After having finish my PhD in January I took more flights than ever before in my life. Literally it was a flight a week: Seattle, Seoul, Seattle, Beijing, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur... recording a TV cooking show, setting up dueminuti, brushing up the remaining PhD work, visiting my Malaysian family… it was thrilling and exhausting. I needed some time to stop and reflect. I had a chance to do that in March, when I spent 3 weeks in the comfort of my parent's house in Tuscany, with my wife Janet and my family all reunited again. I had to go undergo a small surgery and I took the chance of the forced relax (aka convalescence) to rediscover my culture: I talked about food with whoever I met. The older, the better.
I took cooking classes from my grandmother as a way to understand classic Italian food... and of course to get some quality time with nonna :). She is certainly not an ordinary teacher and often doesn't know why things are done in a certain way, but I could see in her methods the wisdom of centuries of knowledge. Dinners with my uncles family and my mom's untie where others priceless moment of culinary wisdom exchange.
My wife and I went to discover the Umbria region. Our plan: to taste as many traditional food of the region as we could. Coratina (innards of the lamb slow cooked on a wood fire), Castellucio Lentils, Prosciutto DOP of Norcia, Black Truffle of Norcia, Pork Liver Sausage, Roveja, grilled lamb and the finest ricotta I have ever tasted in my life. We talked with the chef of each restaurant we had the pleasure to dine at, it was definitively a fantastic experience. A truly unforgettable memory was a meal in a restaurant in the small town of Castelluccio, an old borgo at 1400 m above sea level that surmounted a plain famous in the word for lentils. Everything we tasted was speaking of that country side. Dishes were so simple and at the same time so tasteful that you could almost feel the farmers' energy behind each produce. Ricotta was of such a lightness that it was a blessing. The chef was definitively one of the best chef I ever met. There was no trace of her in her dishes: her best skill, a rare one among chefs, was to respect each ingredient, and let it shine for itself. I talked to her for quite a bit and I will never forget that the most common sentence she used was "I did not do anything special to that". She told me where each ingredient was coming from, the story of each farmer behind a particular item and how every product would fit in her cuisine.
Taking only the best ingredient was her secret, respecting them was her skill. "The greatest dishes are very simple" used to say legendary chef Auguste Escoffier about 100 years ago. We couldn't agree more.