Honoring My Gastronomic Roots

Today and every day, I celebrate my Italian gastronomic heritage. The traditional values of growing, foraging, cooking and eating with which I was raised filled me with reverence for food.

This fullness stayed with me throughout the years of exposure to highly processed corporate food during my high school and college years after I moved to the United States.

Dormant until the moment I would resource it, this nourishment allowed me to to heal myself with food as medicine when I was crippled by chronic intestinal amoebas. Now, I am in service to the foods, plants, and traditions that healed me. I honor the healers and health care practitioners who mediated my healing and supported me on my own path of self-discovery.

Not only did I heal myself of chronic amoebas, but I also re-connected with my deepest sources of nourishment, which are ancestral ones steeped in mindfulness.

What are your gastronomic roots? How can you celebrate them? Tomorrow, December 10th, is Slow Food International's Terra Madre Day: the day of mother earth.

Join people all over the globe who are celebrating local food and heritage. Here in Vermont's state capitol of Montpelier, the New England Culinary Institute's students will offer a cooking demonstration of Vermont foods.

Before the colonists came to this region, Abenaki people celebrated gastronomic traditions, which endure today thanks to the revival efforts of the indigenous peoples' Haven Project and Seeds of Renewal.
Fred Wiseman and many more Abenaki guide the movement to revive and honor indigenous seeds, crops, and cooking.

If you are inspired, please leave comments here about your ancestral foods and how you honor them.

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Home-Made Pasta and Sauce

As the holidays approach, I think of cooking with my father and grandmother. Because I had the great privilege of being raised with food, I now make it my passion every day.

I like to make pasta with friends and family. With a bit of team effort, the process is more smooth and rewarding. Be patient, have fun, and remember that you can always roll out your dough again if the noodles are too sticky or crumbly. 

I have created a lot of different sauces to accompany home-made pasta. This is my current favorite.


CASHEW CREAM SAUCE

You will need:

  • 1 cup roasted, unsalted cashews - ground in a food processor

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

  • 1/2 teaspoon each: salt, black pepper, nutmeg, thyme

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 cup milk (almond, hemp, rice, or cow)

Whisk all ingredients together in a small pot.

Heat through and serve!

To thicken, cook it down on low heat for 15 minutes.

Get creative! Add crushed garlic, grated carrots, or a bunch of fresh, minced parsley.

Watch this video to see how it's done.


HOME-MADE PASTA DOUGH

You will need:

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup rye flour

  • 1 cup spelt flour

  • cornmeal for dusting

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons water

Prepare the dough by mixing everything but the egg in a large bowl. 

Make a well in the center, crack the eggs into it and whisk them together. Add oil and water and whisk a bit more. 

Then, slowly incorporate the flour into the the egg mixture. 

Once the dough is moist but not sticky (add another tablespoon of water if you need to), knead it a bit, but not too much. You want to develop the gluten but not over-work the dough, which makes it rubbery.

After kneading, shape it into a ball, place it in the bowl, and cover it with a cloth. Allow it to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Now, you are ready to roll! 

Start by pulling off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball. Flatten it into a rectangle. Either roll it out on a cutting board covered with cornmeal or use a pasta machine to flatten it.

If the dough starts to feel sticky, sprinkle with cornmeal. 

Once the dough is fairly thin (about 1/4 inch), run it through the cutting rollers on your pasta machine or loosely roll the pasta into a tube and dust it with cornmeal. Then, slice the rolls with a sharp knife.

This is a great moment for teamwork! Have people feeding the pasta through the machine, others who are catching it on the other side, still others who are checking on the sauces and water bubbling away on the stove.

Transfer the noodles to a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. You can hang them to dry and freeze them or throw them into salted boiling water to cook. Noodles are done when they float to the of the boiling water.

Enjoy with cashew cream sauce or make this wholesome 'no-mato' sauce if you can’t digest tomatoes.

You can also try your hand at spelt squash gnocchi

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Favorite Holiday Recipes

It's time to gather in with friends and family, enjoying the warmth of the season. Take this time to slow down and let thoughts of work and life responsibilities take the back burner. Nourish your own heart, hearth, and the seed of your deepest desires for the year to come.

These recipes have graced holiday tables in places where I have traveled.
Enjoy! I have put a healthy spin on each of these traditional dishes. 

Switzerland: Rosti

1 large yellow onion
3 large russet potatoes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or coconut oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each of these seeds: coriander, caraway, fennel

Place potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain potatoes, and set aside to cool for about 20 minutes. Grate potatoes using the large holes on a cheese grater; set aside.

While potatoes are cooking, chop onion. In a deep skillet, saute it on medium low heat, with spices and butter/coconut oil, for about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a cookie sheet with butter/oil.

Add onions and spices to the grated potatoes. Mix well to incorporate.

Drop spoonfuls of dough onto the cookie sheet and flatten with the back of a fork all around the perimeter.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until crispy and golden.

Enjoy with cooked winter greens, cranberry sauce and hard cheese as a holiday brunch!

***
Tuscany: Cranberry Hazelnut Farro Bread


1/2 cup cooked farro (spelt berries)
1/2 cup hazelnuts, ground into flour in a spice grinder


1½ cup flour (spelt or millet)
1 teaspoon each: cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda
pinch salt
½ cup dried cranberries
1¼ cups milk (almond or cow)
¼ cup honey
1/4 cup olive oil

Cook farro in twice as much water. Cook extra for a hearty winter dinner salad if you like.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a loaf pan with olive oil.

In a large bowl, mix hazelnut meal, flour, spices and cranberries.

Make a well in the center and add milk, honey, oil, and eggs. Whisk these together, then incorporate into dry ingredients.

Fill loaf pan, bake for 35 minutes, and let stand to cool about 15 minutes before turning out onto a cutting board, slicing and serving.

***
Bali: Banana Pancakes


1¼ cups rice flour
¼ cup shredded coconut
1 teaspoon each: cardamom and cinnamon
pinch salt
2 Tablespoons rice syrup
2 Tablespoons coconut oil, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup rice or cow milk
1/4 cup cashew butter
1 medium very ripe banana, mashed (about ½ cup)

Mix flour, spices, and coconut in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, mix well, and saute on medium heat in a stainless steel or cast iron skillet. Oil the skillet with coconut oil between round of cooking.

Serve with extra banana slices, a dollop of cashew butter and a garnish of shredded coconut.

***

New Mexico: Pinto Beans with Poached Eggs and Corn Tortillas

1 cup dried pinto beans, soaked overnight

1 teaspoon each: cumin, oregano, paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 small green chiles (if desired)
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
8 eggs
Fresh cilantro leaves and corn tortillas for serving

Drain and rinse the beans. Bring to a boil in a stock pot with in 3 times as much water. Cook on medium high for 25 minutes. Skim off any foam that rises to the top.

Rinse and drain again.

Meanwhile, chop all vegetables. Saute together in a wide, deep skillet on medium heat for 15 minutes. Add spices, reduce heat, and add beans once they are cooked.

Add 1 cup water and stir to incorporate.


Crack eggs in a circle over the surface of the beans and vegetables. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 more minutes.

Heat corn tortillas for 2 or 3 minutes in a 200 degree oven. Place 2 tortillas on each plate, cover with beans and eggs, and serve with a garnish of cilantro.

Do you have a food tradition that you love and appreciate? Research it, prepare it and serve it this holiday season. Email me and let me know how it turns out!

Enjoy this podcast

Click this link to enjoy a Podcast conversation betwen me an Victor Guadagno.

We discuss my first hand experience with the role that modern industrial agriculture can play in disrupting our cultures….inside and out!

According to Guadagno, "In a thoughtful and practical way, Lisa explains the role food plays in our individual health, community resiliency and cultural heritage".

Roast Rabbit and Pomegranate Risotto


I understand why American people become enamored of Italian culture. Although a reverence for local foods can be found in many places world-wide, the Mediterranean climate allows such traditions to shine through the variety of ingredients available year-round.

In Vermont, we cultivate beautiful vegetables, tend to winter-hardy fruit
trees, pasture healthy animals, and grow an impressive variety of grains. Because our growing season lasts five months at best, we do not have access to fresh foods all the time. As supplies dwindle during the cold months, so do I feel a growing desire to visit the warmer places where these foods grow year-round. 

Certain parts of California may reflect the Italian peninsula's growing season, but the scale on which food is raised does not compare to the small production to which Italy must adhere due to its mountainous geography.

With the Apennine mountains running a spine north-south and the Alps holding the northern part of the country, there are few places to cultivate anything on more than a handful of acres. Hence, even though the growing season here is luxurious, Italian food acquires a precious quality due to its small-scale production. Regional recipes are integral to the cultural paradigm. 

One of my childhood memories of is marked by the truckloads of blood oranges and clementines that make their way North from Sicily. Here in the Po River Valley, my father and I discovered an agritourism that raises rabbits and grows pomegranates, both of which get sent to other Italian provinces so that others may enjoy them. 

In honor of our local foods, we decided to make pomegranate risotto and roast rabbit with white wine and chestnuts. Risotto is a rice dish that hails from Italy and has myriads of regional variations. To make this beloved primo piatto, or first course, with the tangy crimson-seeded fruit that informs the length of Persephone's stay in the underworld, it is essential to remove the seeds from the fruit body, boil them briefly, and spin them through a sieve in order to catch the brilliant juice. This succus becomes the broth with which we cook the rice.

Rabbit meat is rich and lean, but can often profer a gamey flavor unless and retained water is removed first. We seared and rinsed the rabbit before placing it in a roasting pan with garlic and much of the rosemary and sage we collected when we visited the hill village Arqua Petrarca. These herbs, when minced, create a paste that can coat the rabbit and help it to retain its juices while roasting. We poured a quarter bottle of the whine wine made by one of my dad's university colleagues into the roasting pan and sent it on its way into the hot oven. 

Meanwhile, we sliced crescents along the rinds of chestnuts gleaned from Imperia, a nearby town on the ocean. We placed them on a baking sheet and roasted them until the nut meat began to escape from each sliced section. We wanted to peel them immediately, savor some of their sweetness as a prelude to our meal, but we had to allow them to cool. 

Instead, we sampled some of the rye bread we had baked with flour from my family's home town in the Dolomite mountains of Trentino alongside a few of the tangy, tiny black olives that my father picked and pickled in Pienza, Tuscany last year. Bread and olives can provide enough temporary respite to any hungry Italian. 

When we added the chestnuts to the rabbit, gave the risotto its final stir, poured bubbling glasses of Serprino Prosecco from the nearby Euganei Hills, and sat down to dinner, we were satisfied by the process before we ever ate one bite.

Another Recipe from Sage Mountain

As Autumn Equinox approaches, I have the privilege of spending days at Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center to cook for herbalism students.
Last night's meal culminated in a spontaneous dessert creation. A student brought a beautiful winter squash from her garden to share with everyone. We cooked it into a squash custard. The simple richness of its fall flavors delighted everyone! Give it a try.

Squash Custard

Choose pumpkin or butternut squash. 
Chop it, scoop out the seeds and save some if you would like to plant them next spring.

Place chopped pieces, skin on, in a metal steamer. Fill the bottom of the steamer with water, bring to a boil, reduce to low, and steam for 15 minutes or until squash is soft.


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease a 9-inch round or square glass baking pan with oil.

Once squash is soft, remove from steamer and rinse quickly in cold water.
Remove outer skin, and place in a bowl.

Use about 3 cups of cooked squash and add:
1 can whole fat organic coconut milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon each: cinnamon, cardamom, allspice
1/4 teaspoon each: nutmeg, cloves
pinch salt

Mash everything together with a potato masher until all is well incorporated.

In a separate bowl, whisk 4 eggs.

Add eggs to squash mixture, mix together, and pour into baking dish.

Bake at 375 for 20 minutes, or until custard has set.
Yum! Serve as is or topped with toasted pine nuts or pecans.


You can also use this as a pie filling. Just be sure to bake your pie crust half-way before adding custard mix.

Transition Into Fall with Spelt Squash Gnocchi

Welcome to the September full moon, a poignant transition time between late summer and fall. Garden vegetables grow sweeter during cool nights, somehow knowing that this is their last chance to flourish. Savor autumn's balance between abundance and surrender. It will bring harmony to the winter months ahead. My father and I recently re-created a recipe for gnocchi, traditional northern Italian dumplings, in a way that bridges the transition between late summer and fall. We combined potatoes from the early harvest with the first winter squash to create a dish where summer meets fall. Enjoy!

Spelt Gnocchi with Winter Squash and Potatoes

Choose 4 medium potatoes with dry flesh and 1/2 small butternut squash.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Roast the squash inside its skin in a baking dish with 1/2 cup of water for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in water until soft. 
When the squash flesh is tender, remove it from the oven, scoop out the seeds, and then scoop out the flesh. Discard the seeds and skin and set the flesh aside.

Cut the potatoes into chunks and pass them through a vegetable mill.
Pass the squash through the mill as well.

Add just enough spelt flour to give the dough consistency, about 1 1/2 cups. It needs to be supple without being too sticky.
 
Roll the dough into inch-thick ropes.  
Cut the rope into small chunks.



 


Roll each chunk off the edge of a fork to create grooves on one side and a hole in the other side.






As you are shaping the gnocchi, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Add the gnocchi in small batches and remove them from the boiling water with a slotted spoon when they rise to the top. Place them in a deep baking dish and keep them in a 250 degree oven to stay warm if desired.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, spoon pesto over them, serve and savor this delicious time of year. 

Pesto 
In a food processor, mix:
            ½ cup olive oil
            2 Tablespoons almonds, sunflower seeds or pine nuts
            2 teaspoons salt
            ½ Tablespoon lemon juice
            Parmesan cheese to taste – about 2 Tablespoons (if desired)
Blend at highest speed for 2 minutes.

Turn the off processor, add enough basil to fill the bowl, and blend at lowest speed, stopping occasionally to tamp basil down into blades and add more as needed.
While blending, mixture may become too thick with basil leaves. If so, pour additional olive oil in a small stream through the opening of the food processor while it is blending.

Taste for salt and enjoy!
If you are making a large batch, place in small mason jars, label and freeze for winter use.

Apples and Spring in Northern Italy


While we here in Vermont are just noticing tiny hints of flowers like pansies, daffodils, spring beauties and trout lily leaves, my homeland of the Dolomites is in full bloom! There are cultivations of delicious apples, which line the hillsides above vineyards. They have the best view of the mountains!
I miss Italy.
Apples are a wonderful refreshing and cleansing food for Spring. They rejuvenate the lymphatic system, gently cleanse the intestines, and clear the palate to enjoy the fresh flavors of Spring. Our food coop still has local apples from this past season! Try Spartan and Empire.
Here are two ways to enjoy them:
>>fresh as a snack with tahini (roasted sesame seed butter) or cheese;
>>as an after-dinner dessert, cut in half, cored, and baked face down in a glass baking dish at #75 degrees for 20 minutes.

Passion for the Language of Food

Growing up in Italy taught me that, by honoring food traditions, we restore meaning in our lives and remain connected to the earth that feeds us. This childhood teaching was reinforced by living in Bali, where I learned that everything is alive.

Even though life's form changes through the alchemy of activities such as cooking, its essential vitality persists. By working as a whole foods cooking teacher, I encourage myself and my community to connect with sources of nourishment and feel more vital during everyday experience. I trust that food is alive. When we work with it, we speak our life stories, which often become a teaching for others.

I notice that, when people gather to cook food, shared experiences inspire greater depth. When someone inspires, he or she literally 'breathes in', affirming the life force that constantly re-establishes harmony between self and environment. This balance allows us to be in the world with enthusiasm. This word traces its etymology to the Greek word theos, 'spirit'.

I raise awareness of nourishment's many forms through a culinary discovery process, which demonstrates how the language of food affects our lives. When we recognize ourselves in the context of what we eat, we gain a greater capacity to adapt to a situation and thrive. By appreciating our roots and embracing them through preparing and savoring creative meals, we breathe, speak our experience, and remember the life force that connects all beings.

On Bali, daily offerings to the spirits are sculpted from foods such as rice, meat, and fruit.

Meditation on Nourishment

Since childhood, my entrepreneurial spirit has motivated me to start creative initiatives. From crafting art holiday postcards in grade school to starting a fair-trade Indonesian textile import business after graduating from college, I have always noticed my community's needs and acted on my natural impulse to fulfill them.
I feel most satisfied when my livelihood aligns with my passion of inspiring others to make harmonious choices.
How can you find balance between nourishing yourself and helping others?
For me, this peace comes through the art of cooking. I listen to my body and engage in a dialogue with myself about what can best feed me right now. It might be a walk in the woods, a cup of tulsi (sacred basil) tea, or a particular food. When I give myself permission to hear my own inner voice and take the time to respond with my outer actions, I establish harmony between myself and my environment.
Then, I can go into the world and help others!
Let us remember that life is a journey. How can you be satisfied with the way things are?
Explore this meditation, taught to me by my yoga teacher, Prem Prakash, as a tool to gain appreciation for your life.

Imagine putting down all your responsibilities, worries, and burdens. Just leave them in a heap on the floor.
Walk away.
Come back to them and scoop them back up as light, downy feathers of privilege.

This is your life...and mine. There is no destination, but there are ways you can gain a greater sense of freedom within the structure of your own reality.

Here is a feast table set on a volcanic rock during a recent trip to the big island of Hawaii. Grilled salmon, sweet potato salad, avocado mango chutney, and other delights!

Farm Feasts Involve Everyone

In the small northern region of Alto Adige, or Sudtirol, both Austrian and Italian traditions exist. Because the alpine geography only offers small valleys that the glacier left behind for habitation, towns are small and center around churches and farms. Most local people have a working relationship with a few farmers in their area. A favorite autumnal pilgrimage involves visiting these expansive hay barns with attached stone houses, which hold massive masonry stoves and long wooden tables ardorned with red and white checkered tablecloths. This is such a popular tradition that the name itself, torgelen, has become a verb, which literally means 'to cook and eat together with neighboring farmers'.
Instead of paying for a meal that the farmers have prepared, families and friends here in Alto Adige talk with farmers and learn which ingredients they need in order to make a proper feast. For a recent farm visit, since the farmer had not collected any berries this season, my aunt Rita made a buttermilk blueberry cake for all to share. Others brought wine from another farmer or a new sausage they had tried while visiting relatives in the Apennine mountains. All the shared food is as local as possible. Even though the farmers provide most of it, the guests bring some, too.
But this is not the end of their contribution. When neighbors arrive at the farm in the afternoon, it is time to start cooking. They may be set to work over an open fire, stirring cornmeal, salt, and water in a copper pot with a wooden stick until it thickens into polenta. A farmer might ask for help with slicing thick blocks of speck, a salted and smoked sausage, and displaying them for all to enjoy as appetizers. Some might like to try their hand at rolling out discs of buckwheat flour dough, filling it with steamed spinach and sauerkraut, and folding it into a half-moon shape to make tirtlen, large dumplings that are fried and served with plenty of freshly churned butter and fontina cheese. Here are some local women frying tirtlen at the Bressanone Farmers Market:
Children are running outside, chasing chickens or collecting fallen walnuts to feed to the pigs. Someone in the household hands out blue aprons with edelweiss flowers embroidery or checkered aprons with hearts. Guests and farmers alike tie one on and contribute, tasting wine, roasted chestnuts, speck and the trademark shuttelbrot, hard rye bread with fennel, fenugreek and coriander, as they work.
By the time the feast is ready, the farm house is warm with conversation and the smells of delicious food. From venison stew with pears baked in red wine and blackberry jam to a winter salad of pickled beets and braised green cabbage with onion and bean soup, the colors on the table are phenomenal. There is always plenty of bread and wine to go around: baskets and carafes find their way to the table at frequent intervals, heartily re-filled by anyone who notices a shortage. By the end of the meal, it is dark. Children are asked to wash a dish or two before all depart, full and satisfied.
The spirit of collaboration unites people here beyond class and ethnicity. Even though those of German descent are sometimes too proud to send their children to a bi-lingual school and Italians sometimes resist attending the German folkloric dances that often take place in central squares, everyone can agree about their passion for local food and the picturesque land that makes its growth possible. The tension between two distinct ethnic groups keeps this region vibrant in its struggle, reminding all who live here about the paramount importance of caring for the earth and appreciating its gifts.

Tradition Turns Creative with Marzipan

Bressanone, the Austrian-Italian town where my relatives live, is just as settled in its South Tyrolean ways as the majestic mountains that stood here even prior to the human species' advent. Many of the elders in this area do not quite grasp the concept of email; they prefer land lines to cell phones. On a morning drive to Maso Pineto, an old farm house turned hikers' rest stop, we saw local dairy farmers waiting by the narrow, twisting roads for the daily milk pick-up. Instead of building technological infrastructure like cell phone towers, this region has advanced through agricultural product subsidies, which include 20-gallon stainless steel containers with wheels for temporary milk storage and large milk trucks to visit each village and collect the precious liquid. I was awed by the wrinkled old men and women with their blue aprons and felted hats and coats, patiently standing next to containers whose silvery shine almost blinded me. Here, the meeting of traditional ways and modern conveniences highlights local industry. Instead of looking outside to define its standards, this region values the land itself as its most precious asset. The foods that come from these fields frame the most important traditions with which I was raised.

My uncle Harald hails from a well-known German family that ran a local sweet shop for generations. Although he has been a professional painter and sculptor for many decades now, his original artistic training is in the pastry field. He stretches layers of dough for flaky apple strudel with ease and flips crepes with admirable grace. When my parents proposed that he teach them how to make the traditional Tyrolean marzipan pigs, which locals exchange during New Years as good luck, his little blue eyes twinkled like sun glinting on fresh winter snow. He immediately took the traditional, adorable pig shape and spun it to envision even more animal shapes. "We could make monkeys, elephants, anything you want". We found fat rolls of marzipan, a classic European almond paste, at the candy store under the medieval vaulted porticoes in downtown Bressanone.

The next morning, Harald was already immersed in his creations. Instead of starting with the classic pig shape, he was fashioning a golden bear, eyes shyly upturned, holding a bright red rose. Next came an elephant, a monkey, and Santa Claus with shredded coconut for his snowy beard. My uncle still keeps a basket of powdered food coloring in the incredible basement cellar that holds all the abundance of my relatives' meticulous harvests. From pickeld cauliflower to dried mushrooms, from apricot jam to rye berries, from dried deer meat to thick-rinded cheese wheels, this granite-encased room with its marble work table and copper scales for weighing baking flours is the secret gem of the house. I was sent downstairs various times during this sculpture process to fetch a rolling pin, some blanched almonds, shredded coconut, and a mysterious liquid made from cocoa butter and egg whites that serves as a color-fast glaze for the marzipan creatures.
Harald at work:

When we made the New Years' pigs, I got to try my hand at one, too. It is hard to imagine that these hand-worked gifts are now made by factory machines in another valley. My uncle strives to highlight the importance of handwork when making and exchanging local crafts. He even makes the figurines for Catholic manger scenes that are so popular in the Alps. When we involve our hands, we can leave our hearts in the gifts we give. I felt the joy and satisfaction that came from shaping a marzipan pig whose character reflected my own. Even though the hand-made can be more time-consuming, we would not have raw milk cheese without the farmers near Maso Pineto who still milk their own cows. My uncle's handicraft skills also allow us to carry a Tyrolean mountain tradition to the United States and educate others about the world by sculpting our own version of these pink, chubby good luck charms.
Here are the pigs!

The Monks' Apples

On November 1st, public life stops in Italy. This is All Saints' Day, a celebration of the harvest, an honoring those who have passed, and a connection to the spirit that weaves the seen and unseen worlds together. Businesses, public offices, and schools are all closed. Time is spent at a slower pace, often at religious ceremonies and in cemeteries. Gravestones are adorned with purple, red and yellow chrysantemums or dried flower arrangements, tall red luminaries, and the love of family members who visit them as they would a living relative.
In the tradition honored by the local people of the Dolomites, Catholic beliefs twine with the agrarian tradition that came before them. When we visit our local church, we see the altar adorned in purple satin and covered with baskets of apples, grapes, nuts, cabbages and corn, rye, and buckwheat in thanksgiving for this time of year. A hand-cranked wooden grain thresher, a desk and writing implements, a scythe and felted hat, a pair of dancing shoes and rows of large pillar candles also decorate the space. Altar boys and girls with thick-rimmed glasses or unkempt curls swing censers burning spruce resin incense, which breathes forest blessings for work accomplished by all those who help this community thrive. Then, they light each candle as they name those who have died this year. I recognize surnames of families who have baked bread, made sausages and wine, fixed shoes, built chapels, carved Christmas angels and raised goats and chickens in this area for generations.
The choir intones Gregorian chants as they guided all who were present towards the cemetery atop one of the town's sloping hillsides. Sacred space for the living thrives in the village heart but, for those who have passed, the mountain view is more important: it opens a doorway into the next world. Rodella is a craggy peak covered mostly in conifers and occasional post-glacial fields where people centirues ago managed to erect a chapel with a pointed red steeple, some hay barns and houses, and terraced cultivations. Its ridge is snow-covered already and the majestic pink rocky Dolomites stand behind it. Tears always spring to my eyes when I see this majestic view and feel the mountain's protection. This is quite a spectacular place to be buried.
The procession is separated between men and women, but I walk with my dad anyhow. No one seems to mind. Many are whispering in the local German dialect, recounting stories about relatives who have died or saints whom they have invoked for assistance with some life challenge. Even though this territory technically belongs to Italy, there is a strong sense of the Austrian culture that dominated the area before World War I. The bi-cultural politics of this region remain complicated, but the two ethnic groups continue to co-exist and run their schools bi-lingually.
A ruddy man with thick glasses recognizes my father, shakes his hand, sees me, laughs, and says, "der apfel felt nicht so weit von den baum, ya?". "The apple does not fall so far from the tree, does it?" He refers to our striking family resemblance. When I walk through town here in Bressanone, people nod and smile warmly at me. Even though I do not know them by name and I rarely get to visit, I realize that they know me because they see my relatives in my nose, my smile and my eyes. My roots wrap around me and I grow stronger thanks to this kindred connection.
When we arrive at the cemetery, everyone turns to face their families' graves in prayer. We walk around and around the chapel, honor the Mary and Child inside who are adorned with all the gifts brought by those who have been healed thanks to her, and greet friends with whom my dad has been linked for sixty or seventy years. There is so much joy in this reunion. One friend from my dad's art school days, with his green felted Tirolean hat tipped at a jaunty angle, even has tears in his eyes when he sees me after so many years. Walking home, we pass the local monastery and notice that the ancient, twining apple trees in the expansive orchard are laden with fruit. "Why aren't they picking it?" I ask my dad. "There are not many monks left anymore", he replies.
The Catholic renounciate's path is an arduous one, and this particular sect of monks spends much of its time in African missions. When they return, illness often keeps them from fulfilling many of the agrarian roles associated with members of the clergy in Alpine regions. I feel a sadness welling inside me as I realize that this integral human relationship between land, seasons, and prayer belongs to an austere religious tradition that does not appeal to most modern people. However, we do not need to be monks and nuns in order to grow the food that nourishes us, honor the spirit that binds us, and therefore feed something greater than ourselves. "Let's come back and pick those apples after dark", I suggest. He laughs, nods, and we walk on.

A Culture of Walking and Biking

The nearby Adriatic Sea lends to Ferrara both its mild climate and its flat streets, which make it an ideal city for biking and walking. Local people use these modes of transport as part of their daily lives. As a result, citizens are not only healthy overall but also live in an environment with less air pollution. Growing up, I always took public buses to school or rode my pink bicycle with a wicker basket affixed to the front and a pedal-powered tail light on the back for evening travel.

The medieval walls that surround the city provide an ideal way to get from place to place. Biagio Rossetti, their original architect, envisioned them as protection, practicality and beauty. The holes from which soldiers shot at invaders are still as visible as the curved viaducts that welcomed water to pass underneath the walls for public water access. The hand-made bricks whose ruddy structure still holds true offer grounded contrast to the towering green of ash, oak, linden and ginkgo trees that arch into tunnels above them.
Le Mura, the walls:

Walls are flanked by new buildings with many antennae!

At any given time, there are elderly ladies with flowered scarves wrapped around their heads who pedal slowly along the tree-lined promenades; runners dressed in spandex race each other from one lamp post to the next; teenagers lug book-laden backpacks on one shoulder and take a break to sit on a park bench and sneak a cute graffiti phrase on its slats; men in indigo pin stripes and sunglasses stroll from work to their favorite caffe' to share the day's stories over an evening aperitivo at the tiny bars that sprout from the corners where the Mura, the city walls, meet the streets.
The tree-lined path that allows travel by the tops of the walls:

Some bikers along the path:

During a recent walk along the walls with my dad, much to the delight of my herbalist's sensibility, I discovered nettles growing everywhere! These prickly plants are rich in iron and vigorous in the fields that separate the walls from the countryside. Who knows? We could return with scissors and bags to pick them for soup!
Here are the nettles:

My father counts the rings on a cottonwood tree stump:

To see the Mura and bicycle culture in film, you can rent the Garden of the Finzi Contini, originally a novel by Giorgio Bassani set in World War II era Ferrara. I remember seeing the movie cameras come to my favorite park, Parco Massari, because I could not access the Lebanon Cedars, my favorite climbing trees, for what seemed like ages! However, I realize now that it was well worth the interruption because I have a film I can watch when I feel nostalgic for my home town.

Night Life in the Walled City

Ferrara is a medieval city, constructed primarily during the period between 1100 and 1400 CE when the Estense family ruled the Po River delta region. As primary suppliers of grain, cheese, fruit and produce to the Florentine Renaissance empire, this city played a crucial role in maintaining the lavish lifestyle valued by those empowered during the time of this cultural pinnacle. As this brilliant rebirth of arts and culture diminished, so did the privilege of the Estense family fizzle into stardust. Ferrara's construction ceased, stilled despite time's passing, to stand as a monument to a time in Italian culture that valued beauty above much else.
From a Romanesque-style cathedral and a moated castle gracing its center piazza to twenty-foot walls with gates and turrets surrounding its perimeter, Ferrara still holds magical echoes of fairy tale mystique as compared with more recent American constructions. After dark, the intricately laid brick structures of walls, gates, palazzos and porticoes are illuminated by golden floodlights that lend a glow to the architecture.

When my father and I discovered that the local university's music conservatory had created a jazz initiative, we were intrigued to hear some of the musicians whom the department has both attracted and produced. Music history, when brought to life by its players, can display a richness similar to the kind flaunted by long-standing palazzos. Last night, we visited Monday Night Jazz Sessions at the Torrione to discover more.

This building, erected in the 1300s as a watchtower to protect the city against potential Turkish invasion, stands at the mouth of Corso Porta Mare, the road that 'leads to the ocean'. It is impressively round and solid from the outside. We run up the external staircase that leads to the second story entrance; a northeasterly wind from Yugoslavia, the Bora, is blowing through the only open alpine channel down the Adriatic Sea and filling the temperate fall air with a decisive chill. Once inside, the ingenious architecture is revealed. This massive tower has twenty sides, laid in hand-made bricks and upheld by oak posts and beams that still hold together thanks to their original wooden pegs. We look up at the ceiling in awe and notice the marks of chisels on the hand-hewn beams. "Per fortuna", my dad explains, "luckily the Turks did not invade, or this building might not be standing today".
Here is the Torrione:

We move curiously through the space, completely set up in the round with small black bistro tables both on the floor and on a balcony above us, each adorned with a single candle. When we encounter a twisting staircase and wind down into the first floor, we are met by a humming bar scene populated by bohemian characters between their thirties and sixties who are sipping cocktails and glasses of Italian wines. I look at the drink list and realize that local establishments in Italy can flaunt wines that local vinters will never release for export because they are the gems of their vineyards. I feel like I have stumbled into a treasure trove of counter-cultural delight.

The stereo system is blasting tunes by Tower of Power and sparkling laughter dominates the basement bar room, once a munitions storehouse whose ceiling still boasts an impossible spiral of bricks. We walk back upstairs to find seats not yet labeled with the tag "riservato" and explore the black and white photo exhibit along the round walls of legendary performers who have visited during the forty years that the nearby Bologna Jazz Festival has taken place. As people settle into their seats, I smile at the uniquely Italian fashion that surrounds me: men wearing jeans that might seem obscene to more conservative eyes; women with straight black hair and arched black eyebrows wearing anything elegantly, from baubled chains to flowery perfume and low-cut dresses. Thankfully, I already went to one of manh local shoe stores and found a classic pair of tall leather boots to place an Italian seal on my American wardrobe. The ones who stand out to me are a group of four women, two of whom appear to be natural blondes. I know that my alma mater, Middlebury College, hosts a semester abroad program in Ferrara. I imagine that they belong to that crew. They end up leaving before the evening's conclusion.
It's an ideal jazz venue:

As the music starts, the bartender pulls up a stool and sips his own glass of red, which Italians call calice di vino, a chalice of wine. The sound tech, dressed in a skin-tight black shirt that offsets his full head of dark curls, steps up to one of the on-stage microphones and welcomes the band, comprised of docents from the Conservatory. They are a hap-hazard group of men, some utterly polished in silk shirts and ponytails, others hopelessly bedraggled in adidas sneakers and rumpled vests. Despite their mis-matched appearance, they communicate seamlessly during the soul quintet set that starts with Horace Silver and bops the night away through Charles Mingus and ends with Cannonball Adderly. My father and I are tapping are toes and clapping alongside everyone else. When other locals are invited to the stage for a jam session, the audience turns even more lively and the round tower is energized by the convivial weaving of timeless cultural traditions.

Jazz Club Ferrara closes its soiree announcing future engagements and inviting us to attend the upcoming Bologna Jazz Festival, where Sonny Rollins will celebrate his 80th birthday. Two nights ago, I visited a local brewery that was recently opened by one of my friends from elementary school and listened to young people talk about Ferrara's lack-luster night life. Yet, last night, I sensed a secret brilliance radiating from the burgeoning jazz scene at the Torrione, medieval bastion turned house of swing.

For details, visit www.jazzclubferrara.com

Terra Viva

Yesterday, we visited a biodynaic farm, Terra Viva, which is at the end of a little road in downtown Ferrara called Via Delle Erbe. I had no idea that it has been thriving there since 1985 and that its 4 hectares (approx. 2 acres I think?) comprise the biggest cultivated land area inside of city walls anywhere in Italy. Whoa! I was amazed to see that, first of all, they are planting a new round of veggies in October. Blissful Mediterranean climate! Second of all, their adherence to Rudolph Steiner's intensive gardening philosophy allows them to grow gigantic vegetables, raise bees and make linden honey, and have a little shop where they serve lunch every day and from which customers can purchase not only produce but also local products that they have made, even down to the pine nuts, raspberries, tomato sauce and fresh pasta! They gave us freshly roasted white sweet potatoes to sample - delicious! We chatted with the owners about things like, "italian people don't understand the delights of kale" to "where do you find those rare white truffles in the woods around here?" I can picture you loving this place up.

Learn more about it at http://www.nuovaterraviva.org/

After a brief walk back through the fields and past the city walls, we were back out on the streets and the main piazza of Ferrara, which leads into Parco Massari, the park where I used to play on the gigantic Lebanon Cedars whose thick trunks seem somehow smaller to me now that I have adult limbs with which to climb them.

Persimmons and Poverty

Driving between Ferrara, the medieval city in which I grew up, to Arqua' Petrarca, a village in the Euganei Hills where rosemary grows in bushes the size of a Vermont brown bear and pomegranates hang heavy from graceful tree limbs until they are so full that they split open and spill their seeds on the square cobblestones of the tiny roads that wind between ancient stone houses, I noticed many small gardens filled with a wide variety of trees and shrubs. Even though there is not much space for growing food in Italy, a peninsula dominated both by the spine of the Appenine mountains running North-South and the Alps covering the northern quarter of the country, people make the most of it.
Some images of Petrarca's village:





The further my father and I traveled, the more similarities I began to see between home gardens. Many display a lush tree with shiny, dark green leaves laden with huge fruits that look like rugged oranges. I wondered aloud what those fruits might be received the prompt reply, "cacchi, persimmons". Aha! I forget that, although Vermont and this Parmesan cheese-producing region of Italy are at approximately the same latitude, the Adriatic Sea's mitigating effects make the Italian climate far more temperate. I am awed by the gigantic persimmmons, originally from Japan, that thrive here. The ones I see gracing the produce shelves at the local coop for two or three rare weeks each fall are about a third of the size of these. They are delicious with chestnuts, which seem to be roasting on every street corner here this time of year.
Here is a fruiting persimmon tree:

After we reached our destination, home of the medieval poet Petrarca who, as those times required, was also a priest and a public officer, we walked past enough fruit and nut trees to feed a caravan of gypsies. Grapes are already ripe and fresh wine is available everywhere. Almonds are falling off the trees and tumbling with hollow echoes on the stone sidewalks. Olives are turning black and await harvest and pressing into olive oil during the first week of November. The pomegranates call Persephone into the darkness of winter as their crimson seeds fall everywhere, feeed the birds, rest among the thick, fragrant spikes of lavender and rosemary bushes, which are flowering their second annual round of tiny, lilac-colored blossoms. My father picks branches of the ones that grow out of seemingly groundless cracks in the tall rock walls. If that were not enough, the jujubee trees are also producing their rich, crunchy and sweet red-green fruits. They are delicious as is or fermented into a syrupy liqueur, which, judging from the dark-colored bottles for sale out of quiet front doors, seems like a popular way to consume them.\par
I wonder how much the local people take advantage of the abundance that comes their way each fall. While the earth is giving so many nourishing gifts before it rests for the winter, Vandana Shiva, an Indian biodiversity activist who runs Navdanya, a seed-saving organic farm and educational institution in North India, is speaking at the Terra Madre, Slow Food International's conference in Torino. This annual gathering is hosted in one of Italy's richest wine regions, from which the thick, tannic wines like Barolo and Barbaresco hail.
Vandana Shiva speaks about access to food resources at this year's conference:

As attendees gorge on local food and drink that is being offered by two convention center halls filled to the brim with purveyors from across Italy and the world, Vandana Shiva speaks of food poverty and unequal resources, which can make it challenging for certain local groups of people to enjoy the bounty of their own foods. At times, she explains, those who harvest this abundance must sell it to anyone who will purchase it so that they can earn enough money to support themselves and their families. When people lack the resources to meet basic needs such as procuring clean water and healthy food and must resort to selling the fruits of their own land in order to to do, the imbalance that propagates poverty becomes starkly evident. However, many of us turn our backs to this evidence and continue to spend our dollars and cents, unknowingly robbing local people of the nourishment that was once their birthright.
How can we find a greater balance between the disparity of people who have food and those who have buying power? We must return the food to those whose land produces it. Sounds simple enough, but large-scale economies make this intention relatively impossible. It is the small producers, who fight to maintain the local character of their products, that herald this change. When people become proud of the land that houses them, feeds them, reflects their cultural identity, and provides a backdrop for community exchange, then there is potential to re-define wealth so that it is valued not only as legal tender but also as fruits, nuts, legumes and grain. Until more people choose to eat locally and support their food sources, there imbalance will continue, certain regions will wilt from over-production, and others will suffer from malnutrition.
May the richness of the foods I eat today with my father, gleaned from the hills outside my home, nourish us into remembering that every region offers its own unique nourishment. When we savor the food that comes from our bio-region, we take in the local soil with every bite and eventually become native to the place that feeds us.
With the intention for earth-based inter-dependence and reverence, I set out on another journey with child's eyes open to the learning that may come today.

Arrival in Ferrara

I am safely in Italy, buying persimmons and chestnuts from street vendors. My dad and I are making artichoke sauce for fresh pasta and planning the typical Friday evening fish dinner. We went to a local butcher who, because Ferrara in one the Po River delta and so close to the ocean, has a wide variety of fresh catch from which to choose. We chose a fish called the "praying fish", which aligns with this Catholic Friday fish tradition and comes from the Adriatic Sea.
Food binds people in Italy, nourishes them on a level much deeper than simple caloric exchange, creates traditions that build bridges of understanding through the respect for regional culinary identity, and engenders joy in the hearts of those who share them. May we all honor our traditions.
I feel so lucky to have a homeland to which I can return, a source that feeds me and reminds me of the child-like bliss that comes through when I am not attaching myself to the false sense of duty or ownership that comes from being wrapped up in the repetitive patterns of my daily life. I am grateful to be here.
Ferrara's unique Romanesque-style catherdral glows with pink Italian marble:

To Italy!

I am headed to visit my family in Italy after five years. It is an honor!
I will start my trip with a visit to the International Slow Food Conference in Turin.
For details visit http://www.salonedelgusto.it/welcome_eng.lasso?-session=sg2010:1880C16418e7a230B1VvM3BD55AC

Afterwards, it will be time to travel to my home land of the Dolomite Mountains and celebrate All Saints' Day, November 1st, in Bressanone.



Then, I will travel to Pienza to shake olives off the trees and make oil with my parents and my fathers' friends from elementary school. What a fun crew of 75-year-old Italians!

Keep watching this bolg for photos, recipes, stories and other tidbits of Italian delight!