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!). 

Monday, November 2, 2015

When Your Dreams Land Right in Your Lap...

I was ecstatic to find out that I would be guiding bicycle tours in my favorite wine region in the world this fall: Piedmont, Italy. I've been infatuated with Piedmont ever since I started studying wine, learning about different regions and tasted my first Barolo. (Yes, it leaves that much of an impression!). In fact, before I was even hired to lead bicycle tours I looked over the Backroads itinerary in Piedmont at least a dozen times, dreaming about living and working in the magical land of wine. Less known by travelers, this region produces the most highly revered wines in Italy (Barolo is the king), as well as rich, decadent food (think handmade breads and pastas, stewed meat, local cheeses, porcini mushrooms and fresh truffles! Oh, and CHOCOLATE! Lots and lots of chocolate! Even Nutella was born here! As well as enticing my palate, Piedmont is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with steep rolling hills covered in vineyards and hazelnut trees and hilltop towns with beautiful churches, castles and towers. As if this wasn't enough, all this beauty is surrounded by the massive Alps that are capped with snow as early as September. It's not overrun by tourists and the biking here in incredible. Last year, after working in Tuscany, Jarrod and I toured Piedmont and I wrote about the intoxicating Barolo wine here.  
View of Serralunga D'Alba in September

Castle/Wine Museum/Cantina in the town of Barolo
While leading my first trip in Piedmont, I met a wonderful family that owns a winery and agriturismo (a B&B/working farm). This particular agriturismo, called La Torricella, has 12 hectares (roughly 30 acres) of wine grapes, which they use to produce Barolo, barbera, dolcetto, chardonnay and riesling. (All some of my favorite wines). Additionally, they have a beautiful restaurant, where they serve up traditional handmade Piedmont dishes. The agroturismo is fairly small, with just 8 rooms, but the restaurant can seat up to 120 people, and they also host weddings and other events for larger groups. The location is in the heart of Barolo country, perched up high with views of the rolling, vineyard-strewn Langhe hills. 

On our Backroads trip we take guests here to tour the cantina and to have dinner. On my first trip, I stammered my way through translating the tour of how they make their wine, but was very enthusiastic as I discovered with our guests all the ins and outs of their cellar. When it came time to taste, I was even more excited and impressed by their production. My co-leader and I were chatting with Francesco, the husband of one of the sisters who is part of the original family. He mentioned that he would like to find someone to stay with them for a while at the agriturismo and give tours of their cellar and help them with their English. He said that they would provide room and board in exchange. My co-leader nudged me with a "Hello, Tracy, this is your cue!" kind of look. (He knows how much I love Piedmont). Francesco picked up on this and asked if I would be interested in coming back after the season ends with Backroads to stay with them for a while. It took me a second to realize that my dream had just landed right in my lap. Could I really do this? I don't have a return ticket home yet  and I was planning to travel a bit after the season ends...But this...THIS opportunity would be even better! I didn't say yes right away because I wanted to see what Jarrod thought first. (Let's not forget that I AM married after all!) Also, do I really want to come back in cold November to a place that is in the hills, away from everything? When Jarrod came out to visit we rode our bikes to the agroturismo to stay for a couple nights and get a feel for it. After riding out there a storm rolled in, and we woke up to pouring rain. Francesco handed me the keys to the family car and told us to go enjoy ourselves. We were awed by his generosity and trust. Although it was a cold and wet visit, we ate and drank well and enjoyed getting to know Francesco more. We also learned more about the family and toured the facilities, down to the kitchen (Jarrod's favorite) and "my" private room with a balcony and bathroom (with a huge bathtub!). Jarrod basically told me that I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity. He is so supportive of my dreams, even when it separates us. So...I said yes! After bike touring in Puglia with Jarrod, and then a crazy staff ride in Tuscany with 350 of my co-leaders, I was on a train back up to Piedmont.... 
Francesco's brother in law Danielle, whom I had never met before, graciously picked me up from the train station in Bra and we had a nice (but simple) conversation as we wound our way up into the beautiful Langhe hills. Autumn has set in here and the colors of the vineyards are vibrant reds, yellows and orange. A couple of times as we were talking we both just stopped to gasp and admire the view. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was able to hold a conversation in Italian (albeit choppy and simple). There is a Piemontese dialect here that is mostly spoken by older generations though some words are still used in everyday language. Besides that, I have noticed that Italian is spoken very clearly in Piedmont and it is easier for me to understand than in other regions further south. 
View of La Torricella vineyards

Quiet road winding through La Torricella vineyards
Danielle told me that there was a wedding today at the agroturismo. They would be having their ceremony on the grounds, then lunch and return for dinner. When we arrived it was around 4pm and the parking lot was overflowing with cars and even a big tour bus. We pulled up and Danielle walked me into the restaurant to see if we could find Francesco. There were so many people, some still eating and drinking, others walking around, checking things out, others just talking. Bartenders were still opening bottles of wine and there was movement everywhere. It was all very festive and exciting. I met Francesco's brother-in-law Oscar, who seems very friendly and jovial. I wanted to take part in all the actioin and asked what I could do to help but he laughed and told me to relax and settle in first. 

So I did. I came up to my room and sat out on my little balcony to skype with Jarrod. After that I took advantage of my huge bathtub! In the evening I met Nonna (Grandma) Roanna and Francesco's children: Emanuele, who is 3 and Eleonora who is 10 months. They are giggly and adorable and not at all shy at all around me. 
Aggiungi didascalia
Even babies eat pasta in Italy!

Soon, the sun went down and I could feel my stomach rumbling. Nonna Rosanna told me that I would have dinner at the restaurant with the staff and she offered to walk over with me. While she carried Eleonora, little Emanuele took my hand and lead the way up to the kitchen from the back entrance. Through the windows we could see one of the cooks laying out fresh pasta to dry.  We walked in and at least 10 cooks were busy getting ready for the huge dinner of 250 people. There was so much energy and movement, with steam from huge pots bubbling on the stovetop, fresh bread coming out of the oven, cured meats ready to be sliced, and fresh herbs getting prepped for garnish. It was quite the scene. I was impressed that with so much to do, they all took the time to greet me. All three sisters were there; Francesco's wife, Alessandra who is the head chef, Silvia who is the winemaker, and Annalisa who is a physical therapist during the week and pastry chef on the weekends. Their brother Oscar help serve tables and give tours of the winery on the weekends and travels a lot to promote the wine. Most importantly is Nonno (Grandpa) Diego, who started this whole thing. He tends to the grapes and the garden. I can see that he is a really hard worker, up early in the mornings and out in the fields all day. I love how everyone in the family has a specific role, but they also work together when it's busy. 
Michele making tagliatelle verdi 

Francesco, Alessandra and Emanuele keeping an eye on things in the kitchen
I was led into the back room to eat dinner with the staff. We served ourselves lunch leftovers that were set out. (Leftovers at the restaurant mean handmade pasta with ragu or hazelnut pesto, local beef that has been stewing all day, roasted rabbit and carrots, grilled veggies from the garden in b├ęchamel sauce and fresh baked focaccia.) It was all so flavorful and delicious. While I ate my dinner slowly, about 3 rounds of cooks, waiters and other staff came and went, as they had a lot of work to do. I felt awkward just eating and not working but every time I asked if I could help they said "dopo" (Which means 'after' or 'later'). I'm not sure exactly how I will fit in here, and perhaps they aren't quite sure either. I yearn to find my role here too. However as I walk through the restaurant and down into the cantina and out into the vineyards, I feel so happy to be here. 

Diego, tending to the land