Eat Like a Peasant
Nonno’s Tyrol. Distant memories of clipping zucchini vines and plucking fresh basil in a small garden in Newburgh, New York, returned at the sight of vast farmlands in the Adige Valley. The grand snow-capped mountains from the folktales related to a young boy by his leather-skinned grandfather appeared before me.
I had to honor this pilgrimage to my ancestral home of Trento, capital of the northern Italian region Trentino-Alto Adige (Südtirol) with a worthy meal. But where to eat, what to order?
European travel blinds the customer to the real importance of sampling a region’s cuisine. The finest cities in the west allow travelers to “eat like kings”. The posh platings of Sacher-Tortes and custards at Viennese tea houses, delectable parmesan and pistachio crusted lamb chops in Roman ristoranti, and the savory Parisian duck foie gras (at 30 euro per bite) elevate one’s palate to royalty status.
But what does this refined taste really tell you about a place?
Aside from business engagements and special romantic occasions, fine dining establishments are not generally home to the locals. The “foodie” movement and other attitudes consistent with hipster social media trends drew me in like many others. I brought that attitude to Europe.
In Alt’Italia, attaining a seat at a decent restaurant without a dinner reservation is impossible. After being turned away several times with hungry stomachs, my companions and I were forced to enter the nearest trattoria we could find.
Trattoria Piedicastello, which I assume to mean “at the foot of the castle” and not the literal “castle feet”, had a surprisingly charming aura despite its dark dinginess. There were no menus. Only a single waiter with knowledge of the chef’s inventory for the night could tell us what we could indulge in.
A very short list of two antipasti (the Italian tapa-sized appetizer), four primo piatti (“first plate”, the pasta or salad), and three secondo piatto (the meat or fish) was recited in the little English the waiter knew. I settled on stewed wild boar with a side of polenta, the corn meal that undoubtedly saved my ancestors from famine.
The wait was long. A table of older Italians to our left had several discarded plates in front of them, a sign of a long stay. Bread was brought out as a compensation as our wait neared the hour mark. Finally, the plates arrived with a cask of vino della casa, the house “table wine”.
The stewed cinghiale sat in a pool of grease that was continually expanding toward the dull-colored polenta. The first bite was warm and salty, and the succulence could only be escaped by a mouth full of polenta washed away with the watery and low-tannin wine.
My training from a wine pairing course has taught me that the presence of tannins are necessary for drying one’s mouth after devouring something savory like bistecca fiorentina or, in my case, the wild boar. Astringency is that furry feeling that full-bodied reds like Chianti leave on the tongue, for all the non-sommeliers of the world.
The light wine refreshed me in a way that the heavy Tuscan variety never had. The brisk alpine night was no match for the warmth of the plate before me. My pretentious palate was humbled in an instant. Somehow this simple Northern-Italian version of a “Southern-Comfort” meal impressed me more than the all of the others I had in Europe.
“I saw all of my distant relatives and ancestors sitting at a table together laughing and eating polenta,” my father used to tell be about a time he had been knocked unconscious. I felt closer to that table than ever before.
We thanked the host (the waiter, the busboy, and who knows what else) and bid him a goodnight. I emerged from the restaurant with a new attitude toward meals abroad.
Walking around the cobblestone streets of Florence in need of a light meal, I hesitated to indulge in the elegant concoctions of SandwiChic or the Marist-favorite Pino’s for a stacked panino. Instead, I found the nearest cart to enjoy a Tuscan favorite lampredotto, the fourth stomach of a cow, on bread with salsa verde.
Trippa alla Fiorentina, a lowly bowl of cattle intestine and stomach occasionally paired with tomatoes and spices, Ribollita, a simple bean soup, Coniglio Arrosto, a small helping of roasted rabbit, and several other non-Instagrammable dishes have filled me as of late.
I am by no means attempting to insult the gustatory prowess of Florentine chefs or categorizing the tastes of Italian locals as lowly. Alimentary peasantry is a proud Italian tradition.
The chef I have studied with in cooking clarified the main distinction between the two culinary behemoths of the world, Italy and France. French cuisine came from palaces to impress royalty, Italian cuisine came from the countryside to keep the peasants alive.
An example would be soffritto, the base of several traditional italian sauces, consists of onion, carrot, and celery. The vegetables supplanted meat, a commodity too expensive for the large peasant population in Italy.
Another would be chestnuts: dried chestnuts will never expire can be made into flour, out of which breads, pastas, and cakes can be produced even through the worst season for wheat and barley. Chestnut flour cakes are routinely eaten to respect this discovery.
The tradition of honoring peasant recipes persists. Italian chefs throughout the peninsula pay homage to the crafty techniques of their ancestors. The result: simple, fresh, delicious food. Ingredient lists are short and instructions brief.
The tales of my grandfather revealed our farming heritage in the mountains. The Berettas were not kings; a meal at the gateway to the Dolomites need not be the meal of a king. In “Nonno’s Tyrol,” I ate like a peasant.