Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cortemillia by bike and night 2 in the kitchen

I woke up feeling a little homesick and sad but a big plate of salume and formaggio, plus a cappuccino made with love by Carlo, had me feeling a bit peppier. My original plans were to travel to Alba today but I was unaware the morning bus departed and 9 and Carlo insisted upon not waking me up. Instead, I joined him for a drive to a hotel a few towns over. Villa San Carlo has been set up as a stopping point for multiple biking and hiking tours and as part of this, Carlo must deliver the luggage to the next hotel along the route. Tourists, usually Europeans, can book the tours through travel agents. They enjoy a meal and stay a night at a local hotel and then journey to the next the following day. We hopped into Carlo’s red Durango, likely the largest car to be found in a 100 mile radius, and set off stopping along the way at a few points in Cortemillia. As the local tourism minister Carlo is in charge of setting up events for the town along with other responsibilities. In an attempt to boost tourism in Cortemillia, the government is having a large gathering tomorrow in which all of the local shopkeepers join together to sell their goods in a central location. Being the minister, Carlo must ensure all is going according to plan which means a lot of communication and preparation. All in order, we left Cortemillia, gliding up and down mountains, through tiny cities. I swear along the way, I watched his foot to be sure, Carlo hit the brakes only once or twice, no matter how sharp the curve or steep the hill. He was never phased as we rounded a curve and were confronted by a car driving towards us in our lane, never slowed as the road suddenly went from two lanes to one when the steep cliffs of the mountains only allowed room for a single vehicle. Such is the normal Italian way of life. Meanwhile, I was entertained by Carlo’s loud and rapid conversations on his cell phone, of course attached to a headset, and the worst of American songs playing on the radio.
We reached the hotel at the top of a mountain and I was surprised by it’s appearance. The building was a very modern wood and glass structure that seemed very out of place in the Piemonte countryside. Carlo informed me the family had just updated and had been very successful in their venture. I snapped a few photos before we were off, headed back to Cortemillia. Carlo shared more of his ideas to improve the city and its tourism industry along the way. As part of a new project to improve the overall appearance of the town, the government has offered empty shop windows to nearby shop owners in order to display their products. In return, they simply keep the windows clean and neat. Instead of looking like 50 percent of the shops are open, it appears that 90 percent are open. This is just one of many ways Carlo is bringing his fresh and modern approach to the old fashioned Cortemillia.
For lunch, we once again enjoyed a nice, fresh insalata. Carlo quickly sauteed some fish with olive oil, salt and pepper. The unidentified small red fish was mild and had a firm texture. It was the perfect accompaniment to our salads. We finished, as usual, with fruit and I had the best apricot yet. I am learning to enjoy my meals with Carlo and Paola very much. They eat just like I do, quickly and without pause, even to talk. The atmosphere is always casual and enjoyable and I hang on to every word they say, attempting to improve my Italian. Paola constantly worries about my satisfaction, insisting I eat more as Carlo again reminds me I am free to consume anything in the kitchen that I please. They are intent on making me fat!!
We cleaned up from lunch together and then it was time for more prep work. The night was expected to be busy so we did a bit more than usual. We journeyed down to the cellar where we collected ingredients and the dough made the previous day for more bread. In the kitchen I cut tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and carrots for pasta dishes that would be served that evening. Carlo then taught me to make little cakes from semolina flour that we would serve as a side dish in the evening. As we whisked together the flour, water, butter, salt, pepper and fresh nutmeg, Carlo explained to me how important it was to have a changing menu. Not only could customers staying in the hotel and dining multiple nights in a row have variety, diners would have no doubts about the freshness of the food, as something new is prepared and served daily. The semolina mixture reached a thickness like cooked polenta and Carlo used a ladle to scoop out rounds which he placed on a buttered baking sheet. The cakes would later be baked to order.
After prep, I took Carlo’s bike for a spin. Cortemillia and the area surrounding it is a great place to bike, there was even a triathalon through town today! The roads leading out of Cortemillia are only slightly hilly and curvy as compared to the roads leading in which wind up and down the mountain. I took the easy route for my first ride, but it was an uphill climb and the weather here is in the high eighties so it still posed a challenge. Although strenuous, the ride was quite enjoyable and cars easily passed by, leaving me plenty of space. I got to take in the Italian countryside while riding along on a bike, what’s better than that?
After a swim in the pool and a quick shower it was time for dinner service. Because of the larger crowd expected for dinner, there was much preparation to be done before guests arrived. We ensured that the all the ingredients were in place, Carlo even entrusted me to do some cutting, and we made eggy crepe like pancakes for a dessert. Carlo taught me to make the amuse-bouche, a little bite that is served complimentary to each guest when they arrive. On this particular night we were serving a small toasted piece of bread with a decadent cheese mixture piped on top and fresh truffle shaved on just as it was being whisked out of the kitchen. When the guests started arriving, the kitchen immediately moved into full swing. In only 1 day I have learned so much and I was able to comprehend the orders and what needed to be done next, so I did my best to assist Carlo and Marlene without being in the way. I got to make some amuse-bouche on my own! I got to prepare the pasta when the orders came in, weighing the perfect portion out. It is exciting to know the weights and where to find each pasta as self-sufficiency is much preferred over neediness, especially in the kitchen. Carlo always explains as he cooks, teaching me every element of every dish. We sent out plenty of gnocchi fritti, vitello, and even some flaming agnello! The atmosphere in the kitchen was much different as the pressure to get each plate out on time was high. I enjoyed myself thoroughly though, getting lost in the intensity. I can’t help feeling like the kitchen is where I am meant to be. Since we skipped dinner, Carlo kept shoving leftovers onto me like I was a starving child, but I had no reservations and ate everything thrown my way. I tried the asparagus risotto, lasagnette with ground veal, and even got my own plate of fantasia di vitello which was incredible. Carlo also prepared a snack for me, one I have only read about in a magazine once before. The story goes that a small town in Italy is known for it’s lardo and it’s a staple for the quarry workers there, layered on thick slices of bread for lunch. When Carlo offered me some lardo I said yes, certo, and there it was in front of me, a mini lardo panini. While initially upon reading about this practice with fascination, I had some doubts, my first bite erased all questions. The lardo melted into the bread from the heat of my mouth, it was like prosciutto on steroids, AWESOME! I helped clean up the kitchen as the last of the desserts were being sent out.
I finished the night skyping with some dearly missed friends and family. I already miss home but I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world!!

Images top to bottom:
la frutta
prepping semolina cakes
taking a break on my bike ride
weighing out pasta

Carlo, tourism minister for Cortemillia, in the local paper

La bicicletta


Prep station in the kitchen

Amuse-bouche for the night

Lardo bowls and some fresh lasagnette!

1 comment:

Kelsey Scott said...

Tonight I will dream of that amuse bouche.