Beautiful memories, one of the best legacies a parent can bestow on a child, is a lifelong gift. The fondest memories of my youth are with family and friends around the dinner table. Our doors in Connecticut were always open, our table always welcoming, even to strangers needing companionship or nourishment. But one of my greatest memories, a most influential experience in my life, was when my parents took me to Abruzzo, Italy, in 1949, to visit my maternal grandparents.
When Jorge arrived to join me in Italy, I was having trouble getting our city water connected. Franco, my wonderful neighbor who was always there to solve my problems, suggested that I go to city hall and inform them that we can tentatively connect to his water line until we solve the problem. I considered it a good idea to send my husband off to city hall. Maybe if he became more involved in life in Italy he might learn to like the art of living Italian style. I was wrong. The meeting of two hours was not very helpful. He had to argue with the city planners since they said Franco did not have a house near us. My husband insisted being that he had just had coffee there that morning, A wink from one of the employees made him end the discussion. He returned to Franco for an explanation. Franco answered,“Oh, I forgot, I never did get permits when I build it. You can’t do that anymore, so sorry.”. Jorge looked at me and made no comment. He then went outside and looking up at the sky, with outstretched arms and cried out, “what am I doing here? Why Me God?”
Late one evening Franco came over shortly after Jorge had arrived in Tuscany asking for medical assistance with his bimbo. Bimbo in Italian refers to a young child. Franco kept pleading for assistance with “Dottore, Dottore mio Bimbo”, and being that I had spoken so highly of him, Jorge naturally went to his assistance. Four hours later, at 2 AM in the morning, I heard Jorge coming up the stairs to our bedroom, mumbling to himself. “What happened?” I asked. There was no immediate response. I felt sorry for him, exhausted and needless to say, showing signs of discuss with his wife who wanted to live in Italy. When I questioned, “Well how was your first Italian house call.?” He surprised me with his quiet and subdued voice as he explained how he just operated on his first horse. “Horse”? I asked, “Yes, that is his bimbo ( kid),” he explained. I had to turn my head on my pillow so that he would not see my giggling face. As he lied down on his back, hands outstretched to the ceiling, he repeated that often heard phrase,” Why Me God? “
A week before Thanksgiving I prepared small Cornish game hens for each of our 20 guests. As I removed the golden crusted small birds from the hot oven, one of our guests in the kitchen called to the others announcing they should come quickly to see the beautiful baby Italian turkeys. She turned to me and said that she never saw such small turkeys and asked, if I had been able to stuff them. ( I could not make this up)
The meat on the barbecue was perfectly cooked when Jorge received a call from a patient he did that morning. He almost forgot and left the meat to overcook when telling our guests, about the call. The patience asked him “ Dr, how cold should the cold compresses be? (how cold is ice?)
After performing a rhinoplasty, nose job, Jorge returned home to greet some guests laughing at what had occurred during surgery. He explained that as he hammered away to break the patient’s nasal bone, under anesthesia she answered every thump of his hammer with “” come in “ come in”.
Teaching how good ingredients are more important than measurements accept for some desserts, following a fruit tart class, I explained that any fruit could be used, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. That would determine the amount of sugar. A week later a woman called to ask why her lemon pie did not come out well, She cut the lemons just as I did the fruit and added lots of extra sugar. ( Guess I shouldn’t generalize)
Sweet butter is common in Europe, whereas in America, butter is usually salty for longer shelf life. For breakfast we often serve along with our sweet butter a cheese board of Italian artisan cheeses unfamiliar to most of our American guests. One morning a female guests apparently noticing my eyes focusing on her, possibly concerned at the quantity she was eating, turned to me and embarrassingly asked the name of the cheese she was devouring. I regretted to tell her, but since she asked, I informed her she had just consumed 3 ounces of butter.
Explaining to our cooking class the names of different produce at our local farmer’s market, it was hard for me to believe when explaining the popular Italian vegetable, escarole, the response from one of our attendees. “ Hard to believe how they can crawl”. My questioning look was answered when I realized she had confused escarole, the vegetable, with the slimmy, coiled shell molluscan, escargot. ( I could did not make this up.)
During a wedding service at the farm, in need of another potted plant to balance the aesthetics of the appetizer seafood table, I took a geranium off a window sill and put it on the table. When inviting one of the guests to the table, he took a glance and asked if we meant to serve the escargot uncooked. Glancing at the table, I noticed a family of escargot that wandered off of the geranium plant onto the linen table cloth and were about to visit the shrimp and lobster tail salads.
Our catering van being used for another event, I managed to go with one of our employees to an event we had to cater, in his old Mercedes that burned clouds of dark diesel fuel. Embarrassed of his smoking car, he parked a few houses away from our destination. As we walked to the house, apparently observed by our hostess, she approached us and asked, “how interesting, do you always do the cooking in that vehicle?” ( No she was not kidding.)
American weddings, from 10 to 300 guests, have taken place at Villa Lucia. All the arrangements are made leaving little for the bride to do besides invite the guests. Couples decide to get officially or unofficially married at Villa Lucia. Since my husband, Jorge, (doctor, butcher, wine maker and olive picker) is certified to legally marry couples, arrangements are made.
When a particular wedding party was about to arrive, I realized I had forgotten that Jorge would be absent while visiting his mother in Argentina. Not to concern the bridal couple, I took it upon myself to find ( a difficult task the last minute) someone who could give the ceremony in english. My search came fulfilled one day at our local farmers market when meeting our wonderful taxi driver that we call to service often being that he has some basic knowledge of english. He insisted he could not, would not, and certainly did not speak well enough. With his wife’s encouragement he finally accepted the challenge when suggested that I would give him the script to follow. He arrived early the wedding day, looking very dapper in his Italian custom made suit. Everyone was pleased with our preacher.
The next day as the guests prepared their departure from Villa Lucia, I naturally called my devoted reliable english speaking taxi driver. Seeing him approach our front gate, I realized too late what I had done. Before I could speak to him he had already greeted the guests with his usual, “ can I help you with your luggage?” The noisy farewells of guest, kissing, hugging, laughing, reminiscing of happenings of the week, suddenly turned silent as they looked over to our driver. They glanced at me, then at the driver, and then at the 8 inch high taxi plaque on his car, and silently approached the car without commenting. As they all settled in the car, looking over at me about to close the taxi door, one of the guests interrupted the silence commenting on how sad for the parish that a minister must supplement his income by driving a taxi. I had nothing to add but another guest added “ at lease we will be hitting the road with the Lord on our side”. The taxi took off with laughing guest, not allowing me time to explain, nor did I wish to, that Gian Piero was not a minister but a taxi driver.
Our first employees came to us 16 years ago, and they have become part of our family. Venerina ( little Friday, named for being born on Good Friday) our first housekeeper, is known for her perpetual friendly smile. Francesco, our security guard and hunter more serious in character, is always ready and willing to give a helping hand.
When a socialite asked if she could remove the bags of marshmallows in all the bathrooms when renting the house for a month, I did not quite understand what she meant. We dislike marshmallows and I have never seen them sold in Italy. In examining the bathrooms found it to be true. Questioning Venerina, she explained that she divided a big bag a guest left and divided them among the bathrooms. Why? She explained how she saw some guests remove make-up with them. No Venerina, I explained, they are not cotton balls, but eatable marshmallows. Happy she was able to laugh at here mistake but commented on how Americans eat the strangest things.
Francesco loves showing off his collection of guns to gun loving guests.
First or second to his guns, is his love of ladies.
Janet Newcomb brought a group from Palm Desert for a cooking class demonstrating the steps involved in making a good wild boar pasta sauce from the successful hunt to the dinner plate.
My love for the Italian artisans led me to my monthly blog being that many of them will soon be artisans of yesterday. When visiting them I am always sad to hear that youth may learn technique, but lack the passion of yesterday’s artisans. Alessandro Taccini, like his brothers, began making ceramics at age 12. The family bodega of 500 years may soon come to an end. Their children have learned the technique but they lack the passion to dedicate their life to this art.
Nino, one of the last copper artisans in Tuscany, learned his skills at age 12. Love and passion for his work, he claims, is why he continues to work at age 86. He speaks of his children who know technique but without passion he regrets will not continue this art when he is gone.
My mother at age 100 still can make pasta by hand as she did since the age of 8. She has taught me but I will never have the dexterity, speed, nor the love and passion to make it on a daily basis as she has done thought the decades. This too will become a lost art when mom and her peers are gone.
I am happy to write this month about artisans whose passion for their work will continue as it has for 1000 years in Modena, in the Emilia Romagna gastronomical regional of Italy. Most families in Modena continue as did their ancestors the art of making the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena. TBM. On one of our last class visits we were introduced to a newborn, and told he would be the 7th generation making this medicinal product in their Modena family.
This product should not be confused with the industrial made balsamic vinegar sold commercially. The similarity of these two products is only one. They are both made from grapes. The vinegar is made by fermenting grapes (wine made sour) and adding such additives as sugar, caramel, molasses or other unknown products to give it flavor and masquerade its color. It is not aged in wood barrels, and has become at times a substitute for soy sauce.
The authentic TBM condiment is made by cooking white trebbiano grapes in stainless steel or copper Calderon, with low heat, never boiled or burnt. The product becomes caramelized as it reduces to about 50%, rests for about 24 hours, and soon after starts its journey to becoming the reserved TBM, taking 12 or 25 years. The process involves placing the caramelized (saba) sweet and cool product into a batteria, a set of 5-7 working wooden barrels of different woods, of different sizes. Choice of woods depends on the maker, but popular woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and ash.
The biggest cask, usually oak, a hard wood, receives the new cooked must and begins the gradual acidification. The smallest cask is half emptied allowing the required annual refilling of cask from the biggest to the smallest barrel of different woods, giving off different flavors. To allow a little room for oxidation there is a small hole on the top of each barrel, the “bug”, which allows the saba to breathe and the maker to control the acidity.
This process takes place in well ventilated lofts or attics in private homes in Modena (called Acetaia) that provide the required contrasting climates to make the finished product. Heat speeds up the evolution and the cold slows it down and stabilizes it. A small percentage does evaporate while aging. Gentle heat allows the yeast and microorganisms to survive. The gradual acidification in the barrels changes the product from amber in color to ebony. The time required changes the sweet must into a condensed exotic combination of sweet and sour flavors.
After all these years, minimum of 12 to 25, to become classified as the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena, the finished product still must be tested and analyzed by a panel of expert judges before being allowed to be eligible to be put in the traditional, bulb-shaped like 3.5 ox bottle, recognized around the world as the reserved Traditionale Balsamico di Modena condiment. The 12 years product is recognized by its silver-white top and the 25 years by its gold colored top.Some acetaias may make a product in a minimum of 5 years, but they are recognized as a balsamic vinegar of Modena, therefore, to distinguish vinegars from the true balsamico one must look for the word traditionale balsamico di Modena with the DOC seal (denominazione, originale controllato) on the label. No two are alike due to differences in the production, use of woods and the skills of the maker. It is the only condiment in the world that is produced solely with the cooked grape musts with no additional additives.
It is only in Modena and Reggio Emilia where this product has been made through the centuries. It was first noted in 1046 as a product to alleviate childbirth pain followed by many other claims of medicinal cures. During the French Revolution it was auctioned off as a luxury item. In the 1800’s it was prized as a dowry for girls which is still practiced by many families in Modena today. It was Fini Federzoni of Modena that in 1912 made the first commercial product but still not that popular of an item. It was not until nouvelle cuisine in the 1980’s as chefs sought new flavors for the popular healthier cuisine that it became popular in the Western world. Today it can be used as a cordial, digestive drink and most popularly used by chefs of haute cuisine to use droplets of this expensive yet enriching flavor and taste to gourmet dishes.