Some of my earliest memories are of watching my Italian grandfather in his beloved garden tending his vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, swiss chard, and zucchini. He also had roses, fig trees, pear trees, raspberries, and a grape arbor. Not only did he garden but he was a great cook as well. He was the epitome of “farm to table” long before the term was in vogue.
"Grampy!" I'd say, "How do you cook that?"
"Why do you want to know?" he'd ask.
"Because I love your cooking!"
After giving me a quizzical look he'd say, "Watch me".
So on the rare occasion I would catch him in the kitchen, he would let me watch him cook and revealed his culinary secrets to me. He would make fried squash flowers; zucchini, peppers and onions; and chicken and egg drop soup. He loved fresh salad with a simple olive oil and vinegar dressing. His special technique was to rub the inside of the wooden salad bowl with fresh garlic before adding his salad greens and tomatoes. He would then toss the salad with oil, then add vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. The ingredients were always so simple, but so amazingly good. I never knew why until I took my first trip to Italy. It was because he picked them perfectly ripe right from his garden! What Italian’s have practiced for years, we in America seem to be re-discovering; the practice of “Farm to Table”. Grampy's been gone many years, but his memory was strong as I traveled the Italian countryside. Everywhere I looked I could see the influence of Grampy in my life - the beautiful gardens and fresh vegetables, the grape vines, and even the clustering of Italian men chatting excitedly in Italian, hands waving as I saw him often do with his many brothers. He always loved to eat fresh out of the garden and I had the privilege of doing the same during my internship in Italy, especially at Poggios with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle is the owner of a lovely Italian bed and breakfast in Orvieto where I stayed during my internship. She did not speak English and I was only learning Italian; but with hand gestures, facial expressions, and my Italian/English dictionary we managed to communicate. She showed me how to make Buccatini all'Amatriciana with fresh tomatoes straight from her garden. She also taught me how to make potato gnocchi and sauce it with homemade pesto she made from her own basil. Gabrielle shopped for her meats and fruits every day at markets and farms around town. She loved the land and she loved the pleasure of eating and drinking the fruit of her labor. If she didn't grow it herself, she knew a neighbor who did. In Italy many herbs grow year round. The winters aren't as harsh and the herbs don't die. Rosemary grows into large shrubs and bay leaf trees are as abundant as the maple trees of New England. No matter where I stayed in Italy, there was fresh food and herbs, literally, at my fingertips.
People have asked me the secret of Italian cooking, hoping to gain some hidden revelation or some new technique. But the secret is very simple. Italians love fresh ingredients enough to grow their own, even if it's just a garden plot in the back yard. And they eat regionally. If they live in the Umbrian region where pork, wild boar, turkey and truffles are prominent, that’s what they specialize in that. If they live near the coast, they specialize in seafood. Each town has an open air market. In the cities, the fresh markets are open daily. Italians shop nearly every day for their food. They eat it fresh and they make it from scratch. They take the time to make their food and they take just as long to enjoy it, every day! They work long days but every noon they come home for dinner and enjoy the fruit of the land and mamma's good cooking - buona cucina. After dinner and wine they go for walks, every day, together. It's called the passagiata. Then they go back to work.
The Italian lifestyle consists of close families, good wine, fresh food and beautiful farmland. I would like to bring you the essence of that through Buona Cucina.
Rebecca Brown earned degrees in Food Service Management, and Hospitality Tourism Management, and a Culinary Certificate from Manchester Community College. She also holds a Bachelors Degree from Charter Oak College.
She apprenticed at the Zeppelin Ristorante in Orvieto, Italy and at Burton's Grill in South Windsor, CT. She is owner and culinary instructor at Buona Cucina in Manchester; and conducts classes and demonstrations in the Manchester Community College Adult Education Program and at Stonewall Kitchen.