Quite often, I find myself lost in memories.
We clambered up dark canopied slopes, digging fingers into the dirt to pull ourselves upwards. Armed with woven baskets, we found masses of peeping orange chanterelles.
It was like searching for little treasures; each mushroom brought us another smile. Later, we whipped up some chanterelle crepes and stood around the kitchen appreciating the aroma, before digging in ravenously. After they were cooked, the mushrooms retained their bright color and were a savory delight. The crepes melted away; there wasn’t enough to satiate our hunger for those little orange nobbins.
This was 3 years ago, when I spent some time at Agriturismo Pian di Stantino in Northern Italy. There, I stayed at a small bed and breakfast tucked between the hills, a rolling car ride from the nearby village. I lived in very close quarters with my hosts, an Italian couple in their mid-thirties who had been dating for 4 years. Denise was the younger of the two and you could tell, somehow, that she had had a very different life before moving into her boyfriend’s remote house, in the mountains of Northern Italy.
One day she told me her story as we made pasta, grating freshly viscous dough into the boiling water below. She was standing next to me, stirring the béchamel sauce with care, adding aromatic leaves from time to time. She had been a national martial artist, she told me. Her childhood dream was to don a pretty pink ballerina costume but her father had different plans.
One day, returning home after a long day of training she found herself in a car on roads that were slick and slippery with ice. The tires wouldn’t grip; she ended up a car-crash survivor, broken in seven places and stuck in the hospital for what seemed like months that would never end. When she got out, she decided to take her life into her own hands and become a farmer’s partner. She is strong-willed and full of vision. I love her still, like I would for a sister.
When butchering time came around, we would spend the entirety of the day underground, keeping the cold away by feverishly sawing and chopping away at whole pigs, separating the light and dark meat. We made salsiccia, ribs, salame, and other carnivorous delicacies, hanging them in great loops from giant hooks on the ceiling.
We kept ourselves going with cups of hot red wine. When mold grew on the curing meat, we would check to see if it was the bad sort or the tasty white kind. Sometimes scraping it off was enough to save the meat.
The butcher was from Romania, or Croatia, I can’t remember. He didn’t speak a whit of English. When it came time for butchering, he would always arrive to help. His forearms were captivating. It was as if God had been distracted and had given him two sets of muscled calves. They twitched as he swung them in a great arc at some precise point at the pig, separating the limbs just so. Great throbbing veins peppered his skin. Light didn’t need to touch his skin for stark shadows to ripple along his arm, following the tendons all the way up and down. His arms dispatched meat into different piles with startling efficiency. They were also able to gently funnel ground meat through the finicky sausage machine, into cleaned intestinal tubing- this was no easy task, for the thin filmy skin would rupture if it was filled too quickly.
Once an entire tube was filled, we would work together to tie it up with sturdy white string, neatly parting it into a long row of sausages. A knot here, a tighter knot there.
We got blood under our fingernails, all over the backs of our hands.
Later, Martino would return the favor and we would go to his meat cellar, so cold that my extremities seemed to freeze, forcing me to seek respite in the sun, shivering on a milk crate amongst the clucking chickens.
So, some days we butchered. I was so proud, wrapping slivers of liver (three sage leaves apiece) with fatty heart membrane. We ate those morsels over the coals the very next day. They sizzled in their own fat, and they were so rich, you couldn’t eat them too quickly or you would overwhelm your taste-buds. It is suffice to say, that in those days, I was never at a loss for iron in my diet. Ironically enough, I grew healthy and fit savoring the food we had grown, slaughtered, and made.
Other days we would thrust our hands up to the hilt of our elbows into warm dough. We kept the yeast, the bread mother, safe in a plastic container set up high. Once the dough had raised substantially, we would form it into parts, then rotund spheres, and place four on a long wooden plank. My grasp of the Italian language was still rough at best back then, so while we worked, I just listened while Martino, Denise, and a friend chattered away.
Once we had four or five beautifully formed balls of dough resting on a plank or two, I would heft it onto my shoulder and march carefully towards the pizza oven across the courtyard, passing crates of Sicilian oranges and elegant green fennel on my way out the door. We would prod the bread into papered pans and after Martino stoked the fire, I would push a row of pans into that glowing red space inside the oven. When it came time, we would take the pans up into the house, avoiding tripping over the farm cats, and THUNK-THUNK-THUNK plop each warm loaf out of its metal home onto a red checkered table cloth.
Each freshly baked slab leaned onto its neighbor, like so many defeated dominos in repose on the smooth surface of a marbled table-top. In this way, we would bake thirty loaves every Friday and sell them to friends and family in the village down the hill.
Martino and Denise taught me how to eat bread.
Smear a little liver pâté on a crisped piece of toast: delicious. Or savor an orange, and then slice the peel into tiny slivers and marinate it in a jar filled with fresh honey. Spoon a generous amount onto a bread slice, fresh from the oven: it makes the taste buds tingle delightfully.
This was true living, I decided.
Some days my time was spent washing dishes and preparing ingredients, as Martino and Denise cooked, and sampling exquisite food before it went out onto the floor (which was really just the living room). When we had guests, they would cook eight-course meals: handmade bread toasted and topped with fresh pâté, raw fennel with sea salt, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, long slivers of cured prosciutto doused with green olive oil from Sicily with aromatic thyme, pungent goat and potato stew from the young goat recently slaughtered, handmade spinach gnocchi with creamy garlic béchamel rounded off with a shot of limoncello.
The second course, with the prosciutto, was a process that was mesmerizing to watch. Martino would take a huge cured hunk of meat from the low-lying fridge and slowly slide it into place. The meat cutter was set to cut an extremely fine sliver, and watching a tiny portion separating from the rest was like a Japanese bonito flake falling gently from its wedge, bitten by the sharp edge of a Katsuboshi plane. A generous douse of olive oil, so fresh it was almost spicy, and a few bits of thyme made it into a dish that made me beg for a taste every time.
The food lifted my spirits whenever I ate, and made for a merry meal with company. Martino’s family had passed down the recipes for generations. Theirs was a culinary fusion between Italian food and Austrian fare, for the 100 year old hand-built house that we lived in was close to Austria.
They welcomed me into their family as if I were a long lost relative.
We went to town to dance in a cave; Denise’s cousin was throwing a party in his cavernous basement, complete with free cocktails. I chugged a number of gin and tonics and threw myself into a trance, whirling about the dance floor. I began dating one of Denise’s very tall friends, and he took me driving around a mountain to a small castle to see tame falcons flying about.
During New Year’s, we made dozens of bow-shaped pasta fresca, stuffed and simmered in an oversized pot of savory broth. Little wrinkled old women, stared at me across the table while my date fondled my leg under the table. Martino’s father, hunched and cantankerous, took the sweater off his back and gave it to me. I couldn’t stop staring at the black head on his left nostril. I wore that sweater for years afterwards until holes ripped it apart. I was grateful to be enveloped by this small Italian family.
This is why I love to travel. Because I find family members on the other side of the world. Because the memories I make keep me company in times of hardship, and in moments of repose.