The Call, Column 68 – What You Find in Italy

26 03 2017

(March 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Find in Italy

Yes, this is a real place. Tuscany, from the vantage point of San Gimignano castle.

“People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.” This was the comment made by our waiter, Clemente, at a small restaurant in Italy, that gave me my first taste of this country’s remarkable food culture.

I have spent the last week and a half in Italy. And, as has become my pattern when I travel to a new place, I pay lots of attention to their food culture, agricultural practices, and notions of sustainability…all so I can write about it for you. What should make my trip to Italy, the country known widely for its appreciation of good food, and the unofficial birthplace of the Slow Food movement to boot, any different? Here are some of the things I found here.

Let’s begin in the city of Florence, in the region of Tuscany, where my trip began and that enlightening conversation took place. Florence is a big city, on the same order of magnitude as Boston, with a lot of small restaurants that proudly serve locally-grown food. After visiting the Piazzale Michelangelo, we sat down at just such a place, the Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo. The serious discussion began when my mom asked our waiter, Clemente, to cook her steak well (all quotes here are paraphrased as well as I can remember them). “I’m sorry madam, but I can’t do that” was his reply. And to my mom’s puzzled look, he continued, “We are in Florence, and I can only find it in my heart to cook it to…medium rare at most. People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.”

This really piqued our interest, so my dad asked whether the steak was at least grass-fed. “Grass-fed?” asked Clemente; and thinking maybe the phrase didn’t translate well, my dad asked more directly whether the cows were fed exclusively grass.

What else would we feed them?” It was this response, and his surprise and general disapproval as we described how ruminants in the United States are raised, that let me know how great this country’s food culture really is.

We discussed further with him, and I explored this topic a little further. It turns out that the area surrounding Florence, and more generally the region of Tuscany, in which Florence is located, is known for their high-quality red meat. Cows that are exclusively grass-fed are seen dotting the landscape in all but the coldest months, when they are fed hay (dried grass) under shelter. And it was very telling, that the worst Clemente could say about the American industrial agricultural practices that had crept into the farms in the Tuscany region, was that cows were artificially inseminated, rather than allowed to breed naturally; artificial insemination, of course, is a common practice even on organic/sustainable farms in the United States, and nowhere near the worst thing that WE do to the animals in our care. (By the way, he allowed my mom’s steak to be cooked to medium, and she at it all.)

I ate beef at least once per day while we were in Florence and the surrounding area, and can’t say enough about the taste, texture, and terroir (the gastronomic experience of the land on which a food was grown) that characterized their meat dishes. I can truly see why they take it so seriously.

Next, we look no further than the center of Florence, a bustling city surrounded by farmland, for another prime example of Italian food- and agri-culture (see what I did there?). We visited the Mercato Centrale, a huge building in the middle of the city that is a “food hub” if there ever were one. On its bottom floor, it houses an almost continuously-operating farmers market full of local produce and value-added products; and on its top floor, around 20 small restaurants, specializing in different aspects of Italian cuisine and all making use of the local produce for sale below. Isn’t that awesome? It further speaks to this people’s love of good food and agriculture, and I think it should serve as an example for those of us in the US trying to build a better food system.

And guess what? I was talking to my friend Christina, at Blue Skys Farm, about this idea, and she had some good news. She said that David Dadekian, a proponent of local food and the president of Eat Drink RI, is working towards just this type of project – it’s called the Eat Drink RI Central Market. I’ll have more for you on that as the story unfolds.

But for now, let’s travel to the farmland of the Tuscany region, surrounding Florence and covering much of Northern Italy. I made two trips into the countryside while we were staying in Florence, and both left me longing for that pastoral idyll for which, I think, every urban farmer shares a bit of adoration…and which many are working to build in our own homes. Picture this: driving leisurely on a winding country road, rolling hills as far as the eye can see, covered in vineyards and wineries, citrus trees, olive orchards, and lots of pasture land. And nestled among these fields are small towns, houses and businesses of people, whose livelihoods come from the land in which they reside…what could be better?

We visited the old town of San Gimignano, set on a hilltop overlooking Tuscany, and a vineyard and winery at the Castello di Verrazzano in Greve, Chianti. The people in these places took their agricultural terroir very seriously; from the well-known fine cheeses of San Gimignano to the world-famous wines out of Chianti, they were immensely proud of the products of their agriculture.

Finally, let’s jump way down to the southern part of the country, to the Amalfi coast, a stretch of 25 miles or so of towns built onto the sides of cliffs. The first thing that struck me about this region was the lemon trees that were planted literally everywhere along the coast. And I mean everywhere: there were small orchards of the trees, of course, in terraced plots along the cliff side; but the trees filled peoples’ yards, the grounds of many of the hotels and inns we passed, and even grew seemingly wild, out of the cracks in certain walls and rocks like giant dandelions. Our hotel, the Locanda Costa Diva in Praiano, took this to the next level, with hundreds of lemon trees, along with oranges and other citrus, olives, and even some decorative flowers, planted all throughout their two and a half acres, defining the character of the grounds. Dare I say it, the citrus trees of the Amalfi coast outnumbered even the olive trees!

This should have come as no surprise to me, though. This region is famous for their limoncello, a sweet, astringent liqueur of lemon extract in pure grain alcohol; a drink that is based on the lemons grown in the residents’ yards and orchards. I was really intrigued by what I came to call the “lemon culture” present in the area. The lemon trees growing everywhere contributed to the agricultural backdrop, of course. But in every town, you would pass at least one “limoncello factory”, where the lemons were utilized to make not only the sweet liqueur, but all manner of value-added products like candles, soaps, extracts and essential oils, and cosmetics. The famous ceramics made and sold in the region were often painted with lemon-related themes, and lemons made an appearance even on many of the souvenirs in the shops.

I’ve had a really great experience in this country, and I have to say I’m going to have trouble leaving. There is the fact that the Greeks (my national and cultural heritage) and the Italians are pretty similar, in their lifestyles and their appreciation for food and agriculture…and I feel very culturally at-home here; so much so, in fact, that I automatically fill the holes in my broken Italian with Greek rather than English.

And there is one, really notable emotional change that has come out of this trip, that I want to share with you. After the underperformance of my garden last year, what with not being able to devote enough time to it and eventually just giving up on it emotionally, if not totally in action, I was still pretty down on starting again this spring. I know, that’s probably surprising to hear me say, but there it is.

But as we drove through Tuscany, I took in the vineyards and orchards and small little homesteads – and they started to rebuild that agricultural context in my mind. Seeing this place, it began to rekindle that same internal sense of the pastoral idyll, the romantic, optimistic notion of a small, sustainable, agricultural community that originally ignited my flame however many years ago. And then, we passed a small farm right on the side of the road.

The most vivid detail I can recall was the sandy farm pathway, running along the road for a few dozen feet, and then arcing off under a canopy of trees. There might have been a wheel barrow or a tractor, or even a shed of some sort; but what I remember is the flutter in my stomach as I looked at that scene, that feeling of elation reserved for pretty girls and any setting or idea that ignites my passions. My mind was flooded with memories of everything I have read and experienced about the joy of small-scale agriculture – including, fittingly, pieces about how the romantic agrarian lifestyle is still alive and well in the Italian countryside – and my excitement about homesteading and agriculture returned with a vengeance. It’s amazing, eh, what you find in Italy?

And with that said, as soon as I get home I think it’ll be time to seed my tomatoes.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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