Hello again at long last!
I can’t believe how much time has passed since my last post and honestly I had no intention of staying away from here for so long.
After a wonderful trip to Paris where we hosted our 2nd annual culinary tour, I set off for Italy to volunteer for three weeks at an art restoration workshop at a masseria (farmhouse) near the town of Altamura in Puglia. I have now been back in Vancouver for over a month but somehow it’s taken a while to sort through my photos and talk about this amazing experience. I wasn’t sure how to do it justice through clumsy words and iphone photographs. And maybe I wanted to hang on to this place in my heart and my mind without sharing it for just a little while longer.
Earlier this year, through a series of happy coincidences, I was invited to go to Italy by Tonio Creanza, the founder and director of Messors, an organization that runs art restoration and culinary/shepharding workshops in southern Italy. I have been using the Creanza family olive oil for the past four years and have been avidly following the development of their annual workshops. To be offered the opportunity to go as a volunteer was truly a dream come true.
My last trip to Italy was with my sister, some 15 years ago. It was a package deal through Alitalia for seven days in Rome priced at something like $599 for air, hotel and transfers. I remember our plane was delayed and we lost one precious day. I remember the Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese and that my sister wore her backpack under her jacket for fear of being mugged. I cannot remember a single thing I ate.
I was unprepared for what Italy had in store for me this time.
Not to sound overly dramatic but my three weeks at the Masseria La Selva were life changing.
I fell deeply in love.
In love with the people, the art, culture, traditions and the true reverence that the Italians have for family and for gathering people around the table. The stunning physical landscape with groves of olive trees, fields of wheat, and crumbling trulli. Seeing the Masseria La Selva for the first time with its imposing stone farmhouse and the crooked-trunked trees lining the driveway, all bathed in golden light, literally took my breath away.
While Messors offers amazing culinary and shepharding workshops, I was in Puglia to volunteer at their art restoration workshop. This, in fact, was a real blessing. I was able to stay at the Masseria for three weeks and really got a sense as to how the workshops are organized and run. I spent time living with ten lovely participants from around the world while working alongside the beloved masseria crew who cook, clean, drive, organize, and help facilitate all of the behind-the-scenes stuff with so much care. Tonio loves his homeland and is passionate about art and culture preservation and I learned an astonishing amount about the region and fresco and canvas restoration. There were fieldtrips to nearby towns of Altamura, Gravina and Matera all rich in history and art and culture. There were walks through archeological sites gathering and identifying shards of pottery from the 3rd and 4th century and an epic trip to visit the ruins in Pompeii. We toured museums, attended live musical performances, enjoyed dinners at the beach complete with a full moon, swimming and a bonfire. Something magical, something unexpected, happened every single day.
It might not have been a culinary tour but this being Italy there was a deep and serious focus on food and wine.
Knowing my keen interest in cooking, Tonio was also incredibly kind and generous to include many, many food-centric moments over the 21 days.
There were impromptu foraging adventures for wild arugula, thyme, green chickpeas, figs and almonds, while visiting archeological sites. A detour on our way to visit some frescos to meet and chat with the local cheese maker, see his aging cave and pick up the Pecorino for our lunch at the masseria. We took trips to the vegetable market in Altamura to fill crates with the eggplants, chicory, onions, tomatoes, fennel bulbs, potatoes, watermelon, peaches that were part of our daily meals. We sampled fresh, raw baby octopus and prawns at the fishmonger and bought our daily bread from the local Forno Antico which was founded in 1724. Tonio’s mother came to teach us how to make orecchiette pasta by hand. We picked apricots and yellow plums from the trees at the Creanza family farm where we also picnicked in the groves where the olive oil we used in copious amounts originates. The same olive oil that I use in my Vancouver kitchen, half a world away.
While I was lucky and grateful to be invited to attend all of the activities and outings with the group, I was aware that I was supposed to be there to work.
Thankfully at Messors, the role of the volunteer is not rigidly defined and so I rather quickly determined that the best place for me to help (and to learn) was in the Masseria La Selva kitchen. The kitchen is run by Tonio’s boisterous sister-in-law, Rosanna, and just thinking about this woman brings a huge smile to my face. Always talking, singing and laughing, Rosanna made the masseria kitchen the most wonderful place to be. She cooked with a quiet confidence and ease, managing to produce some seriously delicious food for the 20 to 30 people she needed to feed each day at both lunch and dinner. She was a patient teacher and it would be no exaggeration to say that I learned as much from Rosanna during my time in the masseria kitchen as I did during my time at cooking school. I speak no Italian and Rosanna speaks very little English but somehow we managed to talk about food and life while she gifted me with the most incredible crash course in the regional dishes of Puglia. On our final day together, she shyly presented me with a beautiful apron covered with delicate white and green flowers with potholders and a dishtowel to match. It was such a sweet and thoughtful gesture, it made me cry.
Coming home was wonderful, yet a bit hard. I was so glad to see my family, and the last days of summer in Vancouver have a magic all their own. Still, Italy managed to capture my heart in a way that I was completely unprepared for. I still miss the beauty of the landscape, the people and the anticipation of learning and discovering something new every day.
As always, it is my time in the kitchen that has made the transition somewhat easier. I am cooking all of the dishes that I learned from Rosanna at the masseria and sharing them with my family and friends here. It helps to bridge the gap. I am cooking with love and care and a slowness these days. I have never, ever felt so inspired in the kitchen. I have many recipes that I can’t wait to share here.
They are coming. I promise. Soon.