ITALY – Colle di Val d’Elsa
Prepping for an interview, they always stress the importance of first impressions: good hygiene, a nice outfit, and a firm handshake. Today, I’m going to meet the people at L’Officina della Cucina Popolare, where I’ll be doing my 3 month internship in the Tuscan town of Colle di Val d’Elsa. But first I have to get there…
I’m in Paris, boarding the night train to Florence. It’s a standard four person couchette, but there’s no air in the train car, and with four oversized bags between us, it’s pretty stuffy as the August sun streams in through the large window. Our train doesn’t move for 2 ½ hours. We just sit there, sweating.
Eventually the train makes it to Florence and I transfer to the bus. I ask if the stop is for “Colle di Val d’Elsa,” and three older Italian ladies all turn back to look at me simultaneously. They discuss for a minute, and then shake their heads no. It’s the next stop. They all point excitedly when we get there and I thank them as I climb down off the bus.
The bus drops you off at the base of the hill. Colle di Val d’Elsa is on the top, a beautiful spot when you’re not dragging up a heavy bag with a busted wheel on a hot, humid day in the middle of the afternoon. I’m really not trying to complain, just painting you a picture of how I look when I arrive.
By the time I make it to the restaurant, my shirt’s a full shade darker from sweat. I wring it out and try wiping my face, but I continue to sweat like a faucet. Tired, wet, smelly, and hungry, I shake hands with the owners of the restaurant, wondering if I could look any worse. They’re very nice and immediately show me the apartment, suggesting I shower and then return for a meal. I accept before they finish their sentence.
Later, the homemade pasta with fresh cherry tomatoes and the crisp white wine are exactly what my body is craving. Pasta’s a comfort food for me, being a specialty of my mom’s. Now full, showered, rested, and free of luggage, I realize how amazing this town is. I guess you have to go through a tiny piece of hell to reach paradise.
I’m compiling a list of things to do before I leave…
1. Ride a Vespa through the countryside
2. Participate in a grape stomping contest
3. Join a bocce-ball league
4. Find Olive Garden’s school in Tuscany…
life according to helle
It’s been just me at the apartment so far, but Helle, another intern, is coming in from Denmark. I’m looking forward to having a roommate. It gets kind of quiet at night, especially since there’s no internet and only a few Italian tv stations to flip through.
Helle is a sweet girl, a couple years younger than me, she wants to learn as much as she can while she’s here, whether it’s about cooking, the culture, or the language itself. She’s always upbeat and has a very honest personality, like she’ll tell you what she really thinks, which is great.
She’s blogging about her trip, too. I read her post describing the apartment and our living situation. I think its hilarious. There’s no way I can describe it better, so here’s a translated version (she writes the original in Danish):
So I live on Via G. Carducci, a three minute walk from the restaurant in the old town of Colle di Val d’Elsa (colloquially “Kålle”). Joey and I each have our own rooms, both large and bright. In my room, I have a bed, a cupboard, and a desk. We have a kitchen-dining area, a bathroom, and a washing machine for sharing. We even have a porch and a small tiled terrace with plastic furniture. All in all, a home with much potential!
On the pessimistic side:
1. Despite Joey’s otherwise so excellent and uplifting presence, I must endure his massive purchases of chocolate, a little burping when we get home from work (it’s a natural thing, says Joey, and he certainly has the right assuming that it is also natural to consume three liters of sparkling water just before closing time!), and it’s a hair-phobic’s (like myself) worst nightmare: a bathroom covered in tiny, black hair (which Joey claims to be from trimming his bushy beard. Honestly, Joey has a superhuman amount of hair growth).
2. We have an extremely small amount of kitchen tools (despite having three espresso makers), and the pans we do have all have handles that are scorchingly hot after a few minutes on the stove.
3. I wake up and go to sleep to the noise of the upstairs neighbors, which consists of screaming children, the riding of a two-wheel bicycle, and a persistent squeaking sound that I – after my naive childhood assumed was caused by the centrifugal force from the washing machine – but yesterday had to admit was from the neighbors having sex.
On the optimistic side:
1. I am awakened by sunshine through my window every morning.
2. I have a cool, blue bed comforter with fish on it.
3. Joey bought toilet paper for us (we had been borrowing from the restaurant…).
4. Joey now washes all the hairs away after I told him of my phobia.
5. The apartment feels more homey after I hung pictures of my dogs in the kitchen, and some pictures of my siblings in the bedroom.
6. We have an Italian device in the closet, called a drying rack, which means we can dry our clothes inside (correction: our landlord asked today why we never do laundry. I guess we were supposed to take the rack outside).
7. Joey lets me eat his chocolate and his cantucci.
8. Joey is in general kind, considerate and far more clutter-free than I.
life as an old italian man
Every night on my way home, I pass a bocce ball court with about twenty old Italian men carrying on well after midnight. Tonight Helle and I stop to watch. On the far end are a group of old ladies chatting. Then on the right are those on the DL, like Luigi, who can’t play because of his back, but likes to watch. Luigi, who speaks English, tells us in order to play you have to join the club, which has a yearly membership fee of 10 euros. He says the 10 euros also gets you into the clubhouse at the end of the court where they play cards. We tell him we’ll gladly pay, but he refuses our money and says if we come back tomorrow, he’ll talk to the boss and get us in for free. It’s a plan.
We return at 2:30pm and play Rumino, an Italian card game similar to Rummy, until around 5. Luigi beats us 15 games to 1. If we were playing for money, like they usually do, we would’ve lost 23 euros. In other words, we were one game away from being the ’08 Detroit Lions. We sucked. Bocce is better.
I go out on the court first and manage to roll some close to the pallino. Knowing my music dynamics helps me understand their “piano, no forte, forte” tips. Luigi introduces us to his friend Mario… yep, Mario & Luigi! … who is our bocce tutor. We stay afterwards to learn how to use the walls to curve the ball while the others stay and watch us two newbies battle it out.
externing at an italian restaurant in tuscany
I start by seeding roma tomatoes. With a steak knife from the dining room, I cut them lengthwise and scrape the guts into a bowl and line the shells on a pan ready to be stuffed with breadcrumbs and pesto. I do this all in mid-air because it’s a tiny kitchen. Along one wall is an oven, 6 burners, and a small vat of boiling water for pasta. On the other side is a small counter with a meat slicer, refrigerated cabinets underneath and a machine overhead that drips grease on your back if you don’t watch out. The dishwasher has only a 2 compartment sink and a mini washer on the side opposite a Jimmy Hendrix poster and a door that opens to the street. During the day, different people poke their heads through the beaded curtain to ask where Matteo is (the chef). Sometimes it’s a friend, a customer, or the cheeseman with 2 wheels of Pecorino in one arm and a free hanging scale in the other.
In the mornings I do pasta, usually rolling out some pici (a little thicker than what we call spaghetti, although they call spaghetti “that dry crap made in factories”) by hand. When I say “by hand,” I mean each noodle by hand. It might sound obnoxious, since each plate gets about 20 noodles, but they turn on an American radio station and you start getting a rhythm going. Roll, roll, roll, push. There’s an ongoing pici rolling competition amongst the other chefs. 16 portions an hour is considered expert. My first day I barely do 6. After a week, I’m up to 10, but more importantly I get the nod from Giovanna, Ilaria’s Italian aunt. “Yes, you can make the pici,” she tells me in Italian.
During service, I’m on the cold apps/dessert station. My first night, I’m playing a game of charades with Oumou, trying to figure out how to plate the antipasti. I’m also in charge of ringing the bell when the orders are up. “Suona!” the other chefs will yell and I ding the bell.
Being the extern, I expected to get some of the less glorious tasks, but besides picking the parsley leaves off their stems, Matteo is good about giving me a comprehensive view of the kitchen. Maybe it’s because his extern days are still vivid in his head, less than a decade ago working for Heinz Beck, who he calls a “hardass,” but who’s in charge of the best restaurant in Rome, La Pergola, which has 3 Michelin stars.
The most interesting task so far is prepping the tripe. What’s tripe? Cow stomach. I have to cut 10½ kilos (about 23 pounds) into French fry-sized portions for a traditional Tuscan dish, slow-cooked tripe with tomato ragù. The tripe’s cream colored with varying textures from a soft honey comb, to a silicon ball, to carpet. It’s a little gross, but it’s supposed to taste good (I haven’t tried it yet).
call me gigi
Last week Luigi (who wants us to call him Gigi now) invited my roommate Helle and I over for lunch with his wife Nina. But the night before at the restaurant, they ask me to pick up the morning shift, so Helle goes without me. When I arrive home from work, there’s three jars in the fridge: homemade olives from their olive tree, artichoke hearts from their garden, and pickled red peppers. The artichoke hearts aren’t overly soft like the kind you find in a can. They taste like she just plucked them from her garden, coated them in olive oil, and sent them over. Amazing. I make some pasta and top it with the artichokes and olives and a little oil. It’s like I get to eat lunch with them after all.
I’m all for the “siesta” they have in Tuscany, especially during the summer when it’s hot and no one has AC. But pharmacies should be exempt because sick people don’t stop being sick between the hours of 1 and 4pm. I have the flu.
Acting out the symptoms for the flu to get some ibuprofen is probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve done on the trip. The pharmacist wants to know the whole story before she gives me the pills. No, I don’t last too long before having to take a sick day at work, but fortunately, I get sick during my days off…
It’s been warm and sunny the whole time I’ve been here and then a few days ago I woke up and it turned cold and windy. There was no transition. Just autumn.
We’ve closed the patio for the season at the restaurant. And the menu’s pulled out its cold weather offerings. Potato and leek soup has joined the ribollita and baked polenta with black cabbage has been added to the appetizers. Giovanna’s zuccato (ice cream cake) has been replaced by red wine and cinnamon poached pears that smell like Christmas. The only addition I’m not too thrilled about is the anchovies. I get to clean and marinate them a hundred at a time. They’re larger than the one’s back home, about two fingers wide and a hand-lengths long. They’re prepared nicely, marinated in loads of parsley, garlic, and olive oil, but they’re really smelly to work with. And it’s not just me. Everyone cringes as they walk by.
You know you’re working in an Italian kitchen when…
-The only keg in the restaurant is filled with extra virgin olive oil
-Everyone is offered a shot of espresso by their station in the morning and right before service
-You hear what sounds like “Die, die, die!”, but they mean for you to “go, go, go!” not actually “die, die, die!” Veloce (fast), and via tavola (fire table…) are other popular phrases.
-A hot water bath or bain marie is called a “Bagno Maria”
-Wine and pasta are served with every family meal
-Shouts of “Mamma mia!” or “Madonna benedicta!” are heard when a plate breaks, pan burns…
My typical work week
I work Friday-Tuesday from 10am-11:30/midnight usually with about a 2 hour break sometime before dinner service (Tuesday’s I only work dinner). Wednesday and Thursday I go exploring Tuscany or head to the train station in Florence for some random adventure.
On Monday’s, it’s just me and Giovanna, Ilaria’s aunt, who doesn’t speak English. Picture the stereotypical Italian mother cook. That’s Giovanna. She’s a great chef, but always has a crisis in the kitchen – the stove won’t light, or she can’t find the key to the storage (she’s the one who taught me the phrase, “Madonna!”). She tastes things throughout the entire cooking process. We made about 10 dozen meatballs last week and she samples the raw meat to get the seasoning right. I followed suit. It tastes better than you expect. The steaming hot version straight from the pan is better though.
All the other days, I work with Matteo, the head chef. In the mornings, I help roll the pasta, start the sauces, or make the desserts. Before service, I recently started to be in charge of the family meal, which typically follows the formula: crostone (toasted bread with cheese)-pasta-meat-salad. During service, I share the appetizer/dessert station with Giovanna or Oumou, except Tuesday nights when I’m on my own now.
no longer the new guy
We can now add Canadian to our Italian-Albanian-Senegalese-Danish-American kitchen staff. We have a new extern, Liam, from Saskatewan. He’s only a year and a half older than me, but has 7 more years cooking experience, so while he’s the new guy, he’s not really. Coming from a small farm town of 5,000, he’s the first person to think Colle’s a big city at 20K. I told him come to Phoenix where there’s 1.3 million and urban sprawl, but he probably couldn’t handle the heat, coming from the coldest place on earth. Literally. He tells me it was -76° F one winter.
Both living in Tuscany for the past two months, Liam and I share the same cravings for hamburgers, tacos, and ethnic food. While I love Italians, it’s refreshing to meet someone who doesn’t think it’s crazy to eat eggs and hash browns for breakfast.
After a few days, it’s the two new guys running the restaurant under the light supervision of Giovanna. Liam’s running the grill and pasta station and I’m doing the apps/desserts. It’s a slow Monday and Tuesday, but we do well, impressing a Brazilian guy, who comes in the kitchen to thank us.
kung fu fighting
Half of the staff at Officina, including the chef and manager, do Shaolin Kung Fu (like in Kung Fu Panda), so I’ve been going to class with them. It’s fun and one of the only physical activities in Colle besides bocce, which has already shutdown for the season. Besides, how many people get to beat up their boss?
best day of the trip
My days spent with Giovanna are always some of the funniest and most memorable, so when Matteo asks if we’d like to go learn how to make Ribollita, a traditional Tuscan vegetable and bread soup, at her house, I don’t hesitate saying, “Yes!”
Her kitchen/house might be preserved in an Italian historical museum one day. She borrows the embers from her old wood stove to toast bread. A vintage recliner faces the fireplace where a pipe rests above an accordion-style fire blower. At one point, one of her neighbors comes by to return a jar and borrow some bread. You feel like you’re back in the 50’s.
With Aida, Liam, Helle, and I all there, the prep goes by quick and Giovanna is astonished, “Madoonna!” We finish with a big lunch with Giovanna’s husband, Illaria, and Matteo. Then the original four of us flag down a bus to Volterra to cap off the day.
pasta for thanksgiving
Thought I might end up eating pasta for thanksgiving this year, but Matteo special ordered a turkey for us. He’s only seen thanksgiving in movies, so he’s pretty excited, too. Liam and I are preparing it for staff meal today (a day late). Mashed potatoes, stuffing, maple carrots, and gravy… The feast is doubling as a farewell dinner for Matteo, Ilaria, and me, since they’re taking a week vacation and won’t be back until the day after I’m in Paris.
Turkey isn’t a common Tuscan dish. In fact, word gets out in our small town, and before we know it, we have two random couples knocking on our back door requesting turkey leftovers, which we gladly give them.
The goodbyes are starting to begin. I had to say goodbye to Aida, yesterday, which was hard. Telling Oumou, my station partner, I’m leaving tonight feels like I’m breaking up with her. My Italian’s still far from fluent, and what comes out is, “Oumou e Joey, siamo finite! (we’re finished!).” In the beginning we really didn’t understand each other, but now we work well together, one of us sprinkling some parsley on a dish as the other finishes it with olive oil. When I tell her, she responds with one of her favorite English phrases, “Oh my Joey!” which always sounds more like “Oh my Joy.” (They thought I was going to be a girl, Joy, before I arrived).
It’s not just the restaurant I have to say goodbye to, but part of the town: Alessandro from the mini mart, Gabriele from the internet café, the lady from the pastry shop, the baker… I guess it’s no secret I like to eat.
the last supper
My mom and sister have arrived in Tuscany! I’m sitting in the lobby of their hotel, which is all decorated for Christmas, when I see them enter. It feels like the end scene of “Home Alone 2” when Kevin sees his mom by the Christmas tree. I’ve made a lot of great friends on this trip, but there’s nothing quite like family. Cooking for my family at a restaurant I’m working at in Tuscany is something I never imagined I’d do as a kid… Pretty cool, huh?
Giovanna, Liam, Mattia, and Helle have cooked a feast tonight for our last family meal together: pappa pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), homemade ricotta and artichoke raviolis, red wine braised beef, and zuccato (ice cream cake). Everything’s super delicious. Thanks guys!
90/90 leaving tuscany
After the blood (cutting myself on the edge of the robot coupe), sweat (there’s no AC in the kitchen during the summer), and tears (chopping a whole crateful of onions), after 500 hours in the kitchen, rolling about 1,000 noodles, joining a bocce ball club, riding a vespa, touring 9 of the 20 regions in Italy, missing my bus, taking the wrong bus, twice, getting lost, getting fined, getting kicked out of a piazza, waiting in the airport for 14 hours at a time, falling asleep at restaurants, eating chocolate at a chocolate festival, wine from a vineyard, olive oil freshly pressed off the tree, cardboard pizza, sketchy kebab, cow’s intestines, udder, and cured pig fat, gaining a kilo and a half, fighting a two week long flu, learning some Italian, and some Italian gestures, and cuss words, climbing towers and hills, making great friends, and running into people here who live 10 minutes from me back home, my 90 day Italian visa has expired and I’m heading to Paris…
Goodbye, life on a hill town. Thanks for the panoramic views and unexpectedly strong butt muscles.
Since the point of this trip was to cook, I guess I’ll finish with a few tips I picked up working in a Tuscan kitchen:
1. Wet your hands when rolling meatballs (so the meat doesn’t stick to your hands).
2. Don’t make a big batch of polenta in a small pot, or that shit will erupt like Vesuvius.
3. A good pasta dough is not too wet that it’s sticky, and not too dry that it breaks when you roll it.
4. If in doubt, finish with olive oil.