June 14, 2022
Italy Part One & What I Have in Common with a Pig Farmer
What is it about Italy? Is it the astounding architecture that is inconceivable to have been built so many centuries ago? The birthplace of the Renaissance and the prolific creation of artistic treasures? The FOOD???
No wonder design is second nature to Italians. If it is not genetic, the constant exposure to magnificent masterpieces is a priceless education. I found myself watching elementary school children on a field trip with shameful envy. Oh how I wanted to start my life over as a seven year old Italian kid!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to Italy. We landed in Rome where we walked off our jet lag with over 19,000 steps. My greatest discovery was not a glorious discarded, dilapidated Pope’s chasuble, but the most delectable Italian Cream Cake (not Italian Cream Cheese Cake). It is a version of the Millefoglie that puts the French one to shame. We were at the charming Hostario da Pietro when our wonderful waiter and my new best friend turned me onto this earth-shattering confection from Pasticceria Cavalletti. I became so one-with-the-moment that I forgot to take a photo. But I did go inside and ask the waiter to show me my new beloved dessert.
The next morning we met our friends and drove to Montepulciano where we had a fantastic lunch at Ristorante Le Logge del Vignola.
We all swooned over the steamed pasta in a pouf with cracked pepper and crunchy buttery bread crumbs…like we needed more carbs added to our pasta. Then we squeezed back into our fiat and headed to Casa d’Elsa where some dear friends had rented a fantastic house. This was our base for exploring during the day and each night we were entertained by a different Italian chef. Though every meal was exceptional, we were graced (and stuffed) with delectable pizzas by the renowned pizzaiuoli, Giovanni Santarpia who has been covered by many magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler, etc. We were lucky to get him and his pizzas!
Each day we met a guide in a different ancient locale and trekked about trying to soak up more knowledge than wine and Aperol spritz….it was a close call. Siena was fascinating. The Sienese culture was just as interesting as the architecture and the history. The different factions of its citizens and their rivalries made me think there could be an Italian version of West Side Story about this place. Florence was wonderful as usual and the fancy cocktails at The Place were as beautiful as delicious. San Gimignano, Colle di Val d'Elsa, the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and Montisi were all so interesting.
We covered a lot of territory but one of the adventures that really resonated with me was our visit and lunch at Casa al Gianni, the Bezzini pig farm in the almost abandoned little medieval hamlet (no pun intended) of Simignano, population 22. Christina and Carmelo were incredible hosts. I could have listened to them for days. They ditched the city life to move back to Christina's father, Andrea’s family farm and cultivate the swanky swine to an elevated level. They have renovated some of the empty historic buildings to provide rentals. Go to their FB page Casa al Gianni if you want to contact them. Mind you, this is still a growing endeavor and is very authentic. I hope the next time I go back it has not turned into a disneylandish pig theme park. And Carmello and Christina will not be unapproachable Food Channel stars.
For a little porker info, the Cinta Senese was the forerunner of all Tuscan pig breeds and even raised by the Etruscans. By the 1950’s they were almost extinct due to the introduction of more productive and prolific pig breeds. This special little pig with the stripe around his neck lives totally off the land feasting on the abundant chestnuts, acorns, and other natural nosh from the bountiful landscape in Simignano. The little squealers were so much fun to play with and I would suggest we all get one if they’d never grow up. The hard thing to say next is that they were also delicious (not the babies), and believe it or not, HEALTHY. Carmello told us since the pigs’ sustenance is only natural, its fat is also healthy fat like the fat from salmon. Healthy Bacon!!!!
One of the top three magical moments besides playing with the piglets, was when Carmello beckoned us into the tiny chapel where his daughter was christened. He said that he was scrubbing the walls to get it ready for her big day and noticed some color bleeding through the white paint. After assistance from the experts an amazing 15th C. fresco was revealed. His sparkling eyes still evoked the excitement he felt. It made me wonder how many jewels like this are scattered around Italy in the most unexpected spots waiting to be discovered?
The third magical moment was sitting down in the courtyard and tasting the treats Christana and Carmello created from their terra’s generous bounty. First the chestnut beer from the native trees, then the wines they made from a neighbor's vines, and a delightful plate of scrumptious nibbles of pig everywhichaway. I have to say, I have never had salami melt in my mouth. I’m not even a salami fan. This was different. The slightly toasted homemade chestnut flour bread with melted pig fat and a leaf of rosemary was my second favorite melt-in-your-mouth morsel. If anyone had told me “I think you are going to love this pig fat” I believe my feelings would have been hurt. But this is an entirely different pig lifestyle. It’s like a pig spa with no stress. And remember…..that fat is healthy!
After lunch I was talking to Andrea Bezzini, Christana’s father who helped keep the Cinta Senese breed going when they were near extinction. I was telling him all the reasons I love Italy and how much I admired him for giving up more conventional opportunities to continue this more work intensive farm life. With a big smile on his face and one sentence, he summed up exactly why I love Italy so much.
“The things you do with passion are the most rewarding.”
Andrea Bezzini, Cinta Senese Pig Farmer
And I could relate so I gave him a big hug.
Part Two coming later - Textile Hunting and What I Love About Milano