Montisi is famous for its 4 Contrade (districts) and for its wonderful cooking during its many festivals. All the work is done by volunteers who will often feed several hundred people a day. The volunteer cooks are a special group and to accept a straniera (foreigner) into the kitchen, even a long time resident of Montisi, is rare.
In this piece of Tuscan Life, Suzanne recounts her experiences:
“For 20 years I had poked my nose through the string curtains at the Contrada kitchen in Montisi where I live, to ask if I could help in the preparation for festas (festivals). The older women would ask to see my hands and I would push my well manicured and younger hands into view. ‘No…you can’t help’, was the common response.
This year, following a passing of the guard to some newer and younger cooks, I was invited in. My first day I was allowed to girare (stir). Right away I could tease that being the tallest in the kitchen, I could stir without standing on a stool and we had a good laugh. I received high marks as nothing became attaccato (stuck) to the pans. With cannellini or any type bean and stews this is the VERY reason one stirs, so my contract was renewed for another day!
The next day I was again put on girare duty and did equally well. I even got to place the affettati on the antipasto plates and scrub the bruschetta with garlic and a bit of salt awaiting the oil at the last minute. Again, my contract was renewed.
The third day I had the same duties but graduated in skill/trust level. I was asked to work on the cannellini and smash an appropriate amount to make the sauce to whole bean level palatable to the palate! I very carefully asked several times if I had reached the right level until I got the ‘perfetto’.
Next, I was allowed to help make the vellute di ceci. I whizzed and whizzed until no part of any garbanzo bean was big enough to be felt in the throat. ‘Non sentì a gola’. It must be so smooth one can’t feel it in the throat. A great description I had never thought about in all the years I have made my somewhat famous split pea soup but always worked for complete smoothness just the same.
The real triumph of Day 3 was being asked to sample the polenta for the proper salt level. Wow! For years I had watched as every cook had turned to Ilva, the chief cuoca (cook), to ask permission to add a spice.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I am not an expert on polenta. I am American and like salt and stated so. My British friends tend not to like salt as much I said, ‘Ok ok’ ‘But what do you think?’ I was asked and handed a spoon. I took a taste.
‘To me, I think it needs more salt’.
Slowly Lida gave it a testing taste. Bingo! I was right, she said. It needed more salt.
Hurray! My volunteer contract was extended!The cooks even asked if I would do a Mexican Festa and teach them how to cook a foreign cuisine. Great. Yes. I am happily a straniera in the kitchen!”
Suzanne in the Contrada della Piazza