SLOW FOOD WORLD – Learning The Trade

I arrived at the little train station of Vairano-Cainnaiolo and dragged my massive collection of luggage out front. All that lugging was building muscles I never had but would soon need in my new Italian kitchen. Just as I dial La Caveja, the acclaimed restaurant located in the mountain town of Pietravairano (population 3,800), a little Fiat pulls into the parking lot and a skinny man with glasses approaches me: “Are you Sarah?” he asks in Italian. He is the manager of La Caveja, and I take this serendipitous meeting as an omen of good things to come.

When we arrive at La Caveja, the air is heavy with the perfume of purple wisterias, cascading down from the balconies and creating a delicate canopy leading to the door. I spend an hour unpacking my things before they call me down to dinner. The chefs and waitresses have already eaten so I get a table all to myself. There aren’t many guests yet, and the entire staff seems to devote their energies to feeding me.

First comes an antipasto plate crowded with fresh buffalo mozzarella (a specialty of the region), cherry tomatoes stuffed with anchovies and capers, pancotto broccoli, a timbale made from broccoli greens and cubed bread, and a miniature sheep’s milk ricotta. Everything is delicious, and once I’m done I feel ready to return to my bed and fall sleep. But out comes a plate of fresh fettuccine with pancetta, little broccoli florets, garlic and olive oil. It is full of simple flavors, the sort of dish an excellent chef might throw together at an impromptu lunch with friends. I am by now quite full, but I cannot turn down Bernadino Lombardi’s offer of a steak—he is one of the owners of La Caveja and its grill chef. I ask him to make it small, and he holds up a hunk of meat for my approval. It is a large T-bone, which he claims he can’t cut any smaller. A few minutes later it arrives at my table: tender, mild, and perfectly rosy inside. Confronted with this perfect steak I am almost convinced that I am hungry again.

“Dessert?” asks the waitress with a cunning smile. I agree to a taste, but implore her to make it very small. Out come two plates, one bearing a cornucopia of buttery pasta frolla cookies; crispy cantucci speckled with hazelnuts, three types of cake, and a pastry cone filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and candied fruit. The other bears a dozen miniature cookie cups and a teaspoon. They stand ready to be filled with homemade apple marmalade, a specialty of the house.

So starts my month at La Caveja. The next four weeks are filled with much more work but no less food. I am encouraged to taste everything during my ten hours a day in the spacious, well equipped kitchen. I am delighted to discover the food here is vibrant in a way I’ve never seen in America. There are small yellow flowers on the broccoli and delicate lavender blooms on the rosemary. We spend hours shelling peas and fava beans; I listen to the other chefs gossiping in their Campanian dialect, trying my best to understand.

Every morning a woman on a scooter comes to drop off fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese, still warm and bubbling. I am fascinated by the daily changes in its taste and smell. The ricotta runs the gamut from mild and super-creamy to a pronounced musty, animal taste. When Berardino, a big imposing man with steely blue eyes and grey streaked hair, is in the kitchen, his presence is definitely felt, but unlike in the gentrified restaurants kitchens I’ve worked before, this chef-owner doesn’t have a habit of yelling and throwing pots when something goes wrong.

I am struck by the multi-tasking that goes on in the kitchen. One of the dinner waitresses morphs into a chambermaid every morning as she viciously vacuums, mops and brooms the dining room and the guest rooms. The legendary pastry chef (rumor has it many of the guests come just for a taste of her pasticciera and sbricciolata) helps peel potatoes and wash the lunch dishes. The 50-something matriarch of the family that staffs Berardino’s farm, respectfully referred to as ‘La Signora’, is also the dinner shift dishwasher. Quiet and hardworking, she shows the same wariness and indifference towards me, a stranger, as Berardino’s dark eyed young children.

I was at first put off by the saturnine disposition of my colleagues. It, coupled with their Southern Italian inclination to bicker with one another in a dialect that did not resemble Italian to my foreign ears, made my initial weeks in Pietravairano more solitary than I would have liked. Though they didn’t open up and joke around like other Italians I’ve met, I realize they took great care of me from my very first day. The waitresses made sure I always helped myself to a big piece of cake and an espresso in the morning. Upon learning of my enthusiasm for barnyard animals, Berardino took me to his rustic farm to see the pigs, sheep, cows and endless olive groves. La Caveja’s sous-chef took me to see the making of buffalo mozzarella and the pizzaio (pizza chef) was in the habit of surprising me with a bubbling Neapolitan pizza at the end of my shifts (buffalo mozzarella with white anchovies, my favorite). The line chefs always let me off a bit early, sparing me much of the clean-up duty they reserved for the paid employees.

One slow night Berardino came into the kitchen and began to prepare an asparagus dish, snapping the woody ends off a bundle of wild asparagus he had collected that day. I knew better than to try and help out with this seemingly mundane task. Last time I touched the wild asparagus I was reprimanded and told that it’s a delicate creature; apparently one needs years of experience to know exactly how much to snap off and discard. It was a task Berardino always reserved for himself. Preparing a dinner for a party of 60 was a job he left to me and the two other interns, but when it came to asparagus nobody could be trusted.

Once trimmed, the stalks were cut into pieces and briefly sautéed. In another pan he sizzled thinly sliced spring onions with an ample amount of olive oil made from the olives grown on his farm. He added water and broke in a dozen small farm eggs, letting them soft boil before adding the asparagus and cooking it all a few minutes longer. In a bowl he laid a small piece of stale bread, ladled a bit of the soup and an egg over it and topped it all with a shaving of intensely salty, aged ricotta. He silently passed me the bowl, and a huge grin appeared on my face and stayed there as I savored the delicious, salty soup.

Do you understand?” Berardino interrupts my concentration. He goes on to explain, “Italy is a thousand variations on this soup”. He pauses. “No, you don’t get it, do you?” I desperately try to convey in my broken Italian that I understand, that I came here to explore the Italy of a thousand simple soups, of flowering produce, where a piece of wild asparagus is more important than a party of 60. But he walks off in silence. Though I lacked the Italian to explain it that day, I too have glimpsed Italy’s soul in Pietravairano, with the help of a dozen taciturn country folk and a simple bowl of soup.

Sarah Weiner, an economics major at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of old.slowfood.com.

Photo: Pietravairano

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