Monday, April 20, 2009

(And I'm not Italian and I don't speak the language)

Serraville, Italy, Vittoria Venuto

A few years ago I visited Serraville, Italy to take a class in fresco making from the renowned Alma Ortolan.

I asked her if she knew of any good cooks in the village who would give me a cooking lesson at the end of my three-week fresco class. She told me she could set me up with the best cook in the entire village – her mother, Leo.

Leo was also the cook for the students in the fresco class. She prepared 3 large meals a day for us, always conforming to classic Italian cuisine. Dinner was served with a pasta dish as the primo (first) course. Meat comprised the secondo (second) course. Vegetables made up the contorno (side dish). Formaggio e frutta (cheese and fruits), served on a very ancient-looking wooden cheese board, followed the other courses. And at Leo’s house, salad was always served after the other courses. Sometimes, we also had a sweet dolce (dessert). Each course was served with a different wine. I was delighted when I heard that Leo was to be my teacher.

The lesson started when Leo and I shopped for ingredients she wasn’t able to grow in her garden. First, we stopped at a little shop to pick out some beautiful specimens of a species of persico (perch) that is unique to the Adriatic. Then, we went to another shop to get pepericina ("We use only the ones found at this little store," Alma had said of these one day as we shopped). Our journey from shop to shop made it clear that Leo’s first principle of fine Italian cooking was to start with the freshest and highest quality ingredients.

When it was time to start cooking, I discovered that Leo would be sharing her teaching duties with a family friend, Ornella. I already knew that Leo didn’t speak English, and now I found that Ornella didn’t either. I had planned on Alma serving as the interpreter, but she was called away before the lesson began. So there I was, trying to learn Italian cooking, alone in the kitchen with 2 Italian cooks who spoke not a word of English. And my Italian wasn’t any better than my teachers’ English.

About a month before I arrived in Italy, I got out my Unforgettable Language Course CD and hammered away at it. I don't know why it didn’t occur to me to start the course sooner: too busy, perhaps, or maybe just lazy. But, I knew a lot of Italian food terms, and thought that might get me by. Just to be safe, I got out my trusty digital camera and made sure I took photos of each step. And I kept my Italian/English dictionary at my elbow at all times.

Dressed in aprons that completely covered their dresses, Leo and Ornella came prepared to cook. To start, we placed the fish in a heavy skillet to poach all day in a red sauce. Then, Leo showed me how to prepare her famous vegetarian lasagna. We used eggplant, zucchini and a lot of garlic and covered it with homemade pasta and béchamel sauce.

Next, Ornella took over. She had hardly started, however, when she frowned and began searching frantically through the kitchen drawers. I tried to figure out what was wrong and kept referring to my Italian/English dictionary, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. Finally Ornella pointed to the rolling pin that Leo had given her to use. It had a small crack in it. Apparently, she didn’t want the dough for the tortellini we were preparing to show a crease from the crack. She was very disturbed by this. But the rolling pin was one that had been in Leo's family for generations, and Leo insisted that we use it.

With a pained look on her face, Ornella resumed the lesson. She removed her ring and we both washed our hands thoroughly. I took pictures as she placed the flour in the middle of the counter, made a hole in the center, and carefully placed eggs in it. Then we then began mixing the dough gently. When it was mixed to her liking, she showed me how to roll it out, all the while glaring at the flawed rolling pin. The dough had to be elastic, very thin, and continuously rolled around the pin. She selected a special knife to slice it and cut it into 2-inch squares. We placed a small amount of cheese mixture on each square. Then she taught me how to pinch it together, a technique I was very slow at initially. With practice, I picked up speed, and at last the tortellini was ready to be cooked. Meanwhile, I took plenty of pictures of the ingredients so I’d be able to find them when I went home. (Only to discover upon my return to the states that many are not available here.)

As the lesson went on, I began to realize that we were making way too much food for a cooking lesson. Communicating with my teachers through signs and the little mutual vocabulary we shared, it slowly dawned on me that the food I had been preparing all day was to be served to the entire family that evening. And this wasn’t some ordinary meal; it was a birthday celebration for a favorite aunt. It was also the last night of the Santa Augusta festival, a celebration held for a week every August. Talk about pressure!

After an entire day of cooking, evening arrived – and so did the guests. I was really beginning to wonder how this would work out since I was the nominal host of this shindig and was the only one who did not speak Italian.

To start the celebration, one of the guests gave the aunt flowers. (I was constantly surprised at how much the Italians – at least northern Italians – love flowers. They give them as gifts for all kinds of occasions.) Then it was time for the meal. We started with the wine of the Serraville region, prosecco, accompanied by some tiny cookies.

Next came the primo, in this case, the totellini I had made under Ornella’s guidance. First, though, one of the cousins brought out the appropriate wine for this course. He poured this red vino della casa in a special decanter he had brought along and swirled it for a long, long time. I had never seen anyone decant wine this way. When the wine was ready, I served my tortellini with a sage butter sauce we had made and poured over it at the last minute. I held my breath. Sixteen Italians who could undoubtedly distinguish genuine tortellini from counterfeit were about to pass judgement on my effort. One by one, they smiled and said “molto bueno” – and I could breathe again. Either my guests were very good actors, or my first attempt at real Italian totellini was a success.

Next came the lasagna, then the fish, then beans, then steamed vegetables from Leo’s garden. As each course was served, the cousin with the decanter brought out the appropriate wine, swirling it round and round in the decanter before serving.

After several hours of eating, we began to hear fireworks marking the end of the Santa Augusta festival. So, everyone left the table and gathered outside or at the windows of the palazzo to see the show. It was a beautiful night and an equally beautiful fireworks display. Afterwards, I walked back into the house thinking everyone would go home. But, no. Now it was the time for – more food and more wine. Then cookies and more wine. Then the digestivo, a liqueur, and candy. And the laughing and talking went on and on.

I sat there listening to every word, trying to catch anything that made sense to me. Not much did, but as long as I live I will remember the sound of the voices that filled the room. They were Italian, yes, but after many hours, they became more like something of a lilting, reverberating vibration. The room itself seemed to resonate with a pulsating hum that started to sound to me like something from a past I had never experienced in this lifetime. It will stay with me forever, that collective hum of captivating Italian voices.

It is considered very rude of the hostess – in this case, me –to leave her own dinner party, but I finally reached my saturation point. I was exhausted and gradually being drawn into irresistible sleep by the pleasant lullaby of Italian voices. At 2:00 in the morning, I finally stood up and said in a very firm voice, "Bona notte. Gratzie, gratzie." The entire family stood up and applauded me. The men kissed my hand goodnight as they departed. It was like a dream.

When I paint anything now that reminds me even remotely of Italy, I name it something like, “Dreaming Italy” or “Che Bella Italia." The woman in the painting usually has a glimmer in her eye – or is that a tear?

From 'Dreaming Italy' series

Alma's website may be found at In addition to teaching fresco making, she and Leo offer a food and wine tour. Alma’s fresco class and Leo’s cooking lesson are among the great experiences of my life.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow Cheryl what a lovely story. I've 'drinking' every word of it. you are absolutely right: The Italian food is so GOOD. Thanks for this story!!!


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