Monday, May 12, 2008

The Joys of Learning a Secret Recipe

I am exhausted. Mentally and physically I think this was the most challenging 2 weeks of my life thus far. 14-15 hour days six days a week. Trying to understand chipmunk Italian (because kitchen staff is talking so fast) and on my feet all day with about an hours break broken up throughout the day and on top of it I have to fight off a cold. I tell you this, it makes me appreciate this day off a lot more. Even a sunny walk to the medieval Abbey Sant’ Antimo yesterday for a private one hour tour was enough to lift my spirits and give me energy to push through the rest of the day. These days I have to appreciate all of the little breaks.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew for sure that I would be in the kitchen…hopefully at one point learning to make the BEST ribollita soup in the world. Little did I know that the Locanda Sant’ Antimo restaurant would be granting me such an unforgettable experience.
With a colourful cast of characters there was never a dull moment to be had. Well that is not true. Did you know that I was ready to leave here after two days because I was bored? I went as far as contacting my next destination, the farm, and they agreed for me to arrive within days. By day three though, there as a big turn around. There was a holiday which brought a lot more people to the restaurant. And I was finally getting used to a bit of a routine – pour wine into the bottles, sweep the floor, and make espressos. One of my favourite things to do was talking to the tourists of course! At least half of them spoke English whether from the American continent or European.
Of course many of them would ask, “So what brings you here?” You have to understand where “here” is. Castelnuovo is comprised of about 100 people with no big name attraction directly in the town. The setting of this town is so beautiful; surrounded by green hills, wild flowers, olive groves and the acres of sprawling vineyards. I think that a lot of people just happen to stumble upon this place only because they are on their way to the abbey of Sant’ Antimo. Which is just on the periphery of the town. Actually one person did ask me what the name of this place was.
So I would answer them, “I think they make the best ribollita soup so I came here to learn how to make it”
“You came all the way here for the soup…it must be really good”
Or the oh so popular, “ SO you are a cook or you own your own restaurant then?”
Haha…if they only knew how *good* of a cook I really am.
I was a bit taken aback at their amazement that I was really here just for the soup. It just emphasised to me that I was really lucky to be here.
I was more than happy to share tips of sights to see and movies that were filmed in the area. In turn I learned some interesting things like the walking and eating in Italy tours! Did you know that there are planned out walks from town to town through the country averaging about 10-15 km then there is a recommended hotel at the end and a transport company can carry your luggage if you so choose?!
The last two weeks were a big change for the restaurant. The kitchen helper/dishwasher quit. Which was both good and bad. Good cos I was really scared of her and bad because it left the family in a little bit of a pickle which stressed them out which caused their voices to grow louder…and lOuDeR…AND LOUDER
SO lets go back a bit and I will tell you about the people of La Locanda.
There were the 2 regular staff Chiara the kitchen assistant and the cook Maria. Now I have never seen the “soup nazi’ from Seinfeld, but I assume that Chiara is his sister, ‘the kitchen nazi’. She is rough – looking, talking and walking. She has a tattoo, wild black hair and looks like she’s had a rough night.
She barked at me because I picked up the empty wine glasses off of the table before the clients had left (although I did ask if they were finished with them – they were an American couple) her bark scared the American man. I think that’s just the way she talks all of the time – she is just very loud, but she is intimidating and someone mentioned, “she looks like quite the character”. She is.
I usually don’t understand anything she says to me because she speaks really fast and doesn’t use hand gestures and I am scared of her so I think I panic when she opens her mouth. She told me to get another mop and I thought she said to ask Anna Maria and nodded to the back door. I walked out and could not find any “Anna Maria” and could not see a mop except the dirty one. I was so scared to go back in sans the mop. But I did and said, “non lo so” (I don’t know) and she waved her hands around in the air and came out saying “lav-an-deria” – ooooohhh so it wasn’t Anna Maria it was lavanderia! The mop was in the laundry room but alas it was in the washing machine where I could not see it so she apologised to me. J

Then day three happened. This was the night where she yelled at me so loud I almost started crying! Really. Just doing my job of bringing her the dirty dishes but apparently she wanted me to put them somewhere else at that moment. Oohhhh so sorry Chiara but I forgot to put my mind reader cap on tonight!
Of course I was fuming so the next set of dirty dishes I brought in I raised my voice and in English I asked where the hell she wanted these dishes here… there… where!!! She had a bit of a surprised look on her face and the next morning she was waiving to me with a smile on her face as we walked down the stairs and was calm with me thereafter. What a bag of grumpies!

Then one night after telling the owner’s wife off in front of customers and then leaving early on the BUSIEST night (the night we had to stay up until 1 am) she quit. And there was peace in the Val (valley) D’Orcia again.

Anna Maria is a plump lady, talks a mile a minute a lot of the time with a cigarette hanging out of her lips but is sweet. I asked her if she likes cooking and her answer was that it is her passion, to her it is not work. It shows in her cooking.

Because she speaks so fast unfortunately I don’t even hear what she is saying to me never mind understanding her. Luckily sometimes her son Diego works with us and he speaks English well so he can explain a bit to me. It is Anna Maria’s ribollita that I must learn to make.
Many times I would ask if she was starting to make ribollita when I would see a pot sitting on the stove…but nope! One night Theresa and Lorenzo were saying that she is a very jealous cook and that I probably wouldn’t get the recipe. 2 mornings later Anna Maria handed me a pail and said we are making ribollita go collect the greens! BUT she told me I was not to tell ANYONE the recipe not Lorenzo or Theresa.
I was so nervous and excited. I watched as she was preparing it and when the soup was just boiling for a while I left to take some glasses out. Unfortunately I cam back and there was more stuff in the pot! AARGGH! Because I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone the recipe I didn’t want to ask Anna Maria what she added in to the pot because there were people in the kitchen. But I will try it at home and see what I can make of it. Of course I recommend it to everyone I talk to and they are pleasantly surprised at how great it is...because it really doesn’t look that good.

The dynamics of an Italian kitchen are explosive yet at times loving. Many times the kids are running around and spilling penne pasta on the ground or chewing pasta up and spitting it out. A couple of times I couldn’t handle being in the kitchen from the wood grill smoke that filled the kitchen, burnt my eyes and made me smell like I was hanging out at a bonfire for the evening. Maybe the owner and his wife are having an argument in front of everybody. Anything goes as long as the job is getting done well.

There is one ‘secret’ I want to release: some Italians drink decaffeinated espresso.
Normal espresso is a shot glass of espresso with one to two sugar packets.
One thing I will never understand is why the Tuscans like dry, stale, saltlessTuscan bread. You can damn near choke on the stuff. One large group Italian group actually ate all of the bread we gave to them and were demanding “more more!”
I still think my mom’s lasagne is the best.
Did you know that they put olive oil on the top of the wine in the 5 litre bottles to keep the air out? It prevents the wine from turning into vinegar. The oil is then sucked off and the wine transferred to bottles for the day’s use.
Finally, as Lorenzo keeps telling me, the best thing is that I received a valuable life lesson and I didn’t even have to pay for it!
As the saying goes:
Two weeks in an Italian restaurant kitchen, priceless…
For everything else there’s Visa.

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