Sometimes it’s the kitchen that’s hidden, sometimes it’s the food itself. Blacksmith Angelo Garro forges and forages, recreating in wrought iron and in cooking the life he left behind in Sicily. The Kitchen Sisters join Angelo along the coast of Northern California as he follows the seasons, harvesting the wild for his kitchen and his friends.
And a few words from Werner Herzog about Angelo and his Omnivore Salt.
Excerpt from our book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR’s Kitchen Sisters:
The Forager: Hunting and Gathering with Angelo Garro
We met Angelo Garro nearly two decades ago. Nikki and I were in the studio working on “Waiting for Joe DiMaggio,” a Kitchen Sisters radio story about the return of Joltin’ Joe at age 83 to his parents’ village in Sicily. We needed help with some Sicilian translation, and a friend told us about a blacksmith from Sicily living in his forge, hidden down an alleyway in San Francisco, who made artisan wrought iron and cured his own olives. He sounded promising.
I called Angelo up out of the blue and asked him to listen to our tapes over the phone. He stopped everything he was doing, translated our recordings and then invited me to the forge that evening for rabbit and polenta. We were in the midst of the mix of “DiMaggio” so I didn’t make it out that night. A few months later my phone rang. “Are you coming for lunch or are you coming for dinner?” It was Angelo. The next day we spent a rainy afternoon eating lunch by candlelight. Everything was handmade by Angelo, the olives, the salami, the prosciutto, the pasta, the sauce, the wine, even the candlesticks.
The next week, after returning from hunting, he called to invite us to a wild boar dinner. A few months later, we went foraging for fennel. That’s when The Kitchen Sisters began following Angelo, as he follows the seasons, harvesting the wild, re-creating in wrought iron and in cooking the life he left behind in Sicily.
“Angelo!” Bob yells through the pine trees.
“Shhh. “Don’t make any noise, Bob.” Don’t make any noise. Otherwise the other hunters will be attracted.” The two friends creep through the woods, looking for buried treasure, on a steep stretch of California’s coast. There’s not a soul in sight, but you never know who might be there, lurking, trying to discover your secret spots. Quietly they press on, their boots squish the moist forest floor. Angelo Garro, his eyes peeled for porcini, is searching for supper.
“You have to look at the wet area of the trees, where’s there’s dead stumps, “ Angelo leads in a loud Italian whisper. “They’re hiding in the pine needle carpets here. You have to be focused, use your eyes and your nose. We’re looking for porcini. And where there is a bubble, a little bump, like a ball in the grass, there’s a mushroom. Could be porcini, could be a poison one, so you have to be careful.”
Born in Siracusa, Sicily, the son of a citrus merchant, Angelo grew up in the groves of oranges and lemons that his father exported to fruit sellers in Rome and Milano. “I was born in Sicily, and now I live in San Francisco,” says Angelo. “In Sicily, I could tell by the smell, what time of the year it was —orange season, oranges, persimmon season, then olive season. People used to pick olives and bring them to town where they would crush them to make olive oil. The smells permeated the town where my grandmother lived.”
Suddenly Angelo is down on his knees, dusting away the debris, beside himself with excitement. “Look! Bob! Bob! Come here!” yells Angelo forgetting to whisper now. “ Wow. It’s huge. Porcini bonanza! Look how beautiful. Smell! In November, two days after the rain and one day after sun are always good days for mushrooming. If we find ten like this, tonight we can cook and make crostini mushrooms.”
Angelo Garro, handsome, animated, compact, Sicilian, looks at the forest floor with x-ray eyes as he forages. He doesn’t just see the big mushroom hidden beneath the pine mulch, he sees the meal he will make when he brings the porcini home to cook, and the look on his friend Bob’s face when he eats porcini crostini back at the Forge.
Angelo Garro lives at the end of an alley in an industrial part of San Francisco, in an invented space that is his wrought-iron studio and his kitchen and his private, personal restaurant. But that is only the physical truth. His spirit lives in a much larger space, informed by an ancient link between food and heart.
“My place — how can I describe my place?” Angelo surveys the enormous welding tools, Italian olive picking baskets, branches of ripe grapefruit, the scanner and ipod, hunting catalogues, hand wrought metal grapevines, that fill the cavernous workshop he calls Renaissance Forge.
“This used to be a blacksmith shop and a stable in the 1890’s, where all the gold diggers and cowboys used to bring the horses to put shoes and fix their carriages. I do architectural wrought iron work which adorns beautiful homes. I forge elements for balconies, gates, staircases. And over here I built a little kitchen off in the corner of the shop, So here, right in the forge, while the metal is warming, before I beat it up, I can just start a recipe. If I feel inspired, I don’t have to go far.”
He taps a mallet lightly on a hot piece of bronze he is shaping on his anvil. “Listen to this one.” A sweet metallic note rings out and mingles with the sound of the Puccini aria and the slam and pump of the hydraulic hammer that fill the forge. “ Listen, it’s like a soprano, like music. Each place on the metal has a different sound, you know. When iron was discovered in Europe,” Angelo muses, “it became weapons. But they also made beautiful gates, which is good. If I was born back then, I would make gates not weapons”
“Hey, Xavier!” Angelo calls out to a large beaming Frenchman who walks in without knocking. “This is my friend Xavier,” Angelo says. “He just went dove hunting, and tonight we’re cooking wild dove and polenta. His wife and kids are coming, and some other friends too. Would you like to stay?”
Angelo met Xavier Carbonnet, an art dealer from France on Ocean Beach at sunset, when the striped bass were running. Somehow the California coastline wasn’t big enough for both of them. The Italian and the Frenchman began their friendship arguing about how and where to fish. Several hours and several bass later the two went back to the forge to cook the catch. Twenty years later they are still arguing, about how to hunt duck, how to cook dove, who should be President, whether Xavier’s elk meatballs need more salt. “More salt? All you Sicilians know is salt. I want to taste elk, not salt,” says Xavier.
Xavier heads back through the forge to the walk in meat locker/wine cellar Angelo recently built and adds the doves to the forager’s bounty: huge
wild-boar prosciutti, three barrels of homemade pinot noir, three baskets of olives curing in salt, a big beaker of homemade grappa.
“Angelo goes with the seasons,” says Xavier. “If he has hunted a boar, there will be sausage making and there will be prosciutto making. In the spring it’s fennel, in the fall it’s wine, in the middle of November, turkey hunting. In the rain, it’s ducks. If you come on a day like today, you don’t know what you’re going to see, you don’t know what you’re going to smell, what you’re going to eat. He’s either working metal or cooking something.
“Angelo, what are you cooking today’? Xavier bellows from the fridge.
Angelo, his eyes shielded by welder’s goggles, is pulling molten metal out of the 2000-degree kiln creating the graceful curves of a bronze balcony. Lost in a 17th century moment, the idea of a late breakfast, brings him back.
“I can make you Sicilian poached eggs.”
“Angelo is the center of gravity for people from just about every class, every job, plumbers, filmmakers, artists, women from every country flock here. I’ve seen the most eclectic group of people coming through the forge for dinners and lunches. I don’t think I would drive within five miles of here without stopping by.
Angelo moves with grace and precision around his industrial kitchen, pouring balsamic vinegar into a pan of boiling water on the stove, “I had a hangover one day and I made two eggs and accidentally put some vinegar into the water. You know, like you fight fire with fire, the same thing. You put vinegar to fight the wine. Most of the great science over the centuries is by accident, the people put the two and two together.”
Xavier is starting a sauce for the doves as Angelo poaches. “The forge is like the old country,” Xavier continues. “It’s like a piece of Italy or Old Europe, frozen in time in the middle of San Francisco. It’s just a very mysterious place. It’s a metal smith forge. It has just about everything from crab nets to bow and arrows, photographs of his children, family and friends, old machinery and tools. And there’s a fig tree in the middle of it with fruit on it and a jasmine, and the center of the forge is open to the sky, with no roof.”
“This kitchen is in keeping with the Italian tradition,” interrupts Angelo. “They always have a little kitchen outside in south of Italy, an open kitchen because it’s so hot you have to be outside under the big mulberry, shade trees. So I try to recreate in this little spot here in San Francisco in a 15×12 kitchen where I do traditional Italian food.”
He twists oregano off a dry twig, filling the air with scent. “This is imported from Sicily. Every time I use some it makes me feel homesick. My grandmother used to tell me, “Angeluzzu, vai vai prendere origano…. go pick some oregano, we’ll dry it. I’ll give you some ice cream.“
Angelo scoops out four perfect poached eggs, lays them on toast, drizzles Italian olive oil on top, and sprinkles them with oregano.
“Xavier, stop talking and eat,” he demands, “while it’s hot, subito.”
“Angelo got one!” The crowd cheers.
“Angelo, can I fish with you?”
Angelo Garro is surrounded by his apostles, fisherman, just like in the bible. Most of them are under ten, the next generation of foragers swarming, around him on the slippery rocks near Stinson Beach above San Francisco.
This is their second annual April eeling expedition and Angelo is showing them the ropes, how to bait the bamboo poke pole with squid, find the monkey faced prickle backed eels that lurk out of sight in the cracks and how not get knocked down by a wave. Another dozen adults, who have already learned these lessons from Angelo, are scattered in the shallows, stabbing the crevices, in search of tonight’s feast.
Angelo started his eeling tradition on his birtday, a dozen years back. He and his friends gathered eels under the Golden Gate Bridge by day and grilled them on the beach by night. One year, someone brought along Alice Waters, the legendary founder of Chez Panisse, who has a love and appreciation for all things wild and foraged. Alice recognized a kindred spirit and she and Angelo have been friends and kitchen collaborators ever since.
“Angelo is sort of the Pied Piper of this group of people in San Francisco, gathering them together and taking them out into nature, to places we never thought to go to,” says Alice, negotiating the slimy boulders as she heads down to the tide pools with her poke pole. “We feel connected because of that. These trips, whether it’s out foraging in the hillsides for wild mushrooms or coming down here to the ocean and fishing for eels or picking grapes, harvesting olives and then curing the olives at his house, or wild boar hunting…well, I haven’t gone on a wild boar hunt. There’s always something, every season. I can’t separate spring from the fennel cakes, fall from the wild mushrooms. His seven fish dinner at Christmas time is one of our big celebrations. It’s Sicilian, but now it’s become adopted and it’s our tradition as well.”
“Whoa, that’s a beautiful hole right here.” Angelo yells exuberantly from a rock nearby. “ If I were an eel I would live there. You know, you can’t have the seven fish dinner at Christmas without eel. It’s almost like turkey for Americans on Thanksgiving.”
Peggy Knickerbocker, a cook and a food writer, wades in to her waist. Peggy was one of the first people Angelo met when he moved to San Francisco twenty years ago. She figures Angelo’s eeling and foraging is the search for much more than food. “Angelo has this theory that when people do these things communally, like when you get together to peel the skins off of the eels, or sit around sorting olives, you can figure out all your psychological problems. In Sicily, he says, there’s no need to go to the psychologists. In the preparation of food, it’s kind of a meditation, and when you work with a group of friends and talk, it is not only relaxing, but it brings you together as a family of friends.”
“Uh oh,” Angelo yells. “There’s another eel coming, I can feel it nibbling! You have to concentrate.” He laughs and nabs another one from its hidden hole. “ I’m concentrating on the eel and the spiral pasta with baked eels in a fish stock sauce with parsley bread crumbs garlic and a few spoons of tomato sauce for coloring that I will cook for everybody tonight!”
It’s November, and Angelo is driving home from Sonoma where he’s been helping some friends harvest and press their olives to make oil. The light is fading and the excruciating Italian love songs of Adriano Celetano fill the Extera as Angelo navigates the back roads. Even Angelo, Italian to the bone, can’t bear this much tragedy. “I’m going to try to find some opera,” he says changing the music, “it’s more cheerful.”
Suddenly, he hits the brakes and pulls over abruptly. “There’s a fennel. We’re going to pick some fennel so that I can flavor my olives that are curing in the forge. Plus, the car will smell good all the way to San Francisco.” In moments, he’s out of the car, wielding a pocketknife and cutting the dry branches that line the fence along side a cow pasture.
“I pick fennel all over San Francisco in empty parking lots, in driveways, below the freeways. Urban foraging. I try to go the reclusive places, off the beaten tracks, you drive around, see a beautiful spot, maybe it’s somebody’s backyard, and I knock on the door and ask ‘Can I pick your fennel?’ Fresh wild fennel, finnochio selvaggio, like in the hills in Sicily. My grandmother gathered wild fennel every spring to make polpete di finocchio, fennel patties, little fried cakes with wild fennel, breadcrumbs and parmigianno. So when I saw fennel in California I thought, wow, that’s just like in Sicily and I started to make it almost immediately.”
When he was growing up in Sicily Angelo never cooked, he ate what his mother and grandmother cooked for him. “In Sicily men, if they go in the kitchen, they are teased. They say you are a huomo in sottana, ‘a man with a skirt.’ The women–they just cast you away. ‘Get out of here. This is not your place.’ But, as an adult, after I moved away when I came home from Switzerland and Canada to visit I spent a lot of time with my mother in the kitchen as she prepared the meals. And when I was away, I would call back for recipes and cook from the memory of smell and taste trying to replicate what I left behind.”
“Today, it is January and we are here in Colusa to hunt ducks. “ Angelo proclaims. “Day” is stretching it a bit; it’s actually two hours till dawn in a cold wet duck blind in northern California’s central valley. Xavier, Angelo, and their 16-year-old hunting protégé Cody are bermed into the duck blind for the last day of the season. “After that, we put everything to rest.”
The men are proud of this blind. Cody’s dad, a welder, customized the thing. It’s a metal box, like a small dumpster, buried three quarters into a flooded rice paddy. Four stools inside sit in about 6 inches of mucky water, with spent shells and casings floating about. Twigs and branches have been made into a kind of canopy to camouflage the container from the thousands of ducks that pass overhead on their way to Mexico for the winter. Xavier has brought a thermos of the most perfect espresso, and the hunters take shots between rounds.
“We are in rice ponds, they harvested the rice a few months ago and then they flood these ponds and we put a few hundred plastic decoys in the water. You have the decoys spread around to make the ducks think there are birds on the ground feeding. You’re trying to trick them, fool them, intercept them.”
They are not alone on this forage. Angelo figures there are 2,000 hunters buried chest deep in the valley. Angelo is blowing the homemade wooden duck callers that hang around his neck. ‘ Kurkurk, kurkurk’ That’s a coot.” He is smiling now. He raises a different wooden whistle to his mouth and quacks. ‘Eh eh eh.’ That’s a mallard green head calling the female.” Angelo runs through his duck call repertoire — puddle ducks, diving ducks, pintails, widgeons, cinnamon teals. His little concert has set of a volley of shots from hunters throughout the marsh.
“It’s very nice to know birds, to know what surrounds where you live. How many people know the names of birds? So many people don’t know the plant species or the bird species.” Angelo’s reverie is interrupted by Xavier’s watch.
“Goose, goose, overhead!” The men unload about nine rounds, but the geese are long gone. “We scared them away. That poor goose. He’s got stories to tell.”
“We never shoot at the leader of the pack,” says Xavier. “Out of respect. This is the mother of those birds, the one that is knowledgeable, that can get the flock all the way to Mexico.”
Xavier turns to Angelo, the cold water sloshes under their waders, the early morning light peeks silver through the high clouds. “Angelo, why do we do what we do?”
“I think because we are a prehistoric people,” says Angelo. We haven’t shaken out the instinct of hunting like Homo sapiens, you know? It’s a very distant memory, in flavor, in smell in something you feel familiar with. I can’t quite explain myself what makes me hunt or kill an animals you know, it’s something I grew up with. I am a duck hunter, but also I am a nature lover, and I don’t see anything contradictory to love nature and love ducks, and hunt some of them and make this incredible dinner for my friends.”
As Angelo talks, scattered gunshots pepper the dawn. “ I think about death. I mean, death is part of life. To have a good heart, you have to be able to feel everything, death, crying, happiness.”
“Birds coming!! Xavier alerts the others. The men raise their guns. Several rounds later, Angelo has bagged a mallard. You can see a recipe rolling around his brain before the bird even hits the water.
“When I was a little boy in Sicily,” remembers Angelo, “there was a movie theater near my grandfather’s and I would go watch John Wayne westerns with the cowboys and Indians. I always thought, I want to go to America, and live like the Indians. And here I am. I have the passion of hunting, of foraging, the passion for opera, for my work, for the people I love. I have the passion of cooking, pickling, curing salamis, sausage, wine in the fall. This is my life. I do this with my friends. It is to my heart.”
Angelo Garro’s Wild Fennel Cakes (A Springtime Specialty)
Angelo Garro shares his grandmother Sebastiana’s recipe for wild fennel patties. You won’t find fennel, the beautiful furry green that covers coastal California in your produce section. It’s too fragile and delicate for mass harvesting, but for a few months each year you can forage for it. Angelo calls this “fenneling”. Somehow with Angelo, most all his nouns somehow become verbs. After fenneling, it’s time for mushrooming, then eeling. Come fennel season, Angelo gathers a group of friends and heads to a hillside or roadside or a freeway underpass in to for a fenneling foray. For Angelo’s many friends, the first fennel patties of the season are a beloved rite of spring.
Fennel hearts are the bright green, furry piece that is in the center of the stalk of fennel. When you’re gathering fennel, pick only the young fronds and lay them in a paper bag horizontally—all the tops should be pointing in the same direction. Keep them together in your hands as you wash them gently in a bucket of water.
Angelo almost always plays opera as he cooks, so you might consider cranking up the Puccini as you attempt this dish.
Makes approximately 20 to 30 fennel cakes
1 1/2 pounds of wild fennel fronds
1 cup high-quality hand grated Parmesan cheese such as Reggiano
1 cup coarsely ground breadcrumbs (made from day-old bread ground up in a food processor or blender)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
Make sure to wash fronds very well. Lay the stalks on the cutting board and chop finely.
Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat and parboil the fronds for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste to make sure they are tender. Drain and let the fronds dry in their in own steam—you can stir a little with a wooden spoon to help the cooling process. When the fronds are cold, place in a bowl.
In a large bowl, combine the chopped fennel with the eggs, cheese, breadcrumbs and red pepper flakes. Form into patties. Heat cast iron or non-sticking frying pan with a very little bit of olive oil cut with a very small amount of peanut oil. Fry fennel cakes on both sides until golden brown. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Drain again on a paper towel. The patties are best served warm to the friends you went fenneling with.
Sicilian Poached Eggs
Like most Italians, Angelo doesn’t usually have more than cappuccino and a little crostini (toast) in the morning, but when he does eat breakfast, he might poach his eggs Sicilian style—topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of fragrant oregano.
2 cups of water
Approximately 2 tablespoons red wine or balsamic vinegar
Two slices bread
Salt and fresh cracked pepper
Pinch fresh or dried oregano
Extra virgin olive oil
In a shallow saucepan bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of the vinegar. Using great care, break your eggs into the boiling water. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the bread. When done, remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and drain off any liquid (the yolk should be soft and the egg white should be solid.) Place the eggs over toast and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with olive oil, a dash of vinegar and season with a pinch of oregano.
Angelo’s Porcini Pasta
Angelo forages for porcini mushrooms but you can also buy porcinis in season at a farmer’s market or good food store. To clean mushrooms, carefully brush and wipe them. Don’t put them in water as they will absorb it like a sponge. When cooking this pasta dish, Angelo makes his own homemade fresh linguine, but dried pasta works as well.
8 Porcini mushrooms (1-2 per person)
Approximately 2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Italian parsley, minced
1 pound of fresh or dried linguini or fettuccini
Regianno Parmesano Cheese
Using a damp cloth or a brush, clean porcini mushrooms. Slice porcini mushrooms vertically into pieces 1/8 -inches thick.
Heat the olive oil over high heat in a cast iron pan. Add sliced mushrooms and sauté until golden brown. (Keep the pan hot) Season mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste. Add the clove of sliced garlic and sauté 2 to 3 minutes more. Set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a dash of salt and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and divide pasta among four plates. Add sautéed porcinis to your pasta and sprinkle parsley on top with an additional drizzle of olive oil. Serve with good Parmesan, but not too much.