hen an Italian friend — who has lived in Chianti his whole life, has worked as a tour guide for more than 10 years, has been an ambassador for the local wine and olive-oil makers, has wandered the back roads of Tuscany looking for people living the traditional way — when that guy tells you you're going to see a shepherd family for a homemade meal, you know you're in for something.
That was the promise as Silvio and I headed past a riverside village, up a couple of winding roads, down a gravel track, and arrived at the shepherd family's house just before the entrance to the Casentino National Park. It isn't quite as rustic as you might think — the family has a car and agriturismo rooms for rent — but the fence appeared handmade, the house was of stone, the roof tile.
Though we couldn't see them, there were 70 sheep out there somewhere, as well as pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Lorenzo, the young man who greeted us at the door, said his father was out with the sheep. He also said his mother Miranda was making us pasta for lunch. This I had to see.
On a large wooden table in the middle of a small kitchen, Miranda had rolled out a circle of handmade pasta, about three feet across. She was working it over with a four-foot rolling pin, which she said (with Silvio translating) was her grandmother's and more than 100 years old.
She was working pasta with ease. I asked how often she makes this meal, and she said, "Every Sunday." Sometimes, in Italy, it's what's unsaid that puts it all in perspective. By "every Sunday," one can assume she means since forever. And that the family eats together every Sunday, maybe with visitors — though Lorenzo already had told me only nine people live within a mile of the place. So it's just the three of them, every Sunday, eating handmade pasta.
I asked what's going in the pasta, and Miranda pointed to a large bowl filled with a reddish-gold substance. She reeled off the ingredients: mashed potatoes, tomato, garlic, olive oil, and nutmeg. She shrugged — a classically Italian gesture that says, "What else do you need?" I asked if all this came from their garden, and she said "of course" with another shrug. Well, the olive oil they get in trade for their fresh sheep's cheese with a family down the hill and from friends like Silvio, who brought oil from his grove and wine from a friend.
Miranda made little piles of the filling all over the pasta, lined up in rows. Then she folded half the pasta back on itself, the filling leaving lumps in the smooth, golden surface. With flour-covered hands, she patted down the spaces in between, then took out a roller and cut out the ravioli.
I asked about a sauce, and she said, "Burro e salvia." Butter and sage. There was another shrug. The butter was a trade from the man with a cow down the road, and the sage was from the garden.
While the pasta boiled, Lorenzo told me that for a small family, a few sheep and some land equals independence. You get wool, milk, pecorino and ricotta cheese, and meat from the animals, plus vegetables from the garden. You can go in the forest and get wild herbs and chestnuts. What else do you need?
I realized I was visiting another world, one that may be disappearing. With some wine poured and pecorino and bread and ham and olive oil and tomatoes to snack on, the conversation turned to people being disconnected from the land, not knowing where their food comes from, not eating together as families. This family said they couldn't imagine living like that. I realized I don't have to imagine it. I was the alien in the kitchen.
The pasta arrived, and even if I could describe it, would I need to? Every food fantasy you can come up with came true on that table. It was luscious. I wanted to wallow in it. I wanted to stay at that table forever. Part of me, a happier and more peaceful part, is still there.
The home described here has an apartment that can be booked. See casapallino.com/en.