The tour took four main stops where the couple learned how to make the hallmarks of Italian cuisine—from harvesting olives for olive oil to herding sheep (pictured) and tasting pecorino. “The best part was we stayed with families all along the way and we really got to learn the food culture through the family table,” she says. And the family table didn’t include in-and-out dinners between weeknight television shows. It meant plenty of sparkling Lambrusco wine on the table, hours of prep, and a reverence for the tradition behind every dish.
In ten weeks they were hosted by five families—each with their own preserved traditions and timeworn recipes. They made a garlicky anchovy dip called bagna cauda in Torino and filled cappelletti pasta from a 100-year-old recipe in Modena while learning the origin of every ingredient in the time it took to make each dish. “Traditions would be passed on for hundreds of years and we would know where it started, and who started it, and how they related to the family. So all of a sudden you felt like you were part of that family and you really had a special experience together.”
Since her return, Carole has remained particular about three ingredients: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. “I developed a huge affinity for balsamic vinegar, and of course the real balsamic vinegar is aged absolutely 12 years or more,” she says. With strict standards in place, every bottle has to be stamped by the consortium before it can be sold. And the difference between your standard grocery store bottle of balsamic vinegar and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is staggering. Sweet and syrupy, traditional balsamic vinegar will run you close to $100 but will last for years (Carole has been nursing one bottle for five). “It adds so much depth and intrigue to every dish I’ve ever used it on. It’s worth every penny.” For Carole, fresh olive oil and government-approved Parmesan cheese are also worth the splurge: “Those ingredients, they speak for themselves.”
Northern Italy taught Carole the importance of preserving tradition—of cooking the same meal in the same way for holidays and cherishing a recipe that hasn’t been edited since the day it was first made. Day to day, eating like an Italian means eating as whole and fresh as possible, and using simple preparations that accentuate high-quality ingredients. “Take your time with the food and let it be an experience,” she says. “Let it be slow.” And when you think about it, these are concepts any cook can cling to.