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My Final Words on Italy and Spannocchia

November 16, 2010
by

Spannocchia

My first meal in Siena was a plate of handmade pappardelle al cinghiale, inch-wide semolina noodles ensconced by a modest portion of wild boar ragu.  It was an unforgettable dish, a taste moment that brought literal tears to my eyes.  Its deliciousness inspired me to order it again the next night, and any opportunity I had thereafter.  Like most things in Italy, I was surprised that each time I ordered the dish it tasted differently than the time before.  What I came to realize, and to appreciate most about my experience of Tuscan food, is that a simply prepared dish of pasta says quite a lot about the land upon which its ingredients were cultivated.  Wild boar, farina, Chianti, pecorino, and radicchio taste not like any other pork, flour, wine, cheese or lettuce, but each tastes unique, representative of the biochemical make up of the soil, the neighboring crops, the growing season and the commitment and care its producer shows to its cultivation and creation.  Tuscany invited me to slow down long enough to listen to what my food was trying to tell me about itself.  Spannocchia and Tuscany’s small hill towns pride themselves on their sustainability, and sustainable food is one lens through which we can come to understand the notion of sustainability and inform perceptions and appreciation of food here in the United States.

Living sustainably requires consciously rejecting what globalization has done to our humanity.  Societies waste resources at an ever-increasing rate and this behavior drives us apart.  Disconnection from our food limits our ability to understand how the land and its products nourish us and how we in turn care for the earth.  With some exceptions, Americans have lost touch with this reality; Americans move too fast to stop and explore the transaction costs of their fast-paced lifestyle— mass produced food, preservative leaden processed foods, nutritionless meals made from ingredients grown thousands of miles away.  Americans do not think about what this is doing to them and to their environment.  Then there is Italy.

Italians approach everyday at a pace I reserve for my most relaxed weekends.  During my visit to the Panzano farmers market, I watched a man spend 5 minutes individually smelling, touching and considering the artichokes he would eventually buy.  At the Sovicile farmer’s market, an individual olive oil producer explained his production methods, shared his oil, and proceeded to hand-write the receipt for my purchase.  Claudio, who generously invited us to share his pecorino, slowly carved slices of his handwork and poured glasses of the wine his friend made not far from the property.  It became clear that for the people of Italy, life is not meant to be hurried and the beauty of life is not how much you accomplish in one day, but the quality of the things done during the day.  This thoughtful approach may be slow, but it fosters deep connections with people, with the land and with food.

This is no more evident than at Tenuta di Spannocchia, the organic and sustainable farm located just 30 minutes from Siena, Italy.  On our first day, Randall Stratton gathered the group at the top of Spannocchia’s medieval tower where he spoke with intense appreciation for the panorama we were looking out upon.  From here, I began to understand why Spannocchia is so special; olive trees, chestnut groves, vegetable gardens, vineyards, pastures of pigs and cattle, and the realization that this land would nourish and care for me for the duration of my stay just as it had for countless others since the 12th century.  A tour of the vegetable garden described the intensive process of rotating vegetables for sustained produce throughout the spring, summer and fall.  Katie explained during a visit to the pig pasture that Spannocchia revitalized a near extinct heritage breed pig, the Cinta Senese, which has been an typical Tuscan animal for centuries.  Its near-extinction no doubt a result of the time and labor intensive processes required to transform this from pig to pork. Our tasting of Cinta Senese salumi was inspiring and as we ate, Katie called upon us to name the smells, flavors, and texture of our food.  Fennel, oregano, tobacco, rose, chestnut, and olive were just a few of the scents, all of course characteristic of Spannocchia.

Similar experiences occurred in the hill towns.  At a wine tasting in Greve in Chianti, the wine maker explained the difference between Chianti DOCG and IGTs, we tasted wines of two producers from the same year, the difference incredible and evident.  In Panzano, Dario Cecchini, a butcher, butchers his meats using traditional Tuscan methods and practices.  Italians appreciate the care of these producers and know that this leads to a better product and everyone is willing to pay the premium for these products—the good olive oil, the rose scented wine, the salty-savory pecorino, the cinta senese copocolo.  Italians will literally stop for these things, pausing for hours to spend time with the food that sustains them, brings them pleasure, and links them to the land.  This model connects people with each other and their surroundings.

As with any process or approach, there are inefficiencies.  Traditional processes are labor intensive, would Spannocchia accomplish its mission without the support of its interns who work for free?  Would this model be viable were it not for guests of Spannocchia agritoursme program? The economies of many of Italy’s hill towns rely on tourists who visit to appreciate their products.  Would the economies of these towns be self-sustaining without tourism?  These are questions I am unable to provide answers for, but must be considered.

Of course, the Italian government supports these endeavors, which is why they are possible.  Public policy supports these efforts not only because they promote culture, support the producer, and preserve traditional methods of farming, but they also support the landscape that characterizes Italy.  While these policies may not be suitable for adoption in the United States, there is ample room for more progressive local policies that will support an Italian model of high quality local foods, small scale food production and individual producers rather than the US model which represents globalization, free trade, waste and disconnection.

Awareness of food insecurity, food desserts, and food quality is increasing.  Environmental degradation, waste, and climate change are real issues and the US has much to gain from the Italian model.  Even if political transition is infeasible at this time, it is not out of the question for large-scale transitions of mindset about food.  Maybe it is unreasonable to expect Americans to slow down long enough to appreciate a two hour lunch, but it is not unreasonable for Americans to spend an hour having dinner together and appreciating renewed connection to their food, to attend farmers markets once a week or to buy food from a local producer or order a CSA box of vegetables.

There is something very special about Spannocchia and the hill towns of Tuscany.  Without question, the Italian approach to life is a symbol of sustainability—slow, thoughtful, reflective, and connected.  While we await a US policy agenda in support of these endeavors, we can promote enhanced connection with each other and our landscape over modest portions of food.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. ellewyo permalink
    November 22, 2010 8:48 pm

    Love the post jcrain, amazing.

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