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


  1. Beautiful places! You must visit Puerto Rico also. Good Luck!

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