September 3, 2008

Slow Food, with Peggy Markel: A Tuscan Dinner Party.

“A Tuscan Dinner Party” via Peggy Markel, from elephant journal’s Spring 2006 issue

A tall good-looking Sicilian, elegantly dressed in a hand-knit sweater and tie, steps softly in his Ferragamos out of the forest and down the stone path with care. He is carrying a bundle of wood. Boungiorno Nonno, cos hai travato? “What have you found?,” I ask him. He said that when he used to live in the countryside, he always enjoyed collecting wood for the fire. He still likes to do it every chance he gets, just to see if he still can. He puts the wood in the shed and sits down on the sunny side of the big stone farmhouse to read his leftist newspaper, La Repubblica. The newspaper and the shoes—a dead giveaway that we are in the Florentine hills of Tuscany, and not Sicily, where I spend so much time.

La Nonna, meanwhile, busies herself with the table. Ten seats all around with a hand-stitched white linen tablecloth made by a sister in law. Her eldest daughter arrives with bread. The long table, set with Blue Pagoda China and crystal, is adorned with a stout mushroom-like ciaccia di formaggio. I stand mesmerized at the simple beauty of the golden bread, it’s shape, and it’s place on the table. The light falls like a veil. I turn my look out the open door, and see the hillside in bloom—yellow forsythia, pink and white tulips and flowering rosemary. It’s a festa primavera! A spring holiday! Pasqua!

La Nonna calls us to the table, A tavola! It’s set with blue pagoda dishes and white linen. What sweet words, perking up our Pavlovian taste buds. Non si invechhia Mai! She reminds us with a toast of country wine, at the table one never grows old! Gratefully we take a plate of deviled eggs with anchovy and capers and we finally get to slice into the big mushroom-looking bread, caccia di formaggio, made with a special cow’s milk cheese from the south. Stories abound. Luckily, I am at the left-handed end, near the elegant, wood-gathering Nonno. He enchants me with simple stories of his days on horseback as an officer in the Carabinieri. Told in a theatrical well-timed manner, I hang on his every word. 

La Nonna smiles softly and gently interrupts every now and then to give her side of the story. She is always affectionate and enhances his tales like a spoonful of sugar. Her hair sits spun on top of her head in a grey swirl and her eyes sparkle. He 89, and she 79. They are still innocent and joyful. Paula gives her a large chocolate Easter egg, wrapped in iridescent green. Her eyes light up again, Mi piace verde un sacco! “I like green a lot!” I don’t think I have ever seen someone more excited by the wrapper than the chocolate itself.

The table conversations are straight out of Fellini. Four different stories could make a movie, the faces playing themselves. I feel a part of the family, but miss my own. I’m fascinated by the old spinster aunt, not unlike my own in the U.S. Neither is vocal, but when they speak, they speak their mind. Slight-framed and strong, both are close to 90.

Her addition to the meal was bellocino. Fresh sardines, boned and stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts, raisins and garlic. A specialty of Palermo. La Zia is jolly and likes her wine. She says, Lo sai, io bevo. To say, “You know, I drink,” as if necessary to confess in front of her own family. She likes to have wine with her meals. The left side of her face has fallen in a stroke, leaving a perpetual half-smile and a droopy eyelid. Yet this has not slowed her down. She watches me curiously as I stir the tonno for tonno ai piselli. “I want to learn,” she says. 

I have made a special mixture in a mortar and pestle of coriander and fennel seed, whole black pepper, pepperoncino, salt and a few pinches of fresh thyme. Tuna with fresh peas is a Tuscan coastal delight. My friends Paula and Renato are not meat eaters, and we are in their home—so fish it is. La Zia watched as I tossed the tuna in extra virgin olive oil and spices, then quickly sautéed; adding in Paola’s piselli biologico (organic) from her garden. A pinch of salt. A grind of pepper. Perfection took all of three minutes. Heat releasing the smell of freshly ground spices to permeate the air. Being in charge of il secondo on Pasqua for a whole table of buon gustai—gastronomes from Florence and Palermo, (especially fish) made me a bit nervous…especially with them looking over my shoulder. How could these gourmands learn anything new? I felt like such a punk.

Thank goodness I am used to having people watch me. Plus, what could I be worried about? Good spices and fresh fish, make a simply delicious dish! Il Nonno told me a Sicilian proverb, sapore di freschezza e meglio di sapore da ogni pesca: the flavor of freshness is more delicious than the flavor of the thing itself.

Paula’s risotto with with fresh spring herbs and lemon grabbed our attention. Sour lemon and slightly bitter herbs purposely used as medicine to wake up a lounging liver. Satisfying tastes to say goodbye to winter. We move on to the second plate and I wait and watch. It’s polite to comment straight away if you like something. They raved. I wiped my brow. Even Renato liked it: Buono, deliciouso, e un po misterioso. Spoken like a true psychologist. Fennel is no mystery to Sicilians. It’s a flavor close to their hearts. But coriander? Hah! The secret ingredient.


We ate bacelli (fresh fava beans) and marzolino, soft pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk grazed on fresh spring grasses. Fresh asparagus was last. If it wasn’t for the desert, a chocolate nest with cream inside, it all would have been super local. But who cared?

If thinking can burn calories, then laughter must as well. I said to the Nonno, Abbiamo mangiato alle grande! Proud of myself for knowing what to say. But he corrected me with another, more rustic Sicilian phrase, Abbiamo sbafato! “We have eaten well.” La Zia threw down the last of her wine.

No tension, no false pretense, just a simple meal to celebrate spring and another year to taste the pleasure of each other’s company, with the smell of lilacs in the air.

This spring, I am reminded of that meal. The most important ingredient is friendship. Food gives us the magic tools to recreate moments, and stories to pass down to my new granddaughter, Makena Clara, born on January 13th!

Getting together for a meal is special anywhere, but it’s sacred in Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the getting together or the preparation of the food. You can’t have one without the other—it’s a case of the chicken and the egg. Either reason is worth living for, especially during the change of season. Spring is a great reminder that no matter how stuck we are in gloom and doom, before we know it the trees and crocuses are blossoming and the birds are singing the hallelujah chorus. Spring herself is just waking up, anxious to paint her lips for the first time since Lent. The winter’s sleep has made her indolent. Sometimes we human beings feel that way too. What to do? Get together and celebrate.

PEGGY MARKEL’S Culinary Adventures in Tuscany, Sicily, Morocco and the United States bring friends to the table in pursuit of pleasure, culture and community. She has dedicated the past 13 years to offering groups an authentic experience of the first quality materials that make for deep nourishment.

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