Our Italian Year – November

By November 24, 2011 59 comments Permalink

The harvest hit its peak in early November. The whole commune buzzed with activity involved in the picking and processing of grapes and olives. In every grove, in every vineyard, men in flannel and denim and tweed plucked ripened fruit. Three-wheeled Apes (or “bees”) zipped along the narrow streets on their way to the mills, spilling produce from their stuffed beds, staining the road and perfuming the air. Village stores featured bottles of glistening green oil fresh from the press and aged wine from previous harvests now bottled and ready for consumption. Sadly, Paolo’s small grove (pictured below) had been crippled by a freeze the previous winter, leaving him with no olives. We watched him throughout the fall, up a ladder in his trees, meticulously pruning his branches in preparation for the next season. We’d been looking forward to helping with the harvest, but with no labor for us on the schedule, we decided to take our first trip away from Tuscany.

Piedmont (Piemonte) is a mountainous corner region of northern Italy, bordered by France and Switzerland. Turin, the capital of Piedmont, is the magnificent city of Baroque architecture and historic prominence. But we came for the hill towns known for their gourmet cuisine and powerhouse wines. The hills are far steeper than those of the rolling Tuscan variety; the rocky soil and northern altitude allow for a grape named after the frequent fog, Nebbiolo, to flourish in the coveted wine lands where Barolo and Barberesco are the undisputed king and queen, respectively, of norther Italian wines. We stayed in a rustic inn named after a famous Italian novel, La Luna e Falo (The Moon and the Bonfires). From there we followed switchback roads to ancient towns, tasting noble wines, taking exquisite meals. The white truffle, a rare and precious delicacy most associated with Piedmont, was being feted with its annual fair. At an osteria in the town of Alba, I had plate of egg-yolk-rich Tajarin pasta with a little butter, a little grated cheese, and a heaping shaving of white truffles paired with a mighty Barolo that I swirled and sipped with the woodsy decadence of the fragrant truffles blended into the long, yellow pasta. We could have stayed in the Piedmont wine country, amongst the food and fog and steep-vineyard wines, but Thanksgiving was approaching, and we had plans to celebrate with family and friends back in Tuscany.

Along with plenty of its namesake grape, we brought the real “nebbiolo” home with us from Piedmont. Fog blanketed the Tuscan countryside; everything shrouded in clouds of mist. It had also grown cold. Still, we were excited for our first Italian Thanksgiving. Pam’s parents arrived, and while she and Sophia were busy introducing them to our new favorite places, I made plans for Thanksgiving. Turkey is not common in Tuscany, but my buddy the butcher was able to procure us a tachino large enough for an American holiday. The problem was that the bird was too large for our Italian oven, so he took out the bones and stuffed the cavity with ground veal (I was starting to love that guy). We’d invited Rebecca and Francesco, Gianluca and Tiziana, and their respective sons. Marta and Paolo, from whom we borrowed chairs and place settings and various other hosting necessities, were coming over, too. Our makeshift table in the barn barely had enough room for 13 seated guests and left very little room for movement. The adjacent kitchen soon felt equally as crowded when each guest arrived with enough food to feed everyone. The kitchen counter was piled with plates of amazing color and variety. The windowsill held platters, as did the spiral steps leading up to the loft. The bureau was crowded with wine bottles. The three kids played in the side room and our Italian guests reveled in a rare Thursday celebration with their new American friends and Pam’s gracious parents. We were all thankful to be together in our warm, soft-lit barn, full of aroma and conversation, especially after the turkey, glazed with an olive oil and honey mixture, turned out perfect: each slice had layers of crispy skin, tender turkey and savory ground meat. It was time to gather around the table and recognize all that for which we were thankful.

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