When it was time for my pigs to become prosciutto, my friend Alfredo and my buddies came through and the results were great.
Without much choice, I found myself taking part in an Abruzzese tradition in the last few months - turning pigs into delicious cured meats. It sounded like a good idea when I agreed to it at the bar. Click and picture above or the title to the left to read the blog.
This is a story about a chainsaw, a sucker and a furbo. Spoiler alert: I’m the sucker.
One of the great things about chucking your work-a-day life in North America and moving to Italy to start a tourism business is that you get to meet a whole new set of awesome people including some with whom you form business relationships and friendships.
For my wife Lisa and I, there are too many to mention in one blog, but we want to take the time to single out the Guardiani family of the Guardiani-Farchione Wine and Olive Oil Agency. It’s a small, family-run agency on the rise whose products are considered some of the best in Europe, and we are proud to call them friends and partners.
For more than 200 years, the family has created wonderful products in their cantina located in the basement of their historic home in Tocco da Casauria, about five kilometres from our place, Villa d’Abruzzo, in Torre de’Passeri.
Today, the business is run by Paolo Guardiani and his wife Stefania Ricci with the help of their two children Maria Claudia and Giampaolo. It’s an understatement to say they have been huge supporters of Amazing Abruzzo Tours since before we opened officially in May 2016.
It all started early in the morning of Jan. 4, 2016 and I was in a panic. We had hosted a family of six the night before as a sort of test run of the villa. In our correspondence, I believed they’d told me they didn’t want to do any activities like a pasta making class or a winery visit that day, so I scheduled nothing.
Then when they arrived on Jan. 3, 2016, they said they were looking forward to the cooking class and winery visit the next morning. After changing my underwear, we hastily arranged for Cesidia, a lady we barely knew at the time, to do a pasta making class. While that was going on, I zoomed to the two closest wineries to see if we could arrange a quick tour and tasting.
Christmas lasts from Dec. 25th to Jan. 6th in Italy. The wineries were closed. I googled wineries close by. Went to two more – closed. I called Lisa and told her to stall the cooking class. More google and I raced to an address in Tocco da Casauria – a big residential building right in the middle of town. My heart sunk because at the time I didn’t know that the oldest cantinas (the places they make the wines) are in people’s basements. The name was on the door though, so I rang the buzzer, and the door was opened by a man.
I really didn’t speak Italian at the time and I later found out that the guy I was talking to was the winery’s labourer from Macedonia. He was watching the place while the owners were away, and he spoke almost no Italian either. Still, I made it clear that in about an hour I was showing up with six people for a tour and tasting. He said no the owners weren’t there. I walked by him to the tasting room, and it was perfect. I said where’s the cantina. He pointed downstairs, and I raced down. It was spectacular. By this time another guy was there who, I found out later, was the Stefania’s brother who didn’t work at the winery and who knew nothing about wine.
I said please, please, please, just cut up some bread and cheese and open a few bottles. After saying no a few more times, they gave in to my desperation and agreed.
Forty-five minutes later, the guests arrived, Lisa did the translation, and the tour and tasting went off great. The guests even bought a bunch of bottles and some of the world-class olive oil the Guardiani-Farchione’s make.
A week later, I got a call from Stefania and Paolo saying that they had been in Rome for Christmas, and, if we were planning to bring more people, it would be nice of us to give a bit more notice. I tried to explain the situation I had been in, and they invited us to come and speak to them.
At that meeting, they took us on a proper tour of the cantina and did a great tasting of all their wines, all of which are excellent. The cantina and tour were exactly what we were looking for – a small, family run business in a sea of industrial wine producers, and they themselves were lovely.
They agreed to host our guests each week for cantina tours and wine, olive oil, cheese and cured meat tasting, and we adopted their wines as our house wines and their oil for our kitchen. Most wineries charge at least 10 euro per head for a basic tasting with some as high as 25 euro. How much did they want? Nothing, but they asked if we could try to help them break into the notoriously hard Canadian government run liquor stores? We said yes.
In the first year, we brought a total of about 200 people 26 groups to the cantina and we made zero progress on getting their wines into Canada. Last year we brought more than 350 people there in 33 groups, and we are happy to say that half way through the season, we were able to introduce the Guardianis to Sylvan Audette and his brother Jocelyn, a couple of awesome guys and newly minted wine importers to Quebec and Ontario.
The Audettes have slogged through the red tape in Quebec and Ontario, and now they are taking orders for private deliveries through their website - http://www.olkades.com. You just go there, pick your language, select the SAQ or LCBO under the “Our wines/Nos Vins,” pick some Guardiani-Farchione wines, pay a deposit and in a couple months, the wines are delivered to your local liquor store where you pay the balance.
It’s a little more expensive than buying the plonk off the shelves, but it’s well worth it. Their robust, unoaked Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red is delicious. The crisp Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is sings in your mouth. The Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo rose tastes better than any other rose I’ve ever had. And the Pecorino d’Abruzzo white is as rich and flavourful as a white wine can be.
I have no qualms about urging those of you who live in Quebec or Ontario to go to Olkades website and order a case or two or 10. You will not be disappointed.
It’s also the least I can do for the Guardiani family. They have been very gracious to us, and I wish them great success in the Ontario and Quebec wine markets. They deserve it.
I went to language school in Italy hoping to improve my communication skills. It worked. I have a basic grasp of the language now. More than that though, I learned what it takes to make a real difference in the lives of less fortunate people and just how lucky I was to be raised in Canada.
My Italian was so bad when I first moved to Italy, I got myself into a few embarrassing situations by using the wrong words for things. It was pretty funny at times, but it showed me that I needed to get better at the language fast.
Guest Blog: Helen Romagnoli Kotrus' grandparents left Abruzzo for Canada more than 100 years ago. In 2016, Helen visited Abruzzo, and with the help of Amazing Abruzzo Tours, she reconnected with her heritage. She visited her grandparents' village of Rocco San Giovanni on the Adriatric coast, the church they were baptized in, and she even met cousins. Read as Helen visits the land of her dreams.
When the kids started arriving at the villa in July 2016, we adjusted our tours to fit. The plan was to be less National Geographic and History Channel and more cartoon and scary movie. Turns out, the pre-Roman, Roman and medieval landscape and history of the Abruzzo region of Italy are perfect for this. Everywhere you go there are heros and villains, blood thirsty stories, magic, and more poopy jokes than you would think.
When we first told people in Italy our plans for a tour company and holiday villa in the Abruzzo region, they were pretty skeptical. But after renovations on the villa were finished and guests started arriving by the van load, it didn't take long for people in our town of Torre de'Passeri to get in on the action.
The weather in Abruzzo in May, June and July of 2016 - our first months of operations - was some of the wettest on record. We had to abandon our planned tour schedules and improvise day trips for our guests. It was challenging but we found a way to do it thanks to some of my new heroes, Italian meteorologists who came to our rescue.
When Lisa and I started out last year, we worried about how groups of strangers were going to interact in the intimate settings of our villa and tours. We hoped that by creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere, our guests would feel comfortable being themselves and get along. It worked out better than we imagined.
During our second week of operations, Lisa and I were so burnt out, two of our guests took it upon themselves to give us a couple counselling sessions. It helped us realize we needed to rest and relax for two reasons: We couldn't go on as we were; and our health was now linked directly to the health of our business.
During our second week of operations, I made the obvious mistake of sending a group of guests on a day trip without having done the trip myself. It resulted in a harrowing drive on a terrible mountain road for our guests. Luckily, afterwards, they were gracious about it. Dumb move Jake. Lesson learned.
The minute we opened our doors to guests in the spring of 2016, our chef Cesidia and tour guide Luca were stars. This was a good thing because my wife and I had exactly no experience running an Italian tour company and holiday villa.
Our first guests arrived on April 30, 2016 and the last couple weeks before were pretty nutty as we scrambled to get the place ready and our construction crew put in long hours finishing off our pool and terrace. After almost five years of planning and toil, we were finally open, and it felt great.