February 18, 2010

"We must fight back with beauty!" Sandro Benini

'Parlami d'amore Peggy Sue!! Tutta la mia vita, sei tu!'

'Speak to me of love, Peggy Sue! Throughout my life, there is always you.'

This was a song made famous by Vittorio de Sica,'Parlami d'amore Mariu!'Sandro inserted my name and added Sue so it would rhyme with Mariu. I am sure he sang it to me over and over again as I seemed to be in constant chronic heartache. He sang 'Musica della Camera'also known as the 'Belcanto' on the last nights Gala dinner of La Cucina Al Focolare for 15 years. Sandro, the village baker and talented tenor, was an integral part of my program. The singing was the icing on the cake. The cake was the bread he made at the 'Forno'; The Forno was in Donnini, just a few miles down the road. The guests and I would walk there on Tuesday mornings for a visit and view into the making of the famous and traditional Tuscan unsalted bread and it's history.

Sandro, up since 2 am , after having baked 300 loaves of bread, would arrange a table of various flours and the breads he made from it. There was always a basket of fresh biscotti di Prato, an apple cake. Sometimes a surprise Easter bread or 'Castagnaccio', a chestnut flour bread made with rosemary and raisins, or 'Sciaciatta al l'uva'made at harvest time, a flat bread baked with grapes and sugar, known as a 'dolce povera', a dessert for the poor. The bakery was small, but beautiful on those mornings. He would show us 'la madre', the mother starter that he used for all his bread, while he mixed and kneaded it in front of us. His hands as fine tuned as his voice.

The canvas mats would be brought off the trolley and he would magically shape perfect weights of a kilo loaf, called a 'filone' or a half kilo loaf called a 'filoncino'. There was the 'pane tondo'(the round loaf), the 'ciambello', the ring, and the famous 'paniotta'. The paniotta was the half-kilo round rationed to every family during the war. I used to translate a little story about people meeting each other in the street. 'Buongiorno dove vai? Vado a guardagnare la mia paniotta'. 'Good morning! Where are you going? I'm off to earn my bread!'. I suppose it's where we took the term 'bread' to mean money.

The bread needed to rise for an hour. He had already prepared a batch previously, which was ready to demonstrate how it goes into the ovens. 30 years ago they cooked with wood. But now, they use a state of the art gas oven that shoots steam in the beginning to insure a good crust. It fascinates me to see the difference in traditional and modern ways to put the bread into the oven. The modern way is to put the bread on the canvas conveyor belt rack that hooks onto the oven and when pulled, the canvas slides around, leaving the bread on the oven floor. The traditional way was more labor intensive, but more artisan. Bread loaves were placed on a floured canvas on a wooden board. The canvas would be bunched around the loaves making them look all snug. Then a wooden horse-like support was placed on the floor to hold a long wooden paddle that the bread could be placed on. The bread is taken from the canvas and flipped over, leaving the floured side up. One could put their finger tips into the bread stretching it out for a 'ciabatta'(an old slipper) or leave it as is. The paddle is then placed deep into the oven and the bread is shimmied off onto the oven floor. More time consuming or not, it's astounding how different the bread looks after it's cooked, even if it's made with the same ingredients. It is, basically, the same bread. I prefer it by far. The crust is crunchier, pleasing to the eye, and it just looks and tastes more soulful.

Afterwards, we leave the bakery and make a procession out the front door, parading in front of the cafe' and la Posta, and go around to the back of the building where we have our breakfast picnic. All the fresh bread comes out in a basket, with a knife and cutting board. We have a fine selection of cheeses and spreads that Sandro has collected just for us. Sandro continues to run back and forth to the bakery where he has made hot crostini out of the 'frusta'- the whip-a long thin loaf that he has sliced thin and covered in fresh tomato and mozzerella, some with onions and curry, some with sausage and cheese. There is fresh coffee and tea. After we have chowed on bread in various expressions, we can't resist the apple cake and biscotti! It's a breakfast of Champions! We have earned it with our hour walk, but we are hardly going far after this. A walk around the market of Figline will not burn hardly a calorie. (especially if Giocomo fills us with a few tastes of Pamigiano Reggiano from a freshly cut wheel.)

I have learned a great deal from Sandro about generosity. He was constantly giving. The Tuscans, I must say, are not known for their warmth. They are rather reserved. But Sandro was intent on making people feel welcome. His hospitality was paramount. My favorite story came at a time of great uncertainty during the September 11th, 2001 tragedy. I had over 60% cancellations for my programs. Yet, a few people who were still registered for La Cucina al Focolare, were already in Europe from previous traveling. Only 4 made it. Sandro insisted that we come to the Forno. We took our sunrise walk through the countryside and arrived to the village just in time for a feast! He had made things extra-abundant. There was an American flag thrown over the bread mixer. With great excitement he said, 'Dobbiamo combattare col la bellezza!' 'We must fight back with beauty!'. There was such conviction in his voice. We all had tears in our eyes. This humble, but fierce baker wanted to show us his unwavering support. Not only compassionately for the loss to our country, but to bring attention to what is beautiful and tasteful and not let negative forces bring us down. In a nutshell, this was Sandro's philosophy and approach to everything.

Sandro knew about fighting for diversity and what was right. He grew up gay in a small village in the Tuscan hills. Luckily, his mother accepted and celebrated him, sewing his clothes and costumes to match his creative mood. He was after all, theatrical. He had a passion for Opera and a good voice. She supported his studies for music up until he was 18 whend she died unexpectedly. The father died shortly after and Sandro's singing career came to an abrupt halt. He had to go into the family business with his brother Andrea. Otherwise, who was going to bake the bread? The industrial revolution had sent farmers into factories. No one was using their own forno's to bake their own bread. They relied on the village 'Forno'. Which meant Sandro.

The town of Donnini had always been a crossroads. The monks of the Vallambrosa would leave Florence every summer and head to the monastery in the Pratomagno hills to escape the heat. They would stop in Donnini to rest and stock up on bread, re-thread their sandals and re-shoe their horses. In fact, it was called, 'un posta di sosta'. A place to rest.

I met Sandro through his uncle, Danilo. Danilo, in his 80's back then, delivered the bread to the school every few days. He was jolly, full of jokes and a real Toscanaccio. One day, I asked him. 'Who is baking this extraordinary bread?'He told me about his nephew. We were soon invited to come to the bakery the very next day.

Who wouldn't love to be invited into the heart of the bread shop? What a smell! We met Sandro, who seemed too elegant and gracious to be a baker in whites. In fact, he was more comfortable in 'smoking', with a velvet cape and boots. He offered us not only fresh bread, but coffee, biscotti and of course, Vin Santo. That is how our friendship started. I in turn, invited him to come and see us later that day as we would be making biscotti and asked for his expertise. He came, dressed sharply in navy blue. He even gave us his secret for edible biscotti, the kind that won't break your teeth. 'A spoonful of honey', he said, 'softens it'. Indeed. He left us and as he did, he let slip an aria. It filled the 14th century building like the smell of his bread. We were amazed and delighted. Shortly after, I asked him if he would like to sing for us on our last evening. He accepted.

Thus began a long relationship between myself, Piero our chef, Pierre, our illustrious French Shepherd of Herbs and all the people who came to be with us. He was a magic element that made 'La Cucina al Focolare' sing.

The question I am left with is a timeless one. 'Who will bake the bread?' There are no heirs. It's possible to find a baker, although rare these days to find one who will willingly wake up at 2 in the morning. 'Who will bake the bread like Sandro?'. No one. Who will sing at weddings and Gala dinners? Someone. But no one like Sandro. Who will tend the flower pots? Who will have the heart to gather tasty things for foreign visitors to savour? Who will add panache to the village with style? Anyone?
No one. At least not like Sandro.

I guess it fair to say to you Sandro, that even though you died early, you lived a grand life. Even in a small village, you touched thousands of lives in just your
way, by being your exquisite self. I say, Grazie caro. Grazie tantissimo per il tuo amore grande. I hope you find 'un posta di sosta', a place to rest peacefully, after so many mornings of getting up so early. Ciao amore, Ciao. Dormi bene. Sogni d'oro..sweet dreams..

I am still here. Love. Your Peggy Sue.


Anonymous said...

I too lost a great Chef friend that touched so many of my student's lives during our visits to France. He was irreplaceable and left an indelible print on our culinary psyche. He loved the US and especially Montana. He fancied himself a bit of a cowboy. He was irreverent to anyone in authority and never missed an opportunity to mock them publicly much to everyone's amusement. Yet he was filled with so much generosity and a love of life. A true Bon vivant. He was such a big part of my visits and I looked forward to seeing him months before I would arrive.
I'm sorry for you loss and can empathize completely.
Your post pays the man the tribute he clearly deserves and I am sure you will carry his memory with you on every trip and you will hear verses of the song he dedicated to you in the walls of the village he baked for.

Gina said...

Dear Peggy,
I'm very sorry to hear about the early demise of Sandro the baker. I remember him very well from my participation in your Spring 2001 culinary adventure in Tuscany. His enthusiasm and friendly way left an indelible mark on the experience I had -- something that still nurtures and sustains me nine years later. The bread and biscotti was infused with his love and passion. --Giovanna Riner, Healdsburg, California

Anonymous said...

Peggy, I feel molto fortunato for having been involved in your cooking school in Tuscany not once, not twice but 3 times. Each time the trip to Sandro's was filled with anticipation of what he would have waiting for us at the end of our walk. He was indeed a renaissance man. I got the news from Elisa of his passing. After we hung up I took out his CD and listened to his beautiful voice. "Peggy Sue" put a smile on my face.
He will be missed. RIP Sandro.
Connie Curtola

Lisa Done said...

Dear Peggy,

I am shocked and saddened by Sandro's passing. There are so many highlights and spectacular moments of our trip with you in Fall (October) 2001, but Sandro remains unique. I still remember the lardo and the wonderful bread, his house and all of the fantastic flower pots. I have him on tape singing that last night of the course. I have been meaning to put together a video. Now maybe I will be motivated to do so.


Lisa Done (I celebrated my 50th birthday with you that week)
Scott Anderson (my husband who is from Virginia whom I believe you called my country cousin)

Peggy Markel said...

Thank you so much for writing in. It's good to hear from all of you.
My point with these trips is to experience something unique and authentic before it passes away. I never expected it to be someone as young as Sandro. I was worried about a way of life, the markets, the food customs, etc. We are indeed so lucky to have known him. Love to you all. xx Peggy

kirstin childs said...

I have never met this man, but your expression of him really touched me. Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories. He is right...we must always armor ourselves with beauty.

kirstin childs said...

I was deeply moved by your stories and memories of this man. I would have eaten anything he made-he sounds like a beautiful human being. I am sorry I will never get to meet him. (This is an example of exactly what we are losing everyday. They don't make them like they used to. I am ready with camera in hand to fight the good fight!)