An Italian Wedding Feast

Once Upon a Time a wedding feast involved days of preparation: a good week of robbing the hens' nests for enough eggs to make pappardelle as a first course for all the guests; lighting the fire well ahead of time to make sure the oven was good and hot by the time the breads went in, and hot enough still to cook a pig after they were done. A simple affair in the country was made elegant by the silky texture of those pappardelle, the abundance of pure pork flavors in the made-at-home salumi, and the dense hearty texture of the breads. A festive wedding meal was held in any spot large enough for groups to gather around a table, usually only set up at harvest time when all the pickers had to have something to put their legs under. And it didn't hurt matters to have a roaring fire or two for roasting chestnuts to pass around with the tiramisù.

For years now my friends Elizabeth Willmott and Marco Ceri, masters at hospitality, have been putting on feasts for groups of friends in their lovely home. Il Mulino di Ferraia (mulino meaning mill, which it was built to be 500 years ago) is down by the rushing stream at Vaggio near Regello in Tuscany (Ferraia is the common name for the area where they mill is located). Minutes from bustling Florence, arriving at the Mill feels like walking into a fairytale.

They've formalized their special concept of hospitality and respect for tradition into an association called C'Era Una Volta. C'Era Una Volta and I host Viking Life groups to Tuscany for traditional dinners, and when their own groups get really big, I give them a hand.

After we got our sea legs putting on the celebratory luncheon for the entire Florence Canottieri (crew team) plus significant others - go Firenze! - we welcomed a crowd for a wedding luncheon for Marco's son Danilo and his bride Adrienne. The couple was married in an elegant ceremony in the Salone Rosso, or Red Hall, at Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall in the heart of the historical city center. The next day the newlyweds and guests headed down into the country for their traditional wedding feast.

Marco's version of the wedding lunch menu and the work force employed in the preparation of the lunch:

  • 30 of Barbara's hens nested for 8 days to produce 50 eggs, which together with 5 kilograms of flour served to make Pappardelle for 50 guests
  • 1 Hunter, the Signore Giuliano of Ferraia, procured 1 wild boar for making the ragu for the Pappardelle
  • 1 Head Cook, the Signore Pellegrino of Tavarnuzze, to man the wood-burning oven, bake schiacciate, and brown the hams and potatoes
  • 2 friends, the Signora Barbara of Ferraia and Lady Elizabeth of London, worked 2 days to the "tune of the rolling pin" to make the sheets of pasta dough (which became pappardelle) and the wild boar sauce
  • 4 Farmer Ladies and 1 Farmer (Marco – with Elizabeth, Barbara, Anna, and Elaine) to peel potatoes, slice crostini, and prepare salumi, formaggi, and other remaining bits and pieces
  • 1 Woodsman/Smoker, the Signore Brilli Luigi of Santa Brigida, for wood and to control various hearths
  • Second squad of hens cuddled by hand so as to produce fresh eggs for the Tiramisù (double concentration of calories for the newlyweds, young couples, and older ruspante couples)
  • Chianti wine: Prosecco from the famous house of Piu di Opitergium (today's Oderzo), ancient Roman city in the Veneto

Mulino di Ferraia house motto: "Cuinare e' amare" (To Cook is To Love).

That gives you an idea of the undertaking, up early to light fires in the ovens and hearths, of which there are many – all roaring but some for cooking, some for warming, some because it's just so romantic; and an entire squadron of helpers to manage. After we got the salone (the big room, in this case on the site of the old mill pond) festooned with seasonal fruits and nuts and huge bunches of freshly plucked grapes for the bride and groom, we got down to work – rolling bread dough, lugging about outsized pots and pans, boiling pasta for 50, and beaming with good cheer all the while.

The guests arrived for a late lunch and began with apertivo of prosecco on the lawn and a nibble of homemade breads, salumi and formaggi. Inside the salone, seated at the enormous, u-shaped harvest table, they proceeded to roasting chestnutseat in Italian fashion with a first course of the silky smooth Pappardelle with wild boar ragu. The house chianti served from traditional, straw-wrapped fiasche was already flowing by the time the second course of whole roast pig and various vegetable sides was served by Pellegrino. The hens' work was appreciated again in the luscious tiramisu and there was a second (more modern) Italian-style wedding cake (imagine a very large Napoleon, which in this case was decorated to look like an open marriage register). Roasted chestnuts, served in paper cones, came ‘round with freshly brewed espresso to finish off the meal and pretty much the day, as many hours were spent lingering over the heavenly meal.