I can’t believe that it has already been almost a year since I went to Italy! Do you remember my fairy tale trip to cooking school in Southern Italy last fall? If you missed it, here are some of my posts from my trip:
Today is a very special day for us! Silvestro has donated him time for an interview to fill in all of you about who he is and what he does! I urge you to visit the school’s site, if only to see all of his BEAUTIFUL photography! He is an amazing photographer and a great orchestrator of his school The Awaiting Table. Not to mention the staff at the school are AMAZING! You will quickly grow to love them!
If you are interested in classes as his school, my mom takes a group of individuals every year. You can learn more about this here on her site. Likewise, you can book individual trips through the school directly. I hope some of you get the chance to experience the magical Awaiting Table in Italy like I did! Let me know if you end up going!
What drives you to do what you do: you spend so much time in this food world educating others. Why?
I’ve always seen myself as a bridge between the Old World and the New. I understand both. I was formally educated in both. I’ve lived in both for decades. But I think without even realizing it that the two Worlds look at food, wine and culture in such radically different ways, that some sort of guide or teacher is needed. And that is what I do.
The Latin European psyche favours a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to food, wine and culture. As an example: You grow fava beans between the negroamaro vines to replenish the nitrogen in the soil, and you eat fava beans when drinking wines made from negroamaro. The name of the grape, ‘Negroamaro’ would be like Californians calling a grape, negro-black, so that both the Hispanics and Anglophones understood, in this case, ‘amaro’ isn’t the modern Italian word for ‘bitter’, but the Greek word for ‘black’, mavros. So in this one dish, you have a cultural and linguistic heritage, an agricultural world view and two complimentary flavours, reflecting the very same soil.
On the other hand, the New World picks and chooses freely from the world’s recipes, without the need for the supporting philosophies behind them. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but when someone sits down to a plate of pasta in Auckland, Dallas, Adelaide or New Castle, they are not having the same experience as someone eating a traditional pasta in Southern Italy (The American thanksgiving turkey, Putine in Canada, Grilled yabbies’ in Australia, the Sunday roast in England are the only examples that come to mind that might be similar, when you consume the exact same foods as your neighbors, connecting a culture through its foods.
So while I do teach cooking technique, I identify more as an academic, teaching the mental framework needed to understand food, wine and culture in ways that are not always inherent view from the outside in.
What are Puglia, il Salento and Lecce?
Puglia is the region, one of twenty in Italy, and it makes up the heel of the Italian boot. The name originally covered Calabria, which is actually apluvial, meaning that it lacks rainwater, which is where the name came. Puglia on the other hand stands out among southern regions for not lacking fresh water. We have lakes. And it rains enough to keep everything lush. It’s quite literally a vineyard and garden dipping down into the Mediterranean.
The Salento is my region, and sub-region of Puglia, beginning more or less where the region becomes a peninsula. I say ‘more or less’ because it’s largely conceptual: Ask three people here and you’ll given three different answers.
And Lecce is the sub-region’s capitol. Originally founded by the Messapians, the city was taken by the Greeks, then the Romans and then just about every other culture that passed through the Med until the nation united in 1861.
Lecce is considered a national treasure here in Italy, due to its baroque architecture. It’s easily one of the prettiest cities in Italy, a nation not lacking in architectural beauty. It’s also a vibrant cultural capitol, with a very active art and theater scene, and a large university.
How long have you had your school?
We celebrate our 9th birthday in September at the castle. And we debuted our wine programme last year, which covers not only all of Puglia, but Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata. My job before this was as a high school teacher up in Bologna.
Why is your school in the middle of a city when most are in the countryside?
Tourism is really changing. It used to be that many travellers wanted to use their money to buffer themselves from the unwanted elements of the thing they came to see: ‘I want to see how the real people live in India. Of course I’ll need to stay in a 5 star hotel while I do it’. I think that that is starting to disappear and the new model is using one’s resources to have a participatory relationship with the thing you come to see. Now, it’s about exchange. And we find a city a much, much better way of creating this exchange. In a week, our students know a dozen locals by their first names. They have preferred streets. They say ‘ciao’ to the man that cut their hair each day as they pass by. They salute la signora who sold them their sandals, etc. Both our Lecce and castle courses are in the middle of cities. And I think this represents a major change for most folks that visit Italy, where it’s really hard to make friends, changing cities every day.
How come I’ve only recently heard of Puglia?
That’s an excellent question. The south is simply not as good as marketing as Central Italy, I’m sorry to say. Puglia has more coastline that most countries, which is the biggest reason that in the last twenty years it’s been the number one domestic tourist’s destination, here inside of Italy. Of course most of this happens only in the summer, and even if you visit then, you’re unlikely to notice, as everyone will be speaking Italian the same.
When traveling up north, northerners almost always smile when they hear my accent in Italian, so deep is the perception of Puglia as a warm and ingratiating place. It opens doors. It’s also seen as having the best fruit and vegetables, the best seafood and the best bread in all of Italy. The red wines are well respected nationally.
But the fixation on a handful of tourist destinations is also true here though. Australia has only three cities: Sidney, Perth and Melbourne. America, only four: NYC, LA, Las Vegas and Miami. England only really one. What’s intriguing is how these known regions and cities change, country to country. Germans only go to handful of Italian cities. The French as well. And they of course rely on the same guidebooks that are unique to their country.
What’s your gripe against Tuscany?
I’m not against Tuscany. I used to work there, and I really loved it. I’m against the fixation on Tuscany, as if it had the best food, wine, countryside, cultural, etc., and the rest of Italy is ‘Tuscany light’, where you go when you’ve had too much Tuscany. It’s only one of twenty different regions.
There is a parable here about a contadino that lost his tractor keys out in the field but he preferred to look for them on the road, because the light was better there. So much of the great food that is consumed in Tuscany isn’t from there but you can’t tell tourists that, because whatever it was, they had in Tuscany. Cooking schools teach pasta there, when there are no Tuscan pasta recipes that go back further than the advent of television. Pizza, Gelato. Balsalmic vinegar. Mozzerella. Parmigiano. All your favourite pasta dishes. Tiramisu. Saltimbocca, on and on and on. None of these products are remotely Tuscan but they are widely consumed there now, believed to be local by foreign tourists.
Try it this way.
Think of your favourite Italian dish or wine.
Go ahead, take a second.
Now preface it with ‘Tuscan’ Sounds better, doesn’t it. ‘Tuscan gelato’ simply MUST be better than gelato elsewhere, no? See what I mean?
Most of this is the strength of Tuscan marketing. If someone’s grandmother was famous for a soup there are museums dedicated to it in Tuscany: they are just that savvy when it comes to marketing. The rest of Italy aches with envy.
Still, their biggest marketing feat though remains extra virgin olive oil. Much of the world walks into its grocery stores and buys oil that it perceives to be Tuscan. Of course it isn’t, not remotely. Statistically, it’s not even Italian.
It short, it’s a wonderful, wonderful region though. Every bit as nice as those that surround it.
Why are you always going on about regionalism?
In Italy, there is ONLY regional cooking. A national cuisine is only now starting to form, but doesn’t go back past the 1960’s. Students start many questions with ‘Now, in Italy, do you have x or y’, or ‘Well my friend is from –insert city- and she says that everyone in Italy does Z’. If you think of Italy as a bunch of tiny countries pushed together very, very recently, then you’re closer to understanding how things work here. Students are surprised that my staff has never even tried most of the dishes that the students consider to be ‘Italian’, a concept that only appears outside of the country.
But it permeates everything, this regionalism. Depending on whose figures you want to use, as much as half of the population here simply does not speak Italian as their first language (preferring dialect or even ‘foreign’ languages). Just south of our school are 9 communities that still speak an ancient form of Greek as their first language (sort of like Quebecois in Canada). French and German up north. Catalan. Albanian in Calabria. This is not widely understood outside of Europe. Spain has four national languages but outside of Spain, only one of them is called ‘Spanish’. It’s a wily concept for anyone from the New World, where most think ‘nation’ first, ‘regional’ or even ‘city’, distantly down the list.
What’s it like to be a sommelier in Italy?
I can only speculate because I’m Italian-trained, and I’ve never trained anywhere else but talking with other nation’s sommeliers, I’d say there are a few big differences. The first is the concept of ‘pairing’, and that doesn’t exist here, not in the same way. We simply don’t pull wines from outside of our regions nearly as much as the rest of the world does. So, say, a sommelier in London would look to Marlboro, Burgundy, California, Chile and Spain, each place supplying the same validity, where as here, no one would do that. In English I’d call it the difference between ‘pairing’, which would be the first mental model, versus ‘matching’, which is how we do it: with a plate of beautiful plate of orecchiette, laced with a punchy pugliese oil, WHICH negroamaro would be best, oaked, unoaked, fruitier, more minerally versions, etc. You simply will not see anyone drinking, say, Chianti or Barolo with our local food. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone to do that., anymore that say, you drinking a glass of orange juice with a steak.
Another big difference is that wine as a cocktail simply doesn’t exist in Latin Europe. No one drinks a glass of wine while watching a DVD. You don’t drink it in bars or clubs, like you would a mixed drink. Wine here is seen as a food, to be consumed at the table, with food, and not to be over-consumed any more than you would eat a massive block of cheese in one sitting. And here in the south, even less is consumed. I’ve had friends for decades that I’ve never seen tipsy, where as in many parts of the world, seeing your friends drunk is a daily occurrence. It’s a different way of thinking about wine.
Of course here in Puglia, we have laws that protect the Mediterranean Diet, and moderation with wine is one of its tenants. It’s one of the South’s best gifts to the rest of the world. Turns out that the world’s best tasting food is also really good for you. How many of your favourite foods can you say that about?
In 2003, Silvestro Silvestori opened The Awaiting Table Cookery School in Lecce, Italy, a small cookery school based on the simple yet seemingly radical idea that a cooking school in Italy could be much more than 12 students standing around watching someone stuff an oven.
And that the face of upscale tourism is changing, where historically travellers used their money to buffer their comfort zones from the things they came to see ( ‘I want to go to India to see how real people live there, of course I’ll need a five star hotel to do so’), to a new model that favours connection, hands-on learning and enjoying a participatory role with the people and places they visit. (‘We helped pick grapes in Alsace while staying with the other pickers in beautiful farmhouse’).
He held his small classes in the middle of the gorgeously baroque city of Lecce, the city considered a national treasure here in Italy. The classes quickly blossomed, earning an international reputation within the first two years. Combining forces with a local baron in 2008, Silvestro created a larger kitchen, held in a private castle, again, just meters off the main piazza, this time in a small provincial town, in the deep Salento. The larger kitchen allowed for special, once-a-year courses featuring larger classes, which are often themed, such as, the making and bottling of the annual tomato sauce, the vincotto, the quince paste, The Awaiting Table’s birthday, and come November, San Martino, the best holiday in all of Italy.
Six years ago, he began to take a month off each spring to bicycle the entire Italian south- la Sicilia, Calabria, Basilicata and la Puglia-visiting the best vineyards and cellars along the way.
After three years of training, he graduated as a nationally-certified sommelier here in Italy, and in 2010 opened, Terronia: the New Wine School of Southern Italy, held at the castle, an hour south of Lecce. Students now read along as he bicycles the Southern Italian wine route, then they visit later in the year to try the same wines at his wine programme,
His cooking school has been praised in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Wine & Spirits, Travel+Leisure, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times and countless editions of the domestic Italian press. He’s appeared on Chinese, Belgian, Dutch and American television, and Italy’s most respected newspaper called him, ‘A national treasure’, for his work in preservation and promotion of Salentine cuisine.
As a writer:
In English: He writes both food and wine features for Wine & Spirits, a New York and London-based magazine.
In Italian: He writes for a number of local publications, usually regarding the keeping alive of culinary traditions (to date unavailable outside of Italy). He remains the only male member of Le Donne Del Sud (‘Women of the South’), an organization that seeks to promote and preserve Salentine food ways.
He is currently at work on a book on the food and wine of Puglia in English for a major Italian publisher.
As a photographer:
Food and Wine, 2008
Wine & Spirits, 2009- to present
The London Times, 2009
La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012
Il Corriere della Sera. 2009. 2011. 2012Il
Il Quotidiano 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012
With multiple humanity-based degrees from Italian and American universities, Silvestro has worked as a butcher, a wedding cake decorator, a bread baker, a wine maker, an olive picker, cook, waiter, and at his last job before opening the school, as a high school teacher in Northern Italy.
‘If I have anything new to say on the subjects of food and wine, it’s because my background was an odd one. On one hand, I have a lot of very pragmatic, ‘blue collar’ work experience – I baked bread or picked artichokes, not because I loved doing so- and I did- but because it paid the rent. But I also did so while I attended university both here and in the US, so I have a humanities background as well.
‘Only after our having school for several years did I realise that this is indeed uncommon: you either work with food, without an education. Or you have an education but never get your hands dirty. I did both, for more than 10 years. I still am, in fact. It was tough at the time, but it now allows me to inhabit both mind sets, those that do it for a living, and those that have the resources to appreciate the final product, two groups that rarely meet’.
Aside from publishing, teaching food and wine, the daily running the school and the long Southern Italian bicycle trips, in the next few years he plans to marry and ‘begin a race of little people, marking their growth in horizontal pencil strokes on the wall’.
Check out August’s issue of Wine & Spirits magazine, recipes, photographs and text by Silvestro Silvestori
1 Year Ago: Zucchini & Tomato Gratin