Italy does so many things well, it’s hard to know where to begin. I wanted to begin with gelato but Blondilocks had other plans. Gathering us together for an early morning language refresher, the youngest of our group was emphatic as she asked us to repeat after her; “I Duomo. You Duomo. He/She/We Duomo. Duomology- the study of Duomo.” She had a point; one Duomo (cathedral) is more staggeringly impressive than the next.
Clearly I was traveling with a woman whose special skills would enhance our trip. Not only did her acting chops and years of dialect training provide the illusion that she was fluent in many languages, she is also highly trained in stage combat. This artistry served us well as we squeezed onto overcrowded vaporettos in Venice. It also came in handy as we attempted to navigate cobblestoned alleyways riddled with tourists.
The truth is that collectively, our troupe of strolling players are moderately conversant in French, German and Spanish. One of us can even say “Thank you” in many languages. But despite furious tutorials, we ventured into Italy with little command of the vernacular. I saw this as more of a challenge than a deterrent.
With more ease than a Rosetta Stone Learning System, a few sips of local Chianti uncorked my Italian voice. With surprising spontaneity, I found myself discussing the attributes of organic olive oil with the owner of a local vineyard. Food can serve as a great equalizer between cultures and languages. Gesticulating with one hand while popping cubes of bread doused in olive oil into my mouth with the other, I smiled. Grazie. Prego. Prego. Grazie.
Inspired by my new linguistic prowess, I took my Italian skills into the kitchen of the Hotel Leopoldo in Radda in Chianti. Breakfast was prepared and served each morning by a woman named Maura. Spelled with an R but pronounced with a D, Maura served as cook, baker and barista. Dusting the daily torte and crostata with powdered sugar, she then disappeared behind the doors of the compact kitchen. Returning moments later steadying a tray of frothy cappuccinos, Maura carried it out to our table on the terrace. She set it down with a nod and a “Prego.”
I questioned her about the crostata, specifically the pastry dough. “Pasta frolla?” I asked, making sure to pronounce it ‘fro-yah.’ With great seriousness Maura nodded, “Si. Frolla.” She gestured and I followed her towards the kitchen. A new crostata was in the works, a circle of dough with jagged edges tucked into an ordinary baking pan. “Marmellata?” I asked. Another serious nod and then with great precision, my Italian baking mentor demonstrated how she cut the lattice strips using a fluted pastry wheel. The same type of wheel that I utilize to weave pie crust into lattice tops. Blondilocks would have been proud; I lattice. you lattice, we all lattice.
The view from the terrace was as magnificent as a Renaissance painting. We lingered long after our cappuccino cups were empty, plates dotted with crumbs of crostata and smudges of apricot
jam. We scribbled in journals, penned business plans, mapped out a strategy for converting an oral recipe into a written one. I looked out over the hillside of Tuscany and wondered, exactly how many bottles of olive oil and Chianti could receive safe haven in the bottom of my suitcase?