Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Seinfeld in Italy

"You gotta love a country where you can spend the whole day shopping for groceries and count it as a good day."  So remarked Collin, one of our guests at the villa this week as we tucked into dinner outside by the pool sometime around 10:00 at night.  As I looked around the table at our group of 13, each chatting and laughing as if they were old friends, united in throwing back a glass of Montefalco Rosso and devouring a plate of prosciutto that had been roasted in the outdoor oven and finished off in the outdoor barbeque, I had to agree.  Some might find our itinerary for the day - a drive to Norcia to buy pork for dinner - minor and trifling.  Here in Italy, though, it can seem important and fulfilling.  Because it is.

Tonight's entertainment.

By Sunday evening our entire group had been rounded out, save my college roommate and his wife who are arriving for just a couple of days at the villa later this week.  It is an ecclectic group - a friend of my brother in law's from Hawaii, a couple from Washington, DC, three couples who know each other from their studies in Bologna together some years ago and each of whom has stayed at the villa in the past.  But over the course of the first few days, and over dinner the previous evening at our makeshift dining room under the stars next to the pool, we have become fast friends.  The Sunday night dinner, organized by Suzy as a welcome dinner and featuring our good friends Lodovico and Anna as the guests of honor, had served well its purpose of setting the tone and breaking down barriers.

The idea for a group excursion to Norcia, Italy's mecca of pork, the birthplace of Saint Benedict and the art of butchery, had been hatched at that welcome dinner.  And one of our guests, Rich, a professional chef from New York City was particularly looking forward to meeting our butcher friend Claudio in Norcia and visiting this culinary town.  Rounding out our group would be our good friend Simone Prioetti-Pesci, chef owner of the restaurant Le Delize del Borgo in nearby Bevagna, because what better way can a chef spend his day off than driving for an hour to buy food for dinner and then helping prepare it.  Talk about a busman's holiday.
The drive to Norcia, at a little over an hour is just on the cusp of being too long.  Additionally, there are stretches of windy mountain road that lead one to question what could possibly be worth this drive.  But just before you reach Norcia the road straightens out and the steep mountains open up to reveal an enormous valley framed by Monte Sibilla.  And in this incredibly fertile valley stands the ancient town of Norcia, a small, attractive walled town with a beating heart of pork.

We arrived just before the lunch hour, and some shops were giving warning signs that they would be closing for siesta shortly, so we made our way up Norcia's main street as quickly as a diverse group such as ours can, small subgroups ducking into a shop here or stopping to take a photo there.  But within a few minutes we had arrived at Claudio the butcher's shop - il Richiamo della Sibilla.  Readers of this blog will recognize that a visit to Claudio is a part of every trip of ours.  The opportunity to watch this magician use a knife and to see and learn about the various parts of our four legged meals is too interesting to pass up.

And even though the day's show does not include the butchering of an entire pig as it has some times in the past, the opportunity to watch Rich and Simone, our two chefs for the evening, discuss which cuts to select for dinner, how they might be prepared and what additional plates they can work up to accompany the main pork course, is a treat.  They settle on a pork leg, better known as a prosciutto, but unlike the cured prosciutto that is sliced and served as an appetizer with melon, this is a raw leg, enormous (about the size of 4 or 5 tennis rackets stacked on one another) with a thick layer of skin that the chefs tell us will cook up to a crackly perfection and an even thicker layer of creamy pork fat that will break down and moisten the meat as it cooks.  A slow roasting in the outdoor oven, generally used for pizza night at the villa, is prescribed, to be finished off under the flame of the outdoor barbeque, to further crispen the skin.

We say our goodbyes to Claudio and after a few obligatory photos with him and a few quick stops to some other stores to round out the dinner shopping we wander back to the cars for the hour long drive back, having achieved our objective of provisioning ourselves for dinner.  But not without first stopping for a simple sandwich of hand sliced prosciutto and pecorino cheese, which we enjoy under a shaded awning in the main square, gazing at the statue of Saint Benedict, the town's (and Europe's) patron saint, who was born just a few blocks away.

It is now around 2:30 and we drive back toward Cannara, stopping, however, just outside the town of Trevi to visit our friend Irene, who runs the olive oil producing cooperative Olio Trevi.  We are there for a tour of their production and an olive oil tasting.  For the next hour and a half Irene captivates our group with her charm and passion for her olive oil.  The Olio Trevi oil is indeed a superlative product, made in a process that consistently chooses high quality over cost savings at every stage of the process, and which yields an intense, green oil that is pure in every respect.  Our favorite moment is when we are given small cups to taste the oil and Irene explains to all how to warm the oil (in order to open it up and release more of its natural perfumes) and then how to slurp it into your mouth so that all of the tongue's sensory receptors are involved.  It is a self conscious act, but one that results in the taster being able to tast the different notes - grass, fruit and an intense pepperiness - that are not discernible without the slurping.  It is an eye opener for our group.

Our final stop before returning to the villa is the pair of cheese shops that flank one another in the shadow of the catheral at Santa Maria degli Angeli.  How we ever discovered these two tiny shops in this nearby town I'll never know, but we are eternally grateful that we did.  Caseficio Brocatelli and Caseficio Brufani are the two most incredible cheese shops we have ever visited, and the fact that they are next door to one another makes them even more remarkable.  We start at Brocatelli, which makes its own cheese from milk collected from local farmers daily.  There we buy fresh cows milk ricotta (no sheep's milk ricotta is available this time of year) for Rich's nudi, a ricotta based quasi gnocchi that he is offering up as a primi piatti for the night's dinner.  We buy a few other cheeses before stopping next door at Brufani, where a sliver of blue veined gorganzola piccante is the prize.

I'll see your pair of chefs
and raise you a prosciutto
When we return to the villa the dinner preparation begins in earnest, with the two chefs being helped by a handful of volunteers that has not decided to join the others in the pool.  Nudi is mixed up and rolled out into long strands about the the diameter of a highlighter pen and then sliced into disks.  The wood fire for the oven is started and zucchini flowers are cleaned and a batter made up to coat them with before frying them.  At last the prosciutto, which Claudio had seasoned with an ample mixture of wine, salt, pepper, fennel flower and rosemary, is cut in half so it will fit in the roasting pans, the aroma of the fennel flower filling the kitchen before it is brought outside and put in the oven.  Over the course of the next couple of hours, as the pork roasts, plates of fried zucchini flowers, supplemented with fried zucchini slices and fried sage leaves are offered up pool side.  Shortly thereafter, we move to the table where Simone serves an enormous platter of hot scrambled eggs, smothered in truffle which gives off a tantalizing aroma.  The eggs are quickly wolfed down and are replaced with Rich's nudi, soft chewy gnocci with a subtle cheese taste that is supplemented with light and fresh tomato sauce.  At last the pork arrives, cut into thin slices and plated after being bathed in its juices.  As promised, the skin is crackly and chewy, the flesh moist and intense.

This is  truly the reward for our day of grocery shopping.  Some might find it superficial and meaningless to have invested our entire day in the mundane act of buying food and preparing it.  As I look around the table at the intense conversations, the full on belly laughing, the sparking eyes and smiles of this group, most of whom have met each other just a day before, I can't help but disagree.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy


M in SC said...

I have loved reading your adventures and now that you back at the villa, I'm reliving the wonderful time our group had there. Your writing is great.
Martha in SC

Bill Menard said...

Thanks, Martha. It's great being back. We're already looking forward to coming back in October with our Food and Wine tour. You should join us or pass on info about the tour to anyone you think might be interested in joining us. Suzy and I lead the tour and I think (with great humility!) that it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience all that this area has to offer.