Growing up in Italy with Chef Walter.

-Written by Walter Filippini

God blessed me because I grew up with the best parents and grandparents who instilled values and taught me lessons, I have carried with me all my life. One of the most important values was to be happy for what I have coming in my way because there is always a reason, and it could always be worse.

I spent the first nine years of my life at Nonno (grandpa) Vincenzo & Nonna (grandma) Maria’s farm in Baraggia, a farming community in Como, Italy. I still cherish those memories, and, in my mind, it was the best place to grow up.

Zio Giovanni & Zia Pia making butter

(Zio Giovanni & Zia Pia making butter)

Life was simple, good, and we had just what we needed. We produced all our needs on the farm, including proteins, dairies, organic fruits & vegetables, wine, and more. The only staples we got from the market were sugar, salt, coffee (Nonna Maria mixed with toasted chicory seeds to save money), and sometimes canned tuna (Como is far from the sea, and fresh fish was very expensive). The currency used at the time between our neighboring families was a loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese, a small salami (when it was available), or a bottle of house wine. That means if you need help from me, you didn’t need money, and we had a good time after we finished the job. By the end of our lives, more or less, we will be even.

old dark green damigiana (big glass round carboy with wicker covered bottom to protect from the sun and breakage)

I still remember when my Papa (father), Domenico, made red wine vinegar for the kitchen. He had an old dark green damigiana (big glass round carboy with wicker covered bottom to protect from the sun and breakage). There are two requirements for making good vinegar; first, the wine must be one hundred percent sulfite-free, and you need to protect the mother (the acid bacteria that turns wine into vinegar) year after year. I remember it was the best vinegar I ever tasted.

Every month on the farm, there was a purpose, and we kept busy. Spring was the time for cheese and butter production, which we used for the whole year. The cows were in the pasture outside the barn and started to eat the fresh grass. Nonno Vincenzo was the master of the production. We poured fresh milk from the morning and the evening milking into a large shallow copper vat to let the cream rise. The cream was removed and put into the churn to make butter, and at that time, I was the seven-year-old “master churner,” my Nonno had me churning until it was ready. The remaining skimmed milk we sent to a large copper vat to make the curd for the cheese. After completing the butter and cheese, production, Nonna Maria would clarify the butter (removing all the impurities and water), allowing for extended storage. Both the cheese and clarified butter we stored for a while in the underground cellar.

Chapel & Communal Oven – Baraggia

(Chapel & Communal Oven – Baraggia)

Around the middle of May, Papa Domenico and Zio (uncle) Giovanni got up at four-thirty every morning to cut the hay, knowing that they had to be at work at the local factory in Como by seven-thirty. They did the cutting three or four times during a growing season. Nonno, Nonna, Zia (aunt) Pia, and my mama, (mother) Iole, spread the hay out to dry out under the sun. After three or four days, it was dried enough, and in the evenings after work, Papa and Zio got home from work, and it was brought to the barn with the horse-drawn wagon. When the wagon arrived at the barn, I would help to unload with a pitchfork until my seven-year-old arms were tired, that is when I was assigned the “special” task, being a big boy, of walking on the hay to press it down, this would prevent mold from growing in the drying hay.

Nonna Maria’s – home in Baraggia

(Nonna Maria’s – home in Baraggia.)

May is the month devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we had a communal rosary at nine o’clock every evening. All the families were from Valtellina (A future blog will focus on Valtellina), and after World War II, they moved south from the Alps for a better life. All of the homes were around a small public square or piazzola. In the piazzola, we had a chapel

which is still standing there today. After the rosary, we would all sing hymns for the Virgin Mary. Nonna Maria had a voice like a soprano; depending on which way the wind was blowing that day; people could hear her half a mile away. In the same piazzola was a communal wood-burning oven; each day, a different family would bake the bread, with a rotation of every two weeks, it was our turn again. Nonna would form the loaves, and Nonno would bake them. He would use the leftover dough to make me clown face and horse-shaped bread, a special treat for me “WALTER’S BREAD”.

When summer arrived, it was time to tend to the garden and harvest the wheat, corn, and potatoes. By the end of September, we were ready to harvest the grapes and hunt for chestnuts. The cold months we spent around the house. One of the sweetest memories I have was after the family dinner. We would meet in the barn; we did that because the cows kept it warm, and we could save the wood and coal for colder nights. We all had a job to do, Nonno would make tools, hand baskets, and gerlos or a woven basket carried on your back for the harvest using wood and branches from the forest near the farm. Le Vigne’s vineyard series label, the “Old Man” is Nonno Vincenzo carrying a gerlo. Nonna and the rest of us would clean and hang the corn to dry in the sun in preparation for making the polenta flour. Next, she would start to spin the wool from the sheep, which she used to make socks, long underwear, and vests for the long cold winter. My father and my uncle would repair machinery and tools, maintaining them for the following season. This was a beautiful gathering where we made plenty of good memories.

Le Vigne series label – Nonno Vincenzo coming home

(Le Vigne series label – Nonno Vincenzo coming home)

Sunday was my favorite day; we would walk one mile to the town church. Afterward, they would take me to the local pasticceria or pastry shop for a pleasant surprise.

From a young age, I would spend time with Nonna and Mama in the kitchen. My duties included peeling vegetables, stirring the polenta (Papa would always say, a good polenta cook for forty-five minutes to an hour), forming the potato gnocchi with a fork, and more. I often think about a moment when I was sitting at the kitchen table with Mama and Zia Giacomina. I was seven or eight years old, but I remember it like it was yesterday. They asked me what I would like to do when I grew up. On the table was a magazine with a picture of New York City; my answer was, “One day I will cook for rich people there.”

I hope you found my story interesting; I would like to share more stories in future Le Vigne blog posts. I look forward to seeing you all soon at Le Vigne Winery.

Thank you, Walter.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Donna Lugene Felkins-Dohm says:

    Awesome story from your younger years. Everyone should be so lucky as you. That was a lot of work but when you grow up like that, it was a way of life and helped shape you forever!
    So, I’m not a rich person, But I cant wait until we can get a trip over there and enjoy your cooking at one of your special dinners!! 🙂


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