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Shepherds

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Mario on horseback with his sheep following

After an overnight train ride down the Adriatic Coast, during which Vanessa and I were nearly robbed by two thugs, we have arrived at Colavecchio Borraro Farm in the mountains of Molise. Forty-five minutes west through the mountains by car is Naples, and a half-hour’s drive east is the Adriatic Coast. The farm is owned by Mario and his wife, Carmella. They have a flock of 260 milk sheep, horses, chickens, geese, and numerous dogs.

We ate a light lunch as soon as we arrived, and immediately afterwards Mario asked us if we had enough energy following our overnight trip to go to the fields with the sheep. We have a mere two weeks on the farm, and Mario normally only accepts help from people who can stay at least one month because of the amount there is to learn about shepherding. Since we are on a crash-course, we agreed to go despite being exhausted.

Mario walked with us to a nearby field where a movable electric fence had been set up with the sheep inside. A border collie named Jackie tagged along.

Vanessa with Jackie, Molise
Vanessa with Jackie, Molise

Jackie, the border collie

As we approached, six large, white dogs that had been camouflaged in the herd charged at Vanessa and me, barking viciously but held back by the electric fence. Mario had to introduce us to each of the dogs, taking our hands in his and placing them in front of the dogs’ noses. “Friends,” he told the dogs, and instantly they accepted our presence. Without the introduction by Mario these dogs would have attacked us. They are a breed called maremma sheepdogs and they are the sheep’s guardians. They grow up with the sheep, live and move with them, and will protect them at all costs.

A Maremmana Sheep Dog, Molise, Italy
A Maremmana Sheep Dog, Molise, Italy

One of the maremma sheepdogs. Don’t let its cuddly looks fool you: it is a fierce protector of the sheep

After introducing us to the maremma sheepdogs, Mario turned off the battery that was powering the fence, and opened one end. He called to the sheep, “TE TE, POCHE POCHE.” The sheep lined up and filed out of the enclosure behind Mario. We walked with Mario as he called to the sheep. Jackie, the border collie, stayed in front with us the whole time. The maremma sheepdogs walked along with the sheep. We followed a wide, grassy strip that Mario referred to as a tratturo, eventually crossing a road and entering a wide field. Mario handed us a ten-page printout that had clear instructions on the sheep, the border collie, the maremma sheepdogs, and the horses. He told us to read it repeatedly and to memorize all of the information in it. He passed us a cellphone so that he could call us and we could call him. He pointed to the confines of the field, telling us not to let the sheep cross over. Then he left us with 260 sheep, six overly-protective sheepdogs, one border collie, and no idea of what to do with any of them.

We began reading. The instructions were dense with commands for each type of animal, and specifications of all sorts. As we were reading, a car approached on a nearby road. The maremma sheepdogs exploded towards it, barking ferociously. We had already read the section on the maremma sheepdogs in the instruction booklet and tried to apply the appropriate commands. “ALLE PECORE!” (TO THE SHEEP!) we screamed at the dogs as they chased alongside the car. “ALLE PECORE!!” They completely ignored us. The car finally out-drove them and they reluctantly returned to us. “Great,” I told Vanessa, “this is exactly what I want. Six killer dogs that won’t listen to us.”

We returned to our reading, moving the sheep from time to time to uneaten sections of grass. Suddenly the maremma sheepdogs tore across the field towards the road, barking. With no car in sight, I scanned the road. A cyclist came into view. I felt a surge of nerves: the dogs could maul him. “ALLE PECORE,” I screamed. The dogs continued towards the cyclist. I sprinted after them, screaming at the top of my lungs, calling each of their names as best I could remember from the printout. “NEBBIA, ALLE PERCORE! ORSO, ALLE PECORE! OLMO, ALLE PECORE!” I was most worried about Olmo, the eldest male, who was described as the most dangerous in the printout. He was out in front and about to intercept the cyclist. When the cyclist realized the situation he stopped and got off his bike, frozen in terror. A less knowledgeable person may have tried to ride past at top speed, which would have been a catastrophic mistake. When the biker stopped, the dogs stopped too, holding their ground and barking, warning him not to come any closer. “NOOOO!” I screamed at the dogs, “ALLE PECORE!” I finally caught up with them.

The biker yelled at me, “Control your dogs!” If only he knew: they weren’t mine and I couldn’t control them. “I’m sorry, I’m trying,” I hollered back. I continued to issue the commands at the dogs in a firm voice. They didn’t obey. The biker slowly started walking his bike, giving a wide berth to the dogs. At any second one of the dogs could launch and attack him. He looked mortified. I was too. Eventually he made it past, and when he was a safe distance he mounted his bike and raced off. Olmo tried to chase him without success. I yelled again and again, “ALLE PECORE. OLMO, ALLE PECORE!” but he didn’t stop until the biker was gone. I scolded the dogs for not listening to me as we walked back to the sheep. My voice was horse from yelling, and I felt uncertain about the situation we were in. I hoped desperately no other cars or cyclists would pass by.

Shaken from what had happened, Vanessa and I both tried to turn our attention back to the printout, studying the commands. We moved the sheep to the farthest point in the field from the road, hoping the dogs would feel less threatened by passersby that way. We experimented with commands to the border collie, with little success.

After four hours had passed from when he left us, Mario returned. I told him about the dogs and that I didn’t feel like I had any control over them, that it made me nervous when strangers came close. He nodded, and pulled a hand gun from his pocket. “That is what this is for,” he said. “I didn’t think you would need it today. When you shoot it into the air, the dogs are frightened and return to the sheep. Starting tomorrow you will always have it with you.”

I am beginning to understand why he prefers volunteers to stay at least one month: we are being asked to take on a lot of responsibility, and to learn a complex job rapidly.

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Giuseppe has many fruit trees on his farm. Some are rare varieties of pears and apples that are native to Piedmont. The quality of his fruit is exceptionally high and there is an abundance of it. Piero will take crates of pears and apples back to Cascina Piola to add to the Mostarda D’Uva that they are currently producing. Giuseppe also has a towering persimmon tree adjacent to his house.

Persimmons are strange fruit. They ripen in the fall, and late in the season it is common to see leafless trees loaded with bright orange globes, as if someone had climbed up and decorated their bareness. Now, in early October, Giuseppe’s tree still has all of its leaves, and almost all of the fruit on the tree is green. I love persimmons, and was hoping to find a ripe one. Scanning the tree I spotted a single persimmon at the very top that was deep orange and clearly ripe. I pointed to it. Giuseppe, who is in his seventies, looked at me and said, “If I were your age I’d climb the tree and get it.” It felt like a dare.

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I walked under the tree and looked up into it. It seemed scalable. I pulled myself up to the first branch. The branches radiated evenly from the tree, and it was easy to climb. Halfway up Giuseppe warned me to take care, that the persimmon tree’s branches were frail. I placed my feet and hands as close to each branch’s origin from the trunk as possible. Soon I was at the top. I straddled the final major branch and saw from my perch that the ripe persimmon was a good reach away. Making sure I had a solid grip with one hand and both legs, I leaned for the fruit. The tree top swayed gently with my weight. I strained to grasp the persimmon, drawing its thin branch closer with my fingers. At last I had it; it was perfect.

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When I looked down, I saw Giuseppe had pulled himself halfway up the tree. Another old man climbing trees! I carefully climbed down a short distance, then passed the persimmon into Giuseppe’s outstretched hand. We both made our way back to the ground.

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A perfect piece of fruit is worth such effort.

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Piero, left, and Giuseppe

Vanessa and I have made plans to travel south to the region of Molise, Italy, for two weeks, where we will learn to work as shepherds on a dairy farm. We had a few hours to spare before catching our overnight train, so Piero took us to a farm near Asti to meet his friend, Giuseppe, a man in his 70’s who makes what Piero describes as not only the best barbera wine, but perhaps the best wine, he has ever tasted. That is no small statement coming from Piero, an experienced wine-maker himself, and a friend of some of the top wine producers in Piedmont, as well as in Burgundy and Alsace, France. Giuseppe, in addition to producing wine, also has a number of ancient and rare fruit trees native to the Piedmont region, crates of which Piero will take home to add to the Mostarda D’Uva.

Giuseppe has been making wine his whole life. His production is small, just enough for himself, friends, and a few restaurants that are lucky enough to stock his wine. Everything Giuseppe does is by hand. He refuses to use any electrical equipment with his wine: no grape stemming and crushing machines and no electric pumps, which are standard in almost any other wine cellar. He writes every bottle label individually in a fine black script. Giuseppe believes that the wine is degraded by mechanized equipment, that in some sense the wine responds poorly to the absence of human touch. When it is time to transfer the wine from one container to another, an essential exposure to oxygen that must happen periodically throughout the wine-making process, Giuseppe gently pours it by hand.

It may seem eccentric to insist on these extreme by-hand practices, considering that the top wines of the world are made using electrical tools such as pumps and grape crushers. Tasting Giuseppe’s barbera, however, was all I needed to believe in his methods. Actually, merely looking at the wine was proof enough. There was no fanfare in its presentation. We sat outside at a wood picnic table spotted with bird droppings. Giuseppe served biscotti and apples with the wine, food that did nothing to enhance it. He poured it into water glasses, as Europeans tend to do with their daily wine. Yet his wine looked like fine silk, and its brilliance shone from the inside out, as if rubies had been melted down and poured into a glass.

Oenophiles often speak of terroir when describing wine. It is a term that refers to the effects of the local environment on the finished wine. In a sense it is the stamp of place on the wine. Tasting Giuseppe’s barbera made me think immediately of its terroir. After living in Piedmont for over a year with Piero, a producer of barbera and dolcetto, and drinking his wine as well as the wines of many others, Giuseppe’s wine seemed like the platonic form of Piemontese barbera. It was what all those other wines, many of them great in their own right, were meant to be. It communicated Giuseppe’s land, his vineyard, his grapes, his traditions, his history.

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Piero looks at Giuseppe’s wine in the cellar

Giuseppe’s wine is also illegal. This is because his wine cellar is not in accordance with governmental code. His cellar is a true old wine cellar with brick floors, brick walls, and vaulted ceilings. His wine sits in massive oak barrels. He keeps it clean and orderly. Despite the care he takes, the Italian government tells him it is illegal to sell his wine. Giuseppe goes regularly to court, where he makes impassioned speeches in his own defense. The law should protect the powerless from the powerful, he tells them. It should protect the small producer from being overtaken by larger ones; it should protect tradition. He can not afford to make the changes required by law, Giuseppe tells the court, and such expenses serve only to put the small producer out of business. He chastises them for helping to make the strong stronger at the expense of the weak.

He is fighting an honorable but losing battle, and one day soon his wine will never be made again.

Mostarda D’Uva (Cognà)

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Grape Must and Autumn Fruits Stew Together to Make a Classic Piemontese Condiment

The time of the wine harvests in the Monferrato is also a time to make mostarda d’uva, called cognà in the Piemontese dialect, a fruit conserve whose primary ingredient is the grape must from the harvest. The name is misleading: there is no mustard or mustard seed in the preparation. Instead, “mostarda” most likely derives from the word mosto in Italian, meaning grape must.

Here at Casinca Piola we have just completed the barbera harvest, and giant pots of mostarda d’uva are bubbling away: reduced grape must, figs, quince, apples, and pears are all cooking together. When the fruit has stewed sufficiently we will pass it through a food mill to remove skins and seeds, producing a smooth puree. At that point finely ground toasted hazelnuts, another specialty from Piemonte, will be added with ground walnut halves and spices.

Mostarda d’uva goes perfectly with a number of Piemontese specialties, from the classic bollito misto (boiled mixed meats), to fresh cheeses, and polenta. Children will eat it as a snack, spread on toast.

Piero and Raffa jar their mostarda d’uva, which they sell along with their other jarred regional specialties on their farm and in organic markets and stores throughout Europe.

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Farinata: a crispy top crust with rosemary and a custard center

Piero and I went alone today to his vineyard in Strevi to collect the cortese grapes, a white variety native to Piemonte. He has a small number of cortese vines, so the two of us were able to do the job in a few hours. After we had harvested the grapes, and before eating our lunch of spaghetti with porcini mushrooms prepared by his mother, we took a short trip to the nearby city of Acqui Terme, in the province of Alessandria.

Acqui Terme is most famous for its thermal springs, but it is also home to one of Italy’s best versions of farinata, a chickpea pancake. Farinata is thought to have originated in Liguria, the coastal region just south of Piemonte, and spread to surrounding areas, everywhere from Nice in France (where they call it socca) to Tuscany, and including the southern Piemontese province of Alessandria, which borders Liguria and is where Acqui Terme is located.

I have eaten farinata before, in the city of Torino, as well as in New York City when I was sous chef to Tuscan chef Cesare Casella at his restaurant Beppe, where we cooked a version of it in the restaurant’s convection oven. Both times the farinata was nothing to rave about, a mostly dry, thin cake made from chickpea flour. I was starting to wonder why anyone bothered to make it, thinking perhaps farinata enthusiasts were victims of their childhood nostalgia.

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A giant pan of farinata bakes in the wood-fired oven, Acqui Terme

Now that I have eaten farinata in Acqui Terme, I finally understand why it is a beloved dish. The farinata was cooked in a wood-fired oven on a giant cast-iron pan, then cut into smaller portions. It has a crispy crust, covered in fresh rosemary leaves, and is like custard on the inside. As an Italian child might cry out: Che Meraviglia! (What a Wonder!)

Uove Strapazzate Colle Costole

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Raffa just taught me an extremely simple and delicious dish from Italy’s cucina povera tradition: uove strapazzate colle costole, or scrambled eggs with swiss chard. It makes a great light lunch or dinner.

Take the stems from white swiss chard, cut them into one-half inch segments, and boil in salted water until very well cooked, at least fifteen minutes, maybe more. Drain.

Lightly brown a clove of garlic in some olive oil over low heat, then add the swiss chard pieces and beaten eggs. Season with salt and pepper and scramble. At the last minute, before the eggs become too hard, add a generous splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice. A bright, lemony flavor is what you want, so don’t be too sparing. The acid will cause the eggs to turn a shade lighter. Remove from the pan and serve while the eggs are still soft.

Brasato Al Barolo

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Mise en Place for Brasato al Barolo

Brasato al Barolo, a simple braise of beef and red wine, is one of Piemonte’s classic dishes. The traditional wine to use is, as the name indicates, Barolo, which is made from the nebbiolo grape, and is one of Italy’s most expensive wines. For most of us, cooking with Barolo is out of the question due to its cost, but Piero had old bottles of nebbiolo sitting in his wine cellar and was more than willing to let me use one to make the dish.

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Vanessa shares her birth-year with the 1979 Nebbiolo we used for the Brasato al Barolo

Start with a piece of beef top round, rump roast, or similar cut. If it is very lean you can lard it by inserting pieces of pork fat, such as fat back or pancetta, into holes cut in the roast. It helps to tie the roast with butcher’s twine so that it keep its shape. You can optionally marinate the roast overnight in the red wine before braising it.

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Sear the Roast

Season the roast with salt and pepper, then brown it on all sides in hot oil in a dutch oven or similar pot. (The pot in the photos is a little too large for the size of the roast, but it was the best option I had available.)

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Add the aromatics

Once all sides are brown, add your aromatics: mirepoix (roughly equal portions of diced onions, carrots, and celery…maybe a little heavier on the onions), along with a couple cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, a sprig of rosemary, and a few whole black peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon stick to the pot. I recommend placing the herbs and spices in a cheesecloth sachet to make them easier to remove later, and use your discretion on the amount of spices, following your taste, and omitting any you desire. Lower the heat, being careful not to burn anything, and allow the aromatics to caramelize slowly.

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Add the wine

Add enough wine to nearly cover the roast. If you are lucky the wine will be Barolo or some other nebbiolo-based wine, but any other big-bodied, tannic red wine will do. Allow the wine to slowly reduce, turning the roast from time to time, and when it is down to one quarter its original volume, add vegetable or chicken stock to nearly cover the roast. Cover with a parchment paper lid and cook over a low heat for at least two or three hours. The beef should be extremely tender when it is ready.

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Brasato al Barolo with pan-roasted potatoes

Remove the roast, remove the herbs and spices, and puree the sauce with the aromatic vegetables in a blender until very smooth. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Slice the roast into rounds, and serve with the sauce.

Gelato!!!

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Vanessa with Fiorio’s Gianduja Gelato: Her Expression Says It All

Today we had a day free to walk around Torino. Four years have passed since the last time I was here and my priorities were set: gelato, gelato, and some more gelato.

Our first stop had to be Fiorio, located at n. 8 Via Pò. Fiorio, founded in 1780, was a political hot-spot in the 19th century, but, more importantly, has arguably the best gelato in the city. Fiorio’s gianduja flavor is the best of all, a mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts (the tonda gentile delle langhe, a highly regarded hazelnut native to Piemonte, is used.) Many people know gianduja by the Ferrero product brand-name “Nutella”, the same way that some people say “Kleenex” for “facial tissue”. Fiorio’s gianduja is dense and silky, so much so that you can almost chew it as it melts in your mouth.

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Agrigelateria San Pé’s fior di latte (Flower of Milk) at Divizia

Next we went to Divizia (Via S. Tommaso, 22/B) a restaurant and sales-point featuring products produced by Piemonte’s agritourisms. Divizia sells gelato from the “Agrigelateria” San Pé, a dairy farm located between Torino and Asti that decided to open a gelateria featuring gelato made from their own high-quality raw cow’s milk. The texture of their gelato isn’t nearly as fine as Fiorio’s, but the flavor of their milk is supreme. I recommend choosing flavors from the Agrigelateria San Pé that showcase the milk’s natural taste: fior di latte or crema in particular.

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Yes, I am Double-Fisting My Gelato at Grom

For our last stop, we went to Grom, a gelateria chain that also has locations in other northern Italy cities. I had never been to Grom before, but was eager to try their pistachio flavor, made from the famous pistachio nuts of Bronte, Sicily. Grom features a number of flavors made from products that have received the presidia recognition from Slow Food, and the company isn’t shy about advertising that fact: Slow Food’s snail logo is prominently displayed next to each of these flavors. Grom isn’t shy about it’s prices either, which are significantly higher than most gelaterie. It’s gelato is, however, very good, although nothing has yet beat Fiorio’s gianduja for me.

Raffa’s Eggplant Parmigiana

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Raffa, whose parents moved from Naples to Torino when she was young, makes hands-down the best eggplant parmigiana (called melanzane alla parmigiana, in Italian.) She uses eggplant from her farm, which are exceptionally sweet and creamy when fried. She slices them into one centimeter-thick rounds and fries them (without salting first) in a vegetable frying oil. Unlike many versions of eggplant parmigiana made in the United States, in Italy they do not bread the eggplant. Once golden, the eggplant is drained on paper towels.

The dish originated in the south of Italy, but Raffa deviates from the traditional preparation in one essential way. According to Raffa, it is customary to use a fully cooked and seasoned tomato sauce, which often has a high content of olive oil in it. This oily sauce, combined with the deep-fried eggplant and melted cheese, usually results in a finished dish that is blanketed with grease. Instead, Raffa uses her own tomatoes, which she cooks for a short time and then passes through a vegetable strainer to remove skin and seeds. She seasons this plain tomato puree (coulis) with sea salt and then uses it to layer with the eggplant and cheese. Her lean yet flavorful sauce cuts down on the greasiness of the dish.

Without Raffa’s eggplant and tomatoes, it may not be possible to ever equal her version, but you can probably come close:

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Slice the eggplant into 1cm-thick rounds. Heat a half inch of frying oil in a pan, and fry the slices in batches, turning once, until golden brown and replenishing the oil if necessary. Drain the slices on paper towels.

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Prepare a light tomato sauce by cooking ripe, seasonal tomatoes until they break down. Then pass them through a strainer or food mill to remove seeds and skins. Season this puree with salt. Or puree good quality, canned whole tomatoes, and season with salt.

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In a baking dish, place one layer of eggplant in the bottom, season with salt, then top with a thin layer of the tomato sauce. Follow with a layer of thinly sliced fresh mozzarella cheese, and a sprinkling of fresh and dried oregano. Repeat until all the eggplant is used. You can optionally grate parmigiano reggiano or grana padano cheese on top of the final slice.

Bake in the oven until bubbling hot.

Harvesting Dolcetto

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Dolcetto, the Piemontese grape

The period just before the wine harvest is a critical and stressful one for wine makers. Piero had made a preliminary trip to his vineyard in Strevi earlier this week, anxiously examining the dolcetto grapes to decide which day would be best for the harvest. An extra few days on the vine can mean riper grapes, higher sugar levels, lower levels of undesirable types of acidity, and a higher percentage of alcohol in the finished wine. Each additional day also brings with it the increased risk of partial or total loss of the crop from unexpected bad weather, including mold-inducing rain or grape-pummeling hail storms. It is a balancing act played by the wine-maker, who must take into consideration the maturity of the grapes versus the chances of devastating bad weather. A year’s worth of work in the vineyard, and the resulting wine, depend on this decision.

Piero decided that today would be the dolcetto harvest. We piled into two cars and a truck and headed to Strevi to collect the dolcetto. Almost every bunch of dolcetto in the vineyard is full and ripe, and the few that we do find that are not fully mature we discard. “Lascia perdere,” Piero says, literally, “let it be lost.” He could make a higher volume of wine if he used those grapes, but his wine will be better without them: one of the many times that quantity must be sacrificed for quality in the wine-making process. This practice has led to minor conflict with Piero’s elderly mother, who follows her generation’s thinking about wine-making, where nothing is wasted and quality is secondary. She throws just about anything into the wine, from under-ripe grapes to moldy ones, much to Piero and Raffa’s chagrin.

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Working the dolcetto harvest brings back memories of when I was here in 2001. We harvested the grapes early in the day on September 11, returning to the farm minutes after the first plane had struck in New York. We watched a live CNN television feed, overdubbed in Italian, from across the ocean. While I was making panicked calls to my family in New York, Piero had no choice but to continue with the grapes, crushing and stemming them, then transferring the must to his fermentation tanks. The joy of the harvest had been lost, but once the process was started it could not be put on hold.

I had been planning to return to New York on September 18, but after the attacks I extended my trip and stayed on at Cascina Piola until late December. Although Brooklyn-born, I felt less a New Yorker for having been absent during such a defining, even if horrific, period of the city’s history. My more sensible side, however, knew that it was better to delay my return: uncertainty loomed over everything from the potential for subsequent attacks to air quality issues. The trauma of the event coupled with the distance from my own family, who were in New York, brought me closer to Piero and Raffa’s family. It was after that dolcetto harvest that I became less a volunteer on their farm and more a member of the family, and Cascina Piola is now a place I consider home.

Wine’s significance goes beyond its gastronomic, nutritional, and alcoholic qualities. It is also a time capsule of sorts, a physical reminder of both when it was made and the time that has passed since. Opening one of the remaining bottles of the dolcetto of September 11, 2001 brings us here at Cascina Piola back to five years ago, and causes us to reflect on our experience during that time and the way it connected us. When I next return to Cascina Piola we will open a dolcetto from 2006, and be made even more profoundly aware of our history together.

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Stefano, Piero and Raffa’s son, with a crate of grapes.

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