Slowing Things Down at La Petraia



Slowing Things Down at La Petraia
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Piano, Piano,
Slowing Things
by Deborah Verginella
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Grant
mid the frenzy of watching my first Iron Chef America
episode, I stared in wonder as my culinary idol, Susur Lee,
inelegantly lunged at slabs of bacon (the secret ingredient)
unveiled house-of-horrors style in a mist of dry ice.Yes, the battle
in kitchen stadium would be intense, as Canada’s star chef (turned
gladiator), would face off against American Iron Chef and marketing machine Bobby Flay. Lee, his lustrous ponytail propelling him
forward, stacked as many cuts of the meat onto his arms as he
could handle.Time was, after all, of the essence.These fare warriors
had only one hour to create five courses featuring the secret ingredient. A mere 60 minutes to achieve gastronomical nirvana.
At the other end of the culinary universe, far from the lights of the
L.A. television studios, there is Susan McKenna Grant—a patron
of a movement that is bravely competing with what has become a
fast and furious food industry.
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Surrounded by the breathtaking landscapes and delicacies of La Petraia, why would you want to rush?
Called Slow Food, this movement, founded in 1986, promotes the culture of food and wine,
and actively defends food and biodiversity worldwide. Among the many initiatives of the
movement is the Ark of Taste—an attempt to rediscover and catalogue forgotten flavors and
rescue those gastronomic products threatened by industrial standardization, hygiene laws,
large-scale distribution and environmental damage. Ark products range from the American
Navajo-Churro sheep (from the last indigenous Irish cattle breed, the Kerry), to a unique variety of Greek fava beans (grown only on the island of Santorini), to Canada’s own herring
spawn on kelp (a seafood delicacy that has been harvested by B.C. First Nations people for
centuries). All are endangered products that have real commercial potential.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Grant
McKenna Grant is one of Slow Food’s and the Ark’s biggest supporters. At La Petraia—the
165-acre farm she owns and runs near Radda in Chianti, Tuscany’s oldest wine region—she
cultivates the ingredients she uses to cook for guests staying at this agriturismo attraction. Her
first cookbook—Piano, Piano, Pieno:Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm—chronicles the journey
of transforming this ancient abandoned property into a paradise of rare breed livestock and
organically grown vegetables, including olives and chestnuts.
McKenna Grant was born in Wyoming, Ontario, a farming community near Sarnia. In 1983 she
started Alias Research (a computer graphics software development company) in Toronto with
three other partners.When the company went public, Susan eventually left and began her journey with food, spending several years travelling Europe and studying cooking and baking at some
of the world’s finest culinary schools including the Cordon Bleu and École Lenotre.
Cheese Gnocchi—the ultimate in comfort food
Those years abroad led to a search for a property in Italy, looking at land in Liguria, then
Tuscany. It was there that she and her husband Michael, who contributes all the photographs
in the cookbook, found La Petraia. As Grant writes in her book’s preface, “We decided we
wanted her and she agreed to have us, which is how I began a new adventure as an imprenditrice agricola—in other words, a farmer.”
| Fall 2006
McKenna Grant also describes the skepticism of the Italians around her who thought she came
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More than many other cookbooks, McKenna Grant’s seems foreign to North American sensibilities in most respects. Even the
title Piano, Piano, Pieno (or “Slowly, Slowly, Full”) is a phrase few
Americans or Canadians seem to associate with food these days.
The first chapter is devoted to bread and is a call to the spiritual
“elementalness” of making it at home. For Grant, making bread is
“working with a living thing. Creating life to sustain life.”A far cry
from the millions of carb-conscious people in Canada and the US
that cringe at the thought of merely eating bread, let alone actually baking it themselves.
Similarly, one of the full-page colour photographs depicts a hunting party with the dead carcasses of nine wild boars in the foreground—a particularly bold sight for a North American audience
whose relationship with meat usually begins with cellophane.
Susan McKenna Grant wants us to slow down and enjoy food the way it was intended: simply,
organically and in the company of good friends
to Italy “for love, to marry an Italian,” to retire, or to “just play at
[living here], being one of the throngs of stranieri who own holiday homes in Tuscany.” A so-called “reverse-immigrant,” her case
puzzled government officials and it took her two years to obtain
the necessary visa to live on her farm as a self-employed person.
And it is this farm, this land that enraptures her: what it gives and
what one can create from it. “I wanted to get close to the source
of the food. I love the country and I love the farming life.” She
talks about her inspiration: her mother, a wonderful cook and
baker; her father, a hunter/gatherer. Similarly, it is not the starred
chefs that inspire her, although she graciously cites her admiration
for them, but the simple osterie and their cooks whose dishes have
stories attached to them, whose recipes are passed on from one
generation to the next, and who most often include the most
important ingredient in any dish: love.
McKenna Grant described her experience watching the first
butchering of the rare breed of boar she raises, the Cinta Senese.
In the end it was her conviction that in “giving the best to the animals, they give that back,” a statement utterly lacking in New Age
feeling, that gave a coherence to the cookbook as a whole, and
unveiled the absolute focus of her character. It is impossible to
think of Susan watching, let alone participating in something like
Iron Chef.The philosophy of simple, seasonal and local, her culinary
advice for us all, really defines her. She lives her surroundings.
It seems almost an impossible mission to try and instill McKenna
Grant’s take on food in North American culture. More and more,
slowness is an enemy to be defeated in our society. Like Iron Chefs
we too are all trying to race against the clock. Perhaps all this speed
disconnects us from our world. But reading Piano, Piano, Pieno and
talking to its author has reminded me of an old saying of my
grandmother’s: Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano. If you go slowly,
you will go far and get there safe and sound.
For over forty years, Siena Foods has been producing deli meats
of the highest quality using a unique combination of Old World
Traditions and New World Technology. The end result is a
tradition of exceptional taste and uncompromising standards.
| Fall 2006
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To slow down in your own kitchen try this recipe from Piano, Piano, Pieno.
Sfogliata di Mele e Frangipane con la Salsa di Miele al Profumo di Lavanda
Apple and Frangipane Tart with a Lavender-scented Honey Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
For the pastry
250 g (9 oz) puff pastry
For the frangipane
56 g (2 oz) (scant 1/3 cup) blanched almonds
56 g (2 oz) (3 tbsp) liquid honey
56 g (2 oz) (1/2 stick) butter
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
For the honey sauce
1/3 cup liquid honey
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp butter
For the apple filling
3 to 4 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and sliced very thinly
(use a mandoline if you have one)
To finish
1/2 cup apricot jam heated with 2 tbsp water, strained
Icing sugar
Several sprigs of fresh lavender
For the pastry
Roll the puff pastry out into a fairly thin rectangle about 10 by 12 inches and
transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cut a 1/2 inch strip off each
side of the rectangle and place each strip on the edge it was cut from to
form a border. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate it until you
are ready to bake.
For the frangipane
Process all of the frangipane ingredients in your food processor until you
have a smooth paste. The frangipane can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to a month.
For the honey sauce
Place the honey in a small saucepan with a tablespoon of water and bring
to a rolling boil. Remove from the heat and add the cream and butter.
Return to low heat and stir to combine. The honey sauce can be made the
morning of the day you plan to serve the dessert.
The final assembly
Remove the puff pastry from the fridge and spread the frangipane
evenly over the dough. Lay the apple slices, overlapping them quite
thickly, in two or three rows on the top of the frangipane.
Bake for 40 minutes, until the pastry is golden. Let cool on a rack for
5 to 10 minutes before painting the apples with the strained apricot
jam. When completely cool, use a fine sieve to sprinkle icing sugar
over the tart.
To serve
Reheat the honey sauce. Cut the tart into thin slices and arrange on
your serving plates. Put a lavender sprig on top of each slice and
drizzle the hot honey sauce in a zigzag pattern over top. Sieve a light
veil of icing sugar over the plate, if desired, and serve.
“Apple and Frangipane Tart with Lavender-scented Honey Sauce” taken
from Piano, Piano, Pieno. Published by HarperCollinsPublishersLtd.
Copyright © 2006 Susan McKenna Grant. All rights reserved.
Preheat the oven to 350°F / 175°C.
| Fall 2006