Charles and Lindsey Shere Homepage


ITALY, October-November 2004
Part one of three     photographs accompanying these dispatches

1: Arrival
2: The Salone del Gusto
3: Terra Madre, 1
4: Terra Madre concluded
5: Bagna cauda
6: Agricultural school
7: Wines I have tasted
8: Highways and hotels
9: Pure heart and paranoia     on to part 2 of 3      on to part three

1: Arrival

Torino, Oct. 21 —

The flight over the Alps, delayed a half hour by morning fog across Europe, was short and spectacular, the fog breaking just as we crested those hard and angular peaks. The Alps, from the air, are more awesome than our Sierra Nevada, and I always wonder why. The effect was heightened (if the word may be used) by our altitude; we seemed to clear the peaks by no more than a few hundred feet. And while the snow was deep and nearly universal, the steepest slopes were bare, bare granite.

Then back into the fog except for one brief break revealing Italian farm country below. After landing and getting our beautiful blue Fiat Punto we drove out into that country, skirting fuel dumps and bleak airport villages and working girls and the town of Novara before hitting the toll road in the full open beauty of the Po Plain, which I always find somehow curiously attractive. It’s like part of me knows it from way back; it’s resonant; I feel at home there. Flat open country with meandering rivers, occasional stands of poplars, big three-storey farmhouse-barn combinations with tiled roofs, the walls pierced with grillages of roof-tiles, the same as those invariably roofing these handsome, utilitarian, stucco-over-brick buildings.

It was perfect country for fighting, back in Napoleonic times (and earlier, of course), and it’s perfect for corn, and hay, and — when you cross into Piemonte — rice.

There are two other kinds of landscape in Piemonte, “foot of the mountains”: those mountains themselves, the Alps bordering France and separating the province from that of Valle d’Aosta, to the north; and a series of river-valleys tying those mountains to the Po Plain. Lindsey’s father was born in a hardscrabble town in one of those valleys, the one Hannibal led his elephants through, over two thousand years ago — unless it’s true, as the residents of all the other valleys claim, that it was one of their valleys he descended.

Torino, “Turin” in French and English, is the capital city of the province, and a fine, handsome, moderate city it is — though it’s in the midst of preparations for the 2006 Winter Olympics, to be held here and in those valleys and on those mountains. So one of my favorite piazzas, the Piazza San Carlo, is hidden behind opaque plastic windows, for they’re digging it up entirely, to install below-ground parking.

The Piazza straddles one of the two principal avenues, whose several blocks constitute a seamless 18th-century architectural unit, arcades lining it with shops and bars and cafes; but all the life has gone out of those arcades and piazzas for the moment, and we haven’t had time to find out where it’s gone.

For today was given over to the Salone del Gusto, the biennial Slow Food fair that brought us here this time, and the last time, two years ago, and two years before that again. It’s as huge and daunting and delightful as ever. We spent hours walking the main floor, inspecting the long aisles of producers of cheese, salame, wine, bread, beer, jam, pastry, spirits, dried beans and peas, poultry, pastas, beef — all of it approved for one reason or another, its artisanality or its rarity, by the Slow Food Authority, however it works.

This year the Salone is preceded by a similarly colossal undertaking, Terra Madre, a gathering of farmers who produce foodstuffs belonging to the Slow Food canon, whether for their traditional persistence in the face of global uniformity, or their threatened extinction, or simply because they have something important to offer to the part of the world most of us belong to, by far the largest part in terms of world culture and material worth and global power, but much the smallest in terms of cultural depth, and the most recent and ignorant in terms of awareness of life-and-death universalities.

Our friends Jim and Lisa, who are staying in our hotel, attended the opening ceremony which we missed because of bad weather. They were impressed by its opening parade of delegates, one person chosen to represent each country. The delegates were encouraged to wear their traditional garb, and that, along with color and stature and gait and demeanor, must have produced an amazingly varied scene, reminding everyone that the world is immensely rich and varied, and emphasizing the dreary sameness our first-world economy has tried to impose on it, like so many airports and shopping malls.

Numbers: 4300 delegates from 130 nations. Breakdown: 15% each from Africa and Latin America; 14% from Canada and the United States; 12% from Asia and Oceania; 12% from Eastern Europe, 16% from Western Europe; 17% from Italy. Seven languages are officially recognized and provided for: English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, and Italian.

Yesterday these farmers were welcomed by the Mayor of Torino, the Governor of the province of Piemonte, and the Secretary of Agriculture; and the welcomes were not token statements, Jim tells me, but heartfelt and sympathetic invitations to the delegates to do their work, share their stories, and open their hearts and minds to tell Italy and, through her, the world, how their small and slow and local and ancient knowledges can correct the tendency of global commercial agriculture to destroy the variety of the world in its search for efficiency and profit.

The Governor of Piemonte, Enzo Ghigo, had a column in today’s paper (La StampaI): “Why to say ‘no’ to GMO.” A practical politician, he writes that he has reason to believe that the legitimate motives of profit and the marketplace can be joined to the development of biodiversity through sustainable agriculture and thereby represent the guarantee of a market truly free to and a hope for many nations.

And then he adds a remarkable paragraph, the centerpiece of his column:

“The dedication to human concerns has brought us to stripping the earth of its fruits; the love of the earth will make of us a humanity ever more free.” (L’amore per l’uomo ci ha portato a sfruttare la terra, l’amore per la terra ci restituirà un uomo più libero. More elegant, concise, and striking in Italian.)

This afternoon and evening Lindsey and I attended to workshop labs, and we’re stuffed and sleepy, and further comment will have to wait. Suffice it to say, for now, that I’ve sampled five fascinating wines of terroir in the first of four workshops investigating the influence of soils on wines, and then in the evening tasted four different preparations of raw beef, all from a single 16-month-old Piemontese cow specially bred for the high quality of its meat, each matched by a magnificent wine ranging from a dry Italian sparkler to a deep and magisterial Barolo. And Lindsey has similar things to report, involving hams from various countries matched to white wines, and four or five blue cheeses accompanied by as many sweet wines.


2: The Salone del Gusto

Torino, Oct. 23—

The Hotel Luxor Best Western here in Torino is not the Las Vegas Luxor. It is not a pyramid; it lacks slot machines; no Nile wends its lobby. I have not yet seen a Texan among its guests.

On the other hand it is not an American Best Western. The television set is not much bigger than my 12-inch laptop screen. Not every electrical socket functions. There is no bathtub. There is, however, a bidet, compulsory it seems in every Italian bathroom, just as every shower has a mysterious pull-cord said to summon the medics in case you collapse while washing your hair. One understands that a Senator’s wife may have done so, resulting in this obligation imposed by the State on all hotels; but how explain the compulsory bidet? Perhaps it has been requested by the porcelain lobby.

Our first hotel in Italy, thirty years ago — no, the second; the first was the Albergo Chiomonte, then in Lindsey’s family — our second hotel in Italy was in the hills above Lake Como in a town whose name I forget. It was found in a moment of desperation: all other hotels were unavailable for some unimaginable reason. It was a bare-bones country hotel with no amenities to speak of. But it did have a bidet, an enameled steel basin of the correct size and shape, on folding wooden legs like those of a camp cot, tucked away underneath the bathroom sink.

The Hotel Luxor is near the railroad station, nicely situated, small, friendly. Its breakfast is more than adequate: granolas, fruit compote, stewed prunes, croissants, fruit juice, fresh fruit. Cappuccinos, of course. But no eggs, ham, sausages, or cheese, which perhaps explains the absence of the Dutch among the guests. We hear plenty of English in the breakfast room, but mostly Italian. It’s the kind of place we like.

[Error: I subsequently discovered the animal protein on a table earlier overlooked.]

Not that we’ll be spending much time in the hotel. The Salone del Gusto could easily consume all of each day here; on top of that now, there is the Terra Madre to entertain us. Yesterday we made our first visit there, listening to a conference on “Healing the Soil.” Farmers from several continents discussed their methods of returning farmlands that have been compromised by technological farming methods to a more natural state.

It occurred to me that Nature in her wisdom has buried most of her injurious matter, and that the history of man has included the systematic digging up of this stuff and its distribution. This is a recurrent narrative among the German Romantics. E.T.A. Hoffmann has a fine story about miners — is it called “The Mines of Falun?” Gold, petroleum, lead, uranium, copper, sulfur, noxious substances all, are dug up and hoarded and passed around and prized for the mischief they can do.

Fertilizer, poison, and explosives are intimately related, and the chemical industry has much to answer for. And humanity is all too gullible. I don’t think it’s only the advertising industry that explains this; I think this dark trade has an attraction, an appeal which is built into our genetic makeup, an appeal which the advertisers no doubt take advantage of, if only without actually knowing it. Perhaps this use of dangerous substances is the Knowledge the gods wanted to withhold from us, like the Promethean fire.

In any case a farmer from Ontario recounted his decision, forced by economy, to depend on horses rather than petroleum for his farm-power: muscle-power reproduces; diesel power does not. He couldn’t afford a tractor until he had sold enough colts, the byproduct of his team of horses, to pay for one.

A fellow from Venezuela talked about returning dry tropical land to production of a native plant useful for its fibers, for fodder, for human food, and particularly for its ability to store water.

An Italian microbiologist talked about the absolute need for soil bacteria, billions of them, to prepare minerals for their assimilation by the roots of plants. These bacteria are routinely slaughtered by deep herbicides and pesticides, and it takes years to replace them.

A Greek agricultural economist asks if this may perhaps explain the spread of soil-based diseases, not only plant diseases but also animal diseases: might they not be flourishing in recently sterilized soils because their natural predators are no longer there?

All this goes on in a number of languages, and is simultaneously translated into French, Italian, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The audience comprises farmers from every corner of the world.

In a large entrance hall, as big as a train station, our friend Lisa points out the Americans and a number of Europeans gathered at the Internet points and picking up their e-mail, while the Third World delegates from Siberia and Kenya and New Zealand (Maoris are still Third World, I think) and such have set up shop at folding tables. The Siberian, a small handsomely dressed man who might pass for a businessman from Milan, offers teas: the taste of one replicates a Siberian meadow; another a birch forest. They make me want to walk the Siberian countryside, a thought that has never come to me before.

A Maori offers abalone chowder, little pieces of abalone he’d dived for, tenderized by a secret process he was glad to share and stewed in coconut milk. A fellow from Ecuador gives us a taste of a fiery hot sauce he’s made of pepper seeds: it persists through an emergency drop of Fernet Branca, but is flavorful and sweet and I’m glad I had it.

Among the most colorfully dressed are the Africans, of course, and we move up to a table run by a Kenyan woman, very dark, indeterminably old, wrapped in a brown and white figured cloth. Her table is covered with clear plastic bags of dried herbs, each neatly labeled with copy that on first sight offers very little detailed information. She looks at me for a moment, sizing me up, and shows me one package of very dark twiglike herbs. “This is good for cancer,” she says. That’s very interesting, I tell her, I’ve had prostate cancer for nearly ten years now.

She smiles. Good, she says, and I know that what she means is Good, you’re still here, you’re obviously in good health. I have had cancer for twenty years, she continues; I had breast surgery nineteen years ago.

She has other herbs for HIV, for various immune-deficiency problems, for miscellaneous ailments. She sells them over the Internet. She shows photos of one of the nineteen children she has adopted over the years: at birth, he was so dark and deformed there was little reason to keep him alive. She gave him herb teas and cared for him, though, and another photo at two years old showed a bright energetic little boy.

We swap cards. I ask if I may take her photograph: Yes, she says, but you have to send me one! She wants Lindsey in the photo, and I take their portraits, smiling at one another, then smiling out at me. What handsome women they are, I think; how good they look together.

We skip lunch and go straight to our workshops, saffron for Lindsey, four different-aged Goudas with Champagnes for me; then, at four o’clock, Dutch pecorinos for Lindsey, the second in a series of wine tastings for me. In between we have a little time for a stroll in the food hall, ostensibly to meet a friend but she is detained. Instead we watch a violinist, an accordionist, and a man who plays guitar and mandolin, playing Italian street songs outside the lunchroom set up by the region of Emiglia-Romagna. (Many Italian regions have set up such restaurants, serving characteristic dishes at both lunch and dinner; they offer very good bargains and a rare chance to sit down for a half hour at this fatiguing exhibition.)

Before long two couples are dancing. They dance quadrilles and couple-dances, dances dating back across a century and more. At one point I notice the older man is making mock menacing gestures to his partner, like a rooster with serious business on his mind. He crouches low as he wheels around her, his arms bowed at his sides, his eyes intent on her; and she pretends timidity, backing away, pinching the corners of the bottom of her jacket and holding them away from her like wing coverlets.

I think of the colorful dress of the Africans, the Peruvians, the Mongols, the Ecuadorians; and I think of the colorful crests and wattles of the capons, plucked but proud in the refrigerated showcases of the poultrymen. The Salone, like Terra Madre, is a true celebration of life as well as the death life feeds on, and Italy is a country apparently at ease with the complexities and contradictions of poultry, religion, tradition, and folding bidets.


3: Terra Madre, 1

Torino, Monday, Oct. 25 —

These have been five days absolutely packed with input — conversational, informative, and physical, with two tasting workshops a day, fairly substantial breakfasts in the morning, and dinners in the evening ranging from a fine but unexceptional pizza-by-the-meter with friends to last night’s gala dinner, rather a formal one, in a rustic palace an hour’s drive away.

The most impressive moment so far was a long one, the two-hour plenary session concluding Terra Madre. We were gathered in the Palazzo di Lavoro, the Worker’s Hall, an enormous hall built in modernist concrete in the 1960s when, as one speaker reminded us, the hope of the future lay in huge corporate industrial efficiency.

On the stage a hundred and more delegates were seated facing us, delegates from a hundred and more countries around the world, many wearing the distinctive clothing of their communities — Peruvians in brilliant red hats and capes, sequined or embroidered, Bolivians in their characteristic hats, an Amazonian whose cap sprouted amazingly long brilliant blue-green feathers standing straight up into the air — to name only a few from one of the six continents represented.

Between these delegates and the thousands of us in the audience stood the podium, sleek and elegant as only the Italians could make it, ground and transparent glass hovering over the floor, a seventeen-inch computer monitor almost invisible on it to help the speaker of the moment.

And behind the delegates, and for all I know behind us as well, enormous multi-screen monitors relaying the proceedings of the moment in much-larger-than-life so everyone has an equal chance to see the facial expressions, the demeanor of the speakers, and occasional glimpses of closeups of the audience as it responded.

All of this, of course, simultaneously translated into the seven official languages of the Terra Madre. (I was struck by the fact that six of them were European languages, the seventh being Japanese; the Africans and Asians present seemed little discommoded by this, being able to make do with English or French or Spanish; such has been the domination of the world by those of European extraction.)

We heard a keynote speech by Winona LaDuke, who reminded us that all living organisms are related, that humans share the world with many thousand others having an equal right to their existence, and that we are all mutually dependent.

A Mexican delegate — I will have to get all these names later — spoke of Terra Madre as an unprecedented moment organizing the food-producer chain from everywhere in the world into a forum in which individuals retain their personal identities, a counter to the more familiar organization of global agriculture into a mechanism of constituent faceless business- and profit-oriented entities.

A Kenyan spoke of the imperatives of food safety, biodiversity, and cultural integrity. Food rights are human rights, he declaimed to great applause; and powerful nations must stop misadvising the agricultures and economies of developing nations, ruining their self-sufficiency in the name of profits elsewhere in the world.

A woman from India thanked Terra Madre for its revalidation of the processes her seed-exchanging community had been developing. Terra Madre had put food production right back on its feet, she noted, and in so doing had shown the world the role of women in agriculture.

An Italian fisherman noted that a failing of his tuna-roe community had been its tendency to guard its methods and knowledge as closely held secrets — the inheritance of an earlier historical imperative. Terra Madre has suggested the greater need for shared information and mutual trust; it counters peasant suspicion and corporate intellectual property with the optimism of pooled knowledge.

A Russian noted that here at Terra Madre we decide if there will be a future or not — whether the world will be committed to technological development or ecological development.

Then came the three important politicians involved, all of whom had spoken at the opening session a few days ago. The Mayor of the city of Torino spoke for the possibilities of an optimistic political culture, citing the United Nations and the example of Brazil’s President Lulu. The future lies in growth, not development, he noted; and he thanked, quite passionately and earnestly, the huge audience and the delegates for reminding him of the qualities so impressionably conveyed by farmers: happiness, peace, dignity, and nobility.

The governor of the region of Piemonte promised that his region, a proud and historically self-sufficient one, would be GMO-free as long as he was governor, and noted that Terra Madre was a logical extension of the political agricultural policy of Piemonte, whose rice, milk, cheese, beef, wine, and corn , I would add, leave little margin for improvement. And he noted that in this multiversity of languages and local cultures the first language is that of food, uniting us all, rather than separating us.

The Minister of Agriculture and Forestry of the nation of Italy noted that he’d been to many conferences of economics and politics, and that Terra Madre was the first involving the farmers and producers themselves. We must commit to a fundamental issue, he noted: whether to confront agriculture from an international point of view; or to recognize that the production of food is different from other World Trade Organization preoccupations because it must necessarily reflect local differences. We must end pitting farmers against farmers, and we must end non-farmers profiting at the expense of farmers. Trade must enhance farming rather than spoil its lands, for it is difficult in the extreme to recover from the ruins of exploitation.

Further, he argued, the living world must be protected from the demands of profit and intellectual property rights. Geographical terroirs must be designated and protected, through international political organizations working perhaps through Slow Food and Terra Madre. And the Kyoto Protocol on environmental issues, now finally signed by Russia, is now in force and will be enforced, and agriculture is a fundamental note in that protocol.

These three speakers lent great political reality and substance to Terra Madre. I think Italy is developing a very interesting role in the community of developed nations. It is after all quite advanced technologically, but of all the most advanced First World nations it has retained most successfully (and proudly) the cultural and agricultural differences of its constituent regions; it has most successfully combined the forward view of technology and the arts with the rootedness in tradition and history of its daily life values. I think it sees itself as a mediator between the developing nations and the developed, and I hope both Italy and the rest of the world remember that an evolving national character is bigger than any momentary political condition within it.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, summed up the final session, and introduced the final two speakers, Alice Waters and Charles, Prince of Wales. But I see I have filled the space for this dispatch, and will write about their comments next time.


4: Terra Madre concluded
Torino, Oct. 25 —

Yesterday I wrote about the concluding plenary session of Terra Madre, the impressive gathering here of four thousand small farmers and food producers from 130 countries on six continents, all gathered here to share notes and methodologies and tactics and to brace one another for the coming struggle all feel must inevitably be made if they are to prevail in competition with global corporate agribusiness.

I ran out of steam before getting to the most memorable part of the evening, the concluding address. It was set up by what one might have thought would have been the conclusion: the remarks given by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the international Slow Food movement.

Petrini is a Piemontese, a native of this rather autonomous (though not officially) region of Italy. Piemonte boasts a rich combination of industry (automotive, hydroelectric, printing) and agriculture (wine, fruits, nuts, corn, rice, wheat). Further, it has stood for centuries as the buffer between southern and eastern Italy on the one hand and France to the west. Torino itself, the capital city, is elegant and intellectual, as French as it is Italian; the Piemontese cuisine has marked French influences; the dialect hovers between French and Italian; and the region has been French, Italian, and independent (as Savoia) by turns. Furthermore, it was the first part of Italy to move toward the integration of the modern Italy.

Petrini draws on this heritage of pride in region within a framework of internationalism. He was active in the Italian Communist party, as I understand it; and as I understand it that party was always more Italian than communist as we in the United States think of international communism.

But he has always been a gastronome as well. A journalist, he wrote for years on food as well as politics in a left-wing journal. A few years ago, revolted by the opening of yet another Big Mac in Italy, he had the happy idea of countering fast food with Slow Food, and ever since he has been working tirelessly in true leftist fashion to gather around him the populist forces of farmers, fishermen, butchers, dairymen, orchardists, vintners, and restaurateurs in a cordial but politically active gathering of local, independent “presidia” dedicated to local, traditional, artisanal foods, often endangered ones threatened with the extinction of the resources or methods on which they rely.

He has folded this activity into a constantly expanding network of “convivia,” local gatherings of people who share his enthusiasms, either as producers themselves or, more often, as “consumers” — those of us who admire and desire such products, and resist seeing them disappear under increasing piles of hamburgers, tacos, and take-out. (In Sonoma County, where I live, there are at least four of these convivia.)

So Carlo is the founder and the patron saint of Slow Food, and it was his place to conclude this historic first gathering of the presidia and convivia he has invented. He began by admitting that he didn’t know if this conference could be repeated with the same passion and force: everyone who attended — press, politicians, visitors, and delegates — were struck with the great lesson in life the conference had presented: the life, dignity, work, and methods of these independent producers, gathered from Siberia and New Zealand, Peru and Finland, Wisconsin and Kenya, Great Britain and India and all points in between. Other debates he had witnessed have been harsh, Petrini said;; this one was relaxed. And this was not an exercise in folklore: the delegates all exhibited a pride in their identity.

The building we were in, the Palazzo di Lavoro, a striking Pierluigi Nervi monument, had been built in 1961, when industrialism was paramount, when the “First World” was drawing its wealth from the resources of the Second. Now, Petrini said, we are living in a postindustrial age, and there are three worlds: one is poor, ruined, needy; another is balanced and sustainable; yet another is rich but committed to an unsustainable lifestyle. Beware, you of this rich world; you can no longer profit by exporting your poisons to the south. Farmers and scientists must begin to work together.

Then he moved into his conclusion: We have played an overture: now the opera must begin. Its libretto, its words, will not be written by Slow Food; it will be written by all of you. It will be your history: what you do. You are twelve hundred communities, around the world. When we proposed this gathering, this Terra Madre, many said it was madness, utopian. But: Who sows utopia will reap reality.

This drew a lot of applause. But then Carlo Petrini introduced Alice Waters, who quieted the audience, asking them to give a warm welcome to a radical guest who would conclude the session. Radical may seem a strange word to use to describe him, she said; but it is an accurate done: radical means rooted. And in the next moments we heard a remarkable address, elegantly written and eloquently delivered by Charles, Prince of Wales.

He began by asking for indulgence: he had been eating and drinking his way through the Salone del Gusto, the huge exhibition of foods and beverages Slow Food has invited to fill Torino’s vast exhibition hall.

“Despite the best intentions of many,” the Prince said, “we have to face up to the fact that often, the consequence of globalization is greater unsustainability... Left to its own devices, I fear that globalization will — ironically — sow seeds of ever-greater poverty, disease and hunger in the cities and the loss of viable, self-sufficient rural populations...

“If all the money invested in agricultural biotechnology over the last fifteen years had been invested in developing and disseminating genuinely sustainable techniques — those that work with, rather than against, the grain of Nature — I believe that we would have seen extraordinary, and genuinely sustainable, progress.


5: Bagna cauda

I Mandorli, Oct. 26—

I’ve mentioned that Piemonte boasts rather an autonomous culture, and nowhere more readily apparently than at the table. There are many reasons for this: its characteristic products, its climate, its history, its blend of French and mountain influences on the more centrally Italian culture it has adopted.

So there are characteristic Piemontese dishes, many of which tend to be heavier, more peasant-like, more cold-weather oriented than those of Tuscany, say, or Emilia-Romagna, or the Veneto. Bollito misto, which we had today here at Franco and Gabriela Rampi’s idyllic bed and breakfast. Tajarin with white truffles, which graced last night’s table in an otherwise ordinary restaurant around the corner from our hotel in Torino.

And nothing is more characteristically Piemontese than bagna cauda, also spelled bagna caoda, literally “hot bath.” It’s a dish we like a lot, and have eaten in various settings, in restaurants and at home and once, memorably, in the kitchen of a second-cousin twice removed of Lindsey’s, in her father’s home town Chiomonte, a couple of hours west of here near the French border.

So when we signed up for our workshops at the Salone del Gusto one of the first we chose was on bagna cauda. It was particularly fitting, because it would be the final workshop of this year’s Salone.

We generally attend two workshops a day. They came at one, four, and seven o’clock, on each of the five days of this fabulous food show: laboratories devoted to a specific area. This year I attended a series of five tastings of “natural” wines, wines made without chemical intervention of any kind in the vineyards or the wineries; and I worked my way around a series of aged farmhouse Gouda cheeses (for not everything here is Italian), and a platter of raw beef (another Piemontese specialty).

We decided, with two friends, that a four o’clock laboratory in bagna cauda would serve us for dinner, and we weren’t far wrong. But the workshop gave us more than we bargained for.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining what bagna cauda is. That’s how the workshop began, in fact, with a sort of culinary-historical contextualization, to speak criticese, of this fine traditional meal.

We were told that bagna cauda began in the city of Asti (though no doubt other localities would contest the claim), six or eight hundred years ago, when Asti was a central city to the international trade that flourished in those days between the present-day Italy and France. Even then it took imported ingredients to fashion a local cultural tradition, and merchants drove their donkeys through this waypoint on the road from the gulf of Lion in France to Milan and elsewhere in Italy carrying olive oil from the Ligurian coast, garlic from wherever it happened to be growing, and anchovies from Provence and Spain.

And, most important, salt. Many towns will say they were on the authentic salt road from France into Italy, our speaker told us, but in fact it was Asti that was the principal town; it lay on the main road from Provence to Milan and beyond, and all the merchants came through Asti.

(In fact that is a fascinating road, well worth traveling and considering, leading up from Nice by way of San Remo, the pass at Tende, dropping into the fine French-flavored provincial capital Cuneo and the several fertile valleys between it and Torino to the north, Asti to the northeast.)

It occurred to one of those donkey-driving merchants to smash up anchovies and garlic in a mortar, then cook them in some sizzling oil. Into this “hot bath” one dipped whatever edible came to hand, and most of it was vegetable matter. We’ve done this many times, as I’ve said, at our home and at others’. But at this laboratorio our bagna cauda was prepared for us by a noted chef, I don’t have his name at hand, and brought out in individual bowls surrounded, on paper plates, by a wonderful array of vegetables all from Slow Food “presidia,” farms and producers chosen by the Slow Food organization for the quality and authenticity of their produce.

We had raw and cooked peppers, revisionist accompaniments to bagna cauda dating back only a few hundred years; and savoy cabbage so mild and supple one would think it a lettuce of some sort; and chicory blanched of all bitterness; and sweet onions that had been steamed to lose their aggressiveness (which would otherwise argue unpleasantly with the garlic in the bagna cauda); and slices of astonishingly subtle and insinuating turnip; and peeled topanambour or Jerusalem artichoke; and, most important of all to a proper bagna cauda, cardoon, that curious vegetable that looks like celery but tastes of artichoke, which in fact is what it is — a variety of artichoke grown for its stems, which are bent over and buried underground to trade their bitterness for the redolence of the soil.

All of these we tasted methodically, thoughtfully, and with great appreciation, turn by turn, dipping them into...

But was this really a bagna cauda? Its flavor was reminiscent; there was anchovy there certainly, and a little garlic (though I would say in fact very little), and olive oil; but it looked like a vichyssoise: it was bound with cream, of all things, and bereft of any other texture.

We tasted it in silence, listening to the lengthy and detailed discussion of the history and preparation of bagna cauda being provided by this chef, haltingly translated for us anglophones (we were many) by a translator who seemed indifferent. (I suspect she was not partaking of it herself.) The chef often mentioned the Third Millennium; he felt it necessary to respect this great traditional dish by lifting it out of the farmhouse kitchen (let alone the donkeybacks) and moving it into the future. And he was proud of the result, and so was the rather defensive commentator from Slow Food who had introduced the chef to this audience: it is a true bagna cauda, it has great respect, it moves the dish forward, no one else could have made this.

At one point I raised my hand: In the valSusa, I said (the valley Lindsey’s father was born in, where we had a fine bagna cauda two years ago), they use a little butter in the preparation... The chef went into an explosion of commentary, some of which was ultimately translated. I must be getting old, he said, I forgot to mention that I did use a little bit of butter at the beginning.

Still, I was thinking to myself, there isn’t really a lot of garlic in this bagna cauda. The chef had insisted over and over that this was a social bagna cauda, you didn’t feel that you had to avoid polite company after eating it, the garlic was greatly muted to bring this bagna cauda into the Third Millenium, whose social values have evolved beyond those of (he did not use this term, at least it never appeared in our headphones) a somewhat more primitive time.

Nevertheless, this was a delicious thing, whatever it was, and the vegetables were out of this world — sweet, complex, varied in texture between the fingers and between the teeth, utterly fresh. All but the cardoon, which seemed a little tired, a little scraggly — a farmer brought a bit against his will into a dining room a little more polite than he was used to.

At this point a woman in the audience made a comment of some sort by way of asking a question, and all hell broke loose. The chef went into a frenzy of retort. She spoke rapidly and at full voice in reply. They both spoke simultaneously.

Gioacchino Rossini composed many brilliant imbroglii in such operas as The Barber of Seville, but he did not invent the form, he inherited it from the natural way of speaking Italian when you are in passionate disagreement with another native speaker of the language. Voices arise, respond, and join in quick crescendos, the volume naturally rising quickly to keep one’s own voice in one’s ears. The pace quickens similarly, and parallel passages develop as arguments are supported, paraphrased, analyzed, and recombined.

Through all this a good-natured fellow to the left of the chef smiled in his grey beard and looked down into the four glasses of Barbera with which we had all been thoughtfully armed. The master of ceremonies ultimately turned to him as a sort of judge between the chef and the lady in the audience, and this fellow turned out to be a chef himself.

He seemed to dissociate himself from both, though I suspect his allegiance was with the woman. Certainly it was with tradition. My own bagna cauda, he said, is more traditional than this, and I make no apologies for this, you can find my restaurant (La Donna Rossa, in Nizza Monferrato, a town we must visit one of these days) by following your nose.

Which perhaps we will do tomorrow. In the meantime we are visiting our friends Franco and Gabriela Rampi at their farmstead B&B, along with four California friends. Yesterday we visited an agricultural school to see the first pressing of Franco’s olives, and today we visit a goat farm, or perhaps an antique apple orchard.

And I still have to tell you about the five wine workshops I attended last week. But all this can wait .


6: Agricultural school

I Mandorli, Oct. 27—

“I Mandorli” means “the almond grove,” but Franco does a few other things on his ten or twelve acres of land here in Monferrato. He makes a nice Barbera, for example; we had one yesterday with our bollito misto and another, aged in wood, with the cheese. And when we arrived Tuesday morning I noticed a small bin of olives in the back of his pickup truck.

We sat down first to lunch, though, Jim and Lisa and Lindsey and I, for that celebratory bollito misto — pieces of head, flank, and tail of beef, and pieces of chicken, and cottecchino, that delicious loose moist uncooked salame, all boiled up with carrot and bay, eaten cool with basil sauce and tomato sauce.

Then we asked about the olives. They had been mysteriously driven away by someone, I still don’t know who, to be pressed; this would be Franco’s first olive oil. Did we want to see the press? Of course!

By now two more friends had arrived, Lou and Susan Preston; Lou grows olives as well as grapes in Dry Creek Valley and is of course much interested in the press. Franco explained (as well as I could follow) that it was a small press, brand new, and he as was interested in it as any of us.

So we four men piled into Lou’s car and drove for what seemed an hour through the gathering night, east, past Moncalvo, then north to skirt its hill, and east again, and turn off onto this little road, no, not this one, back up a bit and continue further, stop here and ask this good-natured young man waiting for a bus whether this is the way to San Martino, yes, straight ahead, and finally we turn downhill and find a fair-sized parking lot outside what seems to be an old convent or something.

It is not a convent, it is the V. Luparia Professional State Institute for Agriculture and the Environment — “a school in the countryside to maintain the countryside.” A secretary directs us down the institutional hallway, damp plaster walls (it has been raining) and dimly lit, to a staircase: Down and to the right, she calls out, and we emerge into what I think must be a basement, walk past a shiny new stainless-steel grape crusher and into a cement room housing a brand new stainless steel olive crusher.

A beaming young man with shiny curly black hair immediately congratulates Franco: Your olives are truly excellent, he says; the oil is magnificent. We have arrived just in time to see the first few tablespoons emerge; three or four are already in a wineglass which is passed around. We admire the color and above all the fragrance of this new oil, and Lou quickly lifts the glass to his lips. (I do too, seeing him: the oil is new, fat, complex, very floral, and very very good.)

The crusher is about the size of two refrigerators lying on their sides atop one another. The olives go in a hopper on top and are fed into a vertical cylinder: inside, three blades turn slowly, forcing the olives against the walls of the cylinder. The resulting paste is fed to a chamber where water is combined with them, and the now much more fluid paste is then spun very rapidly in a centrifuge. This separates the oil, water, and paste, much as the cream separator worked when I was a boy (though it makes much more noise), and the oil collects in its own chamber to drain in a very slow stream into a plastic pitcher set on the floor under a petcock.

It’s a funny combination of ultramodern technology and peasant farm practicality, but it works. Lou looks with envy at the machine, juggling the figures in his mind: How many pounds of olives, how many liters of oil, how many dollars of machine.

Franco’s olives are not only exceptionally tasty; they are exceptionally productive. The young man, who turns out to be Ferrucio Battaglio, a head teacher at the school, says it is the best yield he has seen. The oil continues to accumulate in the pitcher and we begin to discuss the school.

It’s a boarding school for boys (and a few girls) from fourteen to eighteen years old. They come from all over the country, many of them from the city, to learn agriculture. They’re interviewed and chosen not so much by their previous school grades, though that’s important, as by the passion the show for this field. They study agriculture in all its aspects: horticulture, soil sciences, entomology, plant pathology, weather, accounting, marketing, distribution. Also the production of agricultural products: wine, cheese, olive oil, honey. And, of course, the required general education subjects: literature, history, mathematics, religion, physical education, foreign language.

They study nine months of the year, then work two months in the summer on assigned farms; for farming can be studied intellectually, but must be learned with the muscles and the senses. They have one month of vacation.

By now we are tasting some of the experimental wine made here, an Albarossa, a varietal with a long tradition in these parts but one that had fallen out of favor. The Institute is conducting studies on varietals and terroir, making wines in very small batches to isolate varietals, soils, and microclimates. Grapes are brought by the farmers, labeled as to exactly which vineyard they come from, how steep it is, what the soil is, what direction they face, and so on. These are crushed and developed in perhaps fifty or sixty miniature stainless-steel fermenting tanks stand, each capable of holding maybe twenty gallons at most.

The Albarossa is an interesting wine, very dark, earthy, fragrant, full-bodied, smooth, and complex. The flavors seem medieval to me; I taste cloves and the soil as well as grape; it would be delicious with a slice of panforte, or just the right cheese. Or a bagna cauda, Battaglio points out. It is a local wine: it has terroir.

We admire the great cellar, centuries old, now used primarily as a meeting room and a lecture hall. The walls are local stone and cobble and brick. They were brought up, underground, to twelve or fourteen feet high; then the room was filled with soil and layered with sand, in the time-honored way, so the vaulted brick ceiling could be laid on the sand and mortared from above, after which the entire room was again dug out and the building continued above it. It’s a time-consuming way of building, but the building maintains an absolutely even temperature, and of course it lasts many centuries with little additional maintenance. What you spend making something excellent at the beginning, Jim muses, you save in maintenance and correction later on.

This is something better known by the kinds of people who stay in the place of their forefathers, I think, than by the kinds of people who move on; and we Americans are descended from the latter. This dialectic is familiar to me; I rehearse it every time I come to Europe. We have invented much, we Americans, in our need to develop a culture and a political and social body quickly on virgin territory (let’s overlook the native population for the sake of argument) and with the means that come easily to hand. But we have done this at a certain cost, and have threatened older traditions with extinction in our dependency on global networks for our resources and our profits. In our insistence on modernity and efficiency we are losing the distinctions of terroir.


7: Wines I have tasted

Among the highlights of the biannual Salone del Gusto, at least for me, are the taste workshops. Here you have the opportunity to taste rare and unusual items and to learn how they are produced. Even more gratifying to me, in the course of concentrating on such things you are reminded how to taste analytically, to take the sensation of taste apart, to separate the flavors and aromas so as to enjoy and appreciate them more fully, to fit words to them and to fix them in memory — to the extent possible.

So in the past we have learned about tuna, from brains to eggs; about raw beef; about parmesan cheese whether from high pastures or low; about pecorino from this breed of sheep or that. We have focussed on gelatos, on pastries, on pastas. As I wrote yesterday, we have argued over bagna cauda. This year I even compared and contrasted farmhouse Gouda cheeses of four different ages.

All these, of course, matched to the correct wines; and in the course of drinking those wines with the foodstuffs new aspects of taste and aroma have developed. It’s as if you hear an oboe; then several oboes of different manufacture, played by musicians from different countries; all playing the same piece of music solo, then accompanied by a few other instruments; and then you listen to orchestral music for the oboe passages: Haydn, Berlioz, Ravel.

I was particularly looking forward this year to a series of taste workshops on wines and soils. I’ve been thinking a lot about the mysterious subject of terroir lately, partly unprompted, partly after reading Lawrence Osborne’s fascinating book The Accidental Connoisseur. (I discussed that book here late in August ; some of the following will quote that discussion.)

Osborne suggests that connoisseurship can be “accidental”; and that the gathering of this accidental connoisseurship is, perhaps, “the one consolation of growing old.” (Of course connoisseurship would have evolved in the human animal for practical reasons, as part of the necessary learning and remembering of which ingestables are nutritious, which pleasurable, and which are dangerous.)

“Terroir” is of course a French word; I can’t readily think of an English equivalent. (That says something; never mind what.) It refers to the local specificity that contributes to (and results in part from) products which, like wine, remain close to the earth. In the case of wine it is part climate, of course, but also (and perhaps more so) part soil. There is no question that minerals are taken up by plants, and that mineral content affects flavor.

But the awareness of terroir is both intuitive, I think, and learned. The intuitive awareness is fundamental: without it, learned connoisseurship is merely taste. But the learned component is significant: without it, intuitive connoisseurship is blinkered. Taste may well be the product of cities, but terroir is by definition an expression of soil. What alarms Osborne, and alarms me too, is the extent to which the “value” expressed by terroir is, at the present moment, threatened with extinction — it’s not too strong a word — by the exigencies of Taste at its most extreme, which Osborne encodes, reasonably enough, as Brand. In the case of wine, the men Osborne quotes blame journalism and subsequent marketing for this. Over and again he records conversations with aging connoisseurs who grow resigned to the idea that they may not be survived by the values to which they have dedicated their lives.

The series of five workshops I took on wines turned out not to be about the influence of soils and minerals on the qualities of wines made from the vines that grow in them, as I had hoped, but simply an introduction to wines of terroir — a panorama of wines all made in a natural style, without chemical interventions in the vineyard or the fermenting and storage rooms. These were all wines from a single collection, or catalogue: the “Triple ‘A’,” Agrigoltori, Artigiani, Artisti.

The catalogue opens with a manifesto by the man who conducted our workshops, Luca Gargano — a manifesto which speaks directly to the points Osborne raises in The Accidental Connoisseur:


This manifesto arises with the statement that the larger part of the wines now being produced everywhere in the world are standardized, that is obtained with agricultural and enological techniques that compromise the quality of the vineyard, the influence of its terrain, and the personality of the producer.

Standardization is resulting in wines which are similar in every corner of the planet, flattened in their organoleptic character and unable to stand up to age.

According to this manifesto, to obtain a great wine, three basic assumptions must be shared by every producer:

• A as in Agriculture: Only the person who directly cultivates the vineyard can obtain a correct rapport with the vines, and obtain healthy and mature grapes with exclusively natural agronomic methods.

• A as in Artisan: There are “artisanal” methods and qualities that activate a viticultural and enological process that doesn’t modify the original structure of the grape, and don’t alter that of the wine.

• A as in Artist: Only the “artistic” sensibility of a producer, respectful of his own work and ideas, can give life to a great wine in which the character of the terrain and the vineyard reach their peak.

From these initial considerations follow ten commandments, which must be respected by any producer of “Triple A” wines.


Triple A wines can develop only:

• from a manual selection of future vines, through a truly husbanded selection.

• through farmers who cultivate the vines without using any synthetic chemicals interfering with the vines and their natural cycles.

• from perfectly healthy grapes harvested at their physical maturity.

• from juice to which neither sulfur dioxide nor any other additive is added. Sulfur dioxide may be added only in minimal amounts at the moment of bottling.

• with the use of only indigenous yeasts and the exclusion of selected yeasts.

• without chemical or physical intervention before and during the fermentation other than the simple control of temperature.

• when matured on their own fine lees until bottling.

• when not corrected by any chemical parameter.

• when neither clarified nor filtered before bottling.

Very well, you might ask, a pretty strict set of rules excluding nearly every well-known wine in the shop. So what did I taste, and how did they strike me?

Of the twenty-six wines, all seemed exceptionally true to their varietal, whether Muscadet, Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc or Moscato; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Grenache or Gamay. In addition, nearly all seemed to me to express something specific beyond the varietal, something identifying the wine as having a character, a personality all its own; and often that something had a mineral or soil-suggesting quality that one can only think of as terroir.

Not all the wines were what I would call really sound. One, for example, was indeed corked, and had to be replaced; two or three had a volatility that suggested they were going through bad phases. At least three were wines that simply didn’t interest me: but then we all have our likes and dislikes, and I’ve never been interested in Muscadet or Merlot.

(Of course if I’d had a plate of oysters in front of me that Muscadet would have indeed welcome, and that made me think that a parallel survey of these wines, this time matching them to the right foods, would be even more instructive.)

Some of the wines were memorable, and a few were truly outstanding. In the former category, the 2002 Ribolla from Movia, on the Slovenia side of the Collio hills, beautifully direct and fruity; the 2002 Molino Real moscatel from Malaga, with excellent character; a Pinot noir from Stephane Tissot, in the Jura (but my notes for this are missing: was it 2000 or 2001?); and the Matallana Ribera del Duero 2001 Tinto fino, with its gorgeous deep garnet color and fine balance of fruit, wine, and soil.

Six wines were among the best I have tasted. I’m no wine expert, and my wine memory is erratic. Of course I can reconstruct tastes in my mouth-memory: the Zinfandels I have made (and those Lindsey’s father made); the Preston wines I drink when we splurge; the ordinary Trader Joe Pinot grigio we drink every day in the summer.

But true taste memory is different — it comes unbidden, simply when a name is mentioned. I remember the exceptionally old California wines I have tasted, a Zinfandel and a Cabernet sauvignon from the 1890s. (Beringer, I think.) I remember my first premier cru, though it wasn’t really, a 1953 Haut-Brion at a special dinner in the early 1960s. I remember the first Sauternes I tasted and can distinguish in my memory Chateaux Rayne-Vigneau, Suduiraut, and Climens of the late 1950s and early 1960s; and I remember fondly the great Naudin burgundies of the early 1960s.

To these now are added six more wines, though of course the memories may fade. They are:

• Touraine “La Tesniere”, Puzelat, 2003: Dark garnet, unfined, thick legs; red fruit, plums, very dry, dirt; cloves, the nose continuing to the palate; finishing in excellent balance, length; very accessible though complex and integrated — final impression violets: the intersection of violets, plums, and figs. This is from the Pineau d’Aunis grape, a traditional one that had fallen out of favor decades ago but is being reconstructed now by the Puzelat brothers. 1800 bottles were produced in this vintage.

• Clos de Rouge Gorges Cote Catalanes 2002: straw-color, bright, heavy legs; some slight brass; solid mature fruit similar to Viognier, oak, balanced; quite mature yet lively. This was from 65-year-old Maccabeo vines, made in an edition of only 2000 bottles, and it was superb.

• Pouilly-Fuisse 1999, Clos Ressié, réserve particulier: honey-gold, very bright, slow legs; fine full nose, balanced — from 70-year-old Chardonnay vines, thirty months in the barrel, 80% new wood ,
finishing in a long perfect balance of fruit, minerals, and vanilla — the most satisfying Chardonnay I think I can remember ever having tasted. 1700 bottles.

• Domaine Gramenon “La Sagesse,” 2002, Cotes du Rhone: Garnet, unfined, thin at edge; fruit, stems, alcohol on nose; goes deliciously soft, with peppery fruit on palate; from a 65-year-old Grenache vineyard.

• Beaujolais, Fleurie 2003, Domaine Yvon Metras: Garnet, unfined, heavy legs; direct fruit nose, changing quickly, ending in violets; finishing slightly sweet with fruit, very soft, full, a lingering sense of roses, from 75-year-old gamay vines

• Ribera del Duero Matallana 2001, Telmo Rodriguez: black garnet, thick, slow sheet; serious nose, fruit and wine; completely integrated. I’ll give you Luca Gargano’s notes: “elegant, warm, enveloping, spicy, concentrated, meaty, and minerals; creamy tannins. This is from 65-year-old Tinto fino vines which are attended, in Gargano’s words, in a “culture of abandonment”: the seven acres of vines are treated biodynamically, and the wine fermented in a single vat, then finished for twenty months in small new French oak for a total production of 4546 bottles.

I have don’t know how much these wines sell for, but I have an idea they are completely beyond my reach. (The workshops cost about twenty euros apiece and were well worth the price.) And that, of course, brings up a real conundrum: as things stand, only the very wealthy (by my standards) can afford to buy these marvelous wines which are produced by methods and from resources one can only call peasant-like — land values aside.

There is one consolation: if these wines ultimately succeed in spoiling the near-universal present taste for interchangeable “monster” wines, then more small producers will be encouraged to return to these methods. Perhaps the day will come when it will be the usual way to grow grapes and make wine, and enough vineyardists and vintners will be trained, perhaps in schools like that described in the previous dispatch, to be able to spell one another in the exacting and time-consuming profession.

Peasantry will then have become a profession, honored and recompensed. If at the same time it becomes common for society to encourage a narrowing of the presently grotesquely wide range of personal incomes, we will have learned to work for our own and one another’s health and enjoyment, and industrial production will have been channeled toward truly useful, efficient, long-lasting, and relatively few products.

Wouldn’t it be nice.


8: Highways and hotels

Monte San Savino, Nov. 1—

And a Happy All Soul’s Day to you. This is a serious holiday here; the cemeteries are full of people honoring their dead. Hallowe’en, American Style, has been shouldering its way into the European sensibility for a few years now, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in Italy. Italy, after all, has embraced Coca-Cola and blues and American pop lit for a number of years; why not Hallowe’en? But as usual the Italian assimilation of American pop culture seems a little superficial; these things are enjoyed as playthings rather than taken seriously, and they leave room for the Italian traditional way of life, la vita quotidiana.

Chrysanthemums here are invariably associated with the dead; they are the flowers you take to the graveyard. We drove over to Chiomonte Friday to visit Lindsey’s grandfather, who has been lying comfortably, we trust, since May 1947, in a plot in the village cemetery. We visit him fairly often, I’d say every three or four years somehow. He’s the only close relative of Lindsey’s there; all the rest have remained in the United States, where they emigrated nearly a century ago.

They settled in the coalmine country southeast of Seattle, where Luigi, the grandfather, mined coal, and Luigia, his wife, ran a boarding house. They raised five children, of whom the youngest was Bob, Lindsey’s father. (He, for some reason, was left behind when the others immigrated, and didn’t come until 1914, when he was ten years old; he made the trip by himself, in steerage from Genoa to Bedloe’s Island, then by train to Seattle.)

In the 1920s the grandparents returned to Italy; I’m not sure why. Perhaps the coalmines had collapsed, literally or figuratively; perhaps they wanted to spend their retirement back home; perhaps it was the Depression that sent them. In any case Luigi, by then an old man, basically had to hide out during the Second World War; his health suffered (it must have been pretty badly compromised years earlier in the mines); and he died before he and Luigia were able to fit into the immigration waitlist to return. Luigia did return, to the family farm Lindsey’s father and uncles and aunt had by then bought near Healdsburg.

There are more distant relatives still living in Chiomonte, and we always visit Rosa, whose husband Ernesto was a first cousin of Lindsey’s father. We stopped in for lunch, which she insisted on serving us — salume; raw beef; vitello tonnato which she knows is my favorite; Russian salad — all the Piemontese staples. No bagna cauda, but a bottle of this year’s Barbera da Chiomonte, which can’t be bought, and another a year older that’s been aged in wood; and a bottle of Arneis that we didn’t touch.

Then we went down to the cemetery to find the family tomb, beautifully washed and polished by Giancarlo, Rosa’s son. We set the chrysanthemums in their green-shirted pot on the grave, under Luigi’s photo — an old one, I’m afraid, a man clearly younger than the man they buried, sober and not quite at home with himself under a soft Italian hat. He may have been uncomfortable in the plot, which is otherwise Rosa’s family — Ernesto, their daughter Anna Maria who died only fifty years old of Legionnaire’s disease; other older relatives.

Afterward we walked down the narrow main street lined by brooding dark houses, all three or four storeys high, most capped with haylofts, crouching over “cantinas” or cellars for wine and eggs and potatoes and the like, and hiding from the street behind very large, very old pairs of oak or maybe chestnut doors. There are no longer donkeys in town, but there is still the occasional three-wheel utility vehicle, for some of the citizens are still contadini, still spend their days in the outlying vineyards and orchards and gardens, while others work in carpentry shops and the like.

Once inside these buildings, though, you’re surprised to find living apartments that are completely up to date, with satellite TV and computers and shelves of books and encyclopedias and the latest magazines. We visited another distant cousin, one we hadn’t known before, who’d been e-mailing genealogical information to a childhood cousin of Lindsey’s in Sonoma County, practicing our Italian and learning a little more of the immensely complicated family relationships.

We thought of spending the night in the Napoleon, the hotel we always stay in in Susa; the man at the desk recognized us immediately and welcomed us back. I like Susa, a town going back to Caesar’s day — there are two arches from those days, and the ruins of a theater and an arena, and there’s a church said once to have been a temple dedicated to Venus. Like the much smaller Chiomonte, Susa is essentially a mountain town, all paved, with plastered stone buildings roofed in flagstones. But the street life is growing gayer; there are more cafes and bars lately; color is making its way into town, and everything’s getting spruced up for the Winter Olympics next year — an important ski run will be in Chiomonte, the first major event to hit the town really since Hannibal marched his elephants through, two thousand years ago.

But we didn’t stay in Susa. We got away in time to head further, for the next day we were to be clear across the top of Italy, in Verona. We’d come a long drive west from the Rampis, in Monferrato, but we drove right past Asti again, retracing our way, and overshot Alessandria and settled for the night in Tortona.

We found a good enough hotel, though a bit too expensive; and, since we’d been eating and drinking far too much and I was getting a cold, we ate light — just a bowl of broth with a few ravioli and a green salad for me, with a half bottle of pretty good Chardonnay from the Alta Adige. Then, next day, on to Verona.

The Italian autostrade are a bland pleasure to drive. I stay in the right lane except to pass, and drive between 120 and 140 — 75 to 87 miles per hour. This is possible because the pavement on these toll highways is uniformly excellent, the curves gentle, the grades easy, and the on- and off-ramps few and far between. There are trucks, but they are readily passed, even though there are rarely more than two lanes in each direction.

And the landscape! From Torino to Alessandria we were in the familiar Monferrato, whose hills, hilltop towns and castles, and mixed agricultural use (though heavily planted in those fabulous Piemontese grapes, of course) contrast with the brooding, serene Po plain that comes next, all the way to Brescia — flat grainfields, bare by November, and long serious lines of sepulchral poplars, and large, dark, ample, aging farmsteads, brick with tile roofs, all hazy and romantic in the nearly always present mists rising from the river.

It’s always a shock to approach the big cities, with their warehouses, factories, superstores, parking lots, and miscellaneous dumps. The route between Brescia and Verona is particularly distressing, I think; and the surroundings of Verona, the produce markets, the industrial showrooms, the “fiera” or commercial exposition that’s been a major part of the Veronese economy since the Middle Ages.

But we parked within a block of Richard and Marta’s flat, and spent the weekend on foot in the center of the city, walking up and down the Adige, rather high and muddy Saturday from upstream storms, though we were never actually rained on. Richard was showing his sculpture in a community gallery, elegantly recycled out of a former slaughterhouse that still sports its nicely carved testamentary ox-heads contrasting with his smooth, biomorphic, abstract bronzes and terra-cottas.

They are old friends; our reunions are always both fond and eventful, with much to catch up on, whether food or music or art or politics or, best of all, family. We ate at Greppia, a fine traditional restaurant whose fegato veneziana (calf’s liver with onions and polenta) is as good as I’ve had even in Venice; and we ate at da Ugo, a brand-new trattoria whose osso buco Richard said was very good, but I changed my mind at last minute and had venison prepared in a sauerbraten style.

And then this morning, after listening to the church-bells, and walking into town for a cappuccino, and through the market in the Piazza dell’Erbe to say hello to The Artichoke Lady (who looks much better, Richard says, having survived a bought of bad health and returned to the pink of enthusiasm), we packed up and drove south, through the Po plain, up into the Apennines, past Bologna and Firenze, and then turned away from the highway (twelve euros for the 150 or so miles Verona to Florence) for a smaller road through the hills past San Gimignano, whose towers we admired but withstood detouring to savor again more closely, and through Siena also ignoring it, to take an unfamiliar road toward Arezzo.

Here the hills recall the Var in Provence, with pines and oaks and occasional groves of olives planted in restanques, terraces set apart by low stone walls. I was startled at one sharp turn to see an African woman standing off the road, barely visible for the camouflage flak-jacket and head-scarf she was wearing, a tribal kind of costume rather spoiled by her high heels and fishnet stockings: for she was a working woman, waiting for a customer to drive by.

Who would, I wondered, and then realized that there were many jeeps and sport vehicles on the road, and more parked on shoulders here and there, and then single men and then groups of them standing about, some armed. It is mushroom season, we saw a number of people purposefully sauntering along the road carrying baskets and sharply pointed digging sticks. But it is also hunting season, and perhaps tonight I’ll have venison again, or, better yet, cinghiale, the wild boar that animates these woods.

We’re in the Hotel Sangallo here — can that really mean Saint Rooster? Lindsey’s napping, having just watched a news special on, of all things, the Tuscan participation in the Salone del Gusto. We wonder what will happen tomorrow, of course. We’ll lift a glass to the Red Sox and the middle class, with Jim and Lisa in Rome, and then we’ll settle down to life in Trastevere again, and I’ll let you know how that goes.


9: Pure heart and paranoia

Monte San Savino, Nov. 2—

On, then, tonight, after a short nap (Lindsey, suffering from a cold) and a short fit of writing the previous Dispatch (disfigured by, if nothing else, referring to Lindsey’s father as her mother), for a quick walk all the way across town and back and then to dinner.

Monte San Savino is a walled town on the top of a hill. You really don’t need to say a lot more than that. The hill is fairly symmetrical: I don’t know enough about geology to guess how such hills are formed. I could imagine, having traveled ten years ago or so in Sardinia, that such hills are in fact simply piles of dirt and garbage people have piled up on their town to hide it from the invader. We used to have shell mounds in northern California, formed by the thoughtlessly compulsive stacking of used oyster-shells. Perhaps Monte San Savino is something like that.

In any case it is a fairly symmetrical hill surmounted by a walled town. If that town is bisected by a main street running west to east, we are in a hotel just outside the western gate. A lovely moon hung low in the sky ahead of us as we walked across the town, and it was invisible on the way back.

It was a question of dinner. We have eaten a great deal in the last week or two, a great deal more than we are used to, or than we deserve to, or than probably, if you listen to the current advice, is good for us to do. But it has mostly tasted very good indeed, and my usual approach to this matter is, if you want it, and it isn’t poison, and you’re not likely to get a chance to have it two or three months from now, at least not more than once or twice a week, why then go ahead and give it a try.

Long, long ago, so long ago I can’t really think how long ago, except that a girl in her early twenties was with us who is now a nationally renowned chef in, oh let’s say her very late forties, Lindsey and I were in Firenze (Florence, if you must) for a week or two. There I did some things I still remember. I wrote a fair amount of a violin concerto. I bought a pair of shoes. I had an excellent haircut. We visited a fine garden.

And I had bistecca Fiorentina.

Bistecca Fiorentina is a threatened meal, or should be. I mean, first of all, it depends on a particular kind of animal, and that breed — razza in Italian, only translatable by “race” in English — is the Chianino bovine, and some say it is threatened with extinction, whether by gene modification, or corporate greed, or innate human laziness, or the supremacy of the petroleum industry.

The Chianino is a large, rangy, placid, white, horned, cow of a sort. If it gives milk it’s a cow, in English; if it pulls a cart it’s an ox; if it gives meat, presumably it’s a steer. I’m not sure about too much of this, because when we checked into the hotel tonight there was a television news documentary on about the Salone del Gusto, where we spent a few days a week or two ago, and it was done from the local point of view (that is, the Tuscan), and it said, what I could hardly believe, that scientific tests had proved that the Tuscan Chianino was definitively the bovine animal the lowest in cholesterol and fat of all bovines. And I knew, of course, that that could not be true, because in fact it was true of the Piemontese breed (razza) of bovine.

But. A look in the Slow Food Guide to the Osterie d’Italia, the Inns of Italy, showed that while the only recommended restaurant in town was closed on Mondays, there was in the vicinity a butcher who was particularly recommended for his salume from biologically (read: organically) raised pigs. On our walk across town we saw this butcher shop, and a sign in the window also recommended his Chianino beef. And of the three restaurants open tonight, a holiday night, one boasted that their beef was exclusively Chianino.

Since it is now (or was when we entered the restaurant, of course I write this a little while later) twenty or thirty years since I last had bistecca Florentine, it seemed only reasonable to give it a whirl. In fact it wasn’t all that good the last time, at a heavily recommended (read: Michelin approved) restaurant in Firenze called the Undici Gobbi (the Thirteen Hunchbacks) or something of the sort. It seemed to me then, and I recall this now, that it was heavy, greasy, a little thin, too trumped-up with accoutrements. But I also recall that there was a promise in the dish. I have tried a few times to approximate it in my own kitchen: rib-eye steak, olive oil, salt, lemon. But none of that ever came together in a dish that made sense.

After walking across town an back, and verifying that there were only three eating places open, of which one served only pasta and featured Illy coffee (not my favorite), and that another was playing raucous music, we went to Il Cassero and put ourselves at the mercy of strangers.

Lindsey, not feeling well, wanted broth and salad, as I had had in Tortona a couple of days ago. Neither being available, she settled for fettucine with wild mushrooms and grilled vegetables.

I saw bistecca Fiorentina on the menu, and wondered if I could have a small one. No, signor, non e possible, la bistecca e minime settecento grammi.

Now seven hundred grams is about a pound and a half, and I regretfully declined.

Well then, the waiter said, in Italian of course, they speak that here, perhaps you’d like the small steak.

Yes, I said, that sounds reasonable. And some grilled vegetables; I’ll have those with my wife’s pasta.

We negotiated the wine: a half carafe of red, no more, for me. Oh, said Lindsey, but I want white. Very well, a half carafe of white too.

The pasta came, insinuatingly, promisingly, blushing with tomatoes that seemed to have been sun-dried; and blissfully, snugly insulated with a layer of porcine, the wild mushrooms this afternoon’s basket-toting poachers must have been hunting. My grilled vegetables came: peppers, torpedo onions, a very thin slice or two of eggplant, ditto zucchini, beautifully sautéed, then grilled.

Then the rather louche waiter returned bearing a plate with an enormous rib-eye lying raw and naked on it. Sesante grammi, he promised mendaciously; va bene? (Twenty-one ounces, okay?)

A lightening calculation proved to me that at four euros per etto, or hundred grams, this would be a bargain twenty-four dollars, if you believe that the euros and the dollar are coterminous, which works in such moments for me. (It does not for Lindsey.)

Do you ever think about economy, Lindsey asked, unreasonably. Of course I do, I lied; the proof is that I have not ordered a Martini in the last two weeks.

Around us the dining room was festive. There were a great many men eating without women at their tables, as seems often to be the case here in Italy. Many of them were wearing sport outfits that suggested pit mechanics at a racetrack, or standbys in a beer commercial taping.

At other tables there were occasional women. Now and then one would walk past our table toward a room somewhere out of sight, and many of them wore curious local costumes, black skirt-like affairs made of animal skins, ending somewhere between the knee and the hip, often quite oddly tight. The men at their tables set down their knives and forks and paid them respectful attention.

Not too well cooked, I hastily called out to our waiter, I forgot to say, not too well cooked, pinkish. I can never remember the Italian for “saignant.”

A sangue, signor? he asked. Si.

And ultimately there it came, an utterly marvelous thing, a rib-eye steak, a teeny bit thin by American standards but rare, beautifully salted, the right amount (very little) of the right kind (floral, buttery, not overly peppery, not too young, retiring) olive oil. Alongside, a quarter of a lemon and a demure leaf of something green, easily ignored.

Well. Dinner and conversation proceeded apace. We had a great deal of fun. Lindsey didn’t quite finish her pasta, nor for that matter her half carafe of slightly sparkling very simple and fresh local white wine, but she seemed to like it all.

I managed to get down every morsel of my steak. The red wine proved useful in the exercise.

I called twice for the check, and it finally came. The waiter had already ascertained that our Italian was neither local nor authentic; that we were, in fact, American. He put the check down with a both a flourish and a spoken warning: Servizio non incluso.

Well, of course not. The check used to have a line printed at the bottom: such-and-such percent servizio incluso; so much tip included. But that’s been gone for quite a while. Explanations vary, and the truth will never be known. No one I’ve spoken to knows quite how to handle this, beyond leaving a little something, perhaps to round up, perhaps to get rid of some excess coins.

But then of course he took forever to pick up the check, and when he did pick it up he immediately put the whole tray, check, credit-card and all, down on a nearby table where three people were having a good time, one of them wearing a Caipirinha tee-shirt with the recipe for that wonderful Brazilian drink stenciled on the back. Caipirinha dropped a heavy-lidded eye on the check, nodded, and Waiter picked it back up and walked off with it. When he returned I signed it and dropped an additional five euros in coin. I hope, though I do not greatly care, that it was enough.
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