an Italian kitchen

Valentina is 78 and almost always smiling. She is a workaholic. As her daughter takes the first bite of dinner, sitting down for the first time all day after serving 30 guests, Valentina is standing behind her chair and asks “what will we cook tomorrow?”

She gets up at 05:00 to make peach or apple crostata for breakfast, then to begin prep for her daughter’s 10-course restaurant. Her husband Pierro (83) whose land she married onto, manages the vegetable garden, orchards, and a diverse flock of fowl, chattering to the two small dogs who follow him everywhere. Together they swap out the empty 50l gas tank for a full one, which they maneuver from his truck on a dolly. They don’t ask for help with this from their daughter, son-in-law, the staff, or Pierro’s namesake grandchild (16). Valentina also joins him every afternoon to herd the geese, turkey, and chickens through the orchards, presumably to clean bugs and fallen fruit. But when he walks into the dining room cuddling his favorite chicken like a baby in his arms, she takes the chicken by the neck and escorts them both out.

She makes cheese, but she only eats dairy when it’s in the form of dessert. I asked her if she ever used sap from their fig trees as rennet. She doesn’t. She makes her own rennet from a sheep stomach that’s been hanging to dry for 4-5 months. This is dry enough to grate, and then she mixes it with egg yolks, olive oil, pepper, cinnamon, and some other herbs. With this she makes a paste to coagulate the cheese.

Pierro’s tomatoes are a wonderful tangle of varieties, a fragrant tunnel surrounded by basil, eggplant, peppers, and then by the orchards. For most of their lives, Pierro and Valentina spent peach season picking at 04:00 and then driving to deliver the peaches to local stores, where the customers would stand waiting, refusing to buy other peaches.

Because Valentina speaks a dialect, I can’t pick up much of what she says, and she can’t manage my neophyte Italian either. I wonder at the knowledge slipping through my fingers, but I can’t take my eyes off her face and eyes. In desperation to hold what I can, I make a video of her deftly knocking out gnocchi for 30. “A video of my technique”, she repeats credulously, to the family. She already knows I am a lunatic, because I have put candles in the dining room and the family (in ironic respect to the American concept of Italian cuisine) now eats “in the dark”.

One Monday morning when the laundress had taken Sunday afternoon off, I thought I could get away with using an unironed tablecloth, but Valentina caught it at 06:30 on first glance as she passed from one kitchen to the other.

I’m sad that I can’t capture and learn more. And I’m even more sad because I wonder what her recipes would taste like if her daughter bought good ingredients, instead of the cheapest she can find in the supermarket.

For eggplant parmiggiano, the eggplant has to be cooked twice, first in the farm’s olive oil and then in their tomatoes. But industrial parmiggiano is sour and dominates the result. Stuffed zucchini flowers require incredibly delicate work, but the ricotta is industrial, and I’ve tasted enough ricotta to know the massive variation of quality.  The crostata uses eggs and peaches from the farm mixed with cheap flour and UHT milk. The farm’s basil is lavished on cheap spaghetti. The sweet onions braided to hang in the shed are roasted with the cheapest available beef – and Italians don’t want to talk about it.

I’m helping the daughter with dessert. I hand her each plate. She scoops the cheapest gelato she can find and insists that I clean the edge of every plate. She pays a maid to wash and iron the tablecloths twice a day, but she doesn’t want to pay for real food. She makes a custard by hand and then layers it with supermarket puff pastry procured in more than its weight of plastic. I say “I don’t understand how you can make this by hand and then mix with something industrial.” She says “well I don’t want to make puff pastry”. Ok, I say, then just mix the custard with peaches. She says “but if I do this the people are so impressed. They feel they are in a pastry shop.” So the illusion is worth more to her than the ingredients, or taste.

I watch Valentina eat. She eats like me, grazing on what appeals to her, a handful at a time, selective. I wonder if she knows the difference and doesn’t oppose her daughter, or if she too is seduced by the price and ease of industrial ingredients.