Gatherings & Celebrations: A Family's Sunday Dinner in Friuli, Italy - #105

The district that covers the northeastern corner of Italy is known as Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.  The ancient Romans had a major outpost in the area.  At one point, after Attila The Hun helped bring down the Roman Empire, he spent a few years in the neighborhood perfecting his title as “the Scourge of God.”  He was followed by the Venetians and then the Austrians.

Agriculture has always been the primary occupation of the area.  It’s famous for asparagus, corn, fruit and wine.  Much of the region runs along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and the markets are well-supplied with seafood.  Melting snow in the mountains drains down into the sea and changes the salt and mineral content of the water.  And that’s had a positive effect on the types and flavors of the local seafood.  Some of the most tender and tastiest fish and shellfish have come from the northern part of the Adriatic Sea.  The mountains that cover over forty percent of the district add trout.  Cattle are kept on the mountain farms and a number of local cheeses are made from the milk.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This has not been an easy place to live.  It requires a firm and strong constitution, and an appreciation and understanding of nature.  There’s a stoic attitude here that I often see in small farm communities.  In a way they’re saying:  “If this is the best land that the Almighty will give us, then we will use all our might to grow the best stuff on it that we can.”  The food that comes from an area like this is regional farm food; it’s simple and robust.  And you rarely find it in restaurants because it’s really home cooking.

And that’s why we came to Friuli -- to take a look at a traditional Sunday family meal.  Everything that goes on looks very simple -- but everything is also packed with ancient meaning.

This is Livio Felluga.  He is the fourth generation of his family to be producing wine.  He’s considered to be one of the fathers of Italian winemaking.  When the Italian government was choosing the wines for the heads of state that came to the Economic Summit in Venice, they served Livio’s whites.

Friuli has a long history of producing wine.  We don’t know how long, but they were exporting wine to ancient Greece and Rome and that was over two thousand years ago.  The soil of Friuli is a mixture that appears to be ideal for the development of vineyards.  But it’s a soft and crumbly soil and can easily slide off the hillsides during the winter rains.  The growers had to terrace the land to keep it together.  It’s expensive to maintain and it keeps the yields very low.  On the other hand, it can keep the quality very high.  The Livio Felluga vineyards are located in the areas that produce the best grapes.  Air currents come down from the Alps in one part of the region, and up from the Adriatic Sea in the other.  The climate is mild and breezy.  The growers call it “natural air conditioning.”  It lowers the temperature in the vineyards.  The lower temperature gives the grapes extra time so they can ripen slowly.  The slow ripening helps the grapes develop more flavor.  But the real key is the unique relationship between the vines and the soil of Friuli.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  So in order really to make a great wine, you need a vine that is highly stressed.  It has to struggle to live, and the only way you get that is by planting it in poor soil.

This is Phillip di Belardino.  He comes from a family that imported European wines to the U.S. for many decades.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  ...and the more the vine struggles, the better the outcome of the final wines.

BURT WOLF:   So rich soil is no good.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  Exactly.  It’s only good for, say, potatoes or corn, but for the vine, the vine needs poor soil.  In fact, there’s a saying in this part of Italy, in Friuli, where the vine says, “The poorer the place you put me, the richer I’ll make you.”

BURT WOLF:   Oh, that’s great.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  Isn’t that terrific?

The Livio Felluga vineyards cover almost four hundred acres of Friulian countryside and it is a family business...  with all the family members involved.  And they have agreed to let us come in and report on their Sunday family meal.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Sunday Family Meal takes place on what most western societies describe as a “day of rest.”  The idea of resting every seventh day is ancient.  We know that it goes back at least as far as the Old Testament Bible with the story of God resting on the seventh day of creation.  But I’m not sure that our present Sundays are actually days of rest.  The word “rest” is properly used to describe a body that is not in motion, standing still, not doing anything.  And I think our modern, industrialized society has changed the meaning of the word “rest.”  These days you can undertake the most extraordinary levels of activity, with great strain and stress, so long as you are doing something that you want to do, as opposed to doing something that someone else wants you to do, in exchange for money. 

Right now it’s Saturday and the Felluga household has begun preparations for their Sunday Family Lunch.  The opening team in the kitchen consists of Leda, who has been the family cook for at least two generations of Fellugas... Livio’s daughter, Elda, and a ringer who’s been brought in from out of town.  A festive meal of any size usually requires lots of hands to prepare, which fits right in with the fact that the meal was designed to bring people together, so everyone could “pitch in.” This is a meal where creativity is very important.  A festive family meal is a gathering that is the opposite of the passive entertainments of modern life.  Everyone here is making something and taking part.

One of the keys to a feast, maxi or mini, is making that particular meal different. And the Sunday Family Meal is no exception.  It must distinguish itself from everyday meals.  It must be a proper meal, with as many traditional aspects as possible and with as many family members as can be brought together.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The menu for a Sunday Family Meal must stand out and be different from the foods that are eaten during the week.  Usually a family will have a set of specific recipes that they consider to be their “house specialties,” and that’s what they want on Sunday.   Why a particular recipe is, or is not, “acceptable” on a Sunday is usually a function of the history of the specific family, and the culture that they are living in at the time.  In my own family at a Sunday Family Meal, we can have a baked potato, or a mashed potato or even a boiled potato, but not French fries.  My guess is that the fast food industry has taken over the French fry, and it looks a little strange at a Sunday Family Meal.

The first course of the meal is a vegetable-barley soup.  Carrots are peeled and chopped into small pieces.  The ends of leeks are cut off and chopped into small pieces.  You end up with about two cups of carrots and four cups of leeks, which are carefully washed.  They go into a stockpot, along with two tablespoons of olive oil.  A couple of cups of chicken stock go in.  Everything simmers for about ten minutes.  At that point a cup of uncooked barley goes in for thirty minutes of simmering; the pot remains uncovered.  Finally, two cups of chopped chard and a cup of diced zucchini are stirred in.  Fifteen more minutes of cooking and the soup’s ready.  It goes into a tureen, and when it is finally served, it gets a light garnish of parmesan cheese.

The second course is gnocchi, which, quite frankly, is a potato dumpling presented as a pasta course.  The recipe starts with the preparation of an asparagus sauce.  Three tablespoons of oil go into a saute pan, plus three ounces of butter.  As soon as the oil and butter are hot, in go about three cups of asparagus tips.  They’re sauteed for about ten minutes.  Leda is using white asparagus, and if you can find it in North America, drop me a card -- I’ve been looking for it for years!  I am going to make it at home with green asparagus.  Then a half cup of white wine is poured in.  The pan is shaken, not stirred.  A half-inch slice of cooked ham is cut into small cubes.  It ends up being about a cup’s worth, and it’s added to the asparagus.  Then a cup of chicken stock and a little white pepper.  The heat’s turned down to a simmer, and the asparagus sauce cooks for twenty minutes. 

During that time, the gnocchi is made.  Eight potatoes have been boiled until they are tender.  Cold water is used to cool them down so you can handle them.  At that point they are peeled, cut into quarters, and pressed through a potato ricer.  If you don’t have a potato ricer, you can use a sieve or a strainer.  Do not use a food processor; it can easily turn a perfectly nice potato into wallpaper paste.  What you want to end up with is a ring of fluffy potato.  Two whole eggs go into the center and are mixed together with the potato.  Then a half pound of flour is kneaded in to make a potato dough.  The dough, which is the consistency of a standard pastry dough, is rolled out into cylinders that are about ten inches long and an inch in diameter.   Half-inch slices are cut off the cylinder and then rolled over the surface of a sieve.  Some of them are rolled over the tines of a fork.  In both cases, what you are doing is adding texture to the surface of the dough.  The texture acts as a crease that holds onto the sauce.  The gnocchi goes into a pot of boiling water.  After about a minute of cooking they rise up to the top, which is a signal that they are done.  The gnocchi is drained and added to the sauce.  A little tossing... a little turning... a little grated parmesan cheese.  And that’s what you’ve got.

The main course is a chicken dish that began twenty-four hours ago when the chicken was cut up into parts and marinated in white wine with rosemary and sage.  The actual cooking starts with some olive oil going into a hot saute pan, followed by the chicken parts, which are spread out in one layer.  The herbs from the marinade are added, and the chicken is browned on all sides.   Then a touch of salt... a cup of white wine... and another minute of sauteeing.  The chicken is turned out into a baking pan... and four onions that have been peeled and cut into quarters are added.  The pan goes into a 375 degree oven for twenty minutes.  And now everything is ready for the table.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  How the table is set is also kind of important.  Special meals, particularly those served at home, have symbols of togetherness and separation.  Actually, the table does a wonderful job of marking the territory. It can only seat a certain number of people. If you are seated at the table, you are part of The Group.  If you are not, you are not.  You can look around and quickly see who has made the team.  Actually, it’s Sunday morning and the cooking’s still going on, so we won’t be aware of the final cut until lunch starts.  But if you watch the table being set, you can see how the game is gonna go.

The table is set to reinforce the ideas of being together and separate at the same time.  “I’m an individual but within a family.”  Instead of single placemats which might be the norm for weekday meals, the Sunday Family Meal gets one big tablecloth.  But on that one big tablecloth that holds everything and everyone together on one field, there are individual place settings, with individual dishes, individual knives, forks, spoons and glasses.  Individual, but clearly part of a group.  The Sunday Meal is also made special by the use of things that are your “Sunday Best.”  Almost all the implements used at the meal are not the ones that are used during the week.  Special table linens, dishes, flatware, glasses.  The best is out in use.  And the entire meal is being served in the special dining room, not on the kitchen table, which is where meals are served during the week. 

In the Felluga family the Sunday Lunch is given by Livio and Bruna Felluga.  They are the oldest members of this part of the family.  One way that the meal is used is to keep Livio and Bruna in touch with the family, but it is also a way that Grandpa and Grandma can help the other members of the family stay in touch with each other.

There are sixteen people at lunch:  Grandfather Livio, Grandmother Bruna, their three sons, their daughter, two daughters-in-law,  their seven grandchildren, and me.

The young children re-establish their friendship in a very physical way.  The older kids stand around in a small group re-establishing their relationship with words; almost no physical contact. The adults are the most formal.  It seems that the older we get, the more distance we keep between us.  The way we eat illustrates the point:  children often take their meals on benches; everybody’s right up close.  As we get a little older, we move to individual chairs, still next to each other, but now there’s more space between us.  Eventually we find ourselves at the end of the table with arms on our chairs as the final element of separation. 

There appears to be no assigned seating at this meal and no preset starting time, and yet... there is clearly some force in operation.  Grandfather Livio is the only person who is completely sure of where he sits -- it’s at the head of the table.  And when he takes his seat, it’s the official beginning of the meal.  At that point, everybody chooses their seat in relationship to Livio.

For millions of years when we sat down to eat, we sat around a fire.  For most of us, those fires are gone, but we remember them as a center for the meal when we light our tables with candles.  The candles cast a flattering light on the table and the diners, and because they are no longer really necessary for light, they’re a luxury.  A meal lit by candlelight is always special.  The candles only burn for a short time.  They’re in front of you for a while, burning brightly, and then they’re gone.  At a meal like this, they might remind everyone how brief a time the family is together and to enjoy the warmth while it’s available.

This is also a meal where children in many cultures actually learn to speak.  Sociologists believe that when young children are at a family meal like this they’re in a situation that makes it easier and more rewarding to understand the use of language.  The child pays attention, listens carefully.  Notices the context in which language is used.   They see people ask for things and get them.  The child begins to comprehend the raw power of a phrase like, “May I please have some more cookies, Grandma?”

Since this is a winemaking family, the selection and presentation of the wine is of some importance.  Wine is a complicated thing to make, and you must understand a substantial amount of sophisticated technology in order to produce agood wine. It’s something that does not happen by accident. It’s the result of civilized and controlling behavior.  A fermented alcoholic beverage like wine is thought to be nourishing and nurturing and is therefore presented at the dinner table, but it’s kept separate.  It stands in a very distinct and tall glass, which sits just outside the boundary of the regular place setting.  Wine is a very important symbol for sharing.  Even when almost everything comes to the table as an individual serving, the wine will still come in either a single bottle or a decanter, and is divided in front of the family.  It reminds everyone of their common starting point.  The wine, like the family, may end up in individual containers, but it all came out of the same source.

Truly informal family meals often take place on more than one level.

Bread, like wine, is a product of fermentation, and like wine it is presented at the table in a area that is just outside the diners’ central eating place.  The fermented nutrient of wine goes to the right hand side of the plate; the fermented nutrient of bread to the left.

At family meals, guests can express opinions and feelings that might not be acceptable at more formal gatherings.

After the table portion of the meal is over, the older members of the assembly go off to a special room at the end of the house.  It’s called a fogher.  The word comes from a Latin word that means hearth or center of the home.  It’s a small room with a bench running around the walls.  In the center of the room is an open hearth.  The branches that are burning have been pruned from the family’s vines.  The smoke is carried up and out through a chimney. For centuries this was the architectural heart of the Friulian home.  These days, however, the center of the typical family home is often the cool fire of the television screen.

The final course of the meal, apple streudel, is intended to be served about an hour later.  Letizia, having spent a considerable amount of time and effort helping to prepare the dessert, saw no point in waiting.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A family meal on a weekly day of rest is a mini-feast, and like any feast it is designed to preserve a memory.  But it can also take on the work of producing a memory, a memory that will be held and valued by this family.  I hope you enjoyed having a Sunday lunch with the Fellugas, and I hope you will join us next time for Gatherings & Celebrations, Rituals & Recipes.  I’m Burt Wolf.  Excuse me.