November 9, 2010

Farm Feasts Involve Everyone

In the small northern region of Alto Adige, or Sudtirol, both Austrian and Italian traditions exist. Because the alpine geography only offers small valleys that the glacier left behind for habitation, towns are small and center around churches and farms. Most local people have a working relationship with a few farmers in their area. A favorite autumnal pilgrimage involves visiting these expansive hay barns with attached stone houses, which hold massive masonry stoves and long wooden tables ardorned with red and white checkered tablecloths. This is such a popular tradition that the name itself, torgelen, has become a verb, which literally means 'to cook and eat together with neighboring farmers'.
Instead of paying for a meal that the farmers have prepared, families and friends here in Alto Adige talk with farmers and learn which ingredients they need in order to make a proper feast. For a recent farm visit, since the farmer had not collected any berries this season, my aunt Rita made a buttermilk blueberry cake for all to share. Others brought wine from another farmer or a new sausage they had tried while visiting relatives in the Apennine mountains. All the shared food is as local as possible. Even though the farmers provide most of it, the guests bring some, too.
But this is not the end of their contribution. When neighbors arrive at the farm in the afternoon, it is time to start cooking. They may be set to work over an open fire, stirring cornmeal, salt, and water in a copper pot with a wooden stick until it thickens into polenta. A farmer might ask for help with slicing thick blocks of speck, a salted and smoked sausage, and displaying them for all to enjoy as appetizers. Some might like to try their hand at rolling out discs of buckwheat flour dough, filling it with steamed spinach and sauerkraut, and folding it into a half-moon shape to make tirtlen, large dumplings that are fried and served with plenty of freshly churned butter and fontina cheese. Here are some local women frying tirtlen at the Bressanone Farmers Market:
Children are running outside, chasing chickens or collecting fallen walnuts to feed to the pigs. Someone in the household hands out blue aprons with edelweiss flowers embroidery or checkered aprons with hearts. Guests and farmers alike tie one on and contribute, tasting wine, roasted chestnuts, speck and the trademark shuttelbrot, hard rye bread with fennel, fenugreek and coriander, as they work.
By the time the feast is ready, the farm house is warm with conversation and the smells of delicious food. From venison stew with pears baked in red wine and blackberry jam to a winter salad of pickled beets and braised green cabbage with onion and bean soup, the colors on the table are phenomenal. There is always plenty of bread and wine to go around: baskets and carafes find their way to the table at frequent intervals, heartily re-filled by anyone who notices a shortage. By the end of the meal, it is dark. Children are asked to wash a dish or two before all depart, full and satisfied.
The spirit of collaboration unites people here beyond class and ethnicity. Even though those of German descent are sometimes too proud to send their children to a bi-lingual school and Italians sometimes resist attending the German folkloric dances that often take place in central squares, everyone can agree about their passion for local food and the picturesque land that makes its growth possible. The tension between two distinct ethnic groups keeps this region vibrant in its struggle, reminding all who live here about the paramount importance of caring for the earth and appreciating its gifts.

November 6, 2010

Tradition Turns Creative with Marzipan

Bressanone, the Austrian-Italian town where my relatives live, is just as settled in its South Tyrolean ways as the majestic mountains that stood here even prior to the human species' advent. Many of the elders in this area do not quite grasp the concept of email; they prefer land lines to cell phones. On a morning drive to Maso Pineto, an old farm house turned hikers' rest stop, we saw local dairy farmers waiting by the narrow, twisting roads for the daily milk pick-up. Instead of building technological infrastructure like cell phone towers, this region has advanced through agricultural product subsidies, which include 20-gallon stainless steel containers with wheels for temporary milk storage and large milk trucks to visit each village and collect the precious liquid. I was awed by the wrinkled old men and women with their blue aprons and felted hats and coats, patiently standing next to containers whose silvery shine almost blinded me. Here, the meeting of traditional ways and modern conveniences highlights local industry. Instead of looking outside to define its standards, this region values the land itself as its most precious asset. The foods that come from these fields frame the most important traditions with which I was raised.

My uncle Harald hails from a well-known German family that ran a local sweet shop for generations. Although he has been a professional painter and sculptor for many decades now, his original artistic training is in the pastry field. He stretches layers of dough for flaky apple strudel with ease and flips crepes with admirable grace. When my parents proposed that he teach them how to make the traditional Tyrolean marzipan pigs, which locals exchange during New Years as good luck, his little blue eyes twinkled like sun glinting on fresh winter snow. He immediately took the traditional, adorable pig shape and spun it to envision even more animal shapes. "We could make monkeys, elephants, anything you want". We found fat rolls of marzipan, a classic European almond paste, at the candy store under the medieval vaulted porticoes in downtown Bressanone.

The next morning, Harald was already immersed in his creations. Instead of starting with the classic pig shape, he was fashioning a golden bear, eyes shyly upturned, holding a bright red rose. Next came an elephant, a monkey, and Santa Claus with shredded coconut for his snowy beard. My uncle still keeps a basket of powdered food coloring in the incredible basement cellar that holds all the abundance of my relatives' meticulous harvests. From pickeld cauliflower to dried mushrooms, from apricot jam to rye berries, from dried deer meat to thick-rinded cheese wheels, this granite-encased room with its marble work table and copper scales for weighing baking flours is the secret gem of the house. I was sent downstairs various times during this sculpture process to fetch a rolling pin, some blanched almonds, shredded coconut, and a mysterious liquid made from cocoa butter and egg whites that serves as a color-fast glaze for the marzipan creatures.
Harald at work:

When we made the New Years' pigs, I got to try my hand at one, too. It is hard to imagine that these hand-worked gifts are now made by factory machines in another valley. My uncle strives to highlight the importance of handwork when making and exchanging local crafts. He even makes the figurines for Catholic manger scenes that are so popular in the Alps. When we involve our hands, we can leave our hearts in the gifts we give. I felt the joy and satisfaction that came from shaping a marzipan pig whose character reflected my own. Even though the hand-made can be more time-consuming, we would not have raw milk cheese without the farmers near Maso Pineto who still milk their own cows. My uncle's handicraft skills also allow us to carry a Tyrolean mountain tradition to the United States and educate others about the world by sculpting our own version of these pink, chubby good luck charms.
Here are the pigs!

November 4, 2010

The Monks' Apples

On November 1st, public life stops in Italy. This is All Saints' Day, a celebration of the harvest, an honoring those who have passed, and a connection to the spirit that weaves the seen and unseen worlds together. Businesses, public offices, and schools are all closed. Time is spent at a slower pace, often at religious ceremonies and in cemeteries. Gravestones are adorned with purple, red and yellow chrysantemums or dried flower arrangements, tall red luminaries, and the love of family members who visit them as they would a living relative.
In the tradition honored by the local people of the Dolomites, Catholic beliefs twine with the agrarian tradition that came before them. When we visit our local church, we see the altar adorned in purple satin and covered with baskets of apples, grapes, nuts, cabbages and corn, rye, and buckwheat in thanksgiving for this time of year. A hand-cranked wooden grain thresher, a desk and writing implements, a scythe and felted hat, a pair of dancing shoes and rows of large pillar candles also decorate the space. Altar boys and girls with thick-rimmed glasses or unkempt curls swing censers burning spruce resin incense, which breathes forest blessings for work accomplished by all those who help this community thrive. Then, they light each candle as they name those who have died this year. I recognize surnames of families who have baked bread, made sausages and wine, fixed shoes, built chapels, carved Christmas angels and raised goats and chickens in this area for generations.
The choir intones Gregorian chants as they guided all who were present towards the cemetery atop one of the town's sloping hillsides. Sacred space for the living thrives in the village heart but, for those who have passed, the mountain view is more important: it opens a doorway into the next world. Rodella is a craggy peak covered mostly in conifers and occasional post-glacial fields where people centirues ago managed to erect a chapel with a pointed red steeple, some hay barns and houses, and terraced cultivations. Its ridge is snow-covered already and the majestic pink rocky Dolomites stand behind it. Tears always spring to my eyes when I see this majestic view and feel the mountain's protection. This is quite a spectacular place to be buried.
The procession is separated between men and women, but I walk with my dad anyhow. No one seems to mind. Many are whispering in the local German dialect, recounting stories about relatives who have died or saints whom they have invoked for assistance with some life challenge. Even though this territory technically belongs to Italy, there is a strong sense of the Austrian culture that dominated the area before World War I. The bi-cultural politics of this region remain complicated, but the two ethnic groups continue to co-exist and run their schools bi-lingually.
A ruddy man with thick glasses recognizes my father, shakes his hand, sees me, laughs, and says, "der apfel felt nicht so weit von den baum, ya?". "The apple does not fall so far from the tree, does it?" He refers to our striking family resemblance. When I walk through town here in Bressanone, people nod and smile warmly at me. Even though I do not know them by name and I rarely get to visit, I realize that they know me because they see my relatives in my nose, my smile and my eyes. My roots wrap around me and I grow stronger thanks to this kindred connection.
When we arrive at the cemetery, everyone turns to face their families' graves in prayer. We walk around and around the chapel, honor the Mary and Child inside who are adorned with all the gifts brought by those who have been healed thanks to her, and greet friends with whom my dad has been linked for sixty or seventy years. There is so much joy in this reunion. One friend from my dad's art school days, with his green felted Tirolean hat tipped at a jaunty angle, even has tears in his eyes when he sees me after so many years. Walking home, we pass the local monastery and notice that the ancient, twining apple trees in the expansive orchard are laden with fruit. "Why aren't they picking it?" I ask my dad. "There are not many monks left anymore", he replies.
The Catholic renounciate's path is an arduous one, and this particular sect of monks spends much of its time in African missions. When they return, illness often keeps them from fulfilling many of the agrarian roles associated with members of the clergy in Alpine regions. I feel a sadness welling inside me as I realize that this integral human relationship between land, seasons, and prayer belongs to an austere religious tradition that does not appeal to most modern people. However, we do not need to be monks and nuns in order to grow the food that nourishes us, honor the spirit that binds us, and therefore feed something greater than ourselves. "Let's come back and pick those apples after dark", I suggest. He laughs, nods, and we walk on.

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