Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Day 7 - Santa Maria degli Angeli

Today is just fun. Really fun. Or at least most of it is.

Our door bell buzzes at nine o’clock, just as we are finishing our packing and closing up the apartment. It has been a relaxing, pleasant few days here, despite our somewhat frenetic schedule and our desire to engage in every possible activity, see every local sight and to eat at every known restaurant. We have been able to come and go as we please in large part due to our new apartment, which while quite comfortable has as its most outstanding feature its centrality. As we learned from our excursion to Eurochocolate in Perugia, it is a short ten minute train ride to the center of Perugia; located a few minutes from the autostrada, it is a fifteen minute drive to Assisi, twenty minutes to Spello, twenty five to Bevagna and thirty to Montefalco. Torgiano, home of the Wine Museum and the Olive Oil Museum, two of our favorites, is thirty minutes away by bike, ten by car. And beyond that lies Deruta, the ancient hilltown that is the center of the Italian ceramics industry and in which a great deal of our ceramics inventory was born, a fifteen minute drive. It is remarkably well situated and has the virtue of being called home.

At the door is Javier Casuso, whom we have arranged to see this morning for a brief chat about our real estate project before heading toward Assisi for a half day cooking class. By nine o’clock I am definitely feeling the effects of staying up most of the night watching the big Red Sox victory, but the cooking class promises to offer me an opportunity to veg out, literally, while eating a little, drinking a little and learning a little.

Well as fate would have it I ate a lot, drank a lot and learned a lot. And I had a lot of fun.We meet our teacher and host for the day, Letizia Mattiacci, proprietor of the agriturismo (guest house) Alla Madonna del Piatto (Via Petrata,37, Pieve San Nicolo, Assisi, tel. 075.3199050, cell 328.7025297), on the dot at 10:00 in front of the train station in the little town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a town perched in the shadow of the gleaming, white, walled city of Assisi. Santa Maria is dominated by an enormous cathedral with a tall, elongated dome, towering over the tiny hamlet and visible for miles along the plain that runs between Monte Subasio, on which Assisi is located, and another mountain chain to the west. Along this plain runs the highway, north-south, through rich farmland that has given Umbria its nickname “the green heart” of Italy.

Letizia greets Suzy, Javier and I warmly and we introduce ourselves to an American couple who has already found her. She is slight in stature, but with a direct gaze and bright, friendly eyes. She speaks terrific English and we are immediately comfortable in her presence. We introduce ourselves to Bob and Carolyn, the other couple, and make our way down the street to Terra Umbra Antico (Via Patrono d’Italia 10/a, S. Maria degli Angeli, tel. 075.8043696) an alimentari, or gourmet food shop, that features the bounty of Umbria.

For the next hour or so we are given a crash course in olive oils, truffles, cheeses and liquors, at each step learning how the Umbrian varieties are the best. We have noticed that with most Italians, there is a real chauvinism, in the best sense of the word, and their pride in their region, be it Umbria, Tuscany or Puglia is never far from the surface. During the demonstration and lively discussion we are joined by our sixth classmate, a woman named Donna who is taking the class for the second time, not because she flunked the first time, but because she enjoyed it so much. She, it turns out, is from Ohio and, like me, has stayed up much of the night getting updates on the Red Sox-Indians game by blackberry. She is not nearly as happy as I.

We buy a few products from the proprietor and then make our way back to our cars for the drive from Santa Maria to Letizia’s agriturismo, where the cooking class will take place. The drive takes us straight toward Assisi and veers off to the left, along an extremely windy and narrow road that climbs a hill across a valley from the pilgrimage town. We climb and weave for about fifteen minutes until we reach the agriturismo, an ancient stone farm house perched on a steep hill, surrounded by several hundred olive trees that Letizia and her husband cultivate, along with some fruit trees and other farming that is required in order to gain the designation, agriturismo.

Our group enters the dining room, where Letizia serves meals to the guests of the inn. No other guests are around this morning, however, so our class has the dining room and the nearby kitchen all to ourselves. Letizia inaugurates the festivities with a bottle of white Grechetto, grown not too far away and hands out aprons. Our friend Javier, who recently took up cooking and apprentices in the kitchen of his favorite haunt, the Deco Hotel in Ponte San Giovanni, has brought along his own chef’s jacket, which makes quite a splash among our amateur group, impressing even Letizia who speaks of getting one herself. Suzy comments that the jacket could add €10 to price of admission.

The main object of this course is to learn how to make fresh pasta, but before we begin Letizia organizes us to make a crostata, a kind of Italian pie, which we fill with dark chocolate, ricotta cheese and citron, a sort of candied lemon. We students roll out the crust that will hold the filling and cover it with strands of crust to make a latticework top. Letizia pops the crostata in the refrigerator for a half hour before baking it.

Again before moving on to the pasta we work on our two pasta sauces for the day, a simple porcini mushroom sauce and a basic tomato sauce, Letizia explaining to us that fresh pastas do not need (or want) complicated sauces. The freshness of the pasta is the real main feature of the meal.

As our porcini sauce simmers on the stove, slowly infusing the kitchen with a soft, rich aroma, we begin making stringozzi, a typical Umbrian pasta made without eggs (eggless pastas being typical peasant fare, as they were too poor to afford eggs) and rolled out in slightly thick strands. Letizia measures the flour and other dry ingredients and then shows her practical side. Many Italian matriarchs would dump the ingredients on a table, make a well, add liquid and start a laborious process of kneading the dough by hand, a process that would normally take up to half an hour. Letizia obtains the same result by letting a food processor do the work, further showing her practical side by adding one egg, some water and a bit of oil to this “eggless” pasta. The resulting dough, which is extracted from the food process a few minutes later, is a shade of off white, elastic and not at all sticky. It is ready for our inexperienced hands to shape into stringozzi.

A hand cranked pasta maker is an essential tool in every Italian kitchen and we learn how practical and easy to use it is. The main part of the machine consists of two rolling wheels that squeeze the pasta into flat sheets, the width of the pasta being equal to the width of the opening between the two rollers, which are adjustable. For this peasant stringozzi we will make thick pasta, smoothing the pasta on several passes through the widest opening before reducing it slightly to the next smaller width. A cutting attachment is then snapped onto the machine, the crank re-inserted to control the cutting blades, and the pasta sheets are fed through the opening, ribbons of pasta emerging from the other end. A “flour dance” ensues, where the moist pasta is dragged through flower to keep it from sticking to and begin the drying process, which for us lasts about a half hour.

We move then to producing an egg tagliatelle. A similar process is used, but three eggs are added to the flour and resulting ball of dough is a shiny yellow color, a bit stickier, much more moist and equally elastic. We roll these through progressively narrower openings until it is a very thin sheet of yellow pasta. These sheets are cut into the same width as the stringozzi and the flour dance is skipped. We have made pasta.

Now it is time to eat pasta. Letizia sends us to the table, fortified with more wine and a few minutes later emerges from the kitchen with some cured meats and cheeses that we had sampled at Terra Umbra Antica a few hours earlier. She serves some toasted bread soaked with her own olive oil, which is fruity and delicious, as well as some of the spreads we have sampled. It is quite the lead up to the main course.

As Letizia makes her way from the kitchen to the dining room with our stringozzi con salsa porcini we can already smell the woodsy aroma of the mushroom sauce. The pasta looks beautiful, and it is almost a shame to have to eat something you created. But we do. With gusto. And with smacking lips. Letizia’s admonition that fresh pasta does not need complicated sauces has been correct. We can think of nothing better than our pasta, which an hour ago was mostly a bunch of flour in a white bag, paired with our porcini sauce, a little olive oil drizzled over the whole concoction and a simple glass of vino rosso. Life really can’t get much better.But wait. It just did. Letizia emerges from the kitchen with our tagliatelle, topped with a tomato sauce so simple even President Bush could make it. We had sautéed some garlic in olive oil and added a can of the best quality tomatoes. This simmered for half an hour and transformed itself into the richest, most soothing accompaniment tagliatelle could have ever wished for. Perfection through simplicity. Minimalist heaven. Buon appetito.

* * *

What a day. What a class. But it is, unfortunately, not over for us. We are already several hours late to a meeting with a real estate agent to talk over a possible purchase, so we have to part company with Letizia, Bob, Carolyn and Donna much too early. But not without first savoring our crostata, which is a delight.

So off we race, from Assisi back to Ponte San Giovanni for a couple of hours of unpleasantness before abruptly leaving there, also an hour and a half late to meet the caretaker of the Villa Tre Grazie in Todi, about a half hour to the south. The villa, which is generously being lent to us by our friend and supplier of Canonica Verde spices, olive oils and honeys Paula Hughes, will be our home for the next two nights. Tonight, however, we must fight the rain and traffic and a sense of embarrassment at being so late before arriving at this beautiful villa.

But as we say our goodbyes to the caretaker and sink into a comfy chair, the unpleasantness of the last several hours is eclipsed by the faint memory of the aroma of porcini and the phantom taste in the back of my mouth of tagliatelle pomodoro. It is memories like these that keep us coming back for more.

A presto,Bill and Suzy

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