Autumn in Vermont. The perfect time, and the perfect place, to curl up in an afghan on an old rocking chair, gaze out at the red, orange, green, and yellow landscape, and marvel at the miracle of creation. Oh—and nosh on some really tasty Italian food. You mustn’t forget the Italian food.
Labor day weekend has come and gone. We made an escape on the Tuesday and Wednesday after, a getaway from ill-behaved dogs who trampled my newly planted asters in the garden around the restaurant terrace; from the chores of cleaning up after runny-nosed children who flung themselves against our glass pastry case straining against hope toward the vanilla meringhe on the other side; from the out-of-state customer who stressed, “Could you please slice that salame Toscano thinly,” as if I didn’t know what “thin” meant or her loud enunciation might translate it for me, the same woman I smiled out the door having wrapped her cheeses, salames, and boxes of cookies in pale blue paper and a decorative web of strings in purple, lavender, and white. She stepped back in, her voice different then, and said, “What beautiful packages you’ve made, it’s just like in Italy. I’ll save the ribbons in my dressing table drawer!”
We take a much-needed escape from all this Labor Day purgatory to Caleb’s parents’ in southern Vermont for an overnight, cold and brilliantly clear as we walked to the neighbors for a dessert of truffles and peach ice cream and a lunch in the sun the next day at a picnic table draped in blueand- white checks, laden with bowls of potato salad, chicken salad with grapes, pasta salad, and a dish of blueberry crisp with walnuts and sweet cream ice cream, all these elegant and comforting dishes made by Caleb’s mother. What a joy to be on a picnic on a warm fall day, reminiscent of so many other picnics—ones in our field on a blue plaid blanket, or ones in Italy in a roadside grove. A joy on this day to have someone cook for us. All this was much needed.
The second day of our visit, some words I had once learned roused themselves enough for my mind to be distracted by them again: remembering the Greek root, nostos, “to return”; I thought of words like “nostalgia”— the ache to return, to come home; “nostophobia”—the fear of returning; “nostomania”—an obsession with going back; “nostography”—writing about return. That was also the day Caleb and I drove to our old town of Middlebury. As the car climbed over the Bread Loaf Gap, the light, the colors of mown, golden hayfields and the varied greens of trees, and the scent of the air made me think of autumn in another old town of ours, one in Italy. I remembered us leaving Middlebury one September night on our way to Boston, from where we would fly to Rome. The evening sky over the Lake Champlain valley and the Adirondacks was brilliant with the variegated fire of sunset saturating so many floating and cumulus clouds.
In Middlebury, we visited with old friends, satisfying another kind of nostalgia, ate another picnic, shopped in town, drove through the country toward the lake, admiring the wide, flat farmland and the spines edging the Green and Adirondack Mountains. On the way home, we stopped at the A&W—an old-fashioned car-hop drive-in where the waitresses now wear rollerblades—for the last of Vermont roadside food as the weather has turned here, this summer—the summer we never had—now gone, the air crisp, the leaves on the trees making a slow change toward color, and places like the A&W will close, if they haven’t already, after this weekend. As we approached Bread Loaf, a stately Victorian campus dedicated to the study of literature and writing, a collection of buildings that had once made an elegant mountain retreat and spa, I drove Caleb up the long drive to Robert Frost’s old cabin and farm and told him about a formal picnic I’d attended here once. When we reached the top, the grounds, though empty, quiet, and pretty in the evening sun, seemed ghostlike now, missing so much of what I remembered of that meal: the grill, the clusters of people milling around or sitting on the grass. One last image of a woman with red hair and a straw hat clipping flowers next to the custodian’s house still strong in my mind. Caleb and I walked up past the white farmhouse so I could show him the cabin. We sat down on the rock in front and watched as the sun began to set.
A flicker flew overhead, chattering. Walking back to the car, we stopped at the custodian’s house and peered through its lace-covered windows to see the rooms, a dining room with a long table and corner cupboard, a music room with an old, small upright organ, a front parlor with a fireplace, where just beyond we could glimpse the kitchen. Leaving, we were quiet, both a little melancholy, the end of a lovely day reminding us this truly was the end of summer. This short Vermont season would drift away like my recollections of living abroad. The empty garden and farmhouse, the cabin of a dead poet, my memory of a meal shared with friends were only pieces of a livelier time like windblown ticket stubs scattered on the ground the day after the carnival leaves. Thankful for travel back and forth, between life in the present and life in the past, I began to think of a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a fire in the woodstove as we pushed homeward to our house. In the quiet comfort of Caleb asleep beside me, I let my mind drift to a million places I’d like to be at once: in Castiglione, a medieval place we once called home; with the Uffreduzi clan walking up into an abandoned village eating fresh figs and ripening grapes along the way; at our house on a dark fall day cooking an onion soup and an apple tart; with our friend Rosa at her dinner table in front of the open fire; at Silvano’s eating a pizza, or a salad of white beans and onion, a plate of fresh pear and parmigiano; in our garden; at the seaside, anywhere, with a glass of white wine and a plate full of mussels; at our own restaurant lighting the candles for dinner; with everyone we know and love all together in a grand dining hall giddy with the evening light; or simply here, where I was, with Caleb, driving home.
From somewhere in his sleep, Caleb mumbled, “Slow down, we’re in no rush,” as if he didn’t want the day to end, but with his eyes closed he couldn’t see the sun falling fast behind our mountain.
Crostini alla Vecchia Maniera
Chicken Liver Crostini
Being a very classical Tuscan dish, this recipe’s name appropriately pronounces it to be alla vecchia maniera, or “in the old style.” An order of assorted crostini in a Tuscan restaurant would almost certainly include some of these. A look at the ingredients might suggest that the pâté is boldly flavored, which it should be, but not so strongly as to obscure the liver itself. The flavor of this pâté pairs well with thinly sliced prosciutto and a sharp white wine like Trebbiano d’Abruzzo or a Lugana. Serves 4 to 6 people 2 to 3 crostini apiece.
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1/2 teaspoon brined green peppercorns, drained
- 1 cup chicken livers, rinsed well and patted dry
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup chicken stock (or water or white wine)
- Olive oil
- 1/4-inch-thick slices plain, country bread (2 to 3 slices per person)
Warm a sauté pan over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add the butter and let it melt, then add the garlic, peppercorns, and chicken livers. Strew a couple pinches of salt and pepper around the pan. Sauté all this for 2 or 3 minutes longer so that the pan has time enough to get real hot again and everything is sizzling nicely. Then add the stock, bring it to a boil, and govern the heat to maintain a fast simmer. Simmer for a few more minutes until the livers feel firm all the way through: to check for firmness, press on the thickest one with your finger (it should feel firm), or feel free to cut it in half to inspect the interior.
As soon as the livers are cooked, remove livers and drippings from the pan to a bowl or plate and let them cool down for at least 10 minutes, until they reach room temperature. When cool, process it all in a food processor (or chop everything as finely as you can with a sharp chef ’s knife) until a granular, rough paste is achieved. A Tuscan would leave the paste like this so that is has some texture, perhaps adding just a touch of olive oil to even out the consistency. Return it to the bowl. Taste and correct seasoning. The pâté should be strong in flavor and well seasoned, as it is meant to awaken your taste buds.
Spread a skimcoat of butter on each slice of bread followed by a nice layer of pâté. Don’t skimp, but don’t overload the bread either. (Ideally, these crostini are served just warmed, but they are also delicious at room temperature.) Toast lightly in the oven or heat gently in a covered frying pan. When just warm and toasted, remove to a serving plate. Garnish with, at most, a touch of parsley if desired. They require nothing else. Enjoy.