I went looking for a slice of ancient Italy and somehow landed in Iowa.
Past the town of Treviso, in the hills far above the canals of Venice, we had left that morning, is a little dairy farm where the Gallina family is in its fourth generation of making cheese. I don’t know what I expected a fourth-generation Italian artisanal cheese maker to look like, but when Luca Gallina welcomed us sporting a plaid shirt, baseball cap and faded jeans, he looked more Cedar Rapids farmer than keeper of ancient Italian culinary rites.
“Buon giorno,” he said. “Do you want to see how we make the cheese?”
My wife, Cristina, and I had come here on a mission. If we left behind the crowded alleyways of Venice for the hills of the Veneto region, could we still find the simple flavors of northern Italian farm food, made the way it had been since before Italy was even a country?
And, more importantly, could we find them at the source?
Gallina’s farm, La Malga Barbaria, sits near the summit of Monte Barbaria, a peak that rises 4,800 feet above the Adriatic. As we wandered through its pastures, we entered a world that seemed a lot farther from Venice, a roiling cauldron of tourist throngs, luxury shopping and cafes with “authentic” Italian cuisine.
Here, cattle lazed in meadows, a rooster called and manure scented the air – but in a good way, a “welcome to the countryside” kind of way. When the clouds lifted, we could just make out the Adriatic washing up against Venice on the lip of the horizon.
“The hotter it is in the valley, the more people come here,” Gallina said in Italian. “On the weekends, families come with kids who don’t know where milk and eggs come from.”
Knowing what we wanted – but not necessarily how to find it – I had enlisted Mario Piccinin, who with his wife, Rachel (a Cleveland native), runs Venice Day Trips, which leads culinary pilgrimages into the Veneto. It didn’t hurt that our guide is a master sommelier and certified cheese taster (yes, there is such a thing).
Gallina’s family is part of an Italian movement called Kilometer Zero. What Slow Food did for restaurants, the Kilometer Zero movement is trying to do for farms. Started here in the Veneto by the Italian agricultural union Coldiretti in 2007, it’s an effort to get people to buy their food directly from the farmers, essentially, “zero kilometers” from the producers.
Producers such as Gallina’s farm rely on urban shoppers searching for authentic Italian flavors, as well as for a sense of authenticity and tradition that runs deeper than taste buds. They come looking for a connection with the farmers who bring them their food – and for a sunny day in the mountains away from the mosquitoes.
“It’s a very positive idea to eat where you live,” said Gallina, whose operation hasn’t changed much over the generations. Temperature-controlled stainless steel vats have replaced pots of milk over the fireplace, but almost everything else would be recognizable to Great-Grandfather.
We walked into a room where a long table was filled with jars of milk. The cream is skimmed off for butter; the residue becomes food for pigs. Shelves in a cool storage room were bulging with wheels of white cheese, aging three months to a year before they’d be ready for lunch.
Farmers here have become guardians of their traditional foods and flavors as they compete with canned tomatoes from China, cheese from Eastern European cows and German so-called prosciutto. The similar Slow Food Movement was born in the nearby town of Bra, a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. It gained momentum, eventually expanding to most parts of the globe, as cultures realized that local dishes, ingredients and traditions were endangered.
“Our products are so good and so natural, different from products from abroad,” Gallina’s mother, Luigina, told us as we took our seats in a small dining room where visitors come for farm meals. “Would you like Prosecco?”
It was still morning, but how could we say no?
“Prego,” she said, pouring the glasses.
“It is like water for us,” Piccinin joked, as he talked us through the universal wine taster’s ritual: swirl, examine, sniff, breathe, swirl, breathe again. It was rustic, homemade wine.
Not the best, Piccinin confessed, “but I like all wine.”
Oversize cowbells hung on the wall. Old-fashioned maybe, but they’re still used, Gallina said. He cut open a few wheels of cheese: ricotta, smoked ricotta and farmer’s cheeses without names.
“Prego,” Gallina said.
Piccinin gently fingered the cheese and bit into it. “Fresher cheese you cannot find.”
It was extraordinary. I tried each, one by one, letting the flavor fill my mouth before washing it away with Prosecco.
“These are completely natural,” Luigina said. “Healthy. We have such good food, and only a few people come here and eat these.”
It seemed a shame to think of eating anything else in Italy.
The agricultural union Coldiretti estimates that some 2 million tourists come to spend vacations on Italian farms. More than 18,000 farms now welcome agri-tourists, twice the number of a decade earlier, and more people – both Italians and foreigners – are buying products directly from farmers.
“This is very important,” Piccinin said. “The culture and the style of life.”
Piccinin took us down the road to see a farm where the owners have taken the notion of eating local even further. Graziano and Martina Spada run Da Ottavio, a tiny restaurant at the historic farmhouse where they live and raise nearly all the food that appears on the plates. The vineyards below produce the Prosecco. The pigs out back surrender the salami.
Graziano Spada’s father started the restaurant in 1976, a tough economic time for Italy, when many of his countrymen were looking for work elsewhere in Europe. He started looking local.
“My parents were probably the first that wanted to sell directly to the consumer,” Graziano said. “There wasn’t the word agriturismo at that time.”
Now, agriturismo signs flourish in the countryside. Many of the places shouldn’t qualify as agriturismo, the Spadas said. Much of the food comes from other farms.
That’s not the case at Da Ottavio, Martina said. “Here, you eat only what we produce with our hands.”
We sat at a dark wooden table under a canopy outside the farmhouse, a 1940 building cloaked in stone and stucco and heavy wooden shutters. Geraniums bloomed along the patio.
Martina brought out a spread of thinly sliced roast pork with salt, marbled ham and salami, and homemade Prosecco.
“Prego,” she said.
“I like that word prego,” my wife, Cristina, said. “It seems you can use it for anything.”
Piccinin, who was studying to be an expert salami taster (yes, there’s such a thing), handled the slices gingerly, studying the casing, the marbling and the greasy texture with a critic’s eye. He nodded his approval.
Martina followed with helpings of pasta with ragu, beans, vegetables, polenta and, naturally, more Prosecco. “Prego,” she repeated, and filled the table with heaping plates of food.
“These are small servings,” Piccinin whispered.
The plates were too big to finish, but the fare was too delicious not to try, and we ended up delirious from the mid-afternoon feast. We turned down dessert, and instead peppered Martina and Graziano with questions about living where they work and growing what they serve. It was a role they took seriously.
“I was born here,” Martina said. “Graziano was born here. We have a taste for the food from here, and we continue to have this mind-set that was given to us from our parents. This is the continuity of the tradition. For us it’s natural.”
That’s the way it’s always been here, high in the farmland above Venice. With our bellies full of delicious tradition, it was hard to imagine it any other way.
If you go
Most airlines, including United, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, offer one-stop service from San Francisco to Venice. The sites mentioned in the story are about two hours by car northwest of Venice, although an organized tour might be the most practical idea for all but the hardiest travelers.
Venice Day Trips: Via Saetta 18, Padova, (39) 049-600-672, info@venicedaytrips .com, www.veniceday trips.com. Visits to Veneto cheese farm, restaurant and winery. From 275 euros per person for 8 1/2-hour tour.
Da Ottavio: Via Campion 1, San Giovanni di Valdobbiadene, (39) 042-398-1113.
La Marga Barbaria: Passo Mariech 9, Pianezze di Valdobbiadene, (39) 042-397-6050.
Antica Trattoria alla Fossetta: Via Fossetta 31, Musile di Piave, (39) 042 133 0296, www.fossetta.it. Restaurant serving local Veneto fare outside Fossalta di Piave.
Sorelle Bronca: Via Martiri 20, Fraz. Cobertaldo, (39) 042-398-9329. www.sorellebronca.com. Family-owned Prosecco vineyard.
Veneto Agriturismo: www.veneto-agriturismo.it (click on the flag of England in the upper right corner for English).
David Frey is a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org