Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Daily Life at an Agriturismo in Piedmont

View of Monforte D'Alba
It's been fascinating to live and work with an Italian family, especially one that owns and operates a winery and restaurant in one of the most prominent wine regions of Italy; Piedmont.

Daily life at La Torricella is busy, with everyone in the family and other hired help playing a part. The many roles and hands that it takes to run the agriturismo are like parts of a motor that all perform a specific task and together operate an efficient machine. They have figured out how to live a simple life together, growing vegetables and grapes, producing world class wines, operating a 120 seat, gourmet restaurant and running a cozy B&B. People near and far come to taste their wine and enjoy a delicious meal in this serene and beautiful setting in the heart of wine country. I've been lucky enough to spend a month "behind the scenes" and learn their secrets to success!\

Generally, the work day doesn't start before 9am (except for Grandpa Diego who gets up early and goes out to work the vineyards). There is also someone who comes in early to set up the breakfast buffet for guests by 8:30, but other than that the mornings are pretty quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I accidentally set off the alarm one morning when I stepped into the restaurant kitchen at the reasonable hour of 7:30!

I am not necessarily a creature of habit, although my mornings tend to be more sacred and routine. Generally it looks a bit like this: I naturally wake up with the morning sun shining in my room through the glass French doors that face east. I ease my way out of bed and onto my yoga mat for some easy stretches to wake up my muscles. (My travel yoga mat is one of my favorite items that I packed in my suitcase this year). Once my body starts to wake up I step out onto the balcony to breathe in the crisp morning air, which has been warmer than usual this fall. The hills of Piedmont are often draped in a layer of fog in the morning, which burn off by the afternoon. Other mornings are clear, and I am treated to a view of the soft rolling hills and the family's vineyard and hazelnut trees. On the ridge in the distance I can see the small town of Roddino, with its tall church reaching up to the sky.

La Torricella hazelnut trees

By 8am I tiptoe out of the big house so as not to disturb anyone. The family of 11 (grandparents, 4 children and their partners and 2 grandchildren) all live under one roof. The 3 story house is divided into 4 separate apartments, 3 detached bedrooms/bathrooms (one that I am temporarily occupying), a storage room and a workshop. I walk across the little courtyard, say hello to the puppies, and open the big wooden door to the winery. I take my time here as I walk past the big stainless steel fermentation tanks, where simple grape juice is transformed into the sublime libation known to us as wine and to Italians as vino. This room, as well as the cellar with the wine aging in oak barrels, hold a bit of magic for me, and it feels surreal to be in these special rooms alone. I slowly make my way across the fermentation room to the other door that leads me to the staircase and up to the reception area and bar. There I find the second most magical thing in the building: The espresso machine! I fix myself a small but strong cappuccino and then enter the big restaurant kitchen and help myself to a bit of whatever my heart and stomach desire (from a selection of handmade cakes, cookies, breads, jams, yogurt, fruit, granola, fresh eggs, etc...). I make my selection and sit down at the dining table in the break room to sip my cappuccino and study Italian. I find that mornings are the best time for me to study, when my brain is the most receptive to new information. It's a wonderful start to the day.

Between 9-10am Alessandra is in the kitchen, Francesco is in reception, and Oscar is in the office. The housekeeper is in the big laundry room and their morning worker is tidying up the dining room. Soon more kitchen staff show up to help Alessandra prep. Grandpa Diego works out in the vineyard and Silvia is in the winery. Emanuele (the three year old) is in school in the morning and by 11am he is bouncing around from one place to the next. His curiosity leads him to learn all kinds of new things at the agriturismo.

Emanuele helping to seal the magnums

My role is most similar to Emanuele: I bounce around, poking my nose into a bit of everything and help out when I can. Some mornings I help translate and edit wine tech sheets and other promotional things for the agriturismo. Other days I have helped in the kitchen, prepping veggies, pies and bread for the weekend. Sometimes I just chat with Francesco, helping him with his English while he helps me with my Italian. I often take little Eleanora in her stroller and we walk along the dirt road among the vines until she falls asleep. I sometimes bring their nice camera with me and shoot amateur photos of the garden and vines (and Eleanora). This time of year there isn't too much exciting going on in the winery, but I did help out in the bottling room, labeling bottles using the conveyor belt that can label 1000 bottles per hour. 

On the weekends I often help out in the kitchen, or sometimes in the dining room. One Saturday, we catered a big party and I operated the hand crank meat slicer which made my arm sore for days. Another day I played barista for a group of Italians just finishing lunch. This was probably the one time I felt in my element, having had so much experience as barista at Raider Ridge Cafe. It was fun to take orders in Italian and whip up espressi and caffè macchiati (espresso with a dollop of milk foam). Sometimes I help give tours of the winery in English and once I gave a wine tasting in Italian to a young couple from nearby Torino. They jovially engaged with me and were very forgiving of my butchered Italian.

Each day seems to be a new adventure and I've still had ample time to explore on my own. On a nice day I love zipping around on the electric bicycle, visiting nearby towns and winding my way up and down the quiet roads.
Silvia and Emanuele getting the bottles ready to be labeled

Happy Eleanora

Diano D'Alba
Castiglioni Falleto church
The road to Diano d'Alba
Life is easy cruising on the electric bicycle!
The road to Dogliani

No matter what people are getting into each day, everyone takes a lunch break at 1pm until at least 2pm. Lunches are always shared together at nonnas house, with all three generations gathering around the table. It's always a hot meal, served family style with several big dishes placed on the table in courses. Usually we start with pasta, risotto, gnocchi or soup, followed by a meat dish (anything from veal cuts to rabbit to fish or liver) and a veggie dish (generally sauteed carrots and spinach or cardoons and maybe potatoes). Bread and bread sticks are scattered atop the table on the fresh tablecloth, as well as freshly grated Parmesan, glass liters of water and a liter of red table wine (that usually only nonno and nonna drink). At the end of the meal either warm chestnuts or an assortment of cheeses and homemade jam made from grape must are set out on the table. Nonna and I like to have our coffee after lunch so she prepares espresso for us and anyone else who requests it.
Typical lunch scene at nonna's house

Birthday celebration with hot chocolate, chestnuts, wine and chocolate chip cookies (my American contribution)
The meal tends to be half business meetings, half family discussions. There is business talk, arguments, laughter, bickering, silliness and crying (among the babies) and a comfort that only families share. Other than the small talk, much of their discussions are beyond my comprehension and I just get the gist of what is being discussed. When discussions get heated and voices get louder (which has been the case recently with some huge financial decisions that need to be made) I feel a little uneasy. I was not raised in a house with yelling and I'm not used to it. My Italian friend Simone, who is one of the gentlest human beings I know, laughed about this and assured me that passionate arguments are just so very Italian and nothing to be afraid of. It's true that no one ever leaves in a huff. In fact, even if the conversation gets really heated it always calms down and then becomes family time, with coffee or playing with the babies or just relaxing on the couch before heading back to work. Perhaps this comfort and ease of communication is their secret to success. I sometimes envy the life they all share, together as a family. Whereas my family gets together for a family meal just a handful of times a year, they eat together daily. They find it crazy that I live 6 hours away by car from my family. "You could go all the way to Rome in 6 hours! Heck, you could cross Switzerland and get to Germany in that time!" I've tried explaining to them that relative to some of my friends who have to fly to visit their parents, I am not so far away; I'm in the same state, even. They can hardly imagine the expansiveness of the United States. I can hardly imagine driving to my parents house and ending up in Germany!

The late afternoons and evenings around here are somewhat quiet, and I often wander off to go for a walk and gaze at the sun setting.

Alessandra and Francesco and I eat dinner with the kitchen staff and then the restaurant opens for guests at 8pm. During the week, the restaurant isn't as busy, but I am becoming comfortable with everyone in the kitchen and it's fun for me to hang out with them and give a hand when needed. By the time dinner is over and everything is cleaned up, it may be as early as 10:30pm or as late as 1:30am. (No wonder they sleep in later than 7:30). On Tuesdays, everything is closed and they all enjoy some rest. I've been invited to join them on several outings, once to the beach, visits to other wineries and dinner at Francesco's brothers' restaurant in the cute town of Alba.  Everyone works really hard March through December. Then in January and February everything closes down and they can rest or take vacations. Perhaps this two month break is another success secret. Mostly, I think they are successful because they do what they love and they do it well, as a team. What a simple and beautiful concept.

Walking the streets in downtown Bra

Visiting a highly respected Barolo producer: Domenico Clerico
Domenico Clerico Cellar
Ligurian coast from the town of Finale
Night out on the town in Alba with Francesco, Alessandra and kids

Francesco's three brothers who own a restaurant in Alba invited us into the kitchen after our meal

Introducing the family and staff to all-American pancakes
An evening celebration in the kitchen

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lions, Tigers and Waiting Tables in Italy, Oh My!

I'm becoming more comfortable in the kitchen, learning what goes where and helping out when needed. I sometimes roll out pasta and bread or put away wine glasses and set up the tables in the dining room. I've even had more practice plating appetizers and desserts during dinner rushes. Then yesterday a curve ball was thrown at me. As I was falling into a blissful trance while running the tagliatelle verde through the pasta machine, Francesco entered the kitchen and asked me if I would be willing to wait tables for a large group in the afternoon. "Me?! Wait tables? Here? For Italians??!!" Not only do I have a bit of a phobia for waiting tables in general, but waiting tables in a language I barely speak??  God help me! The thought alone is terrifying! I've made it a point, however, to help out here in any way I can, especially since they have been so generous and kind to me. So I gulped down my fear and managed to smile and say "Certo" (Certainly). He suggested that I have lunch with the staff and then change into some nicer clothes. I could feel my anxiety building as I quickly ate my gnocchi and when I went to my room to change I had to do some breathing exercises to calm myself down. "Breath in, 1-2-3, breath out, 3-2-1, breath in, 1-2...oh hell, it's time to go!"

I scurried back to the restaurant and people were already flooding in, ready for their traditional Piedmontese lunch, which would be served by this so un-Italian gringa girl! "Oh Dio mio!" (Oh Lordy!). 

One of the other servers spotted me and directed me to put glass bottles of still and sparkling water and bread baskets on all the tables. We would be serving a group of 45, all at the same time. It would be a multi-course meal (with 2 antipasti, 2 primi, 1 secondo, dessert and coffee). To my relief, everyone would be served the same dishes. I helped open bottles of Dolcetto and Chardonnay and placed them on each of the tables. 

On the menu were pastries filled with local goat cheese and herbs, Swiss Chard flan with fondue, hazelnut ravioli, tajarin with ragu, braised shredded beef, roasted potatoes and cardoons in olive oil. For dessert they were served a taste of chocolate pudding cake, frozen parfait and pears cooked in spiced wine. Everything was made by hand and artistically plated.

The setting was beautiful; it was a bright and sunny fall day and they were seated in the solarium room, with panoramic views of the landscape. Everyone seemed to be in a jovial mood and I learned that they were part of a group from the nearby town of Doliani, all celebrating their 50th birthdays this year. "Maybe this will be fun!" I thought to myself. 

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the sisters and other staff were working rapid-fire and had 45 plates of antipasti ready to be taken out. Together, with another server I brought out the first dishes to the awaiting diners. We performed 5 rounds of serving new plates and clearing away the old ones. I felt a rush of energy as I made the rounds back and forth, even helping some in the main dining room which was also packed full. At one point a woman asked me to bring her a "strezzacudenti". What the heck could this be? I repeated the word in my head until I found Oscar and asked him what in the world is a strezzacudenti?? He laughed and handed me the toothpicks. I triumphantly placed the toothpicks on the table for the woman who looked pleased and gave me a reassuring, "Grazie" with a pleasant smile.  

The mood in the entire restaurant was festive and cheerful. Coming here for lunch is a full day's event. Everyone took their time and didn't seem to want to leave. The table of men who were first in line to receive each course cheered every time I would come to their table to deliver the next dish. What a fun group to wait on! Between each course, guests would get up to visit other tables, go outside to take in the view or sometimes take a smoke break (it's so Italian to take a smoke break in the middle of a long meal). There was lots of chatter and laughter all around and everyone seemed to be appreciating this time with friends in a beautiful setting with delicious food. There is a common expression in Italy that says, "a tavola, non si invecchia", which means "at the table, one does not age". Perhaps this is why they take their time with each meal, savoring their food and enjoying their company. By the time we had finished serving coffee (which is a shot of espresso that comes after dessert), 3 hours had already passed. Even after this, most guests stayed another hour, this time standing, some walking over to the little bar to try the grappa, or walking around the grounds to take in the beautiful afternoon. 

Two little girls from another group came up to me and asked if we have gelato. I was happy to tell them that indeed we do, which made them very excited. When I started naming off the flavors and got to "ciocolato" they began jumping up and down. Chocolate it is! After delivering the scoops of Francesco's homemade chocolate gelato (which come with a handmade cookie) they politely asked if they could each have one more cookie. I enjoyed serving these cute little guests and they must have enjoyed getting what they asked for from me, because before they left they asked for some grissini (breadsticks) to go. This is a bit of a strange request but they were so cute and this was so much fun so I happily obliged. As the afternoon was wrapping up a few guests took an interest in me (realizing by now that I am obviously not from here). They asked me all sorts of questions about where I was from, how long I am staying here, etc. (By now I have this small talk mastered and I could carry on these little interactions as I began putting away clean wine glasses in their case). Beyond these simple conversations, however, I quickly get lost. 

Back in the kitchen I enjoyed a relaxed moment with the staff, tasting the different courses that had been prepared followed by cake and bubbles. Even in the kitchen the mood was light and cheerful. I felt so happy to be part of the team. 

That night, as I reflected on this new personal feat, I realized that everything I am experiencing here is just a normal day for everyone else. I think that's what I love most about being here though. It's this inside look into the Italian life and culture that I find exciting. For me, this is the adventure! 

Monday, November 9, 2015

To the Market with Nonna!

Yesterday I went to the outdoor market with Nonna Rosanna. I was so excited that she invited me to go along with her. The 10K drive to Dogliani was spectacular! Fall has fully set in and the colorful leaves on the grape vines have created a beautiful mosaic. Nonna explained how you can differentiate the different grapes in the fall based on the color of their foliage: Dolcetto grape vines are more red in color while the nebbiolo grapes (used to make Barolo) are yellow and barbera are green. Together they create a colorful patchwork up and down the steep hillsides. It felt as though we were driving through a painting as we followed the narrow, winding road through the vineyards. We wound our way up to the crest of the highest hill and then down into the valley to the town of Dogliani. 

Dogliani is known for producing soft and quaffable red wine made from Dolcetto grapes. It also hosts various markets, fairs and events, generally based upon the agricluture of the area. Outdoor venders line the streets with various things for sale, from local cheeses, meats and chestnuts to clothes and household products. Going with nonna, I was able to witness first hand all of her (very Italian) interactions with friends and merchants. She seems to know just about everyone! When she crossed paths with friends, pleasantries, handshakes and kisses on both cheeks were exchanged. Personal space (among other things) is much smaller here than what we're used to in the U.S. I really like this part of their culture: it reminds me of being a little girl and huddling close with my friends to whisper secrets. This extra closeness brings a sense of warmth and confront that I think is sometimes missing when there is too much distance between people while talking.

We browsed the different items for sale; She introduced me to the cheese farmer who delivers the artisan cow and goat cheeses to the agriturismo. Nearby, the aroma of roasted chestnuts filled the air. I spotted the vender who was scooping the hot little morsels into paper bags for the small crowd surrounding him. (Nearly every evening Nonna cooks fresh chestnuts on the stove to have as a dessert after lunch and dinner. She and Nonno showed me how to peel them like a pro and they are now one of my favorite treats. Their sweet nutty flavor make them a really nice snack or dessert and Nonno claims that they are excellent with red wine.) 

I loved watching Nonna pick out a pair of pants for Nonno. After finding the right size, she scrutinized the fabric, laying it out it and running her fingers over all the seams to make sure it didn't have any flaws. She talked with the merchant, held them up to get a look from a different angle, then put them back down, looking closely at each pant leg. Then she folded the cuffs where she would be sewing them at home to shorten the length, the whole time talking with the merchant on and on about this particular pair of pants. After holding them up a final time, she gave the approval that it is a worthy purchase and folds them neatly to place in her bag that she brought. She paid the merrchant, who by now seemed to be her friend after having talked for so long (Italians have the ability to talk at length about anything). 

As we walked around I noticed that everyone, whether old or young, was dressed up nicely with stylish clothes. Women wear nice boots and beautifu sweaters or stylish jackets with scarves and sometimes hats. Men generally also wear nice shoes, caps and scarves. I don't know why men in the US are so afraid of scarves...they look good! Not to mention they work wonders at keeping you warm on a cold day. Looking around at the clothes for sale, I could see why everyone was dressed so nice. Everything for sale was stylish! Since it's cooling down here, I bought myself some warm clothes: a warm scarf, a cashmere sweater, a nice blouse for working at the restaurant/winery and a pair of thick stocking tights. Nonna went through her inspection ritual for every item I purchased and seemed particularly interested in the 3 Euro stocking tights. I could see that she also wanted a pair so I bought them both and we now have matching green tights! She was so touched that I bought them for her that she showed them off to the whole family when we returned home. She also treated me to a marocchino (A Piedmont coffee drink made with a shot of espresso, cocoa powder or nutella and milk froth; yum!) Just a typical shopping day in Piedmont is a cultural adventure for this American girl!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Inside 'La Cucina Italiana' (The Italian Kitchen)

This weekend I got to experience what it's like to work in a busy Italian kitchen! I helped prep the cakes and pasta in the morning when it was quiet and calm and then came back during the evening when the kitchen was busy with 7+ cooks. I helped a little bit everywhere, from plating and garnishing the dishes, preparing bread baskets and plating the desserts. It was exciting to be part of all the action and controlled chaos! I was impressed by everyone's patience with me, even during a huge rush (110 people dining!). They allowed me to observe as well as participate. I kept thinking how much Jarrod would LOVE this! When he and I eat out he is always curious about the operations of the kitchen. (And if he has a view into the kitchen I can forget about him paying any attention to what I say; unless of course it's about the kitchen!)  How ironic that it was me who found myself in the center of a busy, authentic Italian kitchen. I made sure to snap a few photos to send to him (which I am now sharing with all of you). 
Grissini time! We made an assembly line to whip out a huge batch of rosemary breadsticks.

Grissini were originally invented in Piedmont at the end of the 17th century to help Duke Vittorio II with his digestive issues!

Handmade pasta time! While Michele was working on tajarin pasta (made with egg yolks), I sliced the tagliatelle verde 

I have never worked in a restaurant kitchen, so I was fascinated by the way that everyone had their own tasks, but also worked together, moving to another station when needed and shouting things out so everyone could hear. (In fact the only person who sees the hand-written tickets is Alessandra, the head chef, who shouts out what the order is and everyone gets to work.) They are focused and efficient, but they also joke around, talk to each other and work together as a team.  I love this laid back mentality that is so typical of Italians. "Non c'e fretta" (no rush) is a common expression used in Italy and it's true that no one seems to be in a hurry. This doesn't mean that you wait forever to get your food when you are dining. Part of the Italian dining experience is all the different courses that come out at just the right time. (Rather than one plate with everything on it, you are served each dish on a different plate and at different times.) This prolongs the meal and allows you to savor each dish at the right time. In my opinion it also keeps the dinner exciting! When guests first sit down they are treated to a taste of La Torricella Chardonnay and an amuse buche (party in your mouth) to wet the appetite. Last night it was a handmade meatball with local veal and veggies from the garden. Then out comes the bread (focaccia, baguette and grissini breadsticks, all handmade). This is all before the antipasti (appetizer) even comes out! A common antipasti in Piedmont is vitello tonnato, which is thinly sliced veal served cold with a thick and creamy tuna sauce and capers on top. You will also often see "carne cruda" (raw ground meat), which is surprisingly really tasty and does not make you sick. (The meat here is very high quality). One of my personal favorites from La Torricella is Crostata di Zucca, which is a savory pumpkin torte made with the pumpkins from their garden and local cheese. 
Vitello tonnato and carne cruda

Handmade pie crust with cooked pumpkin and local cheese makes a delicious appetizer

Out comes the Crostata di Zucca! 
After the antipasti comes the primi, which is usually pasta or risotto. A good Italian kitchen will hand make their pasta everyday, as I have witnessed (and contributed to) at La Torricella. A classic favorite is meat ravioli with a sage and butter sauce. Another popular Piedmont dish is Tajarin, which is thin pasta made with egg yolks and topped with either meat ragu or (when in season) freshly shaved truffles!
Ragu simmering (rabbit stewing in the other pot)

Black and white truffles brought to the restaurant directly by the truffle hunters

You only need a little bit shaved atop your pasta for big flavor (and big bucks: 1 serving of white truffle adds around 30 Euros)

If you saved room for the secondi (second course) you have your choice of veal, rabbit or perhaps chingiale (wild boar) that has been braising all morning until it's tender. For veggies, roasted potatoes and cardi are common here. (Cardi is 'cardoon' or 'artichoke thistle' in English and it looks like giant celery and can be eaten raw or cooked. Baked with beshemel sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan is oh so good!) You really have to be mindful of how much you eat with each course, otherwise by the time the delicious stewed meat comes out you will be full!
Piedmont is very meat-heavy. Nothing vegetarian on the stove here!

If you do it right, you will also save room for the dolci (dessert), which are all handmade by the sister who is a physical therapist during the week and pastry chef on the weekends. Also, no Italian meal is complete without a caffe (espresso). You could combine the two and order an Affogatto (homemade gelato topped with espresso). And if you really don't want the night to end, you then order grappa (brandy made from distiller grape pummace). The whole affair will generally last 3+hours. 
A selection of hazelnut cake, chocolate cake and frozen Parfait'
I think that since there are so many courses there is not as much of a rush in the kitchen. But don't get me wrong, there is still A LOT of action and excitement, especially with all those dishes going out! 
So many hands contribute to each delicious dish going out
Since I was mostly helping to plate the dolci, I didn't get very busy until 11:30pm. Did I mention that Italian dinners can be LONG?? In Italy, dinning doesn't start until after 8pm (and no Italian will show up before 8:30). Most restaurants in Italy are closed between lunch and dinner so there is ample time to prep without distraction. The best part is that everyone in the kitchen sits down to eat together before opening (at a reasonable 7pm). The same happens at lunch time (we eat around noon, before lunch guests arrive at 1pm). I love this concept and it works well here because Italians are pretty regimented when it comes to eating times. Lunch is always at 1pm and if you show up too early or too late restaurants will be closed. If you show up to have dinner before 8pm you will be turned away because the staff is eating and they are not ready for you. This is so different from most restaurants in the states that will usually stay open between lunch and dinner for people who want a late lunch or early dinner. This means that staff have to sit (or stand) alone to get something to eat and may not even get to eat at all (which was the case when I worked the 4-close shift at a restaurant in Durango. (Ironically, it's an Italian restaurant!) In Italy, not eating is not an option. No matter what your role is, everyone makes sure that everyone eats (and generally something delicious is prepared especially for the staff). "Mangia, mangia!" is what I hear most often: (eat, eat!). "Con piacere!" (with pleasure!).