How Il Campo Began

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.

By the time Federica flew home, I had decided to go back to Radicondoli and spend time with Guido at his campo, and begin researching a book about the village and its food traditions.

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. But friends came forward to help me bridge the gap of culture and language, and 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. From there the idea emerged of a cooking school involving the villagers as instructors and resources, and within six months, Il Campo/Cucina was launched.

As I got to know the people who came during the first season, in May 2010, 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/Cucina 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