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Meet Teddy Menard

Teddy’s Letters from Umbria – Part 2

Blog post 20180917 5The adventures in Umbria continue, with a new featured player experiencing the rustic countryside for the first time. My best friend Cal arrived just about two weeks ago and, after a quick acclimation in Rome to Italian time (both the time zone and also the way hours work a bit slower here), we took the scenic train ride away from the city and toward Umbria, the green heart of Italy.

Cal and I went to college together, are rock climbing partners, artistic collaborators, lived together this past year in Los Angeles and, perhaps most of all, share a similar ethic around the joys of preparing food with and for those we love. What better place to delve into this passion than in Umbria? We settled into our routine of adventure with immediacy and great delight, reveling in our early morning exercise, followed by a long and slow breakfast preparation with the eggs from our lovely birds and produce from the orto at the farmhouse. We take turns brewing coffee in the moka pot – one as we start to cook and a second batch just as we sit down to eat, making sure to steam our milk only if the clock still reads before 11am. The food scraps from the morning meal get walked over to the birds as an extra treat, then we linger at an outside table to work on the day’s crossword. As usual, any number of thoughtfully planned or curious and improvised adventures await us.

A black truffle. The official fungus of Umbria.
A black truffle. The official fungus of Umbria.

In these two weeks, Cal has ascended the ranks (i.e., supplanted me) in the kitchen at le Delizie del Borgo, our friend Simone’s restaurant in nearby Bevagna, effectively serving as sous chef and doing a damn fine job: a guest sent explicit compliments back to the chef for the Umbrian classic uovo morbido, the elevated Italian brother to our scrambled eggs – not knowing it was l’americano Cal who had executed the dish flawlessly on his first attempt! Meanwhile, I’ve ventured into the server’s world which has proved a highly encouraging environment to hone my Italian and let out my inner sprezzatura, a necessary nonchalance that all waiters in Italy are seemingly dripping with.

Outside of Simone’s kitchen, we have been spending heaps of time in … our kitchen. At the farmhouse, every meal can be envisioned just by stepping out into the backyard. We’ve strung together all manner of immediately fresh, holistically healthy (if you consider using a lot of olive oil healthy), unreasonably tasty meals in a setting that Cal has been describing as “magical” – when he has the words the express the feeling.

On our day off last week we took the bike path from Cannara to Montefalco which, given the fact that we got slightly lost, ended up taking about two hours. After having scaled some serious hills, we luxuriated in the beautiful square, walked the entire circumference of the town, sat and had coffee and some time to draw, and ran into just about every person I know with even a loose connection to Montefalco along with making some new friends at some of the local businesses. Among these happenstance visits were assorted members of the Pardi family, all of whom had eagerly been awaiting the arrival of Cal to set into motion an opportunity for us to all spend time together. We made the obligatory stop at the family winery to say hello to Albertino, the man who runs the business, and we unexpectedly left with plans for him drive a 60 gallon stainless steel fermentation tank over to the farmhouse to assist in a batch of beer we will be brewing in October, as well as talk of him contributing an oak barrel as well to age our sure-to-be spectacular beer.

Speaking of beer, the hops that I planted last year in hopes of convincing a local winemaker to help me make a beer here (thanks Albertino!) have just been harvested! The hops are now dried, vacuum sealed, and keeping fresh in the fridge, along with some green Italian figs (known as both dotato or kadota figs) being stored in the freezer that will be added to the beer after it finishes its first fermentation. Instead of buying yeast, we are going to collect a sample of local ambient yeast from the rich biodiversity of our garden at la Fattoria del Gelso, and we will use local barley and other grains as the base. After running the brewing club at my college (yes, I know, pretty sweet) and working in a brewery right after school, this situation is what I would consider the ideal. More news on that to come with the arrival of my brewing partner from college and tour guide of one of the best sour beer breweries in the US next month!

This makes me very hoppy.
This makes me very hoppy.

Not to miss out on the climbing while we’re in Italy, Cal and I managed to find one of the most unexpected experiences one could imagine. In the town of Serra San Quirico about two hours away, there is a yearly climbing festival that takes rope climbers onto the high cliff walls that surround the town. However, the locals also curate much shorter routes throughout the medieval architecture of the town, climbing on the old tower, in a brick archway tunnel from maybe the 1300s, or up the face of the town fortress wall to a window that was once used to shoot arrows at approaching enemies. We spent the day touring this unbelievable historic town while also climbing all over it. For many climbers, there is a challenging balance between spending time in the city and getting to climb outdoors – we got both at the same time!

We spent another day harvesting grapes, this time for our friends the Pardis. Seemingly, the crew didn’t account for what naturals Cal and I would be because all together we finished a supposedly 5 hour job in just under 3 hours. Thanks to a very early start, this left us with pretty much a whole day ahead and no real plans. With time to kill, one of our fellow harvesters, a friend of Albertino’s named Kwan, whom I had met last year at a lunch party in the winery offered to give us a ride to his parents’ property just on the outskirts of town. Although it was only a few minutes away, the ride transported us to a different place. We arrived to the gates of a reasonably sizable but very humble property and were greeted by a horde of dogs. Looking to the right, there were three comically obese Thai pigs that were very sweet and devoured whole apples with their hairy snouts. Out from the garden ambled an older man with a pronounced back hunch, leathered and weathered fingers, jet black heavy eyebrows and a frayed baseball hat with the bill torn off to fit as a skull cap. He looked like the idyllic Italian garden in late summer, in fact, much like the one from which he was just exiting. We proceeded to be inundated with generosity, sharing thoughtful and slow conversation across three languages, being taught how to crack a walnut with one hand (as evidenced by Kwan’s older father being much more capable than us two strapping young climbers, strength is not so much a matter in the equation as finesse), sampling and eventually being sent home with a bag of the best figs either Cal or I has ever tasted, and convening with all sorts of animals besides the pigs. Kwan’s father, it seems, spends every waking hour tending to one aspect of another of his farm, which includes the aforementioned pigs, figs, and walnuts, as well as a vibrant and active orto for produce, about two dozen goats, 100 or more birds, including turkeys, geese, ducks, and chickens of varieties I never knew existed, and three donkeys. Sharing that space, that time, and that company was a true lesson to me in the ethic of sharing – it was the kind of experience that keeps your breath stuck somewhere between your lungs and your mouth, a distinctive warmth that has your sensations fully tingling but your mind at complete ease and drawing out every moment. It really was hard to leave, but sure enough, we ended up back there the next day.

Blog post 20180917
Farm living is the life for me . . .

The routine adventure continues, and we continue to learn from getting lost, improve our finesse when ordering caffe at the bar, and make more genuine and generous conversation with the people we come by. Next week we set off on a climbing adventure in Croatia, taking off up the sea summiting cliffs of Split and Hvar and hoping to ascend to the top or face the humiliating splash of failure in the late summer ocean. Until then,

Buon viaggio!

The adventures in Umbria continue, with a new featured player experiencing the rustic countryside for the first time. My best friend Cal ...

Teddy in Umbria

Teddy here, writing from the farmhouse in Cannara. I am two weeks into my three and a half month stay in Umbria and have quickly been reminded why I couldn’t wait to get back. I wake up to the light activity of our 18 birds (mostly hens, as well as a couple of geese, ducks, and guinea fowl) and say hello to these healthy ladies (and their bountiful eggs!) as I give them their morning meal, along with all of my leftover food scraps as a special treat.

In very un-Italian fashion I prepare a big breakfast – how else can I get through these eggs fast enough? – and a caffe to wash it all down. And now, in the words of caretaker Marco, I commence on the day’s “program”, and this is where things get really exciting. Every day feels like a choose your own adventure, depending on who I’ve seen recently or who has heard that I am in town.

One day I am accompanying Jennifer McIlvaine and one of her groups on a summer tour of Montefalco – visiting a dairy farmer who makes cheese, yogurt, and gelato, followed by a walk through town, then lunch at another farm, this one biologico (essentially the Italian version of organic certification) and dotted with all manner of fruit-bearing trees, an apiary, grape and olive production, and an assortment of animals. Lastly, a requisite wine tasting of one of Umbria’s crown products, Montefalco Sagrantino at Cantina Fratelli Pardi.

And from having seen the Pardi family, I get a late afternoon invite the following week to accompany them for dinner. Patriarch Alberto – who is one of the most engaging, excited, and kind people I’ve ever met (despite not speaking much if any English!) – arrives to pick me up in the early evening. He asks if it’s okay to make a quick stop and I watch him collect the season’s finest harvest from an azienda agricola that is no more than 5 minutes from the farmhouse but I doubt I will ever find again amidst these labyrinthine roads. Onward to Montefalco, and when I ask where we will be going he laughs confusedly to tell me that of course we are eating at the family home. Another stop at a gas station that also serves as a macelleria (meat and cheese counter) to pick up the evening’s secondo: stinco, a very Umbrian pork dish. Another stop at the winery to pick up assorted members of the family and finally I arrive at their incredibly lovely home, right in the heart of the town. What followed was one of the finest examples of family care I’ve ever witnessed, and by the end of the evening it truly felt as if I was not just a witness but a member. We drank late into the night discussing cousin Marco’s love life, the moments and laughter in the house warming brightly as the light outside faded.

Another day, I resend an email that I discover had not gone through the previous week. A response is returned within the hour – an invitation to meet and discuss work opportunities the following day with Roberto di Filippo of his eponymous, biodynamic winery. This is the driving force behind my return to Umbria: I have a fairly compelling fascination with the relationships between soil, seed, plant, and food and beverage products, and I’ve endeavored to learn deeply but also broadly about the elements that comprise these processes. These expeditions have led me to an interest in fermentation, which has been marked mostly by working with beer, some hard cider making, a lot of sourdough bread-baking, and some vegetable lacto-fermentation projects. But the grail of fermentation is wine, and there are few opportunities that exist for me to not only learn about wine and its production, but to examine wine through the holistic lens that drives my curiosity. Roberto’s philosophy on farming is so rich and deep, to the point that the wine seems almost a happy bi-product of the balanced, interwoven relationships between organisms microscopic (in the soil) and fairly large (the draught horses he uses for tilling) on his property. It doesn’t hurt that he happens to make exceptional wines though! Upon receiving my interest in learning any and all things related to his wine production, Roberto kindly extended the offer for me to help out. The only requirement he dictated, though, was that it could not be work for just one day. His justification was loosely as follows: “To understand, you need to touch and feel as much as you can. And you have to share the labor with your peers – there is a unity between the land and the animals and the grapes and the workers, and you must share.” I was truly taken by the quality of his words, and replied simply, “Roberto – `e una bella filisofia.”

My first day of work I helped on a couple of horse-drawn carriage tours through several of Roberto’s plots, serving as a translator for a couple from Canada and trying to actually learn Italian on the following tour of ten locals. Lunch for the employees in the main room of the cantina, and new friend Giovanni was excited to share an oregano digestivo he had made with everybody. It was a delicious way to prolong our midday break! In the afternoon I helped bottle last year’s white wine blend before taking my leave for the evening.

The following morning I joined a ragtag group of helpers to harvest the season’s first grechetto grapes, to be used in a spumante wine that I believe will be new to Roberto’s arsenal. The group was old and young, hailing from France, Senegal, Romania, or just five minutes up the road. All the other foreigners, however, actually speak Italian. I became Los Angeles! to them, or Lau-rence of A-raab-iah because of the bandana I wore draped from the back of my hat to cover my neck (Teddy is a very difficult name for Italians to pronounce). We made it by thanks to some very friendly and patient Italian and also French speakers, which sadly has become even worse than my Italian, but the composite of options helped make most things pretty clear. The other benefit was that the work is really straightforward – you cut clusters of beautiful grapes, put them in a basket, and trade out your basket when it’s full for a new one. Lots of heat, lots of singing, lots of laughs, lots of words I didn’t understand, and lots of grape-juice-sticky gloves. Overall, a truly memorable day!

Any given morning, I can expect a text message on my phone saying, “hi baby, could you come in this afternoon?” It’s a message from my extra sibling, chef Simone Proietti Pesci. In ten minutes I can be at the restaurant where I may be enlisted to de-stem rosemary picked on a walk earlier that morning, prepare a soffrito (the Italian mirepoix of carrot, celery, and onion), or wait tables, the latter of which displaying the deep trust Simone has in me and my very insufficient Italian. No matter the task, work with Simone is always easy – not that I don’t work hard, but Simone runs the most calm, organized, and efficient kitchen I’ve ever witnessed. He is a true master within his space, and just being around him  suffuses me with skills that have improved my own abilities in the kitchen. Already in these few weeks I’ve been a helping hand in some truly impressive dining events – a 60 guest, seven course fixed menu inspired by Argentina with live tango performances between courses, and another 60 guest baptism celebration with a lavish buffet spread and many bottles of regional wine. It’s hard to count the times a guest walks directly into the kitchen to say, “complimenti a chef!” and then stay to chat for another ten minutes or so, Simone carrying on the conversation while plating the next course.

In less than a week, I will be joined by my dearest friend and former housemate, who will stay along throughout the remainder of my adventures in Umbria. I find myself constantly grinning with excitement, not only for the value of having someone I love to share with these people, places, and experiences that I’ve known, but at the thought that, despite the head start of my experience here,  there are countless new opportunities and moments that await us.

Ciao!
Teddy

Teddy here, writing from the farmhouse in Cannara. I am two weeks into my three and a half month stay in Umbria ...