Tuesday, October 27, 2009

September 23, 2009 (More on Italy)

Northern Italy is the home of failed intestinal tracts, I’ve decided. There is a reason why Italians talk about their digestifs all the time. If you’re ever in Italy for any extended stay, I would suggest taking the coffee and grappa mix that they offer you…or else. I think that I can stop there.

I wish there were as many interesting cultural twists to write about with Italy as with Turkey, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find them. It’s just too darn western here. The Italians are a very fashionable people, many with a dark tan to olive complexion…very nice. The Sicilians are definitely a darker breed. They really do eat pasta once a day, or so it seems. For the most part, people are slimmer, very few of them toting big bellies. Many of the women like to dye their hair a lighter color, which really doesn't surprise me, but you will also find more natural blondes and redheads in Sicily, because they were under Norman rule for about 300 years and still retain some of the genetic heritage. They seem like an easy-going bunch with lots of good food to eat and lots of social forums. I’d imagine that the stress-free life they have works to counteract the cultural smoking habit (at least when it comes to life duration). I’m sure that this is really no surprise to any of you either.

Running through the landscape, I find that I could very possibly be in Upstate New York, minus the centuries old mills that I’m running by or the irrigated fields that have been that way since Roman times. One thing strikes me is that the forests all around Sforzesca are arranged in neat little rows. It turns out that they are poplar forests being grown and harvested for paper. Cool for the moment, but definitely lacking some natural aesthetic, methinks.

Sforzesca is near the pretty little town of Vigevano. Both of these are about an hour away from Milan to the west. Sforzesca was the part-time countryside residence of one of the Milanese ruling families, the Sforzas. It used to be their playground where they could lounge in their palatial houses and hunt in the forests for wild game. Night time activities probably included pin the tail on the donkey or a nice game of wine-pong…don’t tell me that drinking games were nonexistent back then. My hosts' house was right next to the former castle/palace/mansion of Ludovico del Moro, which is now in disrepair.

On to my hosts. In this beautiful little place in Northern Italy, I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Gatti, Giulia, and Umberto Gatti, who are probably the most warm and welcoming people that you could encounter. I seem to be striking it lucky on this journey…almost too often. Should I be worried?

For the past 5 days or so, I have been living in a house in the Italian countryside with a gate and a front yard with pigeons in a coup and little mushrooms that pop up and are ready to be eaten. I’ve also been enjoying good northern Italian home cooked meals. I’ve been told by the daughter, Giulia, that her family doesn’t always eat like we’ve been eating, but they could’ve fooled me. The food was delicious. Everyone but Giulia cooks. Both the dad and the mom are very good cooks, and the son, Umberto, who is 18, is actually an aspiring chef. He has been working in restaurants for a few years now and is moving to Manchester, England in October to learn English and work in kitchens. At the Gatti’s house, I enjoyed rabbit stew, Milanese cutlets, fennel salad, cooked fennel, gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce, penne in ragu and pesto sauce, frutti de mare soup, and three different kinds of ravioli: one made with goose, one with pumpkin, butter and sage, and the other made with Italian cheeses. The meals were, of course, complete with wine and desserts, etc.

While I’m on the vein of food, I should report that I worked in a restaurant named Trattoria De Carla for one night. This restaurant is Umberto’s ex-restaurant (Umberto makes it sound like his ex-girlfriend), which he worked in for two years. The restaurant was really classy (think brick archways, a wine list 200 bottles long, and fresh pasta that’s so good that it makes you want to grab the nearest little old Italian woman and give her a big smooch). The restaurant is included in the Michelin Restaurant Guide for 2005-2007, and a guide book of antique trattorias, among other things. The menu changes every season and even undergoes minor changes every few weeks. Between this restaurant and the ritzy place, Burro, down in Sicily, I am very confident that I can cook some good pasta. I have recorded many recipes, some of which I will include in a later post.

I think the best way to see Northern Italy is by car; otherwise, you get a very diluted experience on a bus with lots of tourists and you can’t really enjoy real non-touristified rural places. So, seeing that it fit into my budget, I rented a little car and drove around the Italian landscape for a couple of days with a GPS that the Gattis let me borrow. It was awesome! I set my little GPS to avoid toll roads and saw some of the most amazing sites. Driving up little one-lane roads and along hillcrests, I saw vineyards, castles and quaint little Italian towns, stopping as I went. I will always remember my second day with the car, because it was perfect. I left the Gatti’s house in the morning and drove toward a little place named Alba. Here, the white truffle harvest is out and every restaurant sports Tartufo (truffle) something on their menu. I had to try truffles, even though I knew my wallet was going to take a punch, so I ordered raw veal with fresh white truffles shaved on top. Words cannot describe the taste…it’s just something that you have to experience. I've been told by multiple people that white truffles are superior to black truffles at about $7000-9000 per pound. I also had a very good appetizer that was a puree of sardines, tuna, capers, and olives wrapped in a supple yellow pepper. It certainly beats most other stuffed peppers that I have ever tried. The meal wouldn’t have cost that much if I’d ordered the raw veal (tartar) by itself, but the 139 gram truffle that I had shaved on top cost 65 euro—a good experience, but not one that can be enjoyed often until I’m an oil or railroad tycoon.

As if the day hadn’t been perfect already, I found a vineyard that was willing to give me a tour for free. I took my little Fiat 500 with a red stripe way out into the country at about 3 pm until there was nothing but aisles of grape vines surrounding me on all sides. My GPS landed me at Piazzo Franzione, where there were three very large, very traditional Italian looking buildings. I exited the car and was greeted by two very jovial, golden puppies that just wanted to jump all over me and turn my white shirt brown with the vineyards soil. Come to find out, they were just unnamed vineyard puppies, kind of like barn cats. I watched them fight over a fallen bunch of grapes for a minute before approaching the front door, which was about four of me high. Franco greeted me with a smile and a “how are you, nice to meet you.” His hands were meaty and calloused compared to my hands, which are only used to heavy pencil work. He was a little shorter than me and I could tell that he was a hard worker by the lines on his face and the tan that comes from spending many days moving in and out of the sun and inspecting long rows of grapes. The lines also showed a face that was used to smiling big. A motion of his hand indicated that I was welcome to inspect anything in his vineyard.

The vineyard was 12 hectares, which is very large for that region and it specializes in Barbaresco grapes. In addition, though, it has a broad range of wines and sells about 300-500,000 bottles a year...I think that’s good, but I can’t honestly tell you. I pretty much saw the whole process from grape picking to fermentation. After a venture into the fields, I watched the trucks dump their loads of grapes that had been picked by the 17 workers on the opposite hillside. I’m pretty sure I was thinking, “wow, this is cool,” as the back hatch of the truck opened slightly to introduce a waterfall of grape juice into a vat followed by a purple avalanche of grapes. It was even cooler watching the grapes being transported through plastic tubing to and fro. I felt like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I must pause for a minute, because I’m currently on a train from Milan into Switzerland, and I am passing a very picturesque lake with mountains on all sides—the foothills of the Alps. I’m very excited for this leg of the journey, because I finally get to speak German. I actually just spoke German with three guys for about a half hour in the train station. Sweet!

Ok, I'm back...the vineyard. Franco showed me around all the facilities with its brick lined cellars full of truck sized barrels on the left and smaller barrels on the right. I was also shown where they bottle and keep all of the vintages. Enormous facilities, they were. I also got to explore endless rows of grapes, both red and white, and eat as many as I wanted, while enjoying the most spectacular views of the hillsides. I spent a solid three hours exploring. Afterward, I sat in an a very large, brick-ceilinged room with vintages lining all sides. I drank Spumanti and a strong red wine with one of the local pastors and the owner of the vineyard while talking about my travels…they were very interested to hear of life outside of their hills, our company mutual. Altogether, it was a fascinating and memorable experience. The best part is that it was free. I have a feeling that they usually charge, but there weren’t any tourists then, so I think he just wanted to help a student from the kindness of his heart.

Now I really have to stop because the Alps are towering about me and the little train that I’m traveling on. I’ll pick this up in my next journal entry.