From the Hudson Valley to Italy and back again: Glynwood’s President, Kathleen Finlay, shares insights from her time as Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome
by Kathleen Finlay, President
The invitation to spend a month at the American Academy in Rome as a Visiting Scholar presented a unique opportunity for me to experience and learn about some of the qualities of a centuries-old food system of the kind we are trying to build here in New York – highly localized, with intense regional pride, and a reliance on small, decentralized farms and traditional food products. I’ve learned much from this experience, while also realizing that food and farming professionals in both Italy and the Hudson Valley share similar concerns about the future.
Unlike many places that have adopted a largely processed food culture, real food is still abundant and EVERYWHERE in Italy. A tiny block may boast a dozen stalls or stores offering charcuterie or cheese or fish or meat, an outdoor market selling more of the same, several lunch places and cafes, as well as pasta shops, bakeries and patisseries and enotecas (wine shops). Rome is obsessed with food and, with a few fancy exceptions, all of it is relatively affordable and most of it is of high quality – at least in part due to support farmers receive from the European Union.
My explorations, accompanied by my partner, food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman (an excellent companion for such endeavors), mostly centered in Rome and the surrounding region of Lazio, which is about the same size as the Hudson Valley. The landscape is largely rural, dotted with ancient small cities, towns and villages. In general, this is a country that still retains much of its agricultural heritage: farmland begins just outside of Rome and really doesn’t stop except for the other large cities.
Yet Italy faces the same challenges to its food production that I find no matter where in the world I travel, challenges that are consistent with our struggles here in New York – land access, the climate crisis, development of rural areas taking away farming acreage and the aging out of farmers. But Italy also has some elements that can inspire our work at Glynwood. Here are a couple of the issues that are stimulating my thinking about how we can continue to work on creating a robust and viable regional food system here in the Hudson Valley:
Pride around region/place of origin
I found the most enviable characteristic of food in Italy to be the pride and importance placed on regionality. At almost every market, each item named its place of origin, often down to the town–thus, you can learn the geography of Italy through its iconic foods. That the food is often local is a given throughout the country, but radicchio (for example) mostly comes from the Veneto, and puntarelle (a kind of chicory) is strictly Roman. Puntarelle deserves special mention because you barely see it outside of Rome – it’s that specialized, and highly seasonal; in a month it will be gone. We ate it almost every day. The markets typically offer it “cleaned,” meaning they already broke down the vegetable and soaked the sliced leaves so they become crisp and curly. (Mark did this himself, and insisted it wasn’t that big a deal, but the convenience of buying it ready-to-eat was undeniable.)
A testament to regional specificity is the recently published encyclopedia that catalogues all the registered DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) and STG (Specialità Tradizionale Garantita) accreditations that guarantee the food is from a specific region, geography and/or traditional. The entries are mind-blowingly specific and the volume weighs in at over 8.5 pounds with literally thousands of entries.
Cuisine, of course, also reflects the region. In the Veneto, there is much less pasta, more polenta (white with certain dishes, yellow with others) and seafood. In Rome, there are four basic pasta dishes. Always the same, almost always on tap: carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana and Gricia. Each dish demands a certain shape of pasta; I embarrassed myself at lunch once by ordering the wrong shape with amatriciana (it should be rigatoni). And while quality varies, the preparation and basic ingredients do not. A delightful discovery was that in the north, penne is typically ridged (rigate), while in the Campagnia region of Italy (that includes Naples and its environs), they prefer lisce (smooth) penne. Our Neopolitan friends said that at the onset of the pandemic when there was a rush on food supplies, the only thing left on the shelves of the supermarket was penne rigate, because the southerners refused to buy it even as a last resort.
The number of varieties within any food group was also impressive, and never rivaled in the States. We lost count of the number of radicchio varieties – and I was introduced to several varieties of broccoli that I’ve never seen. Artichokes range in sizes and colors and on and on, each from its specific region. In the US now, we are seeing more varieties than ever before, but there is still much more work to be done around the preservation and use of old and wonderful cultivars, as well as introducing new varieties. Luckily Glynwood (and others, like local seed companies including Row7 and the Hudson Valley Seed Company) are working on these issues.
In our neighborhood – a rather typical one – were dozens of specialty shops, all thriving. One was a small storefront with glass cases on one side and what looked like a lab of sorts on the other. In the lab - which was simply a very clean pastry kitchen – was the same guy working every day, dressed in an all-white uniform and producing a wide variety of pasta shapes, which he then displayed on trays in the glass cases. When you walked in, he would stop his work to help you choose from his fifteen or so tortellini, ravioli, capeletti, agnolotti, and so on. (Our favorite were raviolini, tiny meat-filled squares of about a half inch on each side.) This dedication and seriousness around craft is evident in a whole host of value-added products – from charcuterie to olive oil to baked goods – and represents a huge opportunity for Hudson Valley entrepreneurs. Glynwood has proven this can work through our cider project, but there is room for more training and support for additional craft-based food like cheese, charcuterie, bread, pasta and more.
Our approach here at Glynwood has been largely based on coalition building – bringing together groups of food and farming professionals around a central goal. I was delighted to see so much of this work in action in Italy. Three examples: Founded by Al Covo owner Cesare Benelli, thirteen restaurants in Venice formed a consortium called Osti in Orto, becoming co-owners of a farming collective on an island called Sant’Erasmo in the lagoon. By forming the consortium, production and distribution are more efficient and the restaurants are able to promote their efforts, bringing more attention to the farms. Another important group is called Campagna Amica and represents an important new area of innovation for farmers. The group was formed out of a federation of farmers which in 2000 changed a law, making it easier for farmers to sell directly to consumers. The group then created a number of markets throughout the country (current count is over 1,000) that are provisioned exclusively by farmers from the local region. (So, the Rome markets present only farmers from Lazio.) The current director, Carmelo Troccoli, is now working with one of Glynwood’s close colleagues, Richard McCarthy (the former director of Slow Food USA), on forming an international farmers market consortium to help serve farmers globally; we’ll be following its progress closely. Then, of course, there are the thousand-odd consortia discussed in the encyclopedic work I mentioned earlier: groups of farmers, marketers, and entrepreneurs who produce everything from artichokes to pancetta to Barolo. Much of this is replicable in our area.
Tradition vs. Innovation
Some of the most interesting conversations, especially with the younger food and farming professionals I met, pointed out that tradition – while enviable – also has its downside. Regional ingredients are almost always true to their heritage: Tuscan olive oil is expected to taste exactly like Tuscan olive oil, leaving little room for innovation and creativity. The cuisine in Rome is almost one hundred percent Roman (it is unimaginable to call this “Italian,” as it is quite limited), and except in certain neighborhoods it is nearly impossible to find any other cuisine, even though Italy is home to many immigrant communities. This is frustrating to folks who want to represent or experience other heritages, or simply make or eat things that taste just a little different than the traditional. For me, this helped underscore the importance that the cuisine, production and foodways we are helping to shape here at Glynwood lean into and celebrate the diversity of influences it enjoys.
Food bringing people together
Because our explorations centered on food, it introduced us to a host of people who welcomed us with incredible generosity. We were invited into people’s homes for beautiful meals, toured around markets, led through a number of farms, taken out to restaurants – folks wanted to show us their place through food. The result was many joyful meals connecting with new (and now lifelong) friends who all shared a deep passion for the values that we at Glynwood hold dear. That food is fundamental to the health of our environment, our culture, and our communities.
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