Founder & History
Italy, the Next Piece of the Puzzle
Later in 1987, in the autumn, my close friend Nancy Harmon Jenkins helped me organize an extensive culinary trip to northern Italy, which turned out to be a well-matched bookend to the China trip in the spring. Nancy writes prodigiously and beautifully about food, and she had just finished a long stint as a New York Times food writer. She is as fluent in Italian as Nina Simonds is in Chinese, essential ingredients since I spoke neither.
We organized this Italian trip as a kind of triangle, beginning in the top left-hand side of Italy’s boot, the Piedmont region; then heading northeast across its top to the border with Austria and what was then Yugoslavia; and then finally turning southwest to finish in Tuscany.
The others in our merry band were themselves highly-accomplished food authorities: Marian Morash, chef of the Straight Wharf Restaurant on Nantucket and soon to be the PBS-TV Victory Garden Chef and a best-selling cookbook author; Thekla Sanford, who grew up in a Milwaukee brewing family and is the co-owner with her wine-maker husband Richard of the prize-winning Almarosa Winery in Santa Barbara; and Sheryl Julian, a food writer for the Boston Globe and a cookbook author with an impeccable instinct for recipe authenticity.
Our triangular trail across northern Italy took us into the heart of great old ways of Italian gastronomy. At its very outset we had a lifetime experience: the Mayor of La Morra, a truffle capital of northwest Italy, invited us to celebrate the start of the white truffle harvest with him at an elaborate lunch in the Belvedere restaurant, where his sister was the chef. We sailed majestically, and thankfully slowly, through six courses featuring truffles, each with its paired wine. Our favorite dish was the simplest—a heaping plate of steaming bright canary-yellow egg noodles, with a drizzle of sweet butter topped with a scattering of sage leaves and a foothill of white truffle shavings. The English language is not rich enough in food words to convey the sensory power of that dish; its intensity remains still vivid for each one of us.
By the time of the last course (melted Fontina cheese topped with another heap of shaved truffles with grilled bread on the side), mid-day had eased into late afternoon, with the autumn sun slanting its dappled golden rays through the plaza’s chestnut trees and the restaurant’s tall windows, glistening on our cups of espresso and glasses of grappa. It was time to acknowledge the truth of tales of the eroticism of fresh white truffles.
From La Morra we found our way to the Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Piedmont, and at the Ceretto winery we drank a 1983 Barolo Bricco with a 1983 Parmagiano Reggiano, an unlikely match but a delicious combination, and the fact that they were both were born in the same year was strangely moving. We visited with the artisan makers of beautiful Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano of Parma, and the sleek, hand-made classic Balsamico vinegars of Modena. We spent a couple of days with the Nonino family and its fiery-but-smooth Ua made from whole grapes and their fiery grappa made from the skins of pressed grapes.
We visited and ate with Silvio Jermann, Livio Felluga and Walter Filipotti in Friuli in their vineyards and wineries looking out over Yugoslavia; had dinner with Piero Antinori’s wife in their tres chic new cantina in Florence to taste some of their super-red “New Tuscan” wines; were dazzled by the indoor market in Florence with its vast hangings of fresh wild game; lunched and supped memorably in little-known trattorias and Mama-mia kitchens in Sienna and San Gimignano; lunched and tasted wines in the grand castle of Castello Banfi; and spent the day at Badia a Coltibuono, with a splendid leisurely lunch and afternoon with Lorenza di Medici and her husband Piero Stucchi-Prunetti. After we retired to the den to sit in front of a roaring fire in the huge fireplace, Piero told us stories about the Italian resistance in World War II, and later, taught us that it was the coffee that killed the lunch wine, but the grappa that killed the coffee.
After two and half weeks we reached Nancy’s farmhouse in the mountains of eastern Tuscany, outside Cortona, where we cooked birds and beef and vegetables and woodsy Porcini mushrooms over oak embers in her great stone fireplace with her farm’s fresh olive oil and Sicilian sea salt and drank dark, powerful Tuscan country wines.
We agreed we had eaten like the Medicis, and loved every traditional mouthful.
This Italian culinary adventure was an exhilarating immersion into a second of the world’s great traditional “oldways” cultures, where the sensory elements of the foods and wines are inseparable from a joyous way of living. It was a sensual Italian ying to the intense Chinese yang in Qufu, and strong validation of my image and purposes for Oldways.
So, when I got back to Boston from this extraordinary Italian pilgrimage, I called my lawyer and we set the paperwork in motion to establish Oldways as a nonprofit educational organization.
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