In the fall of 2009, when I decided to write a book about my adopted Italian village and its rich history of sustainable food and energy production, I had no idea that I would soon get involved in the birth of a community-wide cooking school.
It all started with a contadino named Guido, who is the grandfather of my friend Federica. A brainy and beautiful young woman from Radicondoli, Federica had just graduated from the University of Padua as a Dottoressa in psychology–her education having been funded by savings from the sale of some of Guido’s cows years before. To celebrate the completion of her degree, Federica made a trip to America with me. Each night at dinner, she told stories about her grandfather’s campo (“field”), which was the source of nearly everything her family consumed. From Guido’s campo came all of the family’s vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat, poultry, eggs, olive oil and wine. That campo, combined with Guido’s hard work and devotion to the rhythms of the land and its seasons, had paid big dividends for his family and created the foundation for a way of life that cannot be bought at any price in the great cities of the world.
One thing about our village that has always impressed me is the unbelievably delicious food made in the local kitchens. Whether it’s the pizzeria, the central bar, or a private home, the standards are consistently high. Butter and sage topped gnocchi that melt in your mouth, tomato and pine nut drenched ravioli filled with fresh local sheep’s milk ricotta and nettles picked in the fields that morning, handmade pappardelle noodles dressed in a rich ragu made with wild boar from the mythic oak forest of the Colline Metallifere, heavenly tiramisu golden with the eggs of local hens. I knew what it was like to eat in Radicondoli, but now that I was writing a book, I decided to get in behind the scenes and find out HOW this food was made.
There was one problem: I couldn’t speak more than the most basic Italian, and the best cooks spoke in a local dialect.
My dear friend, Giovanna Hipting, who owns a wonderful little shop in the middle of town (Pacini & Figlio) and is called by many a visitor the Saint of Radicondoli, took the time to set up appointments for me with village women. She then went with me to those meetings to translate instructions. Soon I was getting cooking lessons in the inner sanctum of Radicondoli–its private kitchens. The first thing I learned–and this was from Federica’s mother Laura Castellini, who is an amazing cook–is that no one in this village uses a recipe, and when they set out to tell you how they made a dish, they usually forget one or two steps or ingredients.
My initial idea was to take notes as the women cooked. I was thinking I would make lists of ingredients and steps and soon have a wonderful collection of recipes. But something else was going on that I had never before considered. Over the course of the month, I realized it wasn’t as much WHAT they were doing as HOW they were doing it that made their food just burst with flavor. This really was not a cucina that could be taught in a cookbook–it needed to be learned in vivo, at the source.
I was perhaps halfway into my month-long immersion tour of village gardens and kitchens when Giovanna floated an idea. We were up in her family’s third story apartment resting after a satisfying lunch cooked by her mother-in-law, Irma Pacini, when she said to me in a prophetic tone, “Marlane, why don’t we start a cooking school?”
Much to my amazement, I heard myself answering, “Why don’t we? The cooks of Radicondoli can be the teachers!”
Then the ideas started to flow. Emanuela could teach us how she works with what’s growing in her garden or being caught on her father’s boat in the Mediterranean to prepare a stupendous repertoire of seasonal menus. Tommaso could teach us to make his light-as-air pizzas. Giovanna Porcu could teach us to make handmade ravioli with cheese from her family’s sheep farm. Clizia could teach us the secrets of _cucina povere_, the art of turning the simplest of ingredients into a culinary masterpiece. Of course, each one of these cooks has a battery of delectable dishes, from lasagna with nettles and ricotta to pork loin stuffed with wild fennel. Wouldn’t it be fun to learn their different techniques and kitchen secrets? Wouldn’t it be fun to go to a cooking school hosted by a village?
We decided to give it a try. I sent out an email to a few of my friends, who passed the message along to their friends. We received an immediate, overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from people all over the country. Two advisory groups came the following spring, and we had a blast.
As I got to know the people who had come and their reasons for making the trip, I realized that the success of this cooking school was rooted in a shared nostalgia for a way of life that is not only missing in most of America, but which is fast disappearing even from Italy—a culture built around community and homegrown, homemade foods enjoyed with family and friends. Il Campo is so much more than a cooking school–it is a doorway into the past, an immersion into a living, breathing way of life that is fundamentally different from our own, and from which there is an abundance to learn, to harvest, and bring home. And I hope that those who come will take Il Campo “the field,” home with them and create their own little piece of paradise wherever they go.
–Marlane Agriesti Miriello, Radicondoli (SI), Italia
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