In an earlier post I wrote about Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement who has been an inspiration to many people worldwide. As I reflected on his thinking I thought it would be fun to talk with my friend Susan Grant who has put into practice much of what Petrini advocated at La Petraia, her agriturismo (the meeting ground of agriculture and tourism) located in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. Susan is an entrepreneur, accomplished chef, author, wife of my friend Michael, organic farmer and a source of inspiration. What follows is a recent email exchange that I had with her:
Susan, it’s a long way from the life of a software entrepreneur in Toronto to your current life at La Petraia in Tuscany. What inspired that transition?
It’s not so far away. Same guiding principles: To create a quality product, targeting a small, niche market. Using resources that are sustainable. In the case of Alias those resources were intellectual. With Petraia they are natural. The inspiration is the same: a desire to create something of quality. The life is not that different. We are very busy here, often stressed by the demands of running a property like this. It’s not a lark. We are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we have taken on, the responsibilities and the commitment it demands. Those are all familiar feelings. But it is also — like running a software business was — exciting because it feels like we are on the cutting edge.
Your question is one I think Carlo Petrini answered best, a quote of his I included in the Preface to “Piano“:
… Returning to agricultural activity is not a pipedream of nostalgic traditionalists and it doesn’t mean striving to restore a world which has disappeared. On the contrary, it is a very modern thing to do, since it produces wealth in a sustainable way …
Speaking of Carlo Petrini, how has he and the Slow Food Movement influenced your vision of La Petraia and your actual day-to-day activities?
Immensely. I have been a Slow Food member for 10 years. We are raising animals that belong to Slow Food Presidi, or Ark of Taste like the Cinta Senese pig and the Val D’arno Chicken. Breeds that were pretty much lost 20 years ago and that still face challenges due to the size of the gene pool. We raise heirloom vegetables like the zolfino bean that also belongs to the Presidi. Petraia and “Piano” were the project benefactor for the Presidium for Polish Mead. Our involvement with that effort has inspired us to start making mead ourselves using the varietal honey that we produce. I could go on and on.
Slow Food’s guiding principle is a simple one: Our right to pleasure and conviviality at the table. Everything starts there. From that centre, like spokes of a wheel, are the many activities they are involved in to safeguard and protect our food and foodways. These include education, a foundation for biodiversity, a large publishing branch, Terra Madre, a university for gastronomic sciences and the Ark of Taste. Not to mention all the events they organize on local and national levels, not only here in Italy but all over the world. These efforts bring us closer to the people who are producing food in a sustainable way. They help us understand the challenges they face and appreciate the tastes they are working to preserve.
It seems to me you’ve come from that “center” in designing the experience of La Petraia. There are many “spokes of the wheel” that you’ve been developing. So, after cultivating this vision for five years, I know you’re now finally open for business. My colleagues and I can relate to that transition. How does it feel?
We’ve discovered there are reasons people don’t do what we’re doing. It’s hard work. Monoculture is much easier than owning and operating a small mixed farm. Especially today with all the problems in the food chain, there is a whole new level of bureaucracy in place that the small mixed farmer must face. Animals now need passports. A small agriturismo with four guest rooms must have a professional kitchen. Seed saving is practically illegal. Being certified organic adds another level of complexity and bureaucracy. Every inch a mile. It feels great to be there finally. Now the hope is that we will be successful and inspire other people to follow suit.
One last question: Tell me about Bella and Bruto….
Bella and Brutto were our first two Cinta Senese pigs. Michael bought them for me as a surprise for his birthday three years ago. Cinta are the local breed of pig that is indigenous to the province of Siena where we live. Cinta means “Belt” ” the pigs have black hair with a belt of white around their necks. Twenty-five years ago there were only a handful of these pigs left living on the farm of one stubborn breeder south of Siena who was determined to save the breed from extinction.
Once a common sight in this area … almost every farm kept one or two of these pigs … they fell out of fashion in the 70′s and 80′s when FAT became a bad word. These pigs have a LOT of fat. Also, they cannot live in a stall and are very slow to mature. They take one-and-a-half years to mature and must live in the woods on a natural diet of chestnuts and acorns. And so, as fatty pork fell from grace they were slowly replaced by the Great White breed, that can be raised to produce leaner meat, live in a stall and come to term in about half the time.
But it turns out the fat of the Cinta is actually a healthier fat. High in oleic acid due to their natural diet they are sometimes called an olive tree on four legs. So the breed, in recent years, has started to make a comeback. Now there are several thousand Cinta Senese once again roaming the forests of Tuscany. Their meat sells for a premium ” several times that of regular pork ” because people have come to realize that not only does it taste better but it is better for you. A kilo of Cinta prosciutto costs around Euros $80 vs. $18 for a regular prosciutto.
Last year we welcomed our second couple, Romeo and Giulietta, to Petraia, and in two weeks we will be welcoming our third as yet unnamed pair of Cinta. Each year in January we have a big day when a butcher comes to the property and we kill the pigs. They hang for a day and then he comes back and we spend another day making all kinds of salumi ” things like prosciutto, salami, lardo, pancetta, sausage, spalla, capofreddo (head cheese), burista (blood sausage), etc. We have a big dinner that night for everyone who played a role in the life the pigs. It is an incredible day. Last year we invited the Bezzini family to Petraia for the dinner, the family who saved the breed from extinction. They are still raising Cinta. The small gene pool, however, continues to present breeding problems and the battle has not been entirely won, but thanks to their efforts we have not lost this breed of beautiful black and white pigs.
Remarkable. Thanks Susan. I look forward to visiting you in the not too distant future.