Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving in Lucca

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Thanks to everyone who has been concerned about me missing this American holiday, however, a day of giving thanks is becoming very popular in Tuscany, too. In fact, my friend Margherita asked me how to cook a tacchino a few weeks back. I thought she said “taquito” and I asked her how on earth she knew what a taquito was. She laughed for the longest time before she corrected me and said “tacchino” which is Italian for turkey.

She told me she wanted to make a traditional holiday meal like we have in America. Surprised, I said, “you mean Thanksgiving?” She nodded and explained that in Italy they call it Ringraziamento which my friend Serenella translated to a day of giving thanks - La Festa del Ringraziamento or Il Giorno del Ringraziamento. Italians love to celebrate holidays and especially love to cook so it gives them one additional day in the year to have a reason to do both. And, of course, they have many reasons to be thankful as we all do for our health and loving friends and families.

So, for all those who are interested in what I did for the holiday – let me remind you that I can’t stand poultry so I didn’t really miss the traditional Thanksgiving fare at all. Of course I missed my family and friends, but I was lucky enough to be invited by the owners of my apartment to the most wonderful traditional Italian meal I have ever experienced. Filiberto and Antonella are two of the nicest people I have met since I arrived in Lucca. Antonella is not only nice but one of the most beautiful, sweet, intelligent and hard-working women I have met anywhere. And, she’s a fabulous cook!

Filiberto and Antonella own a working farm in Garfagnana which is north of Lucca. They have been going every weekend to harvest the olives before the bad weather set in. In addition to olives, they grow pretty much every type of fruit or vegetable that is native to this area. Antonella told me that everything we ate for dinner came from their farm except for the carrots.

I experienced this bit of artistry on Thanksgiving Eve. Yes, in Italy, people don’t just cook…they put their heart and soul into their food and it is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it just how wonderful it was.

Prior to the meal, Filiberto showed me around their lovely home which is filled with antiques. As antique dealers and collectors, there house is completely filled with things that would make your jaw drop. Their main collection was of little, tiny Carrara marble dishes that were used for holy water in old churches. They also have a collection of the little boxes that you drop coins into after lighting a candle. Carrara's marble quarries are where Michelangelo got his marble to make all his beautiful works of art.

They have some amazing furniture, lots of original large clay pots, and a concrete slab above one of their fireplaces that has a date chiseled into it that is well before A.D. They also had lots of beautiful large Carrara marble angels that used to adorn the interiors and exteriors of churches. They have an original Roman Carrara marble tub sitting in the room next to their kitchen and a huge old concrete slab-type sink in the kitchen. I’m not sure if it was originally in a villa or if it was one of those sinks where the women used to wash their clothes in but it was so beautiful. They explained that they had been collecting these items for well over 30 years.

So back to dinner… It was a traditional Italian dinner in that there were several courses. The table was beautifully set and a very nice warm fire was blazing in the fireplace. Antonella had insisted I bring my dogs so they curled up in a comfortable chair next to the fireplace and promptly went to sleep.

The wine was excellent and Filiberto explained to me that they trade a nearby farmer potatoes for his wine. I was there to help them celebrate the completion of their olive harvest and to experience their very fresh olive oil. I can’t even begin to tell you how yummy it was. I’ve never had such “green” olive oil before in my life!

We started with a local zuppa (soup) called Frantoiana. It had bread, spinach, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, several herbs and I’m sure many other things. We, of course, had to pour their fresh-pressed olive oil on top before we ate it – yummy!

We then had a dish with two kinds of calamari in a tomato-based sauce served side-by-side with amazing polenta. Once again, Antonella used the corn from her garden to make the polenta and had ground it by hand. She said it only took her about 40 minutes and waved her hand in the air like it was nothing when I look shocked that she would go to so much trouble.

We then had some very large scampi (heads on) with a delicious dressing of olive oil, orange juice and lemon juice drizzled over the top. The flavors in the dressing were perfect.

This was followed by something totally new to me – crudo carciofi or raw artichokes. Antonella had already trimmed all the leaves off and had them sitting in one of her old large clay pots. They were the small type with purple-leaves. She offered me one and I said it would probably take too long to cook. She just smiled, handed me one and told me they eat it raw. She poured some olive oil on a plate and had me peel off the leaves and eat it the same way we do cooked ones. They were delicious and not at all tough or hard like the ones in America.

Following that, we had some of the most amazing mussels I’ve ever eaten. I believe it had to be my favorite dish of the evening. She had flash-baked them and each one was drizzled with an olive oil, garlic, pepperoncini, and herb mixture. We made sure to get every drop of the sauce with chunks of fresh Italian bread!

Finally, for dessert, we had an amazing tart of fresh apples, raisins, and pinolis (pine nuts) dusted with powdered sugar. Since apples are one of my favorite fruits and because they were fresh off their apple trees, it was truly amazing!

Oh, one more thing…Filiberto pulled out the topper of the evening which was an elixir of his own fermented maraschino cherries. They, of course look nothing like our bright red ones. They were really tiny and very pungent with the flavor of liquor. He only had a small amount left and explained that he won’t be able to make it again until June when their cherries are ripe. I told him I felt honored that he would share his last few drops with me.

And, in case you’re wondering how I could possibly eat such a feast, it took us well over 3-1/2 hours to complete and every portion was small compared to what you think it may have been. Each course was prepared with love by Antonella and my only regret is that you couldn’t share this experience with me.

Oh, and I got a large bottle of their olive oil with a label on it with their names and the year to bring home!

Don't worry, time is all about the Christmas tree!