Vitello Tonnato

“In our Cascina we are cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  In our Cascina the walls and windows are where they have always been since they were thoughtfully placed 400 years ago to help heat in the cold Piedmont winters and keep us cool in the hot summers.  In our Cascina the cracks and imperfections are the beautiful fine lines in an old man's face that speaks of his life and uniqueness.  In our Cascina we hear our village church bells every hour and half hour that let us know when it is time to wake up, time for lunch and time to come in from the fields.  In our Cascina we can almost hear the stars with the silence that surrounds us… with a background melody of all the wild animals that happily play in our hills.  In our Cascina everything that we can harvest from our own land, from hare and boar, to the vines and wild hops and field greens, we do.  In our Cascina the recipes don’t change, they are passed from one generation to the next, and they are comprised of only ingredients we can find here.  In our Cascina nothing is wasted, and everything we can put back into our land we do.  In our Cascina wine is made as it was once upon a time… and the vines and fields are not farmed ‘conventionally, or organically, or biodynamically, or sustainably,’ but like everything else here… as it has been done by generations and generations that came before us, historically.”

Five years ago, when I had a newborn and a 22 month old I wrote the above bit.  The idea was to start a blog about our Cascina and all the faces and people that pass through our doors from all over the world. If I had been wiser, I would have kept a diary in these 13 years… a real one, not the one we all see on Fake book or Insta-Ham every day.  In this particular dream, I would then turn my written memories into a book some time in the future, when my time would someday be mine again.  Not the “eat pray love” kind, instead a book about what it is really like to immerse yourself in a different culture, in a village of 70 people where no one speaks your language, and all the wonderful as well as incredibly challenging things that come along with that.  Mine could be called; “struggle - eat too much – drink too much - repeat.”   Anyway, look out for that in the fall of 2116!

So, no, I’m still not going to start a blog because between a wine company, a winery, and now a Steiner school in our backyard, as well as our two boys… my time is still not mine.  However, I am going to start writing here on our website about some of my favorite local foods, Piemontese idiosyncrasies and life in a centuries old village in the hills of Monferrato with a growing group of ex-pats, together with all the indigenous families building back up this little Montaldo community.  

Obviously, these little blurbs will be sandwiched between more ‘professional’ pieces about wines (ok, maybe not professional, but about wine).

A few years back, while strolling up our only street in Montaldo with one of the many guests that we used to entertain on a weekly if not daily basis before Covid, (this particular one from the US), we both stopped spontaneously and simultaneously to take in the view.  The valley of rolling hills below us, spotted with century old hilltop villages and churches, with no major highway to be seen, becomes it’s most stunning when the majestic Alps show their rugged and snowcapped slopes.  With the Piemontese weather, we get to see that view only once in a while… maybe a few times a month if we are lucky.  The famous Piemontese nebbia rolls in about now and makes the view even more rare until the spring months…
That day it had rained the night before, which clears the foschia normally blocking our view, and it felt like if we stared hard enough we’d be able to see goats on the sides of the mountains, one of the sharpest shots of those I had seen in a long time of the Alpi Graie and Pennine… it seemed if I stretched enough I would be able to touch the Matterhorn with the tips of my fingers.

The Alps seen from Montaldo

My US guest turned to me and said, “so I guess you are just immune to all this by now…” sweeping her hand gesturing to the postcard perfect image in front of us.  The comment made me smile big because in that instant I realized it was one of the things that after 13 years of living in the ‘romantic’ Italian countryside, I was not immune to.  Anytime we are given the gift of a mountain view, I stop and stare.
Reflecting more on this “non-immunity,” to certain things here, what immediately came to mind are the long friends and family dinners here at the Cascina. 
Ohhhhh, If our table could talk… and if only I had started writing down our guest lists, wines opened, pieces from conversations, and menus years ago! 
Maybe my favorite table to date was composed of a Georgian (as in the country, not the state) wine making priest alongside an American expat living in Georgia (some of you may know him, John from Pheasant Tears), alongside Italian expats living in London and working for Caves de Pyrenes, alongside an American expat living in Abu Dhabi, alongside a Brooklyn techy and a Long Island restauranteur.  One of the few things that can bring a group this dinamico together is of course, vino.  It was one of the most entertaining evenings to date… :)
The beauty of this Italian table is in the melting of what are often current social barriers.  Age, culture and languages aside, there is always an immediate generosity, kindness and even friendship that is born at our table… maybe it’s that it is wine that brings us all to that table, maybe it’s the energy in the room itself, maybe it’s the forgiving 400 year old walls that have seen it all… but probably it’s the perfect storm of all of these things.  Regardless, the magic happens every time, and every time we end up hearing funny, ridiculous, sad, and warm stories about these people.  Our life lessons and follies are shared with people we’ve met only hours ago.  We drink wines from all over the world together (rarely our own), and we eat our own food paired with whatever doni our guests have brought to share at our table…

I’m hopeful that these evenings will re-commence soon here, because we’ve missed our international wine friends since Covid has hit and cannot wait to welcome them (you) all back here!

So to entice you all back here I wanted to write about two of our most famous dishes… 

There are two things I crave from the Piemontese diet that I have come to call my own when I am away from home.  Carne Cruda and Vitello Tonnato.  They are also two of the very few fixed Piedmont menu items that don’t have seasonality.  They are mainstays on every menu.  Bagna cauda, parmigiana, bollito misto, fritto misto, tartufi, and so on… they all have their season, and we get to enjoy them only in that season.
So regardless of the time of year, the first thing I eat when I get back to Montaldo after being in the states for an extended trip are these two dishes.  The beauty of Carne Cruda (raw meat, the piemontese version of Beef tartar), is that the classic recipe from Monferrato has just three ingredients.  Further south they sometimes add lemon and/or garlic, which the die-hard Monferratians say is just to cover up the fact that meat is not the best in quality or freshness.  Here the three ingredients are the Carne (from the Razza Piemontese ONLY obviously), salt and Ligurian olive oil (which is the oil all Piemontese cooking is based on since Liguria was the closest source for olive oil).  Carne Cruda is one of the simplest yet most satisfying dishes I know, and it is often on the menu at the Cascina dinners for both these reasons. 
Vitello Tonnato on the other hand is much more intimidating.  The mayonnaise is obviously home-made, and the Vitello needs to be made the day before and cooked perfectly to capture that just-right-shade of pink center when sliced.  The intimidation in Piemontese cooking for me lies in its steadfast authenticity.  Here there is no such thing as "my version of…".  You make the dishes as they have always been made.  Period.  No adding black pepper, absolutely no foreign ingredients (like Tuscan olive oil for example), and above all, never never cut corners.

Vitello Tonnato

The secret to the Italian cuisine lies in the simple ingredients, the integrity and quality of those ingredients, the not cutting corners, and using your own intuition rather than someone else’s recipe. When you ask Fabrizio’s mother for a recipe, she lists the ingredients… period. There are no quantities to them, there is no cooking temperature, at most there are more or less rules to cooking times based on the weight of your meat… but again, these are loose based on your “flame size” and cooking liquid. The important part of the conversation about said recipe is the detailed description and indications on the ingredients. Where to get them, what to look for, who has the best quality, and when. That’s it… next up, my spring time favorite Friciulin… pronounced ‘Free-cho-Leen’! Xx - Zum