Home for the Holidays
I'm a good Italian girl: no matter where I am when I wake up on December 22—and, since I work as a food and travel writer, I might be very far away—I catch a flight back to my mother's house to help her prepare Christmas lunch. Mom still lives in the town where I was born, in the Alpine village of Oulx, nearly 50 miles west of Turin. Oulx is technically in Italy (specifically, in the region of Piedmont), but it's only eight miles from the French border, and until the late 19th century the area belonged to France. As a result, the local culture is a mix of Gallic and Italian influences. When it comes to food, you're as likely to find fantastic crepes as you are lovely handmade pastas.
Most of the food that I cook with my mother, however, is neither French nor Italian: it is Occitan. Occitan is an ethnic group that dates back to the fifth century and is distinguished by its langue d'oc, an ancient tongue (which happened to be the language of the legendary Knights of the Round Table) from which Provençal and Catalan are derived. While the Occitan community inhabited large swaths of western Europe in the Middle Ages, it has dwindled to just a few geographical pockets in Spain's Catalonia, southern France (including the Languedoc region), and several valleys in the Italian Alps, such as Val di Susa, where Oulx is located. In Italy, the Occitan population is tiny—about 200,000—but we have a strong identity, defined by our language (which I learned from my parents) and our foodways, to which we cling fiercely. Occitan cooking in northern Italy is rustic, based on the cheeses and grains and vegetables that have long flourished here. While local Piedmontese food evolved over the centuries to become richer and more refined, Occitan cooking remained true to its roots as simple, satisfying peasant fare.
As distinct as our native cuisine may be, many Italians, even the Piedmontese, aren't familiar with it. It's rarely served outside the home, perhaps because people consider it too humble for restaurant fare. This annoys my mother; in fact, when Turin hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006, I took her to the region's official restaurant, and she was outraged that not a single Occitan dish was on offer. She summoned the manager over to our table and gave him a piece of her mind. Where were the cabiette, those wonderful gnocchi made with potato, egg, and celery? Or the savory beetroot pies called tarte' d carotta ruja? What about the Sant'Antonio apple cake, flavored and tinted with red wine, that Occitan cooks slice into small squares and serve with coffee? The poor man had to listen to her diatribe until, finally, she became hungry and reluctantly ordered off the menu. Still, her point was made.
My mother's love for Occitan cooking—and her love of cooking in general—is one of the reasons I make a point of getting home to help with the Christmas meal every year. She's a natural, intuitive cook, one of those people who can whip up dishes by heart and from scratch every time, using their senses rather than written recipes. When I started learning her holiday recipes, years ago, my main challenge was to continually stop Mom on her way to the cupboard or the fridge to measure her spoon of butter or glassful of milk so that I could scribble down the quantity. "What do you need that for?" she'd say. "Can't you feel by yourself that the dough is crying out for more milk?"