Growing Green


vegetables
It’s planting season in Tuscany, the time of year I think of my role-model and rival in all things green: Mario, my former father-in-law.

When I came to Tuscany in January 2001, Mario had just retired, and he and my-mother-in-law still lived in Siena. He would come out to our house in the country for the day, though, and I would cook him lunch, a primo and a secondo, which he ate in the upstairs kitchen while I stared at him across the table and tried to make out what he said in those first weeks of submersion in Italian. “Don’t bother,” my husband said. “He garbles. No one understands a word.”

Sixteen at the outbreak of war, Mario never had to fight, because his father had been wounded in the First World War. His parents were farmers, so Mario and his brother Marcello kept on eating chickens and eggs and vegetables throughout the war, while in town food was scarce, only really waking up to the conflict when a bomb dropped through their roof, down through the floor of their bedroom into the kitchen, rolled out the door and across the lawn and came to a stop at the edge of the woods, unexploded. The four of them, and soon the neighbors, stood in a circle around it, staring skeptically and wondering what to do. Finally, Mario and Marcello picked it up and carried it into the woods.*

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Il Sugo

The other day I was asked how I would make meat sauce—what restaurants call ragù, and what is known in Tuscany simply as “sugo.”

Like most Tuscan recipes, the list of ingredients is limited and intuitive, and the process is foolproof, if not necessarily short. And like many Tuscan recipes, it starts with a “battutina”—a mix of chopped parsley, onion, celery, garlic, carrot and “rigatino,” the Tuscan word for pancetta or unsmoked bacon. Otherwise known as the “odori,” these bulbs, roots and fat, along with sage, rosemary and occasionally fennel, are practically the only herbs and spices used in Tuscan cooking, apart from generous doses of salt and pepper. One lets the battutina “imbiondire” (“go blond”), or as we would say, brown in the pan, in olive oil, of course, before adding the ground meat–half beef, half pork–and letting that go blond too. Then one adds the tomato and, pay attention here, a tube of tomato paste–the secret to a rich and savory sauce.  Now for the long part: it should simmer for around four hours and needs a little broth (chicken) whenever it gets too dry.

“Pastasciutta,” a word Italians use interchangeably with the word pasta itself, comes from southern Italy, and filled pastas like tortellini from Emilia Romagna, so there is no typical pasta shape that the Tuscans serve with meat sauce. Any and all will do. For an important occasion, or to spoil your family, serve it on tagliatelle (egg pasta is considered elegant), mixing the noodles and the sauce thoroughly in the pasta pot, with a lump of melting butter to bring out the taste of the meat. As a Florentine friend of mine, long a US resident, reminded me, the Italians “use little actual sauce—and it tastes so much better.” And for heaven’s sake do not offer cheese: Tuscans never gild the lily.

The smell of a pot of sugo simmering on the stove wafts out of village windows braided red onionany weekday morning. Mamma or more likely Nonna is working up a batch, which she will divide into small aluminum containers (no, we do not have Ziploc yet) to freeze. In the winter, if she is unfortunate enough to have a husband who hunts, she will have spent three days soaking a gristly cut of boar in vinegar, and a few hours after that boiling off its “selvaggio” or “wild” taste in pan after pan of water, before starting to make from it…sauce.

Now, what to serve for secondo

Corso Downhill

Walking along the corso (or main street) this holiday season, it strikes me how much has changed in Siena since my first Christmas here fifteen years ago, and I find I am nostalgic for the relatively young, old days that I knew.

Then, there were no public Christmas decorations to speak of, other than the Monte dei Paschi tree in Piazza Salimbeni. Although I like the garlands now hung at intervals along the main shopping streets, those inflatable climbing Santas do not add much to Siena’s splendid medieval façades. Here, Christmas used to be a quiet season, often mild and rainy, the Sienese more caught up with finding a good capon or boasting of the double-digit numbers of guests they would cook for than with gifts, cards or light displays. But it is not just Christmas that is becoming Anglo-Saxonized; the town itself is changing. Continue reading Corso Downhill

Ringraziamento

By now, the persimmon trees have lost their leaves, so the branches, covered in hundreds of round, orange-red fruits, stand out against the often-grey sky. The grapes and olives are harvested, but it’s too early to start pruning vines or trees. Leeks and fennel grow, without much attention, in the vegetable garden. We’ve eaten, for the time being, enough grilled mushrooms, mushroom pasta and mushroom risotto. It has started to rain, and it is the time of year when the thick-walled farmhouses feel colder than the scirrocco-driven dampness outside, so we come in, light the fire, drink tea and play briscola.

playing cards
Tuscan playing cards

On weekend mornings, we hear the dogs and gunshots of the hunters in the fields and woods around us. A friend brings me a piece of boar, which another friend makes into sausage and salami for us to hang in the cellar and eat this winter. Someone else brings chestnuts to a dinner party, and we sit up late around the fire with a good excuse to drink lots of wine. The ash of the fires and the dogs’ now always-muddy feet are reason enough to ease the housekeeping standards. Continue reading Ringraziamento

Ah Bruschetta

ladies picking olives
The olive-picking squad, ca. 2002

How can anything be “extra virgin”? Olive dearest, either you have or you haven’t been pressed. And that’s the thing. Nobody around here talks about “virgin” olive oil. The olives get milled, the oil comes out, the pith gets discarded, or used, these days, as fuel in some new kinds of furnaces. The salient point, rather, is age, and “new oil,” the just-pressed oil available only in October and November, is everyone’s passion. Even though we have our own olives, if we spot a bottle of new oil for sale before we get around to making ours, we’ll buy it without a split second’s hesitation. It’s too good not to.

Throughout the year, that neon green, delicately peppery, fresh-cut-grass-smelling oil has week by week, almost imperceptibly become a yellower, less zesty condiment with a muted, leafy aroma. The new oil is like a drug, and we halt all culinary projects, health programs and weekly meal routines to gorge on it.

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The Art of Eating

When I quit my job and moved to Italy in 2001, the resistant tradition of the three- or four-course evening meal was—for the first few months at least—an excuse to dedicate lots of time to cooking. In the back of a dusty cupboard in the seldom-used upstairs kitchen, I found an old yellowed cookbook, in which I searched futilely for cooking temperatures, until I realized that by “flame” the book referred to that of an actual fire.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from L’Arte di Mangiare Bene, by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891.spine of old book

Principles

“The act of cooking is a rascal: it often brings us to the brink of despair, but it also gives us pleasure, because when we succeed or overcome an obstacle, we feel so satisfied, we sing victory. Don’t trust cookbooks, especially not Italian ones.”

 Fried Artichokes

“This is an easy dish; yet, although it is hard to believe, not everyone knows how to make it. In some countries, the artichokes are boiled before being fried. Non va bene! In others they are drenched in a batter, which is not only unnecessary but robs this fruit of its natural taste. Here is the best method, the Tuscan one. The Tuscans, making enormous use and abuse of vegetables and herbs, cook them better than anyone else.”

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak, Florentine style) Continue reading The Art of Eating

Il Lord

“Our yard is on fire!” I yelled into the phone, over the sound of the helicopter swooping down to the swimming pool to fill its bucket.

“Does that mean you’ll be late for lunch?”

It did. A week earlier I had written to my neighbors, old English aristocrats, about their garden. Or about my garden, to be more accurate, with which I wanted their help. Their garden, open to the public and well known from coffee-table books, was reputedly a marvel of Italian Renaissance design, maniacally tended by four full-time gardeners, one of whose sister-in-law was my cleaning woman. Through her, I had sent them a note explaining my project—a redesign of our front lawn using only the flowers, herbs and shrubs found in Italy in the Middle Ages. I wanted their help and advice, but I was also secretly hoping to be offered a private tour of their grounds.

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