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.