Lately, my insistent day dream plays itself out on a rolling slope on the south face of a green hill in Tuscany. It involves a tan stone farmhouse in ruins that I craftily revive with my own sweat and toil until the building and I are one, at which point I start inviting the food curious friends I’ve made on these last few years of cuisine-guided travel. We pluck oversized ingredients from the dark volcanic soil and wash and scrub them over a thick oak table and prepare them in those simple oil and garlic Italian ways that mystically elevate pure, rustic flavours. Occasionally, my stocky, cap wearing neighbour and I would get into a debate about the provenance of the Sangiovese grape and argue about the need for a shallow gravel bed and if a six-degree slope is ideal for draining the May rains.
…And then I wonder if all of this vision is just a flight of fancy; another grass is always greener wandering of a mind dusted over in the soot of busy London.
Well, this Spring, I had the amazing opportunity to visit a tan stone farm house in the hills of Tuscany that has been lovingly and laboriously revived as a bright and clean guesthouse replete with sloping acreage of vivid green vegetable gardens and the small yellow blossoms of short, twisted olive trees.
And… I’m pretty sure the dream is real.
It only took an hour of following my host Vincenzo, with the sun on our necks, fumbling through the stringy vines of beans, bending over to pluck shoots of the season’s first wild asparagus, to determine that I could very easily find massive amounts of peace, intrigue, curiosity and passion in such a place.
Standing in the shade of the stone walls, rinsing clean a massive, snow white cauliflower in the outdoor sink, with a breeze pushing circles of small black birds overhead, it was easy to get very, very excited about the notion of a few passionate food lovers (which all Italians are) congregating over the long kitchen island assessing and poking at a bubbling casserole dish of the cauliflower, roasted, hot and browned at the edges, laden with crisp bread crumbs and a snowfall of parmesan cheese. Someone would be stabbing at it with their folding pocket knife and someone would be opening bottle after bottle of Barolo wine until they found the perfect match. Then someone from the next farmhouse over would clamber through the door wearing hunting tweed triumphantly holding up a brace of pheasant bound by their feet. At some point cheese and more Barolo would be served and the conversation would look to the future, when the olives started to darken and the oil pressing would begin.
The day plodding and picking and cooking actually unfolded slightly different, mostly involving Vincenzo’s family, cured meats, and an omelette of tender wild asparagus… Oh and and pigeon and rabbit instead of pheasant. The bliss – however – was present. Watching Vincenzo step through the rows of garden vegetables, turning over leafs and plucking shoots, his connection to the land is palpable and leaves little room for doubt that this is where humans are supposed to spend their days. Watching him labour over the details of simple dishes like an omelette or a risotto reminds me of how much obsession can be funnelled into these pure, honest tasks and how much reward comes from executing them to the best of one’s ability and sharing them with others who appreciate such gestures.
And so now I just need to figure out how to make it happen. Is it a build-it-and-they-will come guesthouse, where food pilgrims flock from the far corners of the earth? Is it a long oak table where I teach others all of these amazing preparations that have been taught to me on my food travels? Or is it a tidy goatskin yurt on a hilltop, with a trickle of wood smoke lifting out of the center ? Or is it more wanderings, wading through the mists of inspiration left in the wake of the passionate food folk that seem to be everywhere? Or should I go back to the city, shining and tall, and put in my desk hours and put off the dream until the safe, secure harbour of retirement when I can lay bricks on my own pace funded by the working man’s nest egg?
But I guess that’s the great question: How to live the life of the passion-fuelled daydream and make it a viable reality. In the meantime, I’ll still be right here, cooking and teaching to cook and writing about all of it.
Oh.. and I leave for India on Friday… Any ideas?