout Tuscany, which only lead to being able to drink more wine... 

The menu consisted of stuffed rabbit (that had already been deboned and cut ) that we wrapped in fresh sage and bacon freshly sliced by one of our cooks.  Later the rabbit would be seared in a pan with the estate peppery olive oil.  Others enjoyed stirring the Pappa Al Pomodoro (tomatoe bread soup) - while all of us gathered around the fresh pumpkin and porcini mushroom Risotto!
Happy dining
Estate property

Ingredients for Pappa al Pomodoro

Preparing the Stuffed Rabbit

Dorene, Kathy and  Barbara

Pan searing the rabbit

Stirring the tomatoes

three lovely cooks: Helen, Judy & Mary

John cooking the Squash

Porcini mushrooms and risotto

Beautiful Squash bowls

Marco Bechi, Slow Food, Siena and Elena

Marco, wine maker and Margarita

Vin Santo

Margarita, Helen, Debby

Waiting to be served

A toast to a glorious evening, thank you Marco

A happy group

Robert enjoying the view

And then we began to dine

We had fresh black cabbage (Kale) Bruschette and crowned this meal with dessert of individual apple cake with Vin Santo wine essence!  My simple description does not even begin to evoke the joy of the evening over such a sensational and delicious meal - all perfectly paired with Mario's wine and homemade Lemoncello and Grappa!

We had one mighty happy coach load of contented cooks returning to Siena that evening. 

Their country retreat offers longer stays in their accommodations and many options for cooking and enjoying their surrounding vineyards and even a swimming pool!  You are only a short drive to Siena and other nearby places of charm.

Please enjoy the pictures. I hope they add meaning to this amazing family that welcomed our group with such grace.