Maybe we mentioned that we really hit it off with an Italian back in Thailand. Tracie and I chatted with Francesco and another varied group of new friends which included a delightful Italian woman, Alice; a Frenchman,Sebastian; a Russian, Alex; Jules, an Indonesian and of course a number of Thais that lived and worked on the farm and a few Americans, French and Canadians passing through. Several times a day over breakfast, lunch and dinner we ended up chatting with Francesco. We all worked on various aspects of volunteer work at Pun Pun throughout our stay there from watering the farm to seed saving and shared stories throughout the day and over the delicious and exciting meals of one another’s travels and dreams of the future.
One day, over a meal, it came up that Francesco had a farm back in Italy. I think we had been talking about earthen building and he was talking about which technique interested him for building an earthen barn for his horse back home. He said it was a shame that we didn’t have Italy on our itinerary and that it would have been great to have us come and cook with his mother and aunt in their home kitchen. We mentioned while we hadn’t planned to go, our itinerary was up to us and open-ended and we probably could find a way. I mean, it’s Italy, right? Italy, farming, food, more adventure and a place to learn more, that fits into our mission for this trip. So, we told him that and he said, “..then you must come…no, you must come…you can come and cook with my mother…”
Weeks later amidst the turmoil of Beijing we finalized the last of the when, where and how of Italy and set off for Milan. We were set to meet Francesco about a week out and decided to head to the Milan area where my friend Peter from NY was living and hopefully we would get a chance to see him as well. So, like that we shifted things around for the hundredth time it seems and headed somewhere we didn’t expect. Francesco and his girlfriend were away when we arrived, so in the meantime we explored Milan and then headed out to Lake Como and basked in the glory of the Italian way of life. Ciao, Italia!
It’s funny, because up until like a day before we met up with Francesco, we weren’t certain it was all going to work out. While a wonderful and charming individual, and possible one of our luckiest finds on the trip, Francesco is more than anything Italian, and things tend to hang in the air a bit and succumb to discussion before ever finally being settled upon. So, the day before we finally got in touch with him over the phone and made arrangements for travel to his hometown and pickup from the bus stop.
Once, we sat down in his Fiat Panda 4 x4 and headed over to his home, the mystery of Francesco that had built up in our minds began to unravel and the treasures of the Calvi family began to unfurl.
We dropped our bags that day and headed out just to visit and feed the animals and water the plants at the farm or cantina as they kept referring to it here. Because, of course, on the farm there sits a cantina, where the wine is made. In the Calvi’s case it’s a two story rock house, built over a century ago by his great grandfather and used in generations since in continuation of their family tradition in making their own wine and caring for and raising their own food.
The Calvi’s farm is a bit over 3 ½ hectares, it doesn’t sound like much and many would probably think it isn’t, but it’s more than enough for this small family to keep a lovely vegetable garden, grow grapes, care for a vast array of fruit trees and raise chickens, ducks and a horse. Francesco just wanted to show us around that day, kind of get us the feel for their farm.
He showed us his beautiful horse of 19 years Artu, who had rolled around in the mud that afternoon after Francesco washed and brushed him before we arrived. He walked us over to their vegetable garden and we helped out with watering a bit. His brother Giovanni had just started a spiral shaped design garden bed where he was practicing the principles of bio-dynamic farming to raise some of the vegetables for the season to come. Then walked us over to his own area where his girlfriend, Chiara, and he had started their own plot, having just returned to Italy after a long trip abroad.
After, the garden, we walked across the fields to see the full breadth of the property. A small grove of grapes grows just above the vegetable garden, about ten rows deep, enough to make wine to last the family over a year. A few fields seeded with hay for the animals and laying low for the plans ahead. A gentle jaunt and we were down in a forested creek area where he shared a wonderful sala he was building. He was amidst constructing the platform for retreat from the hot days under the sun, or simply to retreat and meditate on the life rushing around him. We sat there for a bit listening to the light wind rustle the leaves above and the lull of the spring nearby, settling our souls down into our stay.
Next, we were off across the field where we happened upon one of the many cherry trees and within moments Francesco was up in the tree ripping fresh ripe cherries from the tree. Cherries that burst forth the fragrance of Italian hillsides and floral bouquet of the ripest summer. The flavor was sweet balanced by a bitterness and slight acidity that kept us as reaching for more. From there, we took a lolling walk across the span of trees and listened carefully as his spoke of all the varieties. Peaches, Pears, Apples, Figs, Walnut, and Almond.
That evening was meet the family night. As we alighted up the stairs Francesco, grin a mile wide, braced us with a “…are you ready to meet the family?” We were of course, actually I was elated with anticipation with meeting the Calvis. Francesco had been up until our arrival a bit of a mystery in the background department. While we stayed with Peter, on the day we left he had become so concerned that we were heading into the arms of a serial killing stranger that he told us his apartment was ours if we needed a place to escape. Of course, we knew Francesco it’s just what he did for a living and pretty much all of his past that we were clueless about. He’s one of those humble people that actually don’t talk about themselves all the time. It was his heart and open arms that attracted us to visit and it was his family’s open arms and welcoming table that let us know we were safe and at home.
That evening we sat down to nettle lasagna made by Francesco’s mother Carmen. Wait, saying that lasagna was made by his mother may not really get across the the full effect. They harvested the nettles from the family farm, Carmen made the pasta and the nettle filling and the bechamel sauce that gorgeously blanketed the perfectly cooked noodles. We shared wine that Francesco’s dad Pepimade the previous year and finished it all off with a lovely torte she had also made earlier that morning.
The next few days we helped, but mostly watched, Francesco build his platform down in his forest by the stream and finished off our days off weeding, building trestles, picking cherries and watering the garden before setting off for delicious meals whipped up by Carmen. Every time we all sat down, the conversation around the table always wound back around to…”ok, what are we going to eat tomorrow for lunch, what for dinner…?” I joked with Francesco about it at the table when I was listening to his family I could only understand about 10-15 percent of what they were saying so I said “…I’ll bet your talking about what to cook for tomorrow, right?” He laughed and said they were and then his Mom was curious what we were laughing about and he explained it to her and she said “…Well of course! We have to plan what to shop for and what to pick from the garden!”
I can’t stress how central food is to the Italian day. I mean, you can count on one thing in Italy when you are traveling if you want to eat lunch, you better do it when everyone else is or you won’t be eating for a long time unless you can cook somewhere for yourself. Lunch is from about 12:30 to 1:20 or 2pm. After that it’s shuttered grates and closed shops. It’s like the whole country goes on break for two or three hours.
And staying with Francesco was no different, every day we met around the table at the same time 1pm. Carmen would always time it to be done right as Pepi walked in the door. It was crazy. And everyone ate at home generally; the only two times that we ate away from his house for lunch was once on the second day of our visit and once when we traveled for two hours to spend the day at the river, both of those days we picked up Salame and Prosciuto from a local butcher, bread and gathered fruit that we picked from the farm.
On Friday evening of the second night of our stay with the Calvi’s on our way back from the farm we ran an errand to get a specific cut of meat (brasato) from a particular butcher that Carmen had requested for our planned team ravioli production for Sunday morning. That evening she seared it off and started the cooking, a short two or so hours, just until tender. That was put in the cooler for the next two days. On Sunday morning, we started ravioli production. This commenced around 10:30AM, we had to have lunch on the table by 12 on Sunday, I mean come on it is a day of rest. I walked into the kitchen and Carmen had already measured out the dry ingredients and mounded them on the table for the pasta and I caught her as she was cracking the few last eggs into the mountain of flour (these recipes follow people).
She mixed about a kilo worth of pasta dough, working the whole for about fifteen minutes. Then Carmen showed me how to take the Brasato that she’d braised and minced it down super fine and added some of the braising liquid to taste, a few eggs and a good helping of Parmesan and I mixed it into a velvety farce for our ravioli to come. We spent the next forty minutes or so and made about 300 Brasato Ravioli, a specialty of Liguria, as nearly all the dishes Carmen shared with us were, rolling out the pasta paper thin and filling them full of the farce. By 11:50 the raviolis had hit the pot and the sugo was already done. She had even made a Porcini and tomato sugo especially for Giovanni, Francesco’s younger brother who is a vegetarian.
I feel like with Carmen’s Ravioli, I just barely am starting to understand the meaning of what it is to make great pasta and great ravioli. And I’ve made pasta for years now. In fact, everyday I learned something new about cooking and about myself and my relationship to cooking for others. I could cook with Carmen for years and learn something new everyday. Now, you probably would love to hear about all the other food she cooked, all the textures, all the subtle changes in flavor and the bright and freshness of it all, but my eyes are tiring as I expect yours are as well so I’ll try and list everything she made for us: Cotoletta di Milanese, Risotto di Milanese (rabbit liver and peas – amazing, truly), nettle lasagna, Brasato Ravioli, lentil soup, Torte di Ciocolatto , Torte di Albicoca (Apricot), nettle noodles, and i’m sure I’m forgetting something.
The food was amazing! And everyday we spent some time at their lovely farm. Even after spending a whole day at the river, we took a back road to the farm to feed the animals and water the garden. That day, Carmen and Pepi were both already there and had watered some of the garden. After we helped out with the rest we walked over to help Carmen and Pepi cherry pick. Pepi has got to be in his late sixties. The man hopped up into a cherry tree like he was a ten year old. Mind you he’s probably been picking from these very trees for years, but he made me in my silly sandals feel like an invalid. My extra height and weight only served to make me dangerous in picking cherries from up in the tree and I resorted to reaching at them from the ground.
When time came to leave and say our goodbye’s, as I gave Carmen a hug, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an Aunt I wasn’t going to see for a while. She seemed to have a bit of glassy eyes and we were sad to go too. Serendipity brought us to Francesco and the Calvi family and well wishing and a lot of love sent us away.