Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2011

St. John extended tour finally gets a rest in Italy

BARBARINO VAL D’ELSA, ITALY— This yearlong trip was two years in the making. I knew, going in, that the first six weeks were going to be hard. I had no clue.

My wife, 14 year-old daughter, 10 year-old son and I just covered 4,500 miles, on two continents, in 13 countries, spending the night in 22 different cities, and living out of overstuffed suitcases in cramped spaces.

I’m not complaining, not at all. It’s been an amazing, life-changing journey. I’m just glad to be stationary for a few weeks, and ready to start recipe testing (hotel rooms aren’t conducive to cooking).

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If one is going to be stationary for a few weeks, I highly recommend Villa Il Santo in Barbarino Val D’Elsa, Italy. We have reached the slower-paced section of the Eating Europe schedule, and will be in this Tuscan villa for three weeks.

I gratefully write this column wearing clean clothes, in a large room, with a working shower and an amazing view of olive trees and grapevines for miles in the distance.

Work on the next cookbook book, has officially begun. My best friend— the uber-talented watercolorist, Wyatt Waters— and I have collaborated on two coffee-table cookbooks in the last several years. Our third project is another watercolor-meets-recipes compilation, though this time we’re going international. “An Italian Palate” will be filled with Italian-food recipes, developed over here, and watercolors created by Wyatt during his nine-week stint.

We picked Wyatt up in Venice a few days ago and drove to our small Tuscan village where he will spend the next three weeks painting (he’s out painting grapes on the vine as I type), and I will develop recipes for the book.

The villa is perfect. It sits at the end of a small road, high on a hill overlooking the valley towards San Gimignano. It is private, quiet, and has a huge modern kitchen.

When we arrived, the owner, Annagloria, showed us around and then offered to take me to the village to purchase supplies.

I met the butcher. There are two in town, but “this one is the best,” said Annagloria. I purchased sausage, ham, prosciutto, and some type of peppered thick-cut bacon.

We walked next door to the “vegetable and fruit store,” and met the two ladies who work in there. “You can get fruit in the supermarket, but it’s better here,” Annagloria said.

I walked over to inspect their squash blossoms and she said, “Don’t touch. They will handle it for you.”

I didn’t know if this was because they are so “into” customer service that they want to bag my fruits and vegetables personally, or because they don’t want anyone handling the fruit. I didn’t ask, but knew quickly that this was the first of many unusual food/shopping customs that I was going to learn over the next two months.

She showed me the bakery— again there were two, but she had a favorite— and I loaded up on bread and pastries and then we traveled to the supermarket.

The place was more “market” than “super,” but it was clean, crowded, and about what I expected, at least in size.

Inside the Coop supermarket I learned that I have a lot to learn.

I have a pretty good grasp on Italian food. Seven months ago I opened a new Italian restaurant, one in which I researched recipes for over two years. That was easy compared to shopping in the Coop Supermarket.

It was late Saturday afternoon and people were making their last purchases until Monday. I was good on fruit, vegetables, meat, and bread, but needed some basics to fill in the holes. Everyone was on a mission. It almost seemed frantic, as cheeses, breads, and pastas were flying off of the shelves and no one was restocking.

I walked around dazed and confused. The more time I wasted, the quicker shelves were being depleted. This added to the confusion.

Again, I thought I had a grasp on Italian foods and products— not even close.

The Italian products I use have labels in English. The only English labels in the Coop were on the Coke Zero, of which I immediately grabbed two bottles. America- 1, Italy- 0.

Baking soda and baking powder were impossible to find, but I spent the most time asking market employees and locals about buttermilk.

If I wanted buttermilk back in the states, it would take five seconds in a grocery store, and I could probably find it in a convenience store. Buttermilk is obviously not in the Italian larder.

“Where is your buttermilk?” I asked. They just gave me blank stares. I pointed to cartons and people genuinely seemed to be interested in helping me, but I couldn’t communicate exactly what I needed.

Since they often led me away from the milk products and towards the butter, I think most of them thought I was going to melt butter and add it to a cold glass of milk.

In the end, I skipped buttermilk— and the recipes I was going to make using it— and opted for several fresh pastas.

I have visited the store a few times since, and seem to be getting the hang of it.

I love living the European lifestyle of purchasing just enough food to make it through that day. All of the small specialty stores, and the supermarket have fresh, local products. It’s a world away from loading grocery carts full of processed foods at a discount warehouse and a lifestyle that I need to practice more intently when I return home.

As for now, I have to go get Wyatt out of the grape orchard— we found the last hanging grapes in Tuscany— he painted the grape vines as the pickers worked around him. This afternoon he’ll be painting in an olive grove and I’ll be working up a manicotti recipe.

(Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John with his family has embarked on his most ambitious project yet — a yearlong trip to Europe to expand his culinary traditions and conduct research. Contact him at