2000s Archive

Italy’s German Accent

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“Then, when I first came to New York with speck, for the Fancy Food Show, people asked me, ‘Can you eat this?’

“I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got a long way to go in the U.S.’ Until I went to DiPalo’s. I saw my speck there, being handled and cut correctly (against the muscle’s grain) by this man—just like in Milan—and I was so happy.”

In Trentino, where the signs are no longer in German, we were offered Prosecco, meat, cheese, and a tour of a slaughterhouse in the village of Scurelle. The slaughterhouse was in a gorgeous spot, “tucked in by mountains,” as Lou observed. Our expert guide was Danilo Purin, who told us the place used to be a sock factory. Danilo’s father, Giordano, invented Crucolo, which has a gentle, Asiago-like sharpness. Danilo is keen to expand the family’s food business, and a modern yet traditional facility, not unlike the Recla plant, is his idea of how to do it. The slaughterhouse will not only process meat from local farmers, who have a cooperative stake in the operation, but will allow visitors to actually see the butchering take place, and instruct students in curing meat. Danilo, gesturing toward Mecca, informed us that it would also do halal slaughtering for Muslims. Lou turned to me and said, “He’s got a vision, this man.”

That evening, in the family’s restaurant, we toured the dirt-floored basement, where Crucolo and meat were aged, and where a single long sausage circled the ceiling like a carnal chandelier. An entire side of pork—head, belly, legs, trotters—was being made into “the world’s biggest speck,” and a Crucolo cheese the size of a child’s wading pool was aging in its own alcove. Then we met and talked with Giordano Purin.

Giordano, like Hansi Baumgartner, had started out as a restaurateur and discovered a cheesemaking streak. “Another guy was making a cheese around here,” he told me, “but it was only a cheese in name, not taste. So in ’67 I started working on my own cheese for the restaurant. All our customers were local at the time. And until recently this was an area of Italy where the only tourists were migrant laborers, so we were making something to suit our own tastes. I spent five to ten years playing with the ratio between fat and protein.”

When I told Lou about our conversation, and the cheese only in name, he deadpanned: “We have that cheese too.”

Cheese breathes. It’s like a sponge, and it takes on the flavor of whatever is around it. Likewise cured meat. In every aging room we visited, from Recla to the Brunner farmhouse to Hansi’s Mussolini bunker to the Purins’ basement, Lou pointed out the screened vents (or gun sights) that allowed fresh mountain air to circulate inside. “If you make a cheese by a highway,” Lou told me, “it’s going to taste like a highway.”

Our last stop on the trip was Pinzolo, at the center of an unspoiled valley where whole vistas were organic, and where they make Grana Trentino “Biologico,” an organic mountain cousin of Parmigiano-Reggiano that Lou is about to start selling in the shop.

At a hilltop milking station and pasture, called a malga, we met Fabio Maffei, a wiry, sunburned young man in sweats and a soccer jersey who is in charge of the local organic herd. He introduced us to his herd’s bull, deftly bringing the animal close using the ring through its nose, and invited us to lunch at the summit lodge of a nearby ski resort with views of the slopes where Pope John Paul II used to ski. To get there, we took a chairlift straight up, while Fabio, improbably, took a motocross bike.

It was a setting that, transposed to America, would have guaranteed microwaved nachos and frozen burgers, but, this being Italy, the summer chef was a teacher from a culinary institute in Trento, the district capital, and his specialty was mushroom risotto—the best I’ve ever had. We all ordered it. Fabio told me that his cows were never tied up, not even in the stalls during milking. The rennet he uses comes from cows that have been treated the same way. He took these strictures very seriously, while noting that “Italians would rather spend money on a lot of things before spending it on organic cows.” He himself, for example, though sunburned in sweat pants, drove a Ferrari.

Lou gave Fabio a DiPalo’s baseball cap with a happy cow on it. Then we said good-bye and took the chairlift down the mountain.

At the bottom we were surprised to see Fabio reappear on his motorcycle with something large draped over his shoulder. It was a cowbell on a beautifully tooled leather collar. He took it off his shoulder and gave it to Lou.

A rare moment of silence, till Lou said, “I’m going to put this in my window. This is the lead cowbell.”

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