Looking to explore the intersection of food and family, Jan Wong heads to Italy with her son
Looking to explore the intersection of food and family, Jan Wong heads to Italy with her son.
I couldn’t believe my luck. As our train slid through the Alps on a winter morning in 2016, I regarded my son with wonder. Somehow, I had managed to convince Sam, 22, to join me on a journey to learn home cooking with complete strangers in my three favourite foodie countries: Italy, France and China.
At first, my youngest son had hesitated. “Um,” he said when I broached the idea, his face scruffy with dayold stubble. He was in our kitchen in Toronto, gulping a glass of orange juice before he cycled off to his job making salads and deep-frying minidoughnuts at a neighbourhood BBQ joint. The endless hours with me were a concern. Would we get along?
After he left for work, I pondered the “um.” It wasn’t a flat rejection, but his body language had not been encouraging—shoulders hunched, eyes darting sideways, knees jiggling.
I am a journalist turned journalism professor. Now, I get sabbaticals. My first six-month sabbatical bestowed that biggest luxury of all for a journalist: time. Time to write another book. About food. About travel. Maybe about Sam?
I’ve always been a foodie. I’m the granddaughter and daughter of restaurateurs. In the 1930s, my maternal grandmother ran a restaurant in the small Ontario town of Woodstock. My father’s flagship restaurant, Bill Wong’s, was a Montreal landmark. In the ’50s, Dad had opened the first Chinese restaurant outside the safe confines of Chinatown in what was then Canada’s largest city. An engineer by profession, my father couldn’t cook to save his life, but he was a savvy businessman who hired the
best chef he could find from our ancestral village back in China and, crucially, made him a partner. Dad eventually owned five restaurants.
I PONDERED WHAT shape the book should take and how to research it. I spoke French and Mandarin. I told myself I could enroll in a crash course in Italian at my university. I considered cooking schools but quickly discarded the idea. The cuisine program at Cordon Bleu in Paris took nine months and cost $44,000. In contrast, in Tuscany, many courses lasted only four or five days and seemed designed and priced for rich American tourists.
I wanted to learn home cooking. I wanted to know how regular people made dinner and if, in this timestarved world, they were still sitting down to eat with their families. I wanted to know how the politics and economics of globalization had affected what they ate. Unlike cooking schools, you can’t Google “ordinary family” and find someone who loves to cook and is willing to take in a total stranger.
So, ever the journalist, I worked my contacts. A Chinese friend who lived in Shanghai said she could set me up with rich pals and I could cook with their maids. A British friend who owned a country home in Italy recommended his neighbour. That left France, where my older son, Ben, connected us with a family he’d stayed with while studying in Lyon.
This was going to be a long trip, and I hoped Sam would be my companion. He was fluent in French and
YOU CAN’T JUST GOOGLE “ORDINARY FAMILY” AND FIND SOMEONE WHO LOVES TO COOK AND IS WILLING TO TAKE YOU IN.
had a working knowledge of Mandarin after spending his third year of university in Taiwan. More important, he was obsessed with food.
As a toddler, Sam liked hanging around the kitchen. As soon as he and Ben were out of strollers, my husband, Norman, and I would take them on family trips to France and Italy, where the biggest tourist attraction was usually lunch. Sam had worked in restaurants that ranged from a hole-in-the-wall café to a French bistro to a private golf club to remote firefighting camps in northern Alberta. He could carve
roasts, prep salads, slow-cook ribs, make pizza and whip up asparagus risotto for 100 wedding guests. Now he was graduating from university with a degree in philosophy, quite sure he never wanted to spend another day in a classroom. Sam wanted to be a cook.
To be honest, the real reason for the project was so I could spend more time with Sam. When he was a small child, he would literally jump for joy when I returned home from work. As I watched him grow into an independent adult, I sensed our mother-son bond evolving, stretching, even thinning out. He was currently unattached, without a steady job or romantic partner. It seemed possible that this might be my last chance to cook with Sam, to ride next to him on planes, trains and automobiles, to eat hundreds of consecutive meals together.
Sam eventually agreed to the trip. Though he was nervous about being involved in one of my writing projects, his friends told him he would be crazy to turn the opportunity down. WHEN SAM AND I arrived in Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region in northern Italy, we wandered around the train station hunting for our car-rental agency. Everything had closed for lunch. Down a deserted side street, we spotted a police station. When I approached the sentry, he did not smile. “Parli italiano?” he snapped. I could tell what he was thinking: Of course you don’t, you stupid tourists.
“Un poco,” I said.
Suddenly he smiled and rattled off the directions. A destra, a sinistra. Thanks to the beginner’s Italian course I had taken (and to highschool Latin), I understood! To the right, to the left.
At the agency, we chose a Smart Car and rented a GPS—a wise move because we had to find our way from downtown Turin, a city of 4.4 million people, to Repergo, a dot of a hamlet.
Repergo was an hour’s drive south on the autoroute, but we weren’t supposed to arrive at our rental farmhouse until later in the afternoon. I proposed we use the extra time and
THE SUPERMARKET LOOKED ORDINARY BUT WAS BETTER THAN THE FANCIEST
GOURMET SHOP IN NEW YORK.
take the scenic route. We could stop for lunch at some quaint trattoria along the way.
The sky was a brilliant blue. The old highway passed through town after town. Finally, at 3 p.m., we stopped at a roadside pizzeria as it was shutting down—just like every other place in sight. We had just missed the national 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Italian lunch “hour.”
“We’d better get groceries,” Sam said, thinking ahead. “There might not be any place to eat in Repergo.”
He pulled into a supermercato off the highway that looked ordinary from the outside but was better than the fanciest gourmet shop in New York. The supermarket sold a dozen kinds of artisanal butter, five varieties of artichokes and about 30 types of olives. I chose a small block of butter wrapped in parchment paper and sealed with metal grommets. We bought the original bologna, genuine mortadella from Bologna. Intensely yellow lemons, from the Amalfi coast, came with shiny green leaves intact. At the deli counter, Sam ordered pickled red onions and marinated eel from Naples. Next we selected a bunch of dewy fresh puntarelle, a kind of overgrown arugula. We also stocked up on wine, spicy antipasti, crusty bread, heritage tomatoes, dried spaghetti and a jar of passata, the strained raw tomatoes that are the base of many pasta sauces. PIEDMONT, ON THE frilly top left of the Italian boot, was the springboard for Italy’s unification in the 19th century. After Sicily, it was the second largest of Italy’s 20 distinct regions. Famous for its white truffles and bold red wines, such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera, the region was also the epicentre of Italy’s famed slow food movement. Launched in the late 1980s, its avowed mission is to preserve traditional cuisine, a call to arms sparked by the opening of Italy’s first McDonald’s.
Maria Rosa, the neighbour of my British friend Ashley, at first had flatly refused his suggestion that she teach Sam and me. Aside from the bother, she worried that she wasn’t a good enough cook. Ashley, a former diplomat, was relentless, and Maria Rosa eventually caved. That afternoon, with the help of the GPS, Sam drove through the steep, twisting hills of Piedmont to Maria Rosa’s village of Repergo.
“This is just like a video game,” he enthused as he whipped around a hairpin turn. “Do you know what they call this?” I didn’t. “God’s racetrack.” I closed my eyes. Then I opened them because I didn’t want to miss the scenery—the famous vineyards of Nebbiolo grapes. The winding roads ended abruptly as we descended into a gentle valley and drove past farm fields and more vineyards. At 4 p.m. we arrived at Vigneti Brichet,
the winery owned and operated by Maria Rosa’s cousin Mirella. She and her husband, Beppe, were renting us a farmhouse.
I rang the bell outside a tall wrought-iron fence. After a moment, the electronic gate swung open. We drove into an empty parking lot big enough for 20 cars. A slim young man with a shock of dark hair invited us into the fermentation workshop and offered us espresso, which we gratefully accepted. He was Alessandro, Mirella and Beppe’s 29-year-old son. As we sipped our espresso, his aunt, Maria Rosa, suddenly appeared. Although we’d met only over Skype, she gave Sam and me warm hugs and announced we would be cooking dinner at her house shortly.
But first Alessandro led us to the farmhouse, a short walk down the road. In English, he explained that he lived on the main floor and that we had the entire top floor. From a small balcony, I could see medieval hillside villages. Below were gnarly leafless grapevines, dark as coal. To my right, I could touch an almond tree.
MARIA ROSA LIVED a five-minute walk away. The advent of superhighways and supermercati had drained the lifeblood of Repergo (population 201). Aside from Alessandro’s family winery, the only business in the village was a butcher store. There was nowhere to buy milk or bread. There was no post office or pharmacy or espresso bar. The last pizzeria was gone. The local elementary school had shut down 20 years earlier. Repergo exemplified Italy’s declining birth rate, among the lowest in the world. One in 10 Reperghese was a widow or widower.
Maria Rosa’s father, Giuseppe, was one of them. A retired autoworker, he was 79 and in poor health. Stoopshouldered and diabetic, he used a walker. While he seemed doddering, he was sharp as a tack, ever on the alert against burglars and thieves. In summer, he would sit on the warm terrace beside the garden. In winter, he sat in the bright sunlight by a window overlooking the garden.
Everyone respectfully called Giuseppe “Nonno” (grandfather). He owned the house, a large 19thcentury yellow stucco building with a Juliet balcony, 12 rooms on three storeys and grey terrazzo floors. To me, the house was lovely, but Maria Rosa disliked it. She and her husband owned a modern apartment in Montegrosso d’Asti, a nearby town. They had moved here with their daughter, Chiara, to care for Nonno after he broke his femur in a fall.
How long ago was that? “Nine years,” said Maria Rosa, sighing and looking heavenward. At 48, she wore no makeup and dressed casually in a puffy black jacket, V-neck sweater and jeans. Nonno had cut his finger earlier
that day while slicing some stale focaccia. “He was greedy,” said Chiara, laughing. Nonno gave an exaggerated good-natured shrug. When Maria Rosa, a nurse, had gotten home from work that afternoon, she’d taken one look at his bleeding finger and called ahead to her colleagues in the emergency room. She drove back to her hospital in Asti, 20 minutes away. Nonno had received three stitches and now waited patiently for dinner, his finger swathed in white gauze.
Nonno’s house bordered Via Repergo, the main street, without even a strip of sidewalk to separate it from the occasional car. Decades ago, his father, a builder and a farmer, had taken advantage of the prime location to operate a small convenience store from the kitchen window. Passersby had only to shout, and someone in the family would fling open the wooden shutters, lean out and sell a package of tobacco or some sugar. The kitchen itself was small and narrow, opening onto a large room that in Canada would have been a combination living and dining room. In Italy, it was solely dedicated to the art of eating. There was a sofa on which no one sat. Instead, family and friends always gathered around a square table that sat six comfortably but could be expanded to accommodate twice that number by pushing together an assortment of old desks and smaller tables until they formed one giant rectangle.
Chiara, a willowy beauty who had just turned 17, studied English at school. She shyly insisted she could not speak a word—until she realized
WHAT KIND OF MEAT WAS IN THE SAUCE? “ASINO,” CHIARA REPEATED. THEN SHE
AND HER MOTHER BEGAN BRAYING.
I’d had only one term of Italian, and Sam none at all. She plucked up her courage to speak occasional words and then whole phrases in English. Luckily Sam picked up new words at lightning speed. By the end of our first evening, we managed to communicate. Maria Rosa planned to teach us Piedmont’s most famous dishes, including bagna càuda (a fondue of garlic, anchovies and olive oil in which vegetables are dipped) and carne cruda (the French embrace it as steak tartare). But because she had worked all day and then took Nonno to get stitches, that first evening we
prepared a less labour-intensive meal. As she explained the order of the courses, I realized that Italy was governed by food rules. Our first dinner would unfold in a traditional sequence: antipasti, a pasta, a secondo of meat (which was really the third course, if you counted the appetizer as a first), dolce, fresh fruit and caffè (always espresso—and not decaf ).
The antipasti would be cheese, olives and taralli pugliesi, a bread made with white wine, flour, olive oil and salt. The pasta would be agnolotti di Calliano, a Piedmont specialty of ravioli in a meat sauce. The secondo would be involtini di coniglio, a ham-stuffed roll of rabbit from the only butcher in Repergo and braised with white wine, carrots, onions, celery, rosemary and a fresh bay leaf from the garden. What kind of meat was in the ravioli sauce? “Asino,” said Maria Rosa. I looked at Sam. He shrugged. “Asino,” Chiara repeated. When I still didn’t understand, she and her mother began braying: EE-oo! EE-oo!
We were having donkey. Ravioli with ass sauce didn’t taste like chicken. It tasted like venison.
THE NEXT MORNING, Maria Rosa’s husband, Fiorenzo, took us to Montegrosso d’Asti, where they owned the flat. First, Fiorenzo explained, we would have coffee at his favourite hangout. Then we would visit the farmers’ market, after which we would cook with cousin Mirella at her house. I had assumed we would be taught exclusively by Maria Rosa, but I gradually came to understand that she couldn’t manage us every day and had deputized friends and family.
Once back at the winery, I proudly thrust a bag of clams and baby squid purchased at the market in Mirella’s direction. She paused. She sighed. A beat later, I realized that she had already planned her dinner menu. “Allora,” she said, smiling broadly. Well, then. “Next time we’ll make pasta e fagioli. Tonight: spaghetti alle vongole e seppioline” (spaghetti with fresh clams and baby squid). I felt a twinge. I loved pasta e fagioli, too, and had always wanted to learn how to make the thick pasta-and-bean soup. I apologized for rudely hijacking my host’s menu, but Mirella said it was no problem.
Mirella handed her shopping list to her husband. Beppe was 57, the same age as Fiorenzo. He was a tall, sunburned man with fingers stained grape-purple. Unlike Fiorenzo, Beppe spoke no English at all and motioned for us to get in his SUV like we were hearing impaired. In Asti, Beppe led the way to the city’s famous indoor food market. He halted in front of his favourite butcher, owned by the Massano brothers. “This is the best macelleria in Asti,” said Beppe. “It sells only Piedmont meat.”
The word macelleria derived from the Latin word for butcher and slaughterhouse. Macelleria Oro Rosso sold rabbit, beef, free-range chicken, liver, beef tripe, salumi, fresh sausage, meatballs and hand-shaped patties with herbs and cheese. For our lunch later, Sam and I bought two flower-shaped burgers draped with translucent slices of lardo, the famous Italian cured fatback that can be eaten raw.
Beppe ordered a kilo of minced beef filet from Paolo Massano, who carefully trimmed the glistening silver skin, the shiny membrane that doesn’t break down when cooked, and then ground the filet by hand. Mirella was making carne cruda, a Piedmont specialty that in 1950 inspired Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice to create carpaccio, paper-thin slices of raw beef served with lemon, olive oil, shaved Parmesan and, sometimes, white truffles. Cipriani named the dish after the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio, famous for the blood-red hues in his Renaissance paintings.
Our host herded us back to his SUV and drove at breakneck speed to a gigantic suburban supermercato. Beppe raced through the supermarket the way he drove. We trailed in his wake, listening while he phoned Mirella at least three times to find out exactly which type of sweet peppers she wanted, what kind of flour, what size of capers. She also asked him to buy three tiny tins of tuna packed in olive oil, which were expensive but significantly richer tasting than the waterpacked stuff I usually ate in Canada.
For lunch back at our apartment, Sam pan-seared the burgers so that the lardo melted, contributing a rich umami flavour. We steamed artichokes and made a green salad. When we finished eating and had washed the dishes, it was time to walk over in the rain to start cooking dinner with Mirella.
BEPPE’S GRANDFATHER founded Vigneti Brichet di Massasso e Figli in 1920. It grew a dozen varieties of grapes, including Merlot, Cabernet and Moscato, producing white, rosé and ruby-red Barbera wines. Beppe began working in the business when he was 18. At 25, he married Mirella, the girl next door, and they had two sons. Alessandro, the elder son, helped him harvest and ferment the grapes and bottle the wine. Stefano, the younger son, worked in Sydney as a sommelier and had an import licence to sell Massasso wines in Australia.
Mirella was a confident, ample woman of 48, with nape-length dyed auburn hair. She handled all the bookkeeping and shipping and cooked the 10-course wine-tasting dinners for 50 guests during the fall harvest and spring bottling seasons. Decades earlier the winery had stopped selling
to the public and sold only to a private roster of customers. Beppe delivered cases of wine all over northern Italy, and Mirella couriered the rest to clients further afield, in central and southern parts of the country.
They lived above the shop in a large, well-appointed apartment with high ceilings and windows overlooking the vineyard. Beppe’s parents had once lived here. When he took over the business, they swapped homes and the parents now lived down the road. Mirella knocked down interior walls, repositioned the principal rooms, and built her dream kitchen, even though the winery below was equipped with a professional one.
Mirella’s kitchen was spotless and hyper-organized. Sam had instant gadget envy when he saw Mirella’s professional meat slicer. Hers was also the only home we worked in that had an espresso machine. Everywhere else we went, people used the two-piece stovetop coffee pot called la moka.
“Food is a concentrated messenger of a culture,” noted Bill Buford in his 2006 book Heat. To me, kitchens reinforce that cultural message. The Italian kitchens we visited, no matter their size, always had two important pieces of furniture: a large central table and a comfy sofa. Although I rarely saw anyone sit on the sofa, it seemed essential because the kitchen was the place family and friends congregated. (Perhaps it was also a subconscious nod to ancient Rome, where the wealthy reclined to dine.) As for the table, it wasn’t merely a place to eat but a key workspace. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian kitchens typically had a stove and, perhaps, a sink, but no counters. To roll out and cut fresh pasta, housewives placed a custom-made board on top of the table. When the meal was ready, they removed the board and everyone gathered around the table.
“The life of an Italian family is only at the table,” Mirella said.
DURING THE 15 DAYS that Sam and I were in Piedmont, we learned how to make proper spaghetti alle vongole,
FRIENDS OF FRIENDS OF FRIENDS INVITED US INTO THEIR HOMES AND LET US INVADE THEIR KITCHENS.
two-stir risotto, yogurt cake, gnocchi alla bava (“drooling gnocchi,” so named because of a delicious pale sauce that supposedly looks like saliva), spaghetti carbonara and so much more. The generosity of strangers—Maria Rosa’s hospital colleagues, for instance—continued to amaze me as people who only knew Sam and me as friends of friends of friends invited us into their homes and let us invade their kitchens. Why did they go to this trouble?
The answers are both simple and profound. Italians are fiercely proud of their regional cuisine. This is a country where people still speak in dialect and eat the food of their grandparents. But the deeper reason has to do with family. In atomized societies like Canada and the United States, people move from job to job and from city to city. In Italy, with the exception of those who are forced to leave to find work, people stay close to home, literally. Maria Rosa is living in her father’s home. Mirella swapped houses with her in-laws. Those who welcomed us into their homes all have children, sometimes adult children, with whom they eat dinner nightly. Everyone has kitchen tables that expand to seat a dozen people. Social networks are robust. A friend of a friend is your friend, too, someone you would go out of your way to help.
ON ONE OF OUR final days in Repergo, Sam and I arrived at Maria Rosa’s shortly past noon. Maria Rosa presented me with a box gorgeously
I HAD ENVISIONED PAYING A LUMP SUM TO THE FAMILIES FOR THEIR TROUBLE. THEY ADAMANTLY REFUSED.
wrapped with flowered paper and a wide orange grosgrain ribbon. Italians are preternaturally talented at creating beauty. In the land of Michelangelo, la bella figura indelibly shaped the psyche. Everyone dresses with care—all the women, including fishmongers, are elegantly coiffed—and no one casually tosses a present into a dollar-store bag with a pouf of matching tissue on top.
I opened the gift. It was a gleaming white-enamelled moka by Bialetti, the best stovetop espresso maker in Italy. Maria Rosa said the six-cup pot was for Norman, because she had
heard that North Americans drank vast amounts of coffee. It would work on any stove—gas, electric, ceramic, even an induction cooktop. She pointed out its heat-proof silicone-coated handle. Her own moka pots were battered aluminum with handles that became dangerously hot.
On this adventure, I had envisioned paying a lump sum to the families for their trouble, plus groceries, gas and assorted expenses. However, Maria Rosa and Fiorenzo adamantly refused to accept any money. Mirella also declined, but at least I was renting her farmhouse. Flummoxed, I emailed Ashley. As a former diplomat, I reasoned, he ought to have a solution. He figuratively threw his hands in the air and passed me on to his Italian-born wife, Silvia, who suggested I could buy Maria Rosa a trendy Italian-designed bag— because Maria Rosa had once bought one for Silvia. That wasn’t remotely adequate, yet the only way I even convinced Maria Rosa to accept the bag was by saying it was for Chiara (a dirty trick because I lured them both to the purse store and the 17-year-old instantly swooned).
Of course, then Maria Rosa had gone out and bought me la moka, saying it was for Norman.