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The Epicure Abroad

Lessons on Dry-Stone Walls, Ravioli and Wine

ITALY | Monday, 2 June 2014 | Views [3172]

First, a bit of background…

All across Cinque Terre, the hills are lined with rows of short stonewalls – some are neat and orderly, others are overgrown with plants; in many places, the walls have crumbled into mere piles of rocks. Were I traveling here on my own, I might not have taken much note of the walls. They certainly make for an interesting landscape and some pretty pictures, but these structures (called dry-stone walls because they are built without cement) are integral to Cinque Terre’s heritage.

When the first people settled in Cinque Terre, they had to build these walls in order to cultivate the land because the hills are so steep. Long days were spent carrying heavy rocks up the hills and chipping away at the hard dirt to make terraces. The efforts of their labors – the kilometers of walls that wind along all of Cinque Terre’s landscape and rival the length of the Great Wall of China cumulatively – have withstood centuries, but they are more fragile than they seem. Without constant maintenance, plants begin to grow in the crevices and water can no longer stream between the rocks. The inventive design of the dry-stone walls is thus corrupted and when it rains, water floods behind the walls and the pressure causes them to collapse.

The art of building these walls – it truly is an art – rests on finding the right size stones to fit together, like a puzzle. Today, Cinque Terre’s youth isn’t very interested in learning how to build these walls and the older generation is concerned about who will continue to fortify the walls and create new ones after they’re gone.

To an outsider, the history of these walls and the current issues that revolve around them may not be apparent or important, but today I met with with Giampietro Ferri, a man who helped me not only to build a wall, but also to understand the significance of continuing the tradition.

We met up in the mountains where he keeps olive trees and honeycombs for the Busanco brand olive oil and honey that he produces. When I asked how he’d gotten to work in such a beautiful place, Giampietro explained that he had begun his career as a banker, but found that the work wasn’t meaningful enough to devote his life to it. His true passion was for the hard, rewarding labor of working the land.

Together, we reconstructed a section of one of the walls on his property. He was eager to teach me how to choose the correct stone to fit along the wall so that it would create an even line along the perimeter and a flat surface on top. When I got the hang out it, he would praise me with a hearty “brava!” His enthusiasm was contagious.

Building the wall was hard work, but seeing Giampietro out in the sunshine amongst his olive trees, surrounded by his sons (whom he proudly referred to as “the future,” stressing the importance of their role in the olive groves), I could see how worthwhile his life’s work was and I am proud to have played a part in it. I may be one American tourist in Cinque Terre, but I lent a hand in the reconstruction of a medieval wall that may remain for centuries.

After working outside all day, it was time to get my hands dirty in the kitchen. As an avid cook, I was delighted by the news that I was going to prepare dinner, but I was even happier to find out I’d be making ravioli with a true Italian women, Franca. 

I grew up hearing stories from both my parents about how their mothers and grandmothers had spent Sundays in the kitchen preparing pastas for dinner. For years, I’d been meaning to try my hand at making pasta (particularly my favorite type, ravioli). It seemed to me incredibly important in accessing some lost part of my heritage and perhaps it was for this reason that making pasta seemed a little daunting and I’d never tried. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself in Italy having an apron put on me by a cheerful, sweet woman who spoke hardly any English but was set on teaching me her family recipe. 

Though my Italian vocabulary for baking is fairly basic, cooking is universal and I immediately felt comfortable, as I always do in the kitchen. Franca poured a small mountain of flour onto the table and demonstrated how to crack an egg into the center of it. We took turns with the dough, kneading it until it was the perfect texture and ready to be fed through the pasta machine. I cranked the pieces through several times each until they were soft, thin ribbons a few inches thick. We laid them out and put dollops of filling (hers featured mortadella, parmesan and spinach) across. We tucked over the sides and pressed them into individual pockets with our fingers, then used the scalloped tool to cut the edges for the signature ravioli shape. By the time they were ready to plop into boiling water, I had fallen in love with the pasta-making process… and the fresh lemon marmalade that Franca let me taste as they cooked. 

In the meantime, I had the pleasure of sharing my first batch of ravioli with about a half dozen of my new Italian friends. We carried the bowls of pasta downstairs to a nearby neighbor’s cantina. What could be more Italian than eating ravioli in a wine cellar. 

Franca and her husband, Gianni, introduced me to Luccio, their neighbor, who just so happened to be a local wine connoisseur. When I expressed my admiration of his wine collection in the cellar and his impressive display of different-sized wine glasses, Luccio’s eyes lit up. It was all I needed to say for a spur-of-the-moment, private lesson on wine.

It was a perfect night of drinking wine, eating ravioli, and afterward, listening to one of the guests play guitar. 

What to see more of Elena's food adventure?

Lemons & Anchovies

La Fine (e Il Vino)

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Tags: baking, building, cinque terre, honey, olive oil, ravioli, walls

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