This post was authored by Theresa Felicetti, the Project Coordinator at the John Brown Heritage Foundation and a two time participant in the Fornello project.
I come from a family of food loving Italians and mandatory Sunday lunches, where pasta sauce intake is as important as water intake. Food has always played a significant role in my life, especially my Nonna’s pasta sauce. My 83-year-old Nonna cooks with an unwavering energy that fools me into thinking we’ll be eating pasta at her house together until I’m in my 80s too. She crafts homemade pasta and sauce with such ease and consistency I convinced myself it is an ability the women in my family are born with. It is not.
I decided to attempt Nonna’s recipes, to rid myself of the overwhelming anxiety that accompanied the thought of those flavours becoming only memories. Working side by side with my Nonna, I realized it was not the taste I feared losing most, it was the connection food creates to people in my life, past and present. Our yearly tomato jarring connects me to my grandparents’ life in rural Italy, as does our Sunday lunch, the traditional time to celebrate hard work and each other. The Fornello Project in Puglia, Italy, mirrors this deep, connective experience between food, people and the past.
A hands-on, holistic experience, the Fornello Project invites participants to help preserve shepherding culture and the slow food movement in southern Italy through the restoration of an ancient cave site. Historically, the site was home to shepherds and wheels of cheese, and the goal is to open the caves to both once again. While I was there we spent time with the shepherds and made cheese with the cheese makers. Our meals were prepared from local ingredients, and our participation in the cooking process was encouraged. Meals and wine were always shared together, making conversation unavoidable and allowing each meal to create a community among participants. As a group we traveled around the region to better understand the profound impact food has on Italian culture. We were immersed in the beautifully balanced pace of life that still exists in rural Italy, the heart of which is the creation and preparation of food. This inspired a unified passion that drove us in our work on the site. Each cave cleared of debris and each stone wall rebuilt became a mark of our contribution to preserving the serenity we experienced in the shepherd’s lifestyle. Each archeological discovery and fresco cleaned increased our understanding of the sites importance to the region and development of the culture.
The project was inspired by the impact of recent EU regulations on the local food culture of Italy. Requirements involving expensive machinery are catering to cheese production on an industrial scale, disregarding the livelihood of cheesemakers whose families have served the area for many lifetimes. The diminishing local market for milk is also impacting the local shepherding culture, as shepherds are now forced to sell their milk to larger companies at as little as 75 cents per litre.
The gradual disappearance of the shepherd and his flock from the sun-drenched fields of Puglia would be more than an aesthetic tragedy. It could signify the eradication of the slow food movement in southern Italy and a significant part of the region’s culture. I believe the pace in which food is produced has an effect on how it is enjoyed. Italy is known as the home of long dinners using fresh ingredients. Families grew and raised their own food, and then worked together to prepare it. Of course they were going to sit down together for a lengthy meal to enjoy it! Just as it has in North America, industrialization is likely to mean that newer generations in Italy may lose that sense of appreciation for food and the passion for sharing it.
I returned to the Fornello Project for the same reason I return to making homemade sauce with Nonna. They are both reminders that we can’t see ourselves, our values and our traditions, as the result of merely our own lifetime, but of many. To truly understand the social and cultural impact of these processes, we need to reconnect with their roots. Blindness ensures complacency as both the culture and the values it embodies are eroded. A tangible experience of history connects us to a culture, its history and its profound beauty, and encourages us to help preserve it. Imagining Puglia without the shepherds and cheesemakers is, for the local population, the same as my imagining life without Nonna’s sauce. Working on a site that dates back to 6th century BCE opened my eyes to the longevity of a shared cultural value and its role in shaping the region. International participation in the project has imbued the locals with renewed pride, encouraging them to become more active in maintaining their culture and traditions. Often when we become accustomed to something we forget its value and outside reminders of them are needed. It is projects like these that will ensure we don’t compromise culture for progress, and instead find ways in which the two can work hand in hand.
Fornello Cave Workshop 2017
July 3 – 14; July 19 – 30.
The Fornello Sustainable Preservation Project focuses on the site in its early days of research and cultural landscape conservation. The program is an opportunity for experiencing a wide spectrum of elements and aspects involved in cultural heritage preservation, as it stimulates conversations and ideas around sustainable preservation for a positive impact of these programs on local communities.
The Documentary “Shepherds in the Cave” opens at the Royal Anthropological Institute film festival on March 29th.