I understand why people become enamored of Italian culture. Although a reverence for local foods can be found in many places world-wide, the Mediterranean climate allows such traditions to shine through the variety of ingredients available year-round. Here in Vermont, where I have lived for over 20 years now as an Italian immigrant, local farmers cultivate beautiful vegetables, tend to winter-hardy fruit trees, pasture healthy animals, and grow an impressive variety of grains. Because our growing season lasts five months at best, we do not have access to fresh foods all the time. As supplies dwindle during the cold months, so do I feel a growing desire to visit the warmer places where these foods grow year-round.
Certain parts of California may reflect the Italian peninsula’s growing season, but the scale on which food is raised does not compare to the small production to which Italy must adhere due to its mountainous geography.
With the Apennine mountains running a spine north-south and the Alps holding the northern part of the country, there are few places to cultivate anything on more than a handful of acres. Hence, even though the growing season here is luxurious, Italian food acquires a precious quality due to its small-scale production. Regional recipes made from freshly grow or foraged ingredients are integral to the cultural paradigm.
As a child, I learned to wild harvest forest foods and glean the leftovers from farmers’ fields. My father ’s zest for gleaning continues to this day. Whenever my parents visit Vermont, he befriends land owners so that he may scour their south-facing hillsides for chantrelle mushrooms. We drive down dusty dirt roads and pull over when he sees apple trees that he recognizes as the Gravenstein variety. He climbs up into the tree at age 80 and starts tossing apples down to me. I catch them in a canvas bag, ready to take them home and make applesauce for our root cellar.
We return to my cedar shingled farm house and cook a simple lunch of risotto, an Italian staple that defines itself by its regional variations. In the south, it may be prepared with fresh tomatoes and seafood. A traditional northern risotto recipe is made with minced onions, carrots and celery – known as soffritto – sautéed in butter and white wine and mixed with chantrelles. As we sit before the steaming bowls laced with the Parmigiano Reggiano that my father brings from Italy each time he comes, we pause.
“Chi vuole dire la preghiera?” Papi asks us who would like to say the prayer. I start the French family prayer taught to us by my grandmother, whose maiden name was Jaccond. She came from the French side of Monte Rosa in the Western Alps to work in Italy. “Bon Dieu, benisse la nourriture que nous allons prendre pour nous entratenir en vôtre saint service. Ainsi soit-il”. I had the great fortune of spending one day a week with a bilingual French Italian family growing up, which allowed me to seamlessly add French to my linguistic repertoire. A translation for this prayer is, “May God bless the food we are about to eat so that it may keep us in your sacred service. So be it”.
This connection between prayer, language and nourishment is what keeps the fabric of my family’s gastronomic traditions alive. This link may be what draws people to Italy. As an immigrant, I understand the feeling of rootlessness that comes from being in a new place and struggling to maintain the teachings of the homeland while, at the same time, needing to assimilate in order to survive. Returning to the place that defines our identity can feel grounding, calming, and nurturing, just a like a warm bowl of risotto.
If I did not have my roots as a foundation for understanding the world and the importance of simple, whole foods, I would feel much more lost than I do during these uncertain times.
You will need:
3 tablespoons salted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 yellow onion, minced (about one cup)
2 stalks celery, minced
2 medium carrots, minced
1/2 pound chanterelle mushrooms, diced
2 cups risotto rice (Arborio or Carnaroli) – another way to measure the rice is to put a handful per person into the skillet
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Brush any dirt off of the chanterelles before chopping them. Do not wash them to maintain their flavor.
Bring the chicken or other stock to a gentle simmer in a pot.
Heat the butter in a deep skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes or until it starts to brown. Add salt as it cooks.
Add the celery and carrots and cook for a few more minutes.
Add the diced chanterelles and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook for 5 more minutes. Smell the earthy fragrance that rises from the cooking mushrooms. Offer a moment of praise for the endless network of mycelium that spans the forest, informing trees and ferns about woodland activity from miles away.
Stir in the rice and cook another 2 minutes or until the rice becomes translucent.
Pour in the white wine. Reduce the heat on the risotto pan to medium low.
At this point, stop stirring. I know that many people talk about stirring risotto constantly. I grew up ever stirring it. I love the risotto my family prepares. Try it. Don’t be scared. It will turn out.
Once the wine has been absorbed, start adding the hot stock, a ladle or two at a time.
When you see bubble rising to the surface of the rice, add another ladle or two of stock – just enough so that the stock barely covers the rice. Keep adding stock until the rice is cooked. My father swears it takes exactly 18 minutes.
Add the Parmigiano, stir well, and serve a ladle or two to each person at the table.
Eat steaming hot.
There is a true power to ancestral eating. It is not only pre-programmed into our DNA to be the ideal food for us, but it is the strength that helps us know who we are as we navigate the change that is life’s only constant.