It was the last week of May and I was eagerly waiting for my plane to land in Italy. I was eager because I knew I would be working for a chef in Tuscany six days a week for three months but knew little else. Growing up in Toronto’s Little Italy, I thought I knew what to expect. I couldn't have been more wrong. In the summer between my first and second year of Culinary Management at George Brown Chefs School I was on my way to Tuscany. When I arrived at Florence’s airport I was waved through by smiling customs agents who had no interest in looking at my passport. I left the small airport and took a cab to Santa Maria Novella train station. The different trains and their times of arrival and departure were printed in English as well as in Italian and were easy to understand. It seemed nothing in Italy could make me anything but serene. There was a train strike (again) but mine was the last one out of the station. I boarded and went southeast to San Giovanni Valdarno. A 30 minute train ride cost me less than 5Euros! Everything about Italy made me smile and I had only been in the country for an hour.
San Giovanni Valdarno is a small town- although still 10 times bigger than most of the towns I visited during my stay. Valdarno gets its name because the Arno River runs though the town. For the next three months the town became the exciting weekly destination for groceries at the ‘Co-Op’ and visiting the Sunday market in the town’s centre (which always included a porchetta sandwich). I would walk along the crowded main street shaded by the street vendors selling clothing and would finish the market day at one of the three porchetta stands. To be fair, I made sure to rotate each week between them. Every single sandwich I ate was perfect: slightly salty pork with a fresh bun and the pork’s fat moisten the sandwich. It was in Italy where I developed my gluttonous addiction to and affection for fat- specifically pork back fat used to make the incredible lardo. It is mild and creamy and rich but not greasy, and is sliced thinly after it has cured for a minimum of 6 months in salt and herbs and served on crostini. It is fantastic. Lardo is classified as salumi, which means it is one of the many Italian cured meat (predominantly pork) products. It is also, for no justifiable reason, very difficult to find in Toronto, although places like Black Hoof (on Dundas) and Cowbell (on Queen) are sure to have something very close, if not the real thing. Unfortunately, it is also dangerous to eat if not stored properly but if you really want to, it is possible to make it yourself. There are many websites with recipes, so sift through them and ask your butcher for some tips.
When you live in the countryside in a village of less than 50 people, a drive into a town is an exciting adventure. For three months I lived in Massa in Sabbioni. From the hill where our apartment sat I could see the entire town : 2 perpendicular roads both leading to towns a ten minute jog away. At the centre of Massa in Sabioni there was an A.R.C.I’s We called it “Archies” but it stood for Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (Italian Cultural Recreational Association). It was a volunteer-run restaurant, only open on Fridays, and where every local would be on Friday. So I went every Friday as well and rotated though the selection of pizza. When I crave A.R.C.I.’s pizza, I go to Libretto on Ossington.
I worked at La Petraia, an agritourismo. An agritourismo is a restaurnant that grows all of its fruits and vegetables and raises animals for slaughter. I was there with three other culinary students. We worked every day and began by letting the animals (turkeys, chickens, rabbits, quail, guinea fowl and ducks) out of their cages, feeding them, and collecting any eggs that had been laid over night. There was usually one dead animal per day- either half eaten by a sneaky fox, or just natural death. It is amazing how difficult it is to grow animals without any antibiotics- but it is also very rewarding. Once the animals were happily stretching their legs we would harvest and irrigate the vegetables: asparagus, arugula, lettuce, radishes, beets, zucchini and potatoes (and in August, lots and lots of tomatoes). It was so magical to discover how quickly vegetables grow: If the asparagus wasn’t tall enough to be dug up, we would wait 2 hours and it would have grown at least an inch! And did you know that scorpions live in Italy and like to hide underground close to potato plants? Nope, neither did I; When I uprooted a potato plant I was severely made aware.
It was also incredible to be so aware the seasonal life of each plant. The tomatoes didn’t start growing until mid-August, but they took over and we couldn’t make tomato sauce fast enough. Every surface was covered in tomatoes. And I will never forget chard season, because all we ate for two weeks was chard. It makes you realize that eating with the seasons, although much better for the Earth (and earth) in every way, is tedious and requires quite an imagination. I also learned that vegetables aren’t perfect and they sometimes have weird looking bumps or scars but are still just as delicious. A problem in supermarkets today is that everyone now expects perfect produce, which means more waste and more genetic modification. We were all about slow-food at La Petraia.
We would bring all our daily harvest to the outdoor sink and soak and wash before bringing them inside. Inside, we would have a list waiting of what each person was to do. I made bread every day- a skill that is still and will be forever ingrained in my mind. At lunch we would share a table with the Italian gardeners and try to keep up as they raced though conversations in Italian. The afternoons would be spent indoors (much too hot in Tuscany to spend a full day in the sun) preparing mise-en-place for a cooking class or for dinner service.
Towards the end of July we harvested honey and wheat. To harvest wheat we first chopped down the three plots of Rye, Hard flour wheat and Soft flour wheat. Once each type had been divided in ‘manageable’ piles (about five feet tall) on top of a large tarp, we would beat the straw with pitchforks to loosen the grains. Then we would flip the pile and do it again, and again. We would remove the straw, layer by layer, after each beating and eventually all that would be left were the grains. We would sift them twice, then bag them and eventually grind them. It was extremely tiring but eye-opening how much labour is required for so little flour.
For me, Italy will forever be a reminder that field-to-table eating is possible, and is rewarding even though it takes work and sacrifice. Vegetables taste better when they grow when and how nature intended. The food and the respect for food, the people, their passion for everything in life and the traditions ingrained into everyday life was enough for Italy to capture my heart forever.