Tuesday, September 27, 2011

there & back again

So the thing is, I came to food school for the vertical Barolo tastings, not to learn the optimal environment of a sensory analysis lab (self-evident much?) Since I’ve already done the former and don’t feel like doing the latter, I guess I should write about my summer vacation. When I first returned to Bra several weeks ago, I sat down, told myself to get it on paper while it was still fresh in my mind, and wrote the following:

It was a summer of foraging and remembering, of sticky grape juice up to my knees and pig feed caked onto my skin, of planes and trains and automobiles and hikes and bike rides, of familiar faces and new characters. It was a summer of bread and pie, figs with Roquefort and marinated sardines with mascarpone. It was a summer of heat and sweat, decadence and dirt, swims and the sea. It was a summer of primitivo and prosecco, gamay and sangiovese and rosé. It was a summer of laughter and discovery, of generosity and conviviality, of recognizing that though I may not know what I want to do, I definitely know how I want to live.

And that was as far as I got.

I realize that my proclivity for laundry-lists-of-things-I-ate really doesn’t do justice to the range of experiences and emotions of my six weeks fuori di Bra. It’s also bad and lazy writing. (Side note: my first idea was to write an “Alphabet of Summer 2011” along the lines of “A is for Auberge de la Môle! B is for blackberries and Beaujolais!” Then I remembered that I’m not MFK Fisher.)

I suppose it’s the combination of the intensity of the experience and the infrequency of my writing that makes me feel the need to condense everything into one post. But in this case I think it’s best to address the two legs of my break separately: first there was Italy, and then there was France. (If I never get around to writing about France, I’ll sum it up in one sentence – I crushed grapes with my feet and ate a bloody filet topped with foie gras and truffle cream. Go ahead and re-read that last part. Now wipe the drool off your chin.)

I spent my first two weeks as a wwoofer (a “Willing Worker On an Organic Farm”, not to be confused with illegal migrant labour) at Tenuta di Spannocchia, where I spent three months last fall as an intern. I was one-third of a stellar Tutto-Fare team, meaning I worked primarily in the vineyards, cellar, and olive groves. Not to brag, but I make overalls, flannel, and a bandana look good.

But I digress.

Memories are a strange thing: never fixed and static, they change every time we access them – either voluntarily as when reminiscing with friends, or involuntarily as when provoked by a flavour from our past. Do we distort our memories by accessing them too frequently and consequently romanticize the past at our own peril? Sometimes. Do we neglect them and allow them to fade, and then are never again fully able to conjure the memory in its entirety? What is more important, the actual experience or how we remember it? Is this a false choice? Where am I even going with this?

As my first extended time back at the farm, these sorts of questions ran through my mind on my train ride to Siena. Sure, the place would still be more or less the same, but many of the people that are inextricably tied to my memories would not be there. And what if Angelo – my singing supervisor – didn’t remember me?

On my first day of work Angelo arrived in style – donning his signature royal blue sweater with his head cocked to the side – to the morning meeting, and after his enthusiastic Giulia chi scrive bene! I breathed a sigh of relief. This place made an impression on me, and I (or my penmanship) made some sort of impression on him. Phew.

Between sipping sangiovese on my sunset perch, gossip-filled power walks, and good eatin’, it was strangely wonderful how easy it was to slip back into that pace and to collectively reminisce. While talking to the new interns I sometimes felt like that guy – the college freshman who drunkenly crashes his high school’s homecoming dance in a pathetic attempt to relive the glory days. But honestly, this summer group was lame, so who cares if I not-so-soberly yelled at them for not knowing what vin santo is. For shame!

Maybe Katie (educational director), Heather/Carrot (fellow intern), and I did talk a bit too much about the good ol’ days, but it felt great to relive those moments and have some details – the ones blurred by time or alcohol - filled in. Being home in Baltimore I felt as though the specifics of my experience had slowly faded away; by the time I was heading back to Italy it seemed I was left with just the essence: what do I remember about Spannocchia? I remember that I was happy.

Calm down, Mom. This is not to say that I’m not happy now, or that I was depressed at home, or anything along those lines. It’s just curious how at one moment you feel you have only those three words to describe a whole three months, and the next you’re describing Paolo’s Halloween dance moves over truffle pizza at Radicondoli.

Of course it wasn’t only about reliving the past, but creating new memories, namely alici marinati and mascarpone. No-cheese-with-seafood! rule be damned, give me toasted bread smothered in mascarpone and marinated sardines! I’ve thrice enjoyed this goodness, and the fact that I just wrote thrice means it’s time to wrap this up and call it a night.

Maybe it’s been the glorious combination of place (either overlooking the sea or watching the sunset over Tuscan hills) and people (almost half of my intern group with some other cool kids to boot) that made that simple snack taste so damn good. Comunque sia, going back to Spannocchia to wwoof, and then again this past weekend for a birthday celebration/farewell to Carrot, made me appreciate even more how powerful that combo can be. Good people in a beautiful place? Sardines and mascarpone? That is how I want to eat, that is how I want to live.

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