Tales of a wandering lesbian

Mangia!

When my family gets together, we spend our days largely eating, and talking about what we’re going to eat at the next meal. I have no idea if this is a uniquely Italian trait, or just something that follows me.

Today was a planning day. We don’t have dinner plans, so we talked at lunch about dinner. We’ll likely make “jacket potatoes” with a bag of potatoes that Sandra’s mom bought from the local fields.

Yesterday was an eating day. Sandra and Deb are putting together a very cool exhibition in the region (I’ll post as soon as info is online), and every few days they have meetings to talk about the project with potential contributors, sponsors, collaborators. Last night was a dinner meeting in Castelnuovo, just up the road in Garfagnana.

The restaurant/shop had exactly two tables: one long one that seated 10 of us (and a couple others who wandered by or transferred from the other table when their party broke up) and a second one that could probably fit 6 if it needed to. We were first to arrive, and seated ourselves in front of three great slabs of wood placed as chargers. The first of Deb and Sandra’s friends arrived, and I was introduced half in Italian, half in English, as the English-speaking visitor. We all smiled at each other, traded what pleasantries we knew in each other’s languages, and then I sat back to observe and soak up as much Italian as possible. As others arrived, the routine repeated itself.

Observing

Being the only one at the table who doesn’t speak the language is one thing. I, apparently, seem the deep, exotic observer, snapping pictures, and not the mildly thoughtful, painfully self-aware outsider that I sometimes feel. Bonus. Adding to that the fact that I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t drink alcohol, and doesn’t usually drink coffee or eat sugar, and I’m like someone from Mars. Especially in a shop that has legs of dried meats hanging in the corner.

Fortunately, my hostesses are very kind, very thoughtful women, and they made sure that the shop owner knew I am vegetarian. I’d been looking forward to the type of meal that we were about to have – one where the owner of the shop just starts bringing food, plate after plate, specialty after specialty. And, this shop specializes in local dishes. Sacks of local potatoes and walnuts sat in heaps around the shop, and bottles of wine, honey and all other manner of things lined the walls.

PotatoesWall of honeyWall of spices

The shop owner, a man who clearly loved his work, and looked remarkably like the painting of Baccus on his wine cask, came over to speak with me in broken English about what, exactly, I do and don’t eat. Once we established ground rules (no fish, but yes cheese), he set to preparing dinner. First came focaccia. No, not like the kind in the states. Much, much better. Then a plate of farro (spelt) which is a regional staple.

Farro

This was prepared with oregano, olive oil, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. It was really, really good. The meat eaters also had some kind of fish salad.

Second came smoked trout, lovingly carved at the table and passed from friend to friend.

Carving troutTrout

Every dish, even those I wasn’t eating were proudly explained to me, with questions of whether I was familiar with the ingredients; whether we have trout where I come from.

Next came beans on squares of delicious, toasted bread. The olive oil that was drizzled over the beans was intense and beautifully colored. As seems to happen at meals, the surplus food ended up next to the visitor. That meant not only extra beans for me, but access to the plate with gorgeous, green olive oil – perfect for more focaccia.

Beans!

Then, two fantastic “cakes,” one with rice and one with spelt. Lovely and eggy and savory. Again these ended up at my end of the table for far too long. (Side note: last time I was here, I realized on the last day, that the fabulous pastries I had been eating in the mornings were made with rice. Rice is used in a ton of dishes. After eating the rice pastries, I feel like it’s really underutilized in the states.)

Farro and rice cakes

The owner then came by to make sure I was alright. He let me know that he would be preparing vegetables and then “pop beans” to make sure that I would get enough to eat – you know, because I was really feeling underfed at this point. Evidently my athletic frame is cause for great concern to most of the people who feed me. “Anchora? Anchora!” is a familiar phrase at meal time. “More? More!” Pop beans are something like pop corn Nobody else at the table knew what the owner was talking about, but we were all game to try something new.

The vegetables were beautiful. They included artichokes, which are known to be some of the best in the world, as well as fennel (which is something I never know what to do with when it comes in the harvest box. Turns out it is fabulous sliced, with a little olive oil and salt).

Veggies

And then it was on to the pop beans. These were excellent. I don’t really know what he did to make them, but they were definitely “popped” open and contained a good amount of olive oil. They were a hit.

Pop Beans

After pop beans came a great wood slab of salami, sliced from various hunks of meat that still resembled the animals from which they came. And cheese. Everyone else, transfixed by the meats, passed on the cheese. I tried to decline, but Deb and Sandra know that I love cheese, and the owner wasn’t going to let me out of his shop without sampling his fabulous cheeses. Here’s a side-by-side. I really think I got the better deal.

SalamiCheese!

The cheeses included a mozzarella coated in local herbs, a misto (cow and sheep milk together), and a couple of other sheep’s milk cheeses: one with balsamic reduction and one with something that resembled marmalade. These went perfectly with the several different kinds of bread on the table – including pane coto nel forno a legna.

Along the way, the table had several carafes of red wine poured from big bottles, and small amounts of an amber dessert wine.

As for dessert, we had an assortment of fantastic things. A chocolate cheesecake, some kind of pound cake that might have made me a bit tipsy, and the best thing: a nochi torta. Walnut torte. The walnuts were so delicate and the torte so fresh, I was totally absorbed.

Dessert

From the other end of the table, where he was now sitting and smoking with the ladies, the owner caught my eye and asked whether I enjoyed the desserts. “Bella, i noci.” “Anchora, more!” he declared, over my objections, and the plate was passed down to my end again.

While we ate and drank, Sandra explained her project. Given over to the confidence that only comes with being surrounded by supportive friends, she smiled, joked, and commanded great attention. It’s amazing what you can understand even when you can’t comprehend. Sandra’s passion and vision were palpable – as were the enthusiasm and admiration in the room.

People continued to chatter, excited about the project, as the owner walked around the table, humming “here comes the bride” and handing out little, paper-wrapped bon-bons that he pulled from his apron pocket. He reminded me of an Italian Hagrid.

Dai-dai

Coated in delicate dark chocolate, these little gems were an absolutely perfect end to areally great night of food. We had been eating for over two hours. We didn’t just sit and snack, we ate – for two hours. When we got home it was almost midnight – and time to plan for breakfast.

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4 comments

1 Brenda { 11.06.09 at 4:40 pm }

Outstanding food writing! Can you bring recipes back with you? I have a lot of terrific walnuts harvested from LeeAnn’s trees, and don’t really know what to do with them. And you’re so right – most Americans don’t use the many amazing flours and grains available, like tapioca flour and farro. Mmmmm…maybe farro with roasted pumpkin and sauteed hedgehog mushrooms for dinner tonight!

2 Frank { 11.06.09 at 6:31 pm }

Wow! You are among the few vegetarians ever to dine at Andrea’s Vecchio Mulino (“Old Mill”), which is generally regarded as a carnivore’s paradise. But a very fussy one — everything (the cheeses too) must be of certified traditional origin and production. Andrea, incidentally, is one of the founding fathers of the celebrated Italy’s Slow Food Movement, which has been imported all over the world in the past decade.

3 KFlick { 11.06.09 at 6:52 pm }

Fantastic! It was clear that it was a very special place, but nobody clued me into exactly how special (except to say “this is the best place in Garfagnana”.

It was certainly a treat, and Andrea was wonderful.

4 Contenta | Mid Leap { 11.12.09 at 9:37 am }

[…] for Deb and Sandra while they’re on vacay.  Their son, Tom and I chatted a bit, planned for tonight’s meal, and went to sleep. I’m amazed at how quickly I’ve come to think of my little mattress […]

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