Elizabeth Wholey, Sustenance



Part II – Elizabeth Wholey
Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland

Elizabeth Wholey writes about the food, agriculture, art, and crafts of the Upper Tiber Valley, where she has resided for the past twenty years. She is a member of the Slow Food Alta Umbria and the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass, and welcome to Part Two of today’s program of It’s All About Food on March 26, 2013. Alright. Now. To the delicious portion of our program. The first part was defiant and the second part is delicious. I am going to welcome on the show Elizabeth Wholey, who writes about the food, agriculture, arts, and crafts of the Upper Tiber Valley, where she has resided for the past twenty years. She is a member of the Slow Food Alta Umbria and the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). Welcome Elizabeth, to It’s All About Food.

Elizabeth Wholey: Thank you Caryn.

Caryn Hartglass: So we’re going to be talking about your lovely little book, Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland. And how lucky are you to live there?

Elizabeth Wholey: I am very lucky.

Caryn Hartglass: What brought you to Italy twenty years ago?

Elizabeth Wholey: Several friends… Well, I’ve always loved Italy. I grew up on a farm in Contra Costa Valley here in California, and… I’m in California now for this big IACP conference that’s going to be happening in a week or so. And a friend had this idea of restoring an old farmhouse and several of us got together and we did it. And they needed a manager, so I went over, I became the manager, I became a cook with an Italian guy, and became a gardener, and eventually the cooking led to the farm and I started doing culinary tours for classes and so one thing led to another and I’m still there twenty years later.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, when we think about food… When we go in our minds to areas in Europe like Italy or the southern part of France, there’s a lot of romance involved, a lot of beautiful images, and I certainly get that feeling in this book.

Elizabeth Wholey: Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of… It’s such a gorgeous area. And when we talk about food, very often we think it’s so important to go back to the way things were. And I don’t know if that’s entirely a good thing. I think there are some things that we did well whenever, long ago, in different parts of the world, and some things we’re doing good now, and it’s good to take some of it, take the good and leave the rest behind. But I love the artisans, the craft, that are involved in growing food and making some of the food products, and the art, the love, that’s involved with it, the romance, the beauty. And we’re going to talk about some of those things.

Elizabeth Wholey: Well, and that… I love those things too, and I dedicated the book to the farmers because where I grew up, it was a beautiful farmland and in the last twenty years it’s all changed. It’s now under asphalt and our country road is lined with strip malls, so I just don’t want that to happen to this area of the Upper Tiber Valley. This actually starts where the Tiber begins, from a little stream in the mountains above the valley, and extends down to right just north of Perugia, where I live. And so this is the area that I’m talking about in the book, called Upper Tiber Valley. And a lot of the traditions still exist. There are some wonderful foods that have always been loved there, and sometimes they’re now created with a modern twist; some of the younger people have some new ideas. It’s definitely an area for vegans. If people want to come and visit, a vegan will be happy there, although they do have traditions of hunting and pork and lamb. But lots of vegetables, grains, and also foods that just grow wild.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. I know in this book you talk about a lot of things. You talk about a lot of wonderful plant foods and you also talk about how some of the animals are raised for meat and for eggs and for cheese. I lived in the south of France for four years in Aix-en-Provence and it was a really wonderful time, and I lived as a vegan there and some people were really surprised to hear that. But, it’s an area, like where you’re from, where people love fresh plant food.

Elizabeth Wholey: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: And when it’s packaged and it comes from a hothouse somewhere, or it’s out of season, and it has no taste, people aren’t interested in that. It’s fresh and it’s seasoned.

Elizabeth Wholey: Right. In fact, you can’t buy broccoli in the summer. What we call broccoli Calabrese is what we call, here in the states, we call it just plain broccoli. And a lot of vegetables that are definitely winter vegetables are not available in the summertime. And then you have your real seasonal things like fava beans, and artichokes, and asparagus and wild asparagus too in the spring. Then you have all your wonderful summer vegetables in the summer and then the fall brings on, which is basically September through November, you have wine, chestnuts, truffles, mushrooms, peppers are actually late summer/early fall, and so it’s so seasonal. And you just simply don’t buy those things and you look forward to the arrival of the broccoli in the winter and the cauliflower and the black cabbage, the cavolo nero so… And this area is a lot like Provence and the people are very similar to very warm… You always say, you always hear things about other people in France are not, don’t…

Caryn Hartglass: I always tell people, “Don’t go to Paris, go to the Provence.”

Elizabeth Wholey: Exactly.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s where you’ll fall in love. Yeah.

Elizabeth Wholey: A lot of the people from this area also worked in Provence. I think there’s a real connection there. They worked in these after the war, so I think there’s…they felt at home there.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s something that we don’t have in the United States. Either we never had it or we lost it, and some people are trying to bring it back. But it’s really this love of what comes from the earth and to nurture it and the gifts that we get back from it. It’s the simplest things, but it’s what really speaks to our soul, the food that nurtures us and takes care of us, and… So, it’s great to have a little book like this and know that there are places where these things exist where we might visit, where we might get inspired, where we might learn.

Elizabeth Wholey: I think it’s also the community of eating. We go out to wonderful restaurants—we have terrific restaurants—but we also cook a lot at home for each other, and that social life and also with the families. Often times you’ll see three generations living together and everyone helping each other, that still exists, and I think that’s really good for health. There are people in my little neighborhood, which is really about three kilometers from a village, they’re ninety-year-olds still working in their vegetable gardens, which is… And they have animals which they use for fertilizer, they…natural manures.

Caryn Hartglass: Right.

Elizabeth Wholey: It’s just a very healthy lifestyle.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I mean, we have crazy things going on in this country and all around the world when we have these intensive factory farms where animals are crammed inside warehouses and they produce so much excrement, you just can’t spread it around. There’s not enough earth to spread it all around, it’s just horrible. And of course it’s filled with all kinds of antibiotics and all kinds of chemicals and these animals are fed horrible things. That’s not the kind of manure we want to spread on our garden.

Elizabeth Wholey: No.

Caryn Hartglass: But what they’re doing where you are is what nature intended.

Elizabeth Wholey: Right. And then there were also… People are taking some of these traditional products too, for example chestnuts, and there’s one family that’s up in the mountains near the birth of the Tiber up in Mount Fumaiolo—it’s actually in Emilia-Romagna. The area around the Upper Tiber Valley includes Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Umbria. And this one family has hired retired pensioners to go out in the forest, or…they’re doing it anyway, they’re going out and collecting berries and wild apples and chestnuts and herbs, and they bring them back and they sell them to this family who are transforming them into very interesting…into nice products, a lot of them having to do with chestnuts. They make marmalades and things like chestnuts with cocoa or rum, and chestnuts and brandy and biscotti. It’s something to give the pensioners a job too and exercise, so anyways, they’ve created this wonderful little business. And there’s a lot of that, there’s a lot of entrepreneurial businesses going on that incorporate the whole family, and some of the young people are very well-educated and so they’re bringing new skills and new information and how to market, though… It’s a very interesting phenomenon, the fact that some new younger people are also becoming interested in farming.

Caryn Hartglass: I just want to talk about chestnuts for a little bit longer. I love chestnuts. And it’s not something we see enough of in this country. You can find some jarred chestnuts in stores and vanilla-sweetened canned chestnuts, and in the wintertime here in New York City there are even vendors selling roasted chestnuts, which is really delightful. But other than that we don’t use them enough, and they are so delicious and can be used in savory and sweet dishes. You even have a recipe in here that is vegan for Rustic Chestnut Flour Cake.

Elizabeth Wholey: Very traditional. It actually—it’s not for everyone, it’s a little heavy—but has olive oil and rosemary in it, and raisins, sultans, and…

Caryn Hartglass: Pine nuts.

Elizabeth Wholey: It’s kind of a pie, but it’s more like a bread. I have served it sort of as an antipasti—antipasto…

Caryn Hartglass: It sounds so good.

Elizabeth Wholey: It is really good, but it’s an acquired taste. Actually, several recipes in here are acquired tastes. But it’s traditional.

Caryn Hartglass: Why? Do some people not like it?

Elizabeth Wholey: Well, it can make you a little gassy.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, okay.

Elizabeth Wholey: But back to the chestnuts. One of the little towns in this area is called Caprese Michelangelo, and it’s where Michelangelo was born. Its special chestnut is called the Marrone of Caprese Michelangelo, and it was awarded the denominazione di origine protetta, it’s called the DOP by the European Union, and this means that it was unique in respect to its geographic location, the climate, the way it’s been crafted into food. The Marrone is a larger and sweeter chestnut. So this has been a huge honor for this little town. They collect them in October and they have a wonderful festival—there are many chestnut festivals in this area and throughout Italy, and I’m sure you had them in France too. The chestnut flour was called the…was milled into flour. The chestnut was dried and roasted and milled into flour, and it contained a lot of water so it spoiled easily, so you had to do it very carefully. So this chestnut flour is usually just sold in the wintertime before Christmas, sometime between October and Christmas you’d see it in the winter, but it does spoil quickly because it has a lot of water in it. So this again is a really seasonal product.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that’s probably why we don’t see it very much, because it spoils.

Elizabeth Wholey: Yeah. I know a friend here sent for some and it wasn’t as good as what we’d get for there.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm. Yeah, I haven’t seen it, and I’m wondering right now, where I might get it.

Elizabeth Wholey: I’ll bring you some next winter.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, there you go. Okay, that’s a deal. But in the meanwhile, I’ll just have to imagine. Okay, so then of course there’s olive oil. And I want to say a few things about olive oil, ‘cause I was just having a conversation before this show started. I love good olive oil. I have to say that I eat very little oil in my diet. I don’t think oil is a really healthy thing to eat, and I know there’s a lot of talks about the Mediterranean diet and olive oil, but I think when we have it, it should be phenomenal.

Elizabeth Wholey: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: And fruity. And fragrant. And when I lived in Europe, even the less expensive oils were better than some of the olive oils I find in the United States. Not quite sure why that is.

Elizabeth Wholey: I have my opinion, and it’s often times older than it should be. At least a year ago or two years ago I was part of an olive oil panel, and the people here in California were saying that they don’t label the date. At least, two years ago they weren’t doing that. They always date the olive oil in Italy. And they tell you when it’s been harvested. So the best is in the first year. It’s just a fact. So people buy their olive oil in around January, when it’s all been bottled. That’s when I buy mine, and I have fabulous olive oil. I buy it from the same man I’ve bought it from for years, and it’s just fabulous, and he is very, very careful about how he grows it and presses it. And also, it’s only from one area. He gets together with his neighbors because they have to have a certain quantity in order to get to the press to get a good deal. And so they all grow it in the same area, and they all know how each other works. And I think that has a lot to do with it. It’s really a small production.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. So it has to be fresh.

Elizabeth Wholey: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah… Mm. There’s nothing like wonderful, wonderful, fruity, fragrant olive oil.

Elizabeth Wholey: I’ll have to bring you some of that, too.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so now let’s talk about mushrooms. I love mushrooms. The supermarkets here, we don’t get a big variety, although as Americans become bigger foodies, we’re seeing a little more interesting variety. But I always saw phenomenal mushrooms in Europe either served in the restaurants or in the stores. There’s a whole tradition too, growing and harvesting and finding mushrooms.

Elizabeth Wholey: Mostly in our area it’s finding mushrooms. People don’t really grow them. You see regular standard white button mushrooms over there; you see oyster mushrooms in the stores, like in our big co-op grocery store. But the ones that are the best are the porcini—which come in October, usually the first couple weeks of October—and then there’s one, my favorite that’s in the book, it’s called [18:00], which is…I forget the name, it’s an orange mushroom, it’s very precious. I have the name of it here, but anyway. It’s in the book. Caesaria, it’s like Caesar. Amanita Caesaria or something like that. But those are found. And people go mushroom hunting all the time, in fact. People will dash off, leave work early in the afternoon if it’s been raining the day before and the sun is out; everything is coming up quickly. And so that is a wonderful thing to do and very, very popular in our area. Usually they grow around oak trees. There are many, many different kinds of mushrooms in our area. And you have to be very, very careful. Once in a while, people do die from eating them, the wrong ones. But you take them to your pharmacist to check them out if you have any problems. And also at our fairs, during that season there will be a display of mushrooms, which are the good and which are the bad, so it’s part of the education of the local people.

Caryn Hartglass: Now is this just in your area that you can take mushrooms to a pharmacist? I could never imagine taking a mushroom to my local pharmacist here in New York. They would look at me like, what? What?

Elizabeth Wholey: It’s all over Italy. I would think it would be in France, too.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I don’t remember that. But I didn’t go very often to the pharmacist when I was in France, fortunately. But I do remember the once or twice I did go, they were very knowledgeable and very friendly, and rather comforting to know that they were there and had a very different feeling than when I would go into a chain drugstore here in the United States.

Elizabeth Wholey: Well, they’re very… There is more of an interest in homeopathic…

Caryn Hartglass: Right, that was it.

Elizabeth Wholey: …medicinal herbs, too. We have herboriste, like in my town, we have maybe three different herbalists who you can go in and get advice from, and they sell natural foods as well as different herbs, dried herbs.

Caryn Hartglass: One of the things I loved living in the south of France was walking through some of the fields and woods and there would be thyme just growing everywhere, or rosemary, lavender. I just—not in fields, but just wild—it was the most delicious wonderful thing to be walking with the warm sun, and it would almost toast these favors into the air. What do you—

Elizabeth Wholey: We have forests—

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I was going to say, what do you have in your area?

Elizabeth Wholey: We have borage, chicory, purslane—a lot of purslane—sow thistle dandelion—

Caryn Hartglass: Dandelion, I remember we used to forage for dandelion leaves in Europe and make salad.  I’d never do it here. I did it there.

Elizabeth Wholey: We also have mintucha, which is a wild mint, and I remember one time one of our guests was saying he was making a cocktail and needed some mint. And he said, where could he buy some mint? And we just leaned down, picked up some for him from the lawn.

Caryn Hartglass: But that’s the way it should be. It should just be there for us, the Garden of Eden. We should just walk out and pick the berries and fruits and the greens.

Elizabeth Wholey: Well I think it is. Over here there’s a lot of wild fennel growing. I think there is a lot around that people just don’t know about.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I like the way you did mention that in some places there might be an old fig tree or something by an old beat-up house, and you shouldn’t pick the fruit because it might belong to somebody.

Elizabeth Wholey: Well you can pick something to munch along your hike. But you shouldn’t. But people do, it’s really sad. We have an apple tree that was just full of apples this year for the first time, and I was about to take a picture of it to show the owners. And the next time I went up there, all gone.

Caryn Hartglass: Whoa!

Elizabeth Wholey: So this happens. And then there are other favorite—fig trees, for example. There are a lot of old fig trees out in the countryside. And for years a family has been picking those from an abandoned thing, and they believe it’s theirs. So if someone buys that house, you have to understand that you may not have your figs every year. You have to plant another one.

Caryn Hartglass: We have about three or four minutes left. I wanted to talk about bread and wine.

Elizabeth Wholey: Okay. Well, bread is made without eggs there, of course. We have a flatbread—very famous flatbread—torta al testo. It’s a griddle bread that’s made in the fireplace. It used to have ashes on top of it. It’s just a flatbread on a stone that they flip over and then they brush off the ashes and that’s really such a simple old bread but still very popular. And then wine? We have lots of wine. Our area is probably not as famous for wine as a little more south because it’s a little cooler where we are, but all of Umbria’s wine business is growing and there are some new, younger people who are making wine in a more quality than quantity, as it was in the past with the old farmers. So things are coming along. Most famous wine in our area is in Montefalco: Sangrantino wine.

Caryn Hartglass: Are you familiar with Querciabella?

Elizabeth Wholey: I’ve heard of that.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.

Elizabeth Wholey: Is that a house?

Caryn Hartglass: It’s a winery. It’s a biodynamic vegan wine, and it’s in that area. I had the owner of Querciabella on the show a while back when he was in the United States. I just wondered. It’s very good.

Elizabeth Wholey: Yeah. If you would send me that information, the name of the person, I’d appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: Mmhm. Okay, yeah, absolutely. Well? What can we say, we just have like a minute left. Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland. It’s a lovely book; where can people find it?

Elizabeth Wholey: It’s from Amazon.

Caryn Hartglass: Ah, Amazon. Very good. And you’re going back to Italy soon?

Elizabeth Wholey: I’m going back on the 11th. I have this big IACP, International Association of Culinary Professionals, conference coming up here in San Francisco on the 6th of April. By the way, my book has been nominated for an IACP Cookbook Award for Culinary Travel.

Caryn Hartglass: Congratulations.

Elizabeth Wholey: So I’m very thrilled about that.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well it’s a really lovely book. I love the pictures, I love this area so much. Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food

Elizabeth Wholey: Okay.

Caryn Hartglass: And I’m gonna look forward to the olive oil and the chestnut flour. I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food! Find me at responsibleeatingandliving.com and have a very, very delicious week.

Transcribed by JC, 4/12/2013

  1 comment for “Elizabeth Wholey, Sustenance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *