Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer's End in England

The last day of the friends and family tour in England. We visit Salisbury Cathedral (making the trifecta of Durham, Winchester and Salisbury on this trip), enjoy cream teas at the Cathedral Tea Room and drive incurably small roads back to our friends’ house. (Cathedral tea rooms are the secret of England; tucked away in ancient lairs, inexpensive and good food sweetly served.)
It is four in the afternoon on a beautiful English day. Someone puts the kettle on. It is hard to say goodbye but we are happy to be heading home. Our flight is not until a little after nine, or so we think, but the rental car must be back much sooner. We sit for a bit outside, drinking tea and smearing jam onto scones, honey bees swarming us. But we have to go.

Monday, June 30, 2014


David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2014 David Rocchio

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I have been away too long.

I have been away from this blog too long. The photo below, of the cold winter just past, says it all.

Today it is eighty degrees. There is a breeze and it is humid.

We cooked a chicken over a wood fire last night, played lawn bowls and drank beer, listened to the ballgame in the gloam of a late spring night. And there were no bugs.

The winter, which seemed so long and so hard and was in our bones almost until yesterday, at least here in Northern Vermont, is long gone now.

Pretty cool season this.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2014 David Rocchio

Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter's Day

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2014 David Rocchio

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ode to Bohemian Rhapsody

Cal and I picked up Ántonia from the middle school dance. Cal, fourteen, cued up 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'

Ántonia, eleven, face flushed from dancing the night away, said 'turn it up,' so I did. We drove and listened, no one talking. We pulled up to the house as the song closed.

'Anyway the wind blows,' Freddie Mercury sang.

My little girl said 'sweet.'

I smiled, we went inside.

They had no idea.

Magnifico. Sweet.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Monday, January 27, 2014

Empty Chair

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Friday, January 24, 2014

Wind Cloud

Mt. Mansfield has it's own weather.

And now there are the new snow guns at the ski area, adding a human element, creating new weather of our own.

The wind plus the sub-zero cold make this season pretty real.

There is lot of talk just now about the 'polar vortex.'

We just call it winter.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hut to Hut in Slovakia, plus other details you may find helpful ....

In my last post I expanded on my Backcountry Magazine piece on travel to Slovakia. In this post I outline some hut to hut opportunities for the totally daring and insane. I then list some other helpful info for the uninitiated. What follows is the nitty gritty for those truly going. (And you will not regret it.)

Writer's-Cut: Backcountry Skiing in Slovakia

          I wrote an article about alpine touring in Slovakia for Backcountry Magazine's December 2013 issue. The Backcountry team did a great job on the content, the photos and the layout of both the article and the entire December issue, the Photo Annual. It is beautiful.  You can buy it here and subscribe to Backcountry here
High Tatras in Strednica
           I love how they presented the article, but I am a writer, which means I have more to say, and exploring Slovakia, a relatively new country with a long past, meandered far away from the skiing. So read on for the 'writer's cut' of the story. (And click here for another post full of details on hut to hut adventures, average snow fall, where to go, and other details for the truly dedicated.) Enjoy.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Being Ready For Winter

            One last cut of hay, apples fall from tired trees. Leaves color and drop, a hard frost kills. The sun goes, the cows come in, a hard rain falls.
            Scholars say in northern Europe, in medieval times, in some rural communities, humans hibernated. Harvests were thin, there was no light, the bleakness could not be cut with small wood fires. So people slept, waking maybe once or twice a day to gnaw on some stale bread or sip thin soup. The darkness, the cold, the death outside, was all too much to wake for. 
            We do not hibernate in Vermont as fall fades. Yes, we drive to work in the dark and drive home in the dark and pack on some insulating layers as the cold descends. We sit in the kitchen in the late afternoon and wonder if it is bedtime. We eat more. A lot more. But for many of us winter is, simply put, why we are here. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Is It About Good Cafés?

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Friday, September 6, 2013

Twin Birds

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Friday, August 23, 2013


We got a wake up call the other day. I’d driven to Roxbury, Vermont to watch my son Callum and some other local boys play tennis at a camp. It was supposed to be a tournament but it was really just kids and chaos. It was a luxury to be there, a break from the madness. I drove to Roxbury with my niece, Christie, visiting from England. I grew up on the other side of Roxbury Mountain, so it was fun to sit in the sun and tell boring stories about childhood.
Christie and I sat in the hot sun on the bleachers. Cal and his buddy played doubles on a far court.  Beyond the court was Route 12A and beyond that a field and then the beginnings of the Dog River. As kids we fished the Dog, and spied on this camp.
Christie is my wife’s niece – her sister’s daughter – and I’ve known her since she was eight. And now she’s thirty. She’s a teacher and I bet a good one. I bet she grades the parents.
We sat in the bleachers and talked away, sat in the sun watching the game, chatted with the sparse crowd, wished we had water. It was my birthday, a nice easy day.
When the tennis ended we collected my boy, made sure no other locals needed rides and headed back toward Montpelier on Route 12, the scenic route. We stopped at a gas station so Cal could get a snack and a drink. We wandered a bit around Northfield, a small college town between the tiny village of Roxbury and Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. I filled the car with gas. Cal came out of the station with a chocolate milk protein drink and a twix bar. We were off.
The three of us talked about tennis and Christie filled us in on her plans to maybe move to the Lake District. The Lake District is in Cumbria, in England, where Beatrix Potter lived and wrote her children’s stories. The Lake District looks about the same as it did when Potter wrote about Peter Rabbit and all the others. It is a beautiful part of England. It is now a national park. It got so crowded a few years ago they closed the county to traffic. Crazy. It would be an interesting place to live. We talked about the Lakes, her plans, what her Mum and Dad thought, where she’d live.
It was a bluebird day, not too hot, bone dry. We planned a cookout that night with a few friends. Nothing could be better.
And then a young woman heading the opposite way on Vermont Route 12 drove right into us. She was turning left into a shopping mall. She was driving a Subaru Impreza. She was right there, not ten feet in front of us. I saw the surprise on her face when she saw us, like we’d just appeared out of thin air. I turned hard right but we were so close. I don’t remember anything after that until I was out of the car.
We hit essentially head on. I saw the girl climb out of her car. She was on her hands and knees. We’d pushed her car many feet away and spun it around. I turned back toward my car, dazed, and looked for my son and niece. I felt a thick, sticky liquid on my face and arms. It was dripping off my forehead.
I turned back to my car and called to Cal. ‘Are you okay!’ I called to Christie.
The viscous stuff was on my lips so I licked it. It was sweet. And chocolaty. I saw Cal. He was out of the car too. He was covered in chocolate milk.
‘Yes, I’m good,’ he said. Christie came up and put her arm around me in the best schoolmarm manner. ‘I’m fine, Uncle David,’ and she steered Callum and me to the curb. I talked with the girl from the other car, sobbing but unhurt.
Cal said softly ‘the car’s on fire.’ Christie yelled firmly ‘the car’s on fire!’ Cal and I walked to the car and reached in to grab some valuables. He grabbed his twix bar. I went to the back and pulled out a tennis racket and a baseball bat. I left my iPhone and passport in the car. Cal left his iPod. Rattled, I guess. Our schoolmarm took us away from the burning wreck.
In a minute it seemed fire and rescue were on scene and the fire was out. A fireman swept the shards off the road. The cars were towed. Traffic flowed again.
 Cal gave the girl from the other car his twix bar, saying he’d heard chocolate was good after a crash. Christie reminded him he’d learned that from Harry Potter movies. Chocolate is good for you after a dementer attack.
The police took statements. I iced my hand. The next day Jackie and I went and cleared our stuff out of the car.
Before that moment life seemed so fast and important. Drive here and there, fit everything in. 
Less than a second. Inches. Anything different at that moment and my boy might be gone, the call to Jackie’s sister might have been the hardest call of my life, a young girl in a Subaru could have suffered more than sorrow at turning at the wrong time.
The girl wasn’t doing anything wrong – not texting or anything – she was just not paying attention. I was not on my phone either but could easily have been. I use my phone in the car like it’s part of me. Not any longer. We were both going slow.

Less than a second. I’m still marveling at it. As one dear friend put it, the best birthday present I ever will get was all of us walking away from that car. The best thing I can take from it is to treat driving like it’s real, like it’s meaningful. A wake up call.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Spies, Freedom and Unity

             As Edward J. Snowden slinks like an old-school spy through China and Russia to who knows where, and as we all become inured to the fact the National Security Administration knows about each of our impulse Best Buy purchases and how often (or not) we call our mothers, I am reminded of Vermont’s State Motto, Freedom and Unity, and Independence Day.
Vermont’s motto was adopted in 1788. Ira Allen melded it into his design for the Great Seal of the Vermont Republic.  The State Legislature readopted it when Vermont joined the fragile Union in 1791.
It means, of course, finding that balance between individual liberty – the right to do whatever we darn well please, damn the consequences, and the need to act as a whole to protect things like, well, liberty, which sometimes requires us to give up some, uh, freedom. This post is about how we are testing that balance.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Judge Metes Justice

             I remember the day a long time ago, early winter 2005, when my friend and neighbor Dean Pineles retired as a Vermont trial judge.  After a long career on the bench Dean called to say he’d stepped down and was on his way to buy a ski pass.
Most of us when we retire from a job well done would maybe tend a garden, adopt a sport, volunteer for this or that.  And, in fact, for a while Dean did just that: EMT with Stowe Rescue, Stowe Development Review Board, Copley Hospital Board. Dean’s wife, Kristina Stahlbrand, after a wonderful career with the South Burlington School System seemed as well to be settling in to enjoying life in our fair town. But retirement has not gone the typical route for Dean and Kristina.
Not content to visit local coffee shops and pontificate about the world, Dean took a different path.  He became a criminal court judge in war-scarred Kosovo.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

On Hope, Life and My Ántonia

 My home town, each Spring, hosts an event called the “Weekend of Hope,” which is a retreat for cancer survivors and their families.   I was invited this year to do a reading at an ecumenical service at Stowe’s Community Church, and was deeply touched and a bit intimidated by the request to read something.  The charge was to do a reading about hope.

For my reading I chose two bits from My Ántonia by Willa Cather.  We named our daughter after the main character, not least because of the way Cather’s Ántonia tackles adversity throughout the story and finds a pathway to happiness.  I read small sections from the beginning of the story and the end. 

The process of thinking about hope and why this particular book has had such an impact on my own life was a good one.  The thoughts that came from the process seemed worth sharing.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ski With Dog

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Dog Does National

The ski area is closed. We need to hike up the mountain on our climbing skins. I worry Dex won't be able to take the National down on this warm spring day, but I am wrong. The dog runs through the soft snow and then slides on his back and stops, rolls over, takes a mouthful of snow, content. It is a great day, me and my dog having the mountain to ourselves.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Weathering The Storm

The chickens survived the storm; there is more snow now but it is not too much.  The hens found shelter in time.  They weather winter and seem to be wishing for spring.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2012 David Rocchio

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Day The Stone Hut Almost Came Down

On the top of Our Mountain, Mt. Mansfield, there sits an old stone hut.  You can rent it for the night through the winter, which can be an adventure.  It is now very sought after and a prized ticket to win the lottery and gain a night in the hut.  It’s not always been so.
This is a story about the day the state almost tore the Stone Hut down.  But first some background.
The Stone Hut, perched on the top of Mt. Mansfield, was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Many of the same men who cut some of Stowe’s first ski trails also built the hut, which served as a shelter for the workers, hikers and skiers. At some point in its long history the hut became the property of the state’s department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. 
The State conducts a lottery each fall and lucky winners are assigned a night during winter to sleep in the rustic cabin.  The resort allows ‘Stone Hutters’ to ride up a ski lift at the end of the day to reach the hut.  If stone hutters miss the lift it’s walk or give it up.  Once on the summit of the mountain hutters are on their own.
A wood stove heats the cabin and, although the state provides firewood, campers are responsible for everything else, from kindling to cooking.  Once the lifts shut down and the top stations locked up, staying in the Stone Hut is truly winter camping.  And in the hut, with the darkness, the inevitable smoke filling the room, the heat from sweaty bodies contrasted to the cold stone walls, it is as close to medieval we will ever come.
For many years the allure of such rustic camping on the top of a mountain, being able to greet the dawn on Mansfield in silence and peace, just wasn’t that popular.  And that brings us to today’s story.
Sitting some weeks ago in the ski patrol hut, on a day before the good snows came, sitting and drinking coffee rather than skiing in the rain, another patroller, Brian Lindner, and I started talking about the Stone Hut.  I think I noticed there was smoke coming out of the chimney or said something about people being in the hut earlier than usual.  Brian didn’t respond directly.  He said ‘I can tell you a story about the day the state told me to tear that hut down.’ 
Two summers in the early Seventies Brian worked as a Straw Boss running summer crews of the Youth Conservation Corps.  What could be better?  Young, strong and enthusiastic people working all summer improving the trail system, building shelters and otherwise making themselves useful.
This nice summer’s day long ago Brian was sent with a crew to Mansfield to do some trail work.  As he was heading out one of his bosses said ‘and tear down that stone hut up there.’  It seems the department was sick of the responsibility of caring for the hut.  At the time no one really used it anymore; to those running the program it was a nuisance.  But the order didn’t sit well with Brian. Brian grew up with Mansfield and the Hut as backdrop; his father ran the hut in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
He did take his crew out.  They worked their way up the mountain.  Idealistic kids, fit as rain, made their way up the steep slopes of Mansfield.  When they got to the top they stopped for a break in the shadow of the hut.
While the crew munched on their snacks and drank their water, Brian told them the order from Montpelier.  We can imagine some of the group looking up, stopping as they chewed their PB&J’s, others carrying on, not really hearing or caring.
Brian said something to the effect, before we tear it down, maybe they’d all like to know a bit of its history.  A few of the crew likely nodded.  A story beats work.  Young men and women leaning back against the rocks, faces into the sun, arms behind heads, feet crossed; A story beats work.
Brian probably told them about Charlie Lord and the otherhardscrabble ski pioneers who built the original trails.  How they worked to carve paths down the steep chaos of our mountain.  How they had a vision for making turns down steep slopes on long wooden skis.  How hard it must have been – compared to cutting a hiking trail – to cut the Bruce or the Nose Dive Curves or old S-53.  How on one summer’s day, someone sitting right where they were sitting, might have decided it was a good idea to build a stone hut.  And they just did it.  They didn’t study it, or fundraise for it, or contract it out.  They stopped what they were doing and built a camp hut, stone by stone, on the top of the State’s highest mountain.  And it wasn’t even for them.  It was for us.
Brian doesn’t really remember who, but one of the crew stood up and said, ‘no!’ I’m not going to tear it down!’  The others joined in.
This was the early 1970’s, so getting students to protest was about as hard as asking them to drink beer.  On the other hand, Brian struck a nerve. These kids were builders and creators.  They would appreciate, after a summer trying to move probably more than one large chunk of Mansfield granite off a trail, the incredible effort and difficulty required to build the hut.  It would not be in their nature to want to tear it down.
And so they didn’t.
Brian asked if they were refusing.  They said yes.  They stood there for a minute.  Brian said ‘okay.’  That was that. The crew picked up their tools and got back to productive trail work.  The next day, when Brian reported in, no one asked about the Stone Hut.  Brian didn’t volunteer a word.  It never came up again.
A good day’s work, the day the crew wouldn’t tear down the smoke filled hut on the top of Mansfield.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2013 David Rocchio

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dark Clouds and Hope at Christmas

Dear Readers,
Here is the editorial I wrote for this week's Stowe Reporter, our local weekly.  I want to share this small attempt to come to grips with Newtown:

A dark cloud blew over the nation last week during this time typically reserved for joy and good will. Our hearts and prayers go out to the lost ones, their families, the community of Newtown, which will never be the same. We each would lift them up ourselves if we could. But we can’t.

There are too many dark clouds, too many goodbyes, too many tragedies, too many losses beyond words. From 9/11 to Newtown. We are weary for peace.

In our town, our own small New England town, as safe as a postcard, as pretty as a pin, the pain of Newtown hits us with poignancy. For many in Stowe the schools are the center of the universe. The music and singing from the elementary school holiday concert still rings in our ears; the sight of neighbors and friends pouring into the school gym, smiles from ear to ear, are fresh in our minds. It is unimaginable, what happened to Newtown. But it happened.

And now we come toward Christmas, which frames this season. Whether we take it as Gospel or parable, the story of the baby born in a manger is at its core a hard one. A husband and wife forced to sleep in a barn, she about to give birth. The baby is born among the farm animals and is Holy. The baby brings hope and joy to a hard world.

As difficult as life can be there is always hope. Even Pandora, after making the world-altering mistake of releasing evil from the mythical box, saw one last spirit enter the world. Hope.  

So in the shadow of darkness we turn to light and hope. We pray, even those of us who normally would not. We pray for Peace on Earth. Good will toward men.

This message is not just words. In our communities we experience the message every day. In a recent example, through the drive of one business owner in the village of Stowe, on a recent Saturday the people of an entire town ‘shopped ‘til they dropped’ to raise money for a little girl fighting cancer (and our prayers and wishes this holiday go out to you as well, brave young Rowan).

We all volunteer for something, raise money for someone, give to something. We make it a point to know each other, to be kind to each other, to watch out for each other. We water our neighbor’s gardens during summer breaks and take care of each others pets during holidays the year round; our kids live out of any of our kitchens; we are quick to make a meal and bring it when someone is sick or a parent is away or a family loses a loved one. We trust each other. Maybe now more than ever we will look to each other for the brightness in the world.

During this time, when good and bad are cast in sharp relief, when we are all thinking of the children, I want to turn to Linus Van Pelt to find light under the dark cloud. Linus is, some of us will know, Charlie Brown’s best friend.  

At the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” disaster strikes Charlie yet again. The small tree he brought to the pageant cannot bear the weight of even one Christmas ornament. It falls over. Charlie believes he’s killed it. Pandemonium reigns. Quiet Linus, ignoring the chaos around him, takes center stage, and in a strong, small voice, quotes from Scripture. His speech ends with this: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

He then leaves the stage, wraps his truly cherished security blanket around the tree and the tree springs up. The children respond to Linus’s gesture and decorate the tree, which springs back to life and shines with light, with hope. 

            Whether we are believers or take the words just as meaningful parable, they ring so true this year. We crave peace on earth, good will toward all.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2012 David Rocchio

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Living Rural, Working Everywhere

            Living and working way North, in central Vermont, or what an old girlfriend’s lovely mother once referred to ‘as the back of beyond,’ as in ‘over my dead body will you move to the back of beyond with that guy,’ means going anywhere can be difficult and working with the outside world can be complex.  Here are some notes on how complicated it all can be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Food Season VII: A Witch, A Giant and Two Travelers (A Thanksgiving Tale)

Thanksgiving, 1993. New Zealand. It was November and spring, day to home's night; even the night sky was not the same. We drifted down the thin road along the edge of the Tasman Sea into the Paparoa National Park.  It was still at the time a new park, young, eager rangers all around. We wanted to go on a trek. Unfortunately, it had rained for days and the enthusiastic, ill-informed rangers sent us on our way. In the park we found swollen rivers; trails swamped and dissolved into churned, knee deep mud, and an angry bull blocking our way. We cut the trek short.
Rather than hike out the same way we went in, we forded one of the torrential rivers by stripping naked and crossing with our packs and clothes and shoes balanced on our heads. On the other side of the river we followed a trail back to the coastal road, Highway 6.
We made it to the road and hitchhiked back to our car. We were soaked, tired and frustrated. We decided to drive toward Mount Cook.
As we rattled down the road in our Rent-A-Wreck, with the sea to our right and thick forest to our left, we flew past a small sign pegged to a tree outside an old house teetering on a steep slope between the road and the beach. The sign said ‘bed and breakfast.’ It was written in fragile, pale letters. The sign was so small it did not register until we were just past; it was a memory sighting. Jackie said we might want to turn around to see what was what, so we did.
The house was tucked into a hill between the road and the beach. It was an old clapboard Victorian, time worn, tired, dirty. We parked and knocked on the door.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Food Season VI: Some Meals Are Snapshots

Many nights of meals are snapshots rather than portraits.
Vermont, New Year’s Eve, a long time ago.  Maybe 1997.  Ignazio and Tina and their young daughter joined us and other good friends and family for a late night meal. Before coming to visit Ignazio went mushrooming in the woods near Siena and brought his foraged, dried mushrooms to America.  We decided to use them for our New Year’s Eve dinner.  We used the coffee grinder to turn them into a fine dust.  Ignazio made the sauce and the pasta; I cooked the sides and a roast beef stuffed with garlic, parsley, old bread, onion and cilantro.  We were all excited about a sauce made of foraged mushrooms from Italy.
While we cooked, our guests all hung around the kitchen.  Ignazio told about a neighbor near the old farmhouse near Siena, a woman who knew the woods around her home as well as she knew her two children.  The children, a young boy and girl were sweet and polite.  The boy funny, the girl serious.  The mother was a masterly cook and wonderful neighbor.  One day the mother went hunting for mushrooms near her home, the same place Ignazio told us he found the mushrooms for our New Year’s Sauce.  This was a thing the mother did often and had done for years, learning the skill from her mother before her. 
That night, when her children were home from school and had done their chores, when the husband was home from work, everyone finally sat down for dinner.  The mushrooms looked so much like the good ones, the sauce tasted the same, but the mushrooms were not the good ones.  They were poison.  The children died.  Both of the parents were violently ill and recovered, but not really. 
We all stopped talking.  Our celebration ground to dust just like the mushrooms.  After a minute Ignazio broke the silence.  ‘It is okay,’ he said.  ‘We test the mushrooms.’  He told us how he and Fabio and another friend, his best man at his wedding, Antonio, got together before he left Italy and made a meal just like our New Year’s dinner.  ‘The mushrooms are okay,’ he said.  The conversations ramped back up and we left the sad tale behind us.
And then we ate.  My little Sicilian brother-in-law was drunk.  The conversation rolled like surf onto a beach.  The food was good; the pasta sauce was shockingly good.  Deep into the meal, Ignazio started banging on his wine glass with his fork.  I thought he was going to break the glass.  We all stopped and looked his way. 
“I kidding!” he said in his highest, almost falsetto, most animated voice.  He was laughing.  “We not test the mushrooms!”  I could tell he thought this was the funniest thing he had ever said.  He put his head on the table and banged his fist next to his plate.  “We not test,” he cried and laughed and rolled his head back and forth.
Our dear friend Kristina – Swedish, proper, elegant – dropped her fork and gasped.  Her husband Dean, the judge, tossed his napkin down in disgust with a harrumph.  We all looked at each other.  Ignazio was the only one laughing.  But then, what the hell, the food was so good.  Someone made a joke.  We calmed down. We all laughed and ate. 
Late that night I woke up with crippling psychosomatic leg cramps.  I tried to walk to the bathroom.  The cramps dropped me to the floor.  At least I think the cramps were psychosomatic.  Kristina said she did not sleep a wink.  We all had similar stories.  I wonder to this day if Ignazio made up the whole thing.  We survived.
Italy, another meal, sometime in the 1990’s.  This time Tina, Ignazio, Marzia and Fabio and I traveled to a house owned by Marzia’s family in the mountains near Bologna.  She apologized, “It is very old, very rustic, not very nice.”  The drive to the mountains was fantastic.  We drove along dry roads under a bright sun and then, in an instant, would submerge into fog so thick we would need to stop the cars, get out and walk away from the highway, so sure were my friends a Lamborghini driven by a madman, or a truck, or a van full of nuns would drive into the back of one of the cars, causing a calamity.  And then the fog would lift and we’d drive on until we hit another patch of deep mist.
We arrived late in the day.  The old, rustic, ‘not very nice’ house was in fact a four hundred year old farmhouse.  It had no heat but did have three-foot thick stone walls, a fireplace as big as a garage, candelabras and deep, tall medieval windows.  We made a roaring fire; we lit candles throughout the house.  This was the place and the time Ignazio taught me to make the garlic bread in an open fire.  Ignazio and Fabio somehow roasted whole eggs in the coals.  To this day I don’t know how they did it so the eggs did not blow up.  As we breathed thick wood smoke we played cards, ate eggs and garlic bread, drank wine.
Vermont, November 11, 1994.  When Jackie turned thirty, shortly after we were married, we drove to a restaurant on the other side of our mountain.  We live in Stowe, Vermont, on the eastern side of Mt. Mansfield and to the south of the village of Jeffersonville.  Jeffersonville sits at the northern hem of our mountain, the State’s largest.  Another peak, Madonna, works with Mansfield to all but hem us in.  A narrow notch between the two mountains is the only direct way from Stowe to Jeff.  In the winter, once there is any snow on the ground, the road is closed.
The restaurant, ‘Le Cheval D’Or,’ was stuck in a small front on a quiet street in the compact village of Jeff.  Inside, the walls were dark.  In the hall there was an autographed photograph of an Apollo Astronaut, who had found and loved the restaurant.  This was a fancy, romantic and mysterious place.  So on a cold, snowy November night we drove the long way, literally around the mountain, to have dinner at Le Cheval D’Or.
I don’t remember everything we ate but I remember we talked non-stop.  I remember I ordered quail for my main course.  It was stuffed with wild rice and mushrooms.  It was delicious but very hard to eat.  I picked the meat off the tiny bones with my fingers.  I remember my desert – it was a maple crème brulee with a maple crust.  It had a thin maple cookie resting on top.  We drank good, dark coffee and sat by the fire. 
It had been quiet in the restaurant when we arrived and then got quite busy.  It was empty when we finished.  The meal cost an arm and a leg but nothing had ever been better.  When we left the restaurant, drunk, content, full, happy, young, married, in love, I turned toward the Notch Road, feeling empowered to navigate the slippery turns up and over our mountain despite the snow.  I careened up and down that closed road, sliding on the ice, repeatedly nearly losing control. We survived it.  Crazy.  It was thrilling and stupid.  We laughed at it.
Five hours in a restaurant and not noticing the time, not caring when the food might come; feeling when the meal ends it has ended to soon; watching the staff lean against the bar, staring at their hands, bored and wanting to go home; leaving the empty room still talking and laughing.
Ontario, Canada, 1993.  The best diner breakfast ever, somewhere between Niagara Falls, Ontario and Detroit.  We were on a secondary road facing Lake Erie.  The diner was in the narrowest building I’ve ever seen – a trailer wedged between a motel and a house.  The lot must have been a driveway at one point.  There was a counter with stools and behind the counter, along the far wall, was a row of hooks for coats and hats.  With barely enough room to walk between the coats and the people it was an awkward place. 
The only decoration was a framed map of wrecks on Lake Erie.  It hung on the back wall, by the coats.  The people were dour and cold.  No one said hello.  I ordered bacon and eggs with potatoes.  The eggs were fried perfectly with ample salt; the bacon was thick and meaty, well smoked and served half way from raw to crispy; the potatoes were fresh made and crisp, with onion and hot sauce and bits of sausage mixed in.  The coffee was excellent.  Five Canadian dollars passed hands and we were back on the road.  I could not find the place again if I spent a week looking.  I will remember the breakfast my entire life.  I would love to go back there.
            Each place, each time, each memory is nothing less than life.  I will try to write down some of the recipes.  Share life.  But just not right now.

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2012 David Rocchio

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Food Season V -- A Hot Meal On Beach Day

As I write, in my kitchen in Vermont, it is a cold and rainy day heading to winter. Although gray and windy, the leaves long ago blown off the trees, I am not stuck in this stick season. I am thinking about another visit to my sister in Italy (check last week’s post), but the trip I am thinking about now was in the heat of summer.
It was over a year later, and by this summer visit Marzia and Fabio’s relationship had become rocky; I was soon to marry Jackie, who was with me on this trip; Tina and Ignazio had a little baby.
My sister Tina lived then in Prato, a textile town, and in the summer the sun burnt down upon it. Tina’s apartment did not, of course, have air conditioning. To escape the heat we planned a trip to the beach with Marzia and Fabio. We would stay with them for a night or two.
On the morning of the trip I, ever the American, was up early. I woke Jackie, who scowled, and I made her help me get ready for our excursion. We packed for the beach. I made coffee. We dressed. And then we sat and waited for the sounds of people waking up. They didn’t.
Ignazio, Tina and Giulia slept on so we drank the coffee and talked, moving to the small porch looking across to other apartment buildings. We watched a woman beat a rug; a man drink his own coffee, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, he watching us watch him; two kids playing; a man water potted plants. We finished our coffees and went back inside. The others still slept.
I went for a walk to the station to get a Herald Tribune. The air was attic-closet hot and still. I tried not to move as I walked. Forty minutes later, when I returned, the house was still dark but at least it was cool. I made more coffee. I watched soccer on Italian TV while Jackie read.
Finally, my sister got up. She made coffee. I asked when we would go. She shrugged and said, as if it were obvious, which I guess it was, ‘everyone is still asleep.’ I watched more soccer.
By noon Ignazio was up, had his coffee and was dressed. The baby gnawed on some hard biscuits, hot drool running down her front. Ignazio packed the car; Tina got the baby ready. Jackie and I were thrilled. Off we’d go! But.
We did not go to the car. ‘We need to see Rachele and Paolo,’ Tina said. They were Ignazio’s parents, both gone now. We need to go for ‘a little lunch,’ she said, 'we can’t not go.’ She opened her hands in a frustrated gesture, again as though it were obvious, which I guess it was.
Rachele must have been standing just on the other side of her apartment door because as soon as we came into the foyer of her building she appeared on the landing. She must have been listening for the creak of the big, heavy, ancient wooden door and then for the beast to slam shut. She smiled and watched us walk up. She was waving, talking. She pulled her hands together, in front of her heart, and clasped them tightly, smiling and talking.
Paolo was quiet. He talked to me in Sicilian. I didn’t understand but nodded. It was now about one o’clock. The apartment was dark, hot and close, like a museum. We went and sat on the balcony but there was no relief. Of course all I could think about was we should be at the beach, but we instead sat and talked and it seemed only I wanted to go. And then we were called to lunch.
Rachele put out some pasta tossed with a red sauce and veal. The sauce just touched the pasta and clung to it and the meat fell apart with each bite. The taste was rich and spicy but not heavy. The pasta was firm and thick (homemade). Delicious. Too hot for such a meal but an incredible pasta. As we mopped the sauce off the plate with fresh bread, completely satisfied, a bit drunk on thick red wine, me now thinking we would without a doubt be off to the beach, Rachele came back from the kitchen.
Plates of stuffed artichokes; a roast beef rolled with garlic, herbs and bread; cold broccoli rabe marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon. I pulled the fragrant, seasoned artichoke leaves from the husk, drank more wine, stuffed down two thick slices of the roast. Next came some homemade biscotti and dark, dark coffee.
‘A little lunch,’ my sister had said. It was now three o’clock. We sat around the table and the conversation rolled from Italian to Sicilian to Italian to short English translation and back to Italian. We all laughed and smiled. It was interesting, fun, enjoyable.
We finally left, Giulia asleep in her father’s arms as we lumbered down the stairs, Rachele waving goodbye from the landing.  We climbed into the car for the drive to the beach, an hour away. I nodded off into a half sleep, full of odd dreams and fear of crashing, sweating, my head lolling, Giulia sleeping next to me, holding my finger in her small hand.
I listened through the haze of car-ride slumber to the sing-song talk of my sister and her husband. The baby woke up, cried and cooed. Sitting between Jackie and me in the back seat, she pulled my hair and laughed. She made Jackie laugh. The wind roared through the car as we sped toward the coast.
At the apartment by the beach we changed into our swimsuits. We went for a walk, a swim.
The beach was crowded and it was still hot even late in the day. We talked, and read, and watched Giulia throw sand at the sea. We watched the sun go down.
At dusk we all went for another long walk on the street by the waterfront. It seemed everyone in town was out, some wearing fine clothes; some, like us, still in their beach things, comfortable walking along in swimsuits and flip-flops and nothing else; others were casual and cool, in t-shirts and jeans, short skirts or cotton dresses. People walked arm in arm, talking, or sat on park benches. Conversation was all around. It was festive, calm, relaxed. It was just Italians at the beach for a Sunday evening.
We went back to the apartment and showered and dressed. Still full from lunch. It took eight hours to get to the beach, full as pythons, this trip to the beach not at all what we were used to.
At about ten that night we went back out. We headed south, walking along the promenade, the sea to our right. We arrived at a long, low, open wooden building, which formed a U facing the Mediterranean. It was a pizzeria. You could sit inside or choose to be outside under the stars. It was rustic and warm, all worn wooden benches and plank floors. There was a big fire burning outside where they made the pizzas. We sat at a communal table on the beach and ordered a ton of food – bruchetta, olives, roasted vegetables (eggplant, peppers, garlic, artichoke) and pizzas. I was still full from lunch. But I ate. And we drank wine. We sat and talked more. The baby was asleep in her stroller. She was not the only bambina under the stars.
I sat between Tina and Marzia. Jackie was across from me, smiling. Ignazio and Fabio were by the baby arguing about football or music or politics. Shouting, gesturing, rolling their words and making them long, piped, dramatic. Tina and I talked for a minute, she feeling maybe a bit homesick put her head on my shoulder for just a second. There were tears in her eyes, which she wiped away. She moved away and just touched the back of my neck. She turned to Jackie and changed the subject. We stayed out most of the night.
I have never been as full, content, engaged. 

David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2012 David Rocchio

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Food Season IV: Meals and Cooking on the Run Up to Thanksgiving - what we remember

Last week’s post for the food season was fiction, but memories of real meals form the cornerstones in my life. 
January 1994.  Rural China.  We traveled by bus to a distant, cold, rain soaked town near Burma.  We were hungry and tired.
We found a noodle stand on a corner.  It was crowded and buzzing.  The people who worked there seemed smart, content, at least smiling and competent. 
We sat down and ordered.  We pointed to piles of meat and vegetables to communicate what we wanted with our noodles.  We watched the cook make the noodles.  He took a ball of dough in his hands and wove it through his fingers as if a cat’s cradle.  He turned the ball of dough into long noodles right before our eyes.  I’d never seen anything like it.  The cook rotated his hands, made the dough swing and splay and then he quickly flipped the newly minted strands into a pot of boiling water and just as quickly from the pot into a burning hot wok.  They sizzled.  He added some meat and vegetables; he stirred it all and tossed it and added a sauce.  He cracked two eggs and let them sit on the top of the stir-fry.  They cooked as he slid the meal into two bowls.  In seconds we devoured the best Chinese food ever.  No.  Some of the best food ever, period.
            On that night a man ordered fish and we watched the cook take a swimming fat monster and toss it live from a small tub into a pan and serve it completely whole.  While we ate a group of men played a raucous drinking game.  Everything was loud and exotic.  It was hot and full.  Some people were mocking us gently, laughing.  One man came up and took the chopsticks out of my left hand and put them into my right.  The entire room laughed as he did it.  We didn’t care.  We smiled back. 
Dipping into a culture by sharing a meal is somehow intimate.  It makes communion.  It is a connection.  As I remember the details of this and other meals from twenty years ago in China, the cook at the noodle stand might remember us too.  At least we joined his life for a short while.  We didn’t just walk by.  Of all the things we did and experienced in China the making of a bowl of noodles at a corner eatery is one of the most important to me.
Meals are also memorable because they are comfortable and close, like anyone’s grandmother’s kitchen.
My baby sister Tina gave me a tremendous gift twenty five or more years ago when she moved to Italy.  What started as just a commitment to visit my sister is now a need to keep in touch with dear friends and special places a long way away.  And I remember it mostly through meals.
            1989.  I visited my sister alone.  Tina and her husband Ignazio took me to a place in the mountains north of Prato, in Tuscany, where they lived at the time (where Ignazio still does; divorced, my sister and darling niece live in Rome).  The restaurant was just a roadside tavern, stuck close to the cars crawling by on switchbacks into the mountains.  It was cold and rainy, mid-winter.  The air smelled of coal and wood smoke, car exhaust.  (These are the smells of Italy to me and therefore they are smells I love.)
Ignazio parked his tiny Peugeot along the side of the narrow road, not exactly out of the traffic.  We ran across the busy road and I was sure we would be killed. We’d been driving for a while, so I was happy to be out of the car, but I was not excited about where this long drive had taken us.  I was underwhelmed by the look of the place.  I remember the building as small and nondescript.  It sat on the downward side of the hill, below us.  It seemed cold.  It was not.
We ran into the small room and immediately I was hit with warmth and noise.  It was crowded, mellow and calm.  It smelled great.  The place was jammed. ‘Maybe it is not so bad,’ I thought.  The only dish on the menu was a sampling of four pastas and four sauces.  No choice at all.  They had one red table wine.  No choice. We sat at a communal table and settled into conversation.   We ordered.  It was easy.  Red wine.  Three meals.
I don’t remember all of the sauces.  One was mushroom.  One was certainly 4-cheese.  Although I don’t remember each sauce, each pasta, I remember how good the meal was.  I am hungry just thinking about it.  I think I remember the name of the restaurant: La Tinaia.  If that was the place, it was in Barberino di Mugello.  (This is rare for me.  I mostly don’t remember the names of places.)
There had been a small plane crash in the mountains and the police came in.  These carabinieri essentially filled the room, tall men with thin, slicked-back black hair, wearing beautifully designed, post-fascist uniforms, peaked caps and tall, black leather boots, all animated and arguing, gesticulating and shouting.  I couldn’t understand a word and thought they were about to fight.  I thought something was about to happen.  I asked my sister what the trouble was. 
“There was a plane crash.  A small one.  Plane.”
“Why are they fighting?”
She got frustrated with me.  Gesticulated.  Spoke quickly.  Her voice tightened.  “They are not fighting.  They are just talking about it.”
“Like we are?”  I smiled.
“Shut up.”  She smiled.  
So they were there to eat.  They weren’t arguing.  They were just Italian.
I remember my sister smiling at something else I said.  We laughed a lot.  Ignazio and Tina laughed together and we talked for hours.  I remember Tina and Ignazio were in love then.
We left the restaurant full and warm with red wine.  We drove back to Prato in silence, letting the road noise fill the space.  It was dark when we stopped at Marzia’s house.  Marzia Mariottini, a beautiful woman, with a noble Italian nose and charcoal eyebrows on olive skin, her hair night-sky black and long and straight, very smart and curious.  She knows art and the architecture of her country.  She likes to share it.  She is funny.
She lived then with another great friend, Fabio.  A friend of Iganzio’s, a thin, fit man with a gangly, scraggly beard, his eyes close together.  A permanent winking smirk on his narrow face.  He is a gym teacher who loves old American noir films.
We had a few drinks with Marzia and Fabio.  We sat in a quite kitchen and just talked.  I think this was the night I tried Marzia’s Uncle's homemade artichoke liquor.  I can still taste it. 
* * * * *
Here are three recipes from Italy to accompany this post.  One, Cacio e pepe, I make a lot.  One is a variation I will write about in another post.  It's a funny story.  The last one my sister Tina told me about.  I have not made but my sister is an incredible cook so I trust her (and it sounds delicious).  (She also sent me a recipe for Cacio e pepe but I like it the way I make it better.)
Cacio e Pepe  This recipe is in a Gourmet Magazine. Here is the on line version.  It is incredibly simple.  It is spaghetti, black pepper and very good Pecorino Romano cheese.  
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely ground or ground with a mortar and pestle.
1/2 lb. spaghetti
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons very finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
Gourmet says to toast the peppercorns.  Go ahead.  I don't.  It is best to use a thick spaghetti, like a number 5, or use rigatoni.  Cook the pasta until al dente.  Important: reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water ad then drain the pasta.  Do not shake off excess water.  Put the pasta in a warm bowl.  Sprinkle 3/4 cup cheese and 3 tablespoons cooking water evenly over spaghetti and toss quickly.  If pasta seems dry, toss with some additional cooking water.
Divide the pasta onto two warmed plates.  Sprinkle with the black pepper and another tablespoon of cheese each.  Serve immediately with additional cheese on the side.
Tina points out this is not a good pasta for large groups.  Cook it, serve it and eat it quickly.  We are a family of four and if you do a pound of pasta it's a great family meal.
Don't use inexpensive, pretender Romano cheese.  It will be a mess.
This is without a doubt the best pasta dish I have ever made or tasted.
My sister also recommends dried wild mushrooms from Scalvaia (a town near Sienna -- it is another story) grated together with the cheese and pepper as per above and then tossed with the pasta as with Cacio e Pepe.
Finally,  my sister suggests a nice summer pasta:  mix fresh ricotta cheese and cherry tomatoes with black pepper and Pecorino Romano and pasta.  But go ahead.  Make it in winter.
This noodle dish is not Italian -- It is fron the other side of the world from the book The Essential Asian Cookbook, White Cap Books, 1998 --  and it is easy to make and delicious.  Use chicken, beef or vegetables if you want:

10 large raw prawns
200 g (6 1/2 oz) Chinese barbecued pork
500 g (1 lb) Shanghai noodles
60 ml (1/4 cup) peanut oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon black bean sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar
60 ml (1/4 cup) chicken stock
125 g (4 oz) fresh bean sprouts
3 spring onions, finely sliced
fresh coriander leaves, for garnish
    Peel and devein the prawns.  Cut the pork evenly into thin slices.
    Cook the noodles in a large pan of rapidly boiling water until just tender.  Drain and set aside.
    Heat the oil, add the garlic and cook until it is pale gold.  Add the prawns and pork and stir for three minutes or until the prawns are pink.  Add the noodles to the wok with the black bean sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and stock.  Stir-fry over high heat until it makes your eyes water.
    Add the bean sprouts and spring onion for one more minute.
    I add hot chilles at the end.

    David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe, Vermont. (c) 2012 David Rocchio

    Thursday, October 25, 2012