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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Interesting People Series: Letizia Mattiacci
A long time ago, I had expressed the desire to interview people whom I find interesting. I am literally surrounded, both in a cyber sense and in the flesh, by interesting people. People who had mixed things up a bit, changed courses, gone through some individually challenging experiences and had gained wisdom from the experience.
One person who came to mind immediately is my friend Letizia Mattiacci. Many of you know Letizia from her excellent food blog, Alla Madonna del Piatto. She has an agriturismo and cooking school by the same name. In the scenic, hilly land that surrounds the city of Assisi in Umbria, she, her husband Ruud and daughter Tea live in harmony with nature, prepare natural, elegant foods and entertain guests from around the globe.
I feel very fortunate to count Letizia among my friends. She's strong, funny and very smart. Loving. Helpful. And so passionate about what she does, that her love of food and her home are contagious.
Letizia is a scientist by trade, and had a career that provided her with the opportunity to live abroad and travel extensively. It is with the change of life direction to country inn owner that we started our conversation.
Letzia, you decided to change the entire form of your life from an analytical one to an empirical, sensory driven one. From scientist to "life artist", providing guests with an aesthetically pleasing environment, with food being at the center of the experience. What things drove you to make this huge life change, and what is at the root of your life philosophy today?
The short answer is I left the "rat race". The long answer is that even though being a scientist was a glamorous and interesting job, it was also very temporary. At a certain point in my life I did not see myself anymore as a modern gypsy, changing jobs and country every 2-3 years, I needed to settle down and have a family. I also felt I had grown up and I could decide for myself how to determine my future. Last but not least I wanted to live in a beautiful place and what better than my home, Umbria?
My philosophy today is based on the values of solidarity and respect of others, and conservation of energy and environment. Although I do love beautiful things, particularly if old and/or handmade, I prefer experience over possession of objects.
I hear you about possessions. You speak of things handmade being significant to you. I think this is what people sense when they cook in your kitchen -- your food is literally hand made. I can't help but notice that the recipes on your blog are made of pure, clean ingredients, assembled in a simple, yet very elegant way. Talk to me about growing up in Umbria and Umbrian cuisine.
My life in Umbria has been that of one of a million girls from the provinces. No sophistication, not a lot of opportunities but good, solid family life. My mom was Sicilian, my father is from Umbria, both civil servants, no university education, not travels abroad. My father loved documentaries though, so I was very young when I learned about Masai culture or talking dolphins. I always thought I would seen them once. Well, I haven't seen the dolphins yet, but I managed the Masai.
Our food has always been very good. Top actually. My mother and her brother and sisters were all excellent cooks. I have learned the fundamentals of food quality from my mom. She went to market in Perugia old town and toured the place until she found the freshest lettuce and the plumpest chicken. Some of her holidays dishes, like lasagne, cannot be improved. She took all the time needed for cooking, no shortcuts. She made her own mayonnaise, custard, tomato sauce, everything from scratch.
From my father I learned what's good EVO oil, good eggs and sausages. He comes from a farmer family where they picked fruit from the tree just before eating it. If a fig was a few hours old they would not eat it, it went to the pigs! EVO oil is incredibly important for Umbrians, you just cannot have good food if there is no good oil. Pork comes second. In the form of prosciutto, sausages, chops, guanciale, porchetta, you name it, the pig is part of the Umbrian daily life.
Since lasagna is a baked dish, can we assume that your recipe came from your mom's Sicilian family? What other recipes did she import with her to Umbria that stick in your mind as representing that part of Italy?
Some of my best recipes are from my mom: the lasagna, the involtini Siciliani (meat rolls stuffed with herbed breadcrumbs), the pasta incasciata (baked pasta with eggplants), stuffed vegetables, eggplant Parmesan. all of these dishes are baked indeed, and extremely rich in flavor.
Did your mom pine for Sicily? How did she adjust to life in central Italy?
My mom came to Umbria a long time ago, in the early 60s. I do know that she missed Sicily a lot at the beginning. Umbria is cold in the winter and has no sea. She also missed the kick of a larger town, she was brought up in Messina. By the time I was a teen ager though, she was completely charmed by the serene beauty of Umbria and by its relatively high standard of life. She did love to go to Sicily for holidays, but Umbria was her home.
It sounds like your father wanted to give you the idea that the world was broader than "just Umbria". Now that you have seen a good part of the world and come back "home", how do you think home fares against the other lifestyles you have seen out there?
I am a traveler at heart, I have learned that everywhere in the world there is something good and something bad. I have lived for prolonged periods of time in 4 countries and visited many more. There is no complete paradise anywhere. Italy is probably the sum of a lot of what is good and bad in the world. An impossible political situation, a pervasive feeling chaos and confusion about most aspects of life. On the other hand there is probably more beauty concentrated here than almost anywhere else in the world. Nature, history, food, you all have it here. Living in Italy is not for everybody, but I feel privileged to be here on top of my magical mountain. I would not go back.
Tell us a little bit about what you learned in the your travels that you help you in your current business.
In my travels I learned the the world is all the same. From a human point of view there is no better or worse world. People might have different social behaviors, be poorer or richer, but kindness and ugliness of mind and soul are equally distributed. Therefore we do not need to fear, I feel that I can go and always learn.
What is your personal favorite aspect about what you do?
Of what I do now I mostly love two things: to share the unbelievable beauty of the place I live in. The look of astonishment of some of my guests when they are just arrived is priceless. I also love that my guests come from culture, background and work often completely different from what I know. Even though I live on top of a mountain the world comes to me.