If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

11 December 2005

Trial By Fire (Word of the Day: Bruciare)

Bruciare= to burn. Used in a sentence, "my hands are a bit burned tonight." (I miei mani sono un po' bruciati stasera). And I ultimately have Renaissance Artist to thank for this.

Last Saturday night, we were together at the Cacciatore for dinner. R.A., in a conversation with Patrizia (one of the owners) suggested that next week, I would come in for cooking lessons on their (open wood fire!) grill.

Not wanting to impose, but also not wanting to seem ... well, rude or overly presumptuous ... I wasn't certain what to do. R.A. asked me yesterday on the phone if I was going, and I laughed him off. (Though it should be said, my Saturday social calendar wasn't exactly full.) At lunch today, Paolo said that I should arrive at 6 to eat with the staff 'before work.' I responded that I couldn't come by 6, but could be there by 7 (before the 'dinner shift' at 8).

I arrived (with my hair tied back and toting my own apron), completely uncertain as to what to expect. I strove for an 'unobtrusive and casual' demeanor as I watched early preparations in the kitchen. I learned the 'double boiler' trick for heating up pasta sauce. The rest of the women didn't quite know how to react to me and of course my Italian is too stilted to make casual banter to set them at ease. Patrizia started to explain a few things to me. She showed me how she fried up day-old bread in oil to add to the polenta. She explained the pasta boiler. She showed me how to cut and season meat (this tiny little woman can wield one mean cleaver, and one the size of my forearm, no less!!!). She told me that 'tonight was going to be hard' - (my cue to get out of the way?!?): there are two parties of 15 people each arriving at 9pm, and they all want meat: the grill would be busy. She showed me the basics.

For those (almost all!) of you who haven't seen it, this restaurant has a giant open wood fire, behind a wall of glass, so everyone in the restaurant can 'watch' what's going on. As I stood back there, I felt like an exotic dancer of sorts -- only one with NO IDEA what to do next.

There's a flat grill that sits in FRONT of a wood burning fire (at normal waist height, thank god for small favors...) Using a shovel, you pull embers from the bottom of the fire to distribute under the 'grill' to cook on. We started slowly, with the lamb -- nearly finishing it then pulling it off the grill and leaving the final cooking for later.

Patrizia showed me the art of putting the 'big steaks' ('tbone') on, leaving the thickest, bone-heavy side to the hottest part of the fire. Waiting and turning only once for things that need to be 'sangue' (med/rare). It was a great lesson. I had thought I would get a few simple tips, then quietly duck out so as not to be in their way.

Patrizia leaves me there for a bit, with the lamb. Then adds a few steaks. Then a piece of chicken. Then some sausage. All the sudden, I have a grill full of meat and I'm alone.

"I've grilled dinner for myself, family and friends hundreds of times" (I said to myself).

Self responded: "Yeah, but usually some testosterone-laden guy comes and takes over the grill after about 2 minutes, either trying to be helpful or to show off, and you're all-too-willing to let him do it..."

At its' off-season (winter) capacity, the restaurant holds about 45-50 people. And it was full, the big Saturday night on the town. The specialty of the Cacciatore (meaning 'hunter') is meat on the grill. (And on the busiest night of the week, there's some random American woman not normally reknowned for her culinary skills at the fire? What's WRONG with this picture?!?)

Agnello (lamb). Salsiccia (sausage). Pollo e spiedino misto (chicken and mixed kabobs). Pancetta (thick bacon). Fiorentina, Filetto e Tagliata (all versions of steak.) Giant racks of pork ribs (I *think* the casual word they used for this was 'rosicciana' - which, upon looking it up in the dictionary later means 'nibbled or gnawed,' which makes sense. I'll have to go back and check on this one.)

At this point, the proverbial fit hits the shan: 9pm. Me, still alone, on the grill. The two tables of 15 arrive, plus the 7 or so other tables of 2 or 4 who are already in process. Orders flying back and forth. Meat keeps coming at me. Turning what I have. Adding more in the empty spaces. Stacking up in a cooler corner meat that is ready for the table being slow with their pasta.

Plating the right orders at the right moment. Remembering which one is more cooked vs. less; which of the Fiorentinas has no seasoning. Pulling more embers forward. Trying not to lose the thin strips of pancetta in between the grill slats or puncture the salsiccia. Throwing more logs on the fire (adding wood from the bottom of the fire, a great way to keep steady heat if you've got the opportunity!)

All in bare hands. With one long grill fork and a table knife.

Thank god I had thought ahead and tucked a bandanna in my jeans pocket! At every spare moment, I ducked around the corner (out of the big glass window!) and wiped the sweat from my brow.

I can do this. Flip. Flip. Switch hands when the heat is too hot to bear on my right one (it's the hair singeing that gives it away). I can do this. Wipe brow with arm. Breathe. Flip, Flip. Turn, look out at crowd (thankful noone is paying a bit of attention to the strange new girl at the grill).

Time flew by; two and a half hours. Patrizia came back with three Fiorentina steaks, the last of the evening. The last batch of ribs were finishing. The fire was slowing.

"Brava." Just one word from her, and I finally started to breathe again.

From one of the waitresses: "it's not an easy job, you know, especially the first time. You did really well. "

Many years from now, I will still look back on tonight as proudly as I am right this minute. Yes - my hands are un po' bruciata: (read: red and tender), but none -- NONE -- of the food got burned. One filetto was returned for a little more cooking, because a child was eating it and wanted it 'really really done'. But other than that, I was - if I may sing my own praises for a moment - a monu-freakin'-mental success. In a strange kitchen. On an open fire. With a shitload of meat and no earthly idea what I was doing. Working with five other people in a kitchen in a language that I have -- under the BEST of circumstances -- only a basic grasp on.

I walked away from the empty grill, Patrizia told me to go out to the bar and have a drink. I gladly accepted a beer from Paolo, and a cold beer has never tasted so good. It should be said that this woman is either totally nuts or some sort of santa della cucina (kitchen saint): turning her grill, and therefore her livelihood and reputation, on a busy night over to a stranger (and an English speaking one, to boot). I honestly do not know another cook who would have. Trial, literally, by fire. Though people do rise to the occasion when someone expects us to; and she believed - expected - that I would do just fine.

And I did.

Sip. Breathe. Appreciate cool air. Sip. Smile. "Brava."

I know pride is one of the seven deadly sins. It's not very often I say this, but damnit, I'm awfully proud of myself tonight. And I'm okay with that. If you end up in hell, ask for my party ... I've got a table reserved. And, judging from my recent performance, I'll probably be grilling.


Blogger NJH said...

Hi! I'm an American grad student who stumbled on your blog from the Expats In Italy website, and I just want to let you know how much I enjoy reading it. I studied abroad in Tuscany as an undergrad, and absolutely fell in love with the country. I'm dreaming of a life in Italy after I finish my master's degree. Anyway, your blog keeps me in touch with my dream. Please keep posting; I love reading! :-)

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely done. I'm lucky if I can grill a burger without totally roaching it. I'm seriously impressed. Brava.

7:48 PM  
Blogger 2-Hand shakes said...

Nicely done!!
Love the now.

Take care

3:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Braba Valentina!!!

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am truly impressed. I have taken up cooking the past year or so, and while I have become an "expert" in my mother's eyes (this coming from a person who would, if given the opportunity, build her next house without a kitchen), I still have not discovered how to tell when my meat or chicken is done without cutting it open just a little to peek inside. If you can pass along that culinary tidbit please share. BRAVA! ~N.Winkust

P.S. Shall I take it you'll be in Italy for Christmas?? (which is slang for, "Have you read my email?")

2:25 PM  

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