Living in a place, if only for a week or two, is the way to know it. Going to the grocery store, the post office, the bank -- these are the ways to begin to see familiar faces, to build acquaintances and turn them into friends. Umbria was the home of St Francis of Assisi and artists like Perugino and it is the site of some of the most well preserved medieval towns in Europe. Olive oil, wine, porcini mushrooms, truffles, and more fill the plates of Umbrians and their visitors.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Will Work for Food, Provided it's Zero Kilometer Cuisine
Anyone who's willing to come to Italy to spend a week picking olives the old fashioned way is a someone who appreciates biological, organic, fresh, local food and wine. Taking that step back in the process, from consumption to the actual harvest of something they are eventually going to eat, allows us all to reflect on what we do to our bodies when we hit the fast food counter. Fortunately, here in Umbria, our friends can enjoy what the Italians call "zero kilometer cuisine" -- just about everything they eat while here will have been produced in the region.
No olive left behind
Yesterday, our ten pickers produced six full crates of olives from about ten trees, 10% of what we need to accomplish this week. Today, after a good dinner and solid night's sleep, we expect to fill many more of those green, red and yellow plastic boxes. We still have the old wooden olive crates used in the old days, but have turned them into kitchen cabinets -- they are so heavy empty it's hard to imagine moving them full of olives.
La Signora picks the leave from her family's olive harvest
Since food is an integral part of any Italian experience, especially a culinary trip, we offered a "workers'" lunch of fresh minestrone with parmesan and olive oil, salumeria from Norcia (prosciutto, salami), Stilton cheese brought by a friend from England, mozzarella, and a variety of fresh baked breads. There was the endless flow of Omero's garage wine, of course, and a polenta torta, citrus crostata and mandarini for dessert. After a cup of coffee we hit the trees again to work off lunch; we have to begin thinking of dinner.
Standing amid the olives at La Casetta Rosa, we could hear our neighbors picking their trees further down in the valley. The rythmic cadence of Umbrian-style Italian conversation drifted up our way on the breeze -- they must have listened to us speaking English with accents tinged with Italian, Dutch, American Southern, English, and Namibian origins. We were all doing the same thing: picking olives while talking about our lives, our children and grandchildren, our gardens. In our group there was also talk of test driving Ferraris, future trips, and the anticipation of eating tonight at Le Noci, our favorite restaurant in Grutti.
At Le Noci, Il Magnifico wrote down the orders ad La Principessa recited the menu. This is not required of all diners, of course, but since we have the fare memorized, we can cut out minutes from the process by presenting the server with a fait accompli -- in Italian. This ensures appreciation from Danielle and the ladies in the kitchen, who send out food out in some kind of reasonable order.
Old favorites on the table last night included were fazzoletti (triangular ravioli stuffed with ricotta and topped with panna (cream) and fresh shaven truffles, strongozzi with truffles, gnocchi stuffed with porcini, tagliata (sliced grilled beef steak) topped with fresh arugula and balsamic vinegar, stewed cinghiale (wild boar), capriolo (venison), and veal prime rib. All this was followed by tiramisu, bavarese, creme Portuguese, and fresh baked cookies with Sagrantino Passito.
It's 6:30 a.m. on Monday now and still dark outside. There is some stirring upstairs, so the pickers must be awake. After a quick cup of coffee, we will be back out in the piantoni (big plants -- local name for olive trees). Their picking sessions will be bookended with a coffee break in the field, a farmer's lunch in the kitchen, and tonight's dinner at Frontini, an agriturismo which, by law, serves a menu made up almost entirely of their own or nearby production.