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.

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