This article originally appeared on Slow Travel Tours here.
There’s a baby in the house. It’s my new-born olive oil course this autumn, on which you’ll find out how to get the maximum enjoyment from olive oil.
Do you have any idea how exciting it is to visit an olive mill to see and smell the new olive oil pouring out?
And what about the flavour? If you haven’t been in Tuscany in the autumn, you will have a hard time imagining how intense and delicious it is. Then there’s the food for your eyes: those old silver-haired beings rooted on terraces retained by dry-stone walling.
Who will have fun learning about olive oil? Many educators focus on a particular group of people: chefs, gourmets, home cooks, dieticians, olive cultivators, olive oil vendors. They reason that each group wants to know different things, that their curiosity is confined to their own particular box.
I have a different methodology and more faith in the innate curiosity of people. I always design my courses for the person I was when I first arrived in Lucca. When it comes to olive oil, I knew nothing except that some dishes should be cooked with it. I used a supermarket brand of extra-virgin olive oil, not the cheapest and not the most expensive. I didn’t know what I wanted to know. I didn’t even know what questions to ask.
In my fifteen years in Tuscany, a whole universe of olive oil has opened up before me and yet there’s always more to discover. Just this week I visited Pietro Barachini, a propagator of olive trees. I saw the forest of tiny cuttings which would be ready for sale only after two years. Then it takes ten years or more for the tree to be in full production. Producing olive oil is not instant gratification!
What about tasting the oil? What is that medium-priced supermarket extra-virgin olive oil missing (is it even really extra virgin)? What defects can you taste in it? Every day you have guided tastings.
You won’t become an oil judge overnight, but you’ll discover a brand new palette of flavours from the fruity tomato-leaf scented Sicilian oils to our spicy, bitter Tuscan oils. Your mind will be racing with ideas for using different oils with different ingredients. Your lessons making gelato and chocolate with olive oil will stimulate your creativity.
We also want you to know about the health-giving aspects of olive oil. They make a significant contribution to the Mediterranean diet and are another good reason to consume high quality oil.
You’ll also get answers to your practical questions, like how to find good olive oil in your own country, what the writing on the label means and how to store the oil to slow down its deterioration until next year’s new oil is available.
If you want to learn in five thrilling days what it has taken me fifteen years to find out, come on the Olive Oil: Tree to Table course this autumn. It’s taught by Elisabetta Sebastio, a professional olive oil taster and judge, sitting on panels that decide which oils will get the highly sought-after DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) each year, along with several other experts who want to pass on their knowledge at whatever level you’re at from beginner to experienced professional.
By the end you could be jumping up and down with excitement at having the tools and confidence to make your own choice of which olive oil to buy and how to use it in your home or your restaurant’s kitchen. If you sell olive oil, you’ll be able more intelligently to advise your customers. If you’re a producer, you’ll have the opportunity to talk with experts. The culture of olive oil will be in your blood.
If you have an open mind and an insatiable curiosity, ask for a booking form now: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to read more about olive oil, here are some of my other blogs: Olive Juice, No Olive Oil, Olive Oil is Fast Food
This blog post is part 2 of my recent travels around Italy. You can read the first part 'Food & Wine in Napoli & Pompei' here. But for now, let's start with the second half of my tour...
I take the train from Pompei to Salerno and change for the regional train heading south. Maria Sarnataro picks me up at the station at Vallo di Lucania. We arrive at her home just in time for dinner.
She has a surprise for me, a manteca.
It’s butter encased in caciocavallo cheese and it has a story. The people of Basilicata who take their Podolica breed of cattle to alpine pastures for the summer make caciocavallo which they mature until they descend to the valleys in autumn where they sell it. They make ricotta from the whey, but there’s too much for them to consume fresh. It can’t be kept for more than a few days and there's nowhere to sell it. So, by an ingenious and complex process of draining, heating and cooling, they extract the butterfat from the ricotta.
To conserve the butter without refrigeration they encase it in a thin layer of caciocavallo curd. Piero, Maria’s husband, is an agronomist. Part payment for his consultancy with these people was this manteca.
There are so many mozzarella dairies in Salerno Province that you could spend several weeks visiting all of them. There are two that I’ve heard excellent reports of and haven’t managed to visit: Barlotti and Vannulo. Vannulo is organic, only sells from their own shop at the dairy and often comes at the top on lists of the 10 best mozzarellas. Maria has booked lunch there. On the way we stop at Barlotti where she introduces me to brothers Enzo and Gaetano Barlotti.
We eagerly accept Enzo’s invitation to bring the participants on our mozzarella courses for a tasting. You taste so much bad mozzarella everywhere else that we need to educate our palates while here.
He presents us with samples of his bocconcini, ricotta and a new brie-style cheese, all made with the milk of their own buffalo herd. The mozzarella and ricotta are among the best I’ve tasted. The ‘brie’ is a little bitter and needs some work, but it’s exciting that they’re experimenting with new cheeses.
Many of the mozzarella dairies offer tastings in beautiful settings and some have a dining room where you can sit down to a multi-course lunch. Vannulo has perfected the tourist experience, which as you probably know by now, puts me right off. Maria is a friend of the owners, but they don’t welcome us when we arrive, and are nowhere to be seen. Maria tells me that it used to be different, but now it’s all hired staff, who display not an ounce (not even a gram) of passion for their products. Our vegetable salad from their organic garden is good, the mozzarella not outstanding. They’ve installed a leather workshop which sells their own handbags, etc, but they take no interest in us visitors. The museum of agricultural implements is marginally interesting, but I’ve been to better ones. If you come on the mozzarella course, you won’t be visiting Vannulo on our tasting afternoon.
Francesca Fiasco’s vineyard at Felitto couldn’t be further from a tourist experience. The only sign on the road is Francesca herself waiting to show Maria and me her vineyards and cantina (cellar). She exudes passion and authenticity and does virtually all the work herself right down to designing the labels.
She cultivates autochthonous varieties such as fiano, aglianico and piedirosso (the one I saw at Pompei) as well as varieties such as sangiovese and merlot, which arrived in the area so long ago that they are included in the DOC.
She produced her first wine in 2016 and is already being recognised by wine critics. She gave me a case of wine with a handwritten label. Sadly, I couldn’t carry it back to Lucca on the train. I know Maria will make good use of it. She not only teaches cheese courses, but also sommelier courses.
Just so you know my trip isn’t all hard work eating and drinking, this morning Maria takes me to her favourite secluded beach, fairly free of tourists (especially in these times of Covid-19).
You have to go a long way to find gelato as good as Mirko Tognetti's of the Cremeria Opera at Lucca. Here I am at Sapri in southern Campania enjoying Enzo Crivella’s latest creation which he’s describing animatedly.
They sound an unlikely combination, but it works. Try it! You have to make a perfectly balanced bread gelato. Maybe best to come on Mirko’s and my gelato course first! 😃
That marks the end of my tour. I'd love to welcome you onto one of our tours or courses soon. Take a look at our website to find out dates and details and get in touch with me to book your spot. I look forward to seeing you!
By Alison Goldberger
In February we took off from our base in Tuscany to head to Emilia (the northwestern part of Emilia-Romagna). This region of Italy is particularly famous for not one, but two delicious types of salumi— Prosciutto di Parma and Mortadella di Bologna! This is why a group of eager students joined us to learn how to make these incredible products for themselves on our Advanced Salumi Course Bologna-Parma.
During our induction we dove right into WHY we learn here and discussed artisanal production vs la Grande Industria. We met passionate farmers Giorgio & Claudia Bonacini at their farm, Il Grifo, near Reggio-Emilia. They are the definition of artisanal production. As we toured the farm where they rear Mora Romagnola pigs we heard about how they keep the whole production cycle at home and how they farm their 65 hectares biodynamically. They showed us the Modena cut, how they make salami, mortadella and the method for salting whole pieces. We also had the chance to inject a coscia (leg) with flavoured brine to make prosciutto cotto, but we didn’t have time to cook it. We think it would have tasted absolutely wonderful though!
As soon as you ask Giorgio a question, he grabs a pen and sheet of paper and starts illustrating what he's talking about. We sometimes joke that we'll mount an art exhibition of his drawings! One of the parts of the course the students found really interesting was sitting around a table with him and learning how fermentation works. Giorgio loves the science behind curing and fermenting and this passion really rubbed off on our students!
We also visited the Brianti family where Aldo and his son Luca rear free-range Nero di Parma pigs and Piemontese cattle on their organic farm. The guys gave us a run-down on a range of salumi typical of Parma—with a break to enjoy Sunday lunch with the family!
Here’s a special piece of salumi by the Brianti’s, Fiocco di Santa Lucia. The photo on the front is Luca’s youngest daughter Marika. The fiocco is usually made from one of the leg muscles, but the Brianti’s have started curing one of the shoulder muscles, which they are also calling fiocco. It means ‘ribbon’, so a muscle that is longer than it is wide!
Classic prosciutto di Parma was taught by Maurizio Cavalli. He and his family cure and age the Brianti’s prosciutto. In addition to prosciutto, they also produce coppa, culatello, culaccio and fiocchetto.
It’s not all about salumi on the course though. We love to give our guests a real taste of the particular parts of Italy we visit. So we also paid a visit to Acetaia del Cristo where we learned all about the production of aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena DOP. Yes, it requires all those words to distinguish the true balsamic vinegar, which takes 12 years to be ready to bottle, from the aceto balsamico IGP, which takes only three months. We tasted it too of course—and discovered for ourselves the huge differences between the two!
Phew! If this has whetted your interest, take a look at our website for more information. And sign up to our newsletter to be the first to know the dates for 2021!
By Alison Goldberger
Every month there’s something happening at Sapori & Saperi – lots of interesting people visit and we take lots of photos of our tours and courses. We thought it was about time we shared some with you on a regular basis. Here’s our January round up, giving you an extra insight into the tours and courses with Italian artisans you could attend with us, as well as some snippets of life in Italy!
As the new year rang in Erica feasted on a New Year’s Eve meal, typical for the region she lives in. She ate cotechino with lentils. As they’re round, they symbolise money and will make you rich. We’re still waiting! Maybe next year. The good news is that you can learn how to make cotechino during the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany!
During the first course of the year we welcomed the talented Sorravee ‘Gin’ Pratanavanich — find her on instagram. As a qualified pastry chef from the Culinary Arts Academy in Switzerland, she wanted to learn how to make delicious natural gelato — so naturally Sapori & Saperi and our artisan Mirko were there to help her.
Gin learned the true science of gelato too – and that’s not easy! How to balance the fat, sugar, milk solids and water to make sure the product not only tastes incredible but has the perfect texture too.
Friday on the Art & Science of Gelato course is always ‘crazy flavours day’, and Gin really went for it with her recipes. She created the incredible ‘Coffee B’ gelato made from coffee, caramelised walnuts and Baileys! She also took some inspiration from the Thai street food ‘garlic and pepper chicken’ and used soya, black pepper and crispy garlic in her gelato. A brave experiment. She learned it’s valuable to let your imagination run wild — whether you create something delicious, or you learn what doesn’t quite work!
We had an unusual first day on the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany as Mirko joined in to learn how to make salami and sausage with our artisan norcino Massimo Bacci. Will Massimo learn how to make gelato next?
We had a great group taking part in the course – here you can see them intensely watching artisan norcino Ismaele Turri as he prepares Tuscan prosciutto. Check out our student, former chef to the Ambassador at the British Embassy Prague and now head of charcuterie at Amaso, Vojtech Kalasek, who posted lots of great images on instagram throughout the whole course.
During our tours and courses we like to slip in some surprise extra visits. This time we visited Pastificio Martelli which makes pasta in the Renaissance hilltop town of Lari, where our prosciutto specialist Simone Ceccotti has his butcher shop. We left wondering how many machines you can use and still be artisan. We decided that one important thing is that it's natural: only Italian durum wheat and water and dried very slowly for 50 hours. And just as important, that it tastes good and the slightly rough surface holds the sauce.
January also brought us a wonderful guest blog post from Lin Hobley, a weaver-artist and past participant on the Tastes & Textiles Woad & Wool tour. We published a review of the year, and Erica gave a run down of our different hotels and accommodation on Slow Travel Tours.
If you’d like to join us, check out our website. Can’t wait to see you!
Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.
He lives on a farm at the end of a dirt road that runs along the top of a ridge. At the point where the tarmac runs out, there’s a vineyard. Bumping slowly along the rutted road you pass a house, then nothing for 10 minutes. As the nose of the ridge begins to dip toward the valley, you spy a ramshackle house with solar panels on the roof. If you come in July, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a farm machine museum until you see Enea putting his heritage wheat through the vintage thresher.
Enea and his wife Valeria are nearly self-sufficient. They have a herd of goats, two cows, a few chickens, a couple of horses, a vegetable garden, an olive grove and fields of cereals and hay. They’re hoping for another cow.
During the spring and summer Enea milks the goats every morning, makes cheese with their milk and then, with the help of his working dogs, takes them out to graze. The dogs are tri-lingual. I don’t think the goats are. On days when we’re there and he doesn’t go out with them in the morning, their complaints are perfectly comprehensible nonetheless.
On Wednesdays he makes sourdough bread. His bread shed contains a wood-fired oven and a tiny mill where he grinds enough of his heritage wheat for the week’s batch of bread. On Wednesday evenings he goes to town to deliver his produce to a group of friends who buy collectively
They’re self-sufficient for art and music too. Valeria paints and Enea plays the guitar. The solar panels and batteries keep them in touch with the outside world via their cell phones, computer and internet connection.
One of the guests in the last group I took there asked Enea why he chose to make cheese. He told us this story:
‘When I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed helping a friend pick his olives. Then I rented an apartment from a cheesemaker with goats. He was French and made French-style soft goat cheese. I watched him and began to help him. I saw he was always smiling, and I decided that was the life I wanted.’
Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Click here for all the details.
This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.
You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.
On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/project/raggiolo/).
We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.
We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.
Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.
The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.
Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.
Casetta di Bùite
I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.
They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.
Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.
As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).
With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.
I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.
I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.
Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.
Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.
Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.
A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.
Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.
You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.
As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.
You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: https://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/theory--practice-of-italian-cheese.html
Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. It’s afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen (and us) on the leeward side of the island.
On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.
We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard…
Read more about our idyllic day at sea at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/gone-fishin/
Join us next April for more adventures on our Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/
Did you know that olive oil is the only common cooking oil that is the juice of a fruit? All the other oils we use in our kitchen come from seeds: sunflower, rapeseed (canola), peanut and grapeseed. This realisation leads directly to another question. Would you cut an orange, leave it on the counter for a week and then squeeze and drink the juice? Would you step on an apple, leave it on the table for three days and then eat it? Yet that’s what happens to many olives before they’re pressed to extract olive juice.
I’ve tasted and written a lot about olive oil, but this idea had completely escaped me until I met Elisabetta Sebastio last year. She’s a professional olive oil taster both for Italian Chambers of Commerce and international olive oil competitions. We ran our first full-day olive oil class during my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November. It was a revelation for all of us.
Learn more on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/olive-juice/
What happened to Janet after indulging in artisan food in Tuscany? Here’s the unexpected answer in my latest post on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
Shortly after she returned home to California I received a WhatsApp message from her which began:
“You have ruined me!!!”
I was worried, but not for long. Read the rest of my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
Guest blog by Susan Stover, artist and educator
On the eve of the Tastes & Textiles tour, I’m posting Susan Stover’s insights about the power of travel to invigorate one’s creativity. (All photos by Susan Stover.)
Travel can greatly impact an artist’s work. It can influence, be a catalyst for change, or further catapult the journey already started. In the absence of familiar surroundings, it can magnify what captures the eye and the emotions. All is new, exciting, and exhilarating.
Both making art and traveling have opened up new experiences and challenged me in unique ways. There is so much to be inspired by—the atmosphere in the landscape, hues and textures of a traditional market, shrines and temples, and environments of living and creating. I recently returned from my second trip to Indonesia in the last 15 months. As the experiences and inspirations linger in my subconscious, they continue to influence my artwork. My love of textiles was rekindled as a result of these travels. Fabrics abundantly adorn shrines and temples, are used as offerings, typify ceremonial dress, and are displayed as consumer goods. I am inspired not only by the beauty of the fabrics, but also how they function in a society where art, life, and spirituality are all connected. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bali. Concepts of duality, animism, and the desire for harmony between the natural and supernatural worlds are the foundation of Balinese beliefs. My fascination with the connection of art and spirit lies in the mystery, the unanswered questions, the quest for balance and purpose, the desire for connectedness with others and with the sacred, however they choose to define it. Textiles embody these concerns, which are more evident in cultures other than my own.
When traveling, I am conscious of how closely tradition and technology are related. Weaving and dyeing cloth are technologies that have existed for millennia. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the western world is more removed from these technologies, as most cloth is made in factories. Our direct relationship to the production of fabric and items for survival does not exist. In countries like Indonesia, these traditions are part of cultural identity and there is a sense of pride in the hand making of them. Some of the places in Java and Bali that I visited still produce cloth exactly as it has been done for hundreds of years. The tools and settings of these shops look like they have not changed over the ages, and it was like stepping back in time. It was always surprising to see cell phones in these environments—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. This is what I am after in my own work—taking something from one arena, bridging the gaps of time and place, and situating it in a new venue.
There is an inherent beauty to the handmade, purposed item that looks old and worn. Often I think of history, what or who came before me, what was left behind, and how we are joined to others by the same activities that keep our hands busy. The rhythmic beating of a loom and the repetitive movements of stitching and stamping can be meditative and calming. There is a satisfaction to this type of labor. Textiles imply an association with human touch and human interaction and I am curious how the maker’s role functions individually and collectively in a community. What interests me is the information that textiles contain, as patterns and techniques encode knowledge from ancestors and tell us much about a culture’s cosmology and development. Perhaps it is my own desire for connection to the larger world that drives me to seek out authentic artisans working in methods that have been handed down from one generation to another.
Throughout the years, my work has incorporated the combination of textiles and painting. I have worked in many ways using dye, paint, thread, fabric, and fiber. Prior to traveling to Indonesia, I had been using surface design techniques on silk and embedding them into encaustic to develop my own visual language of unique mark-making and patterning. A shift happened in the work as a result of traveling—the fabric itself became the subject matter and a springboard for new content. I wanted to make work that looked like old cloths that were worn in a way that would suggest some sort of use or purpose. They could be fragments or relics and could incorporate techniques typically found in ritual textiles and costumes.
Recently, I have been combining surface design techniques (such as discharge, silk painting, and indigo dyeing) on silk with encaustic on panel. There is marvelous allure of adding color to cloth and a magical alchemy of dyeing with indigo. When layering the silk into encaustic, the wax is beautifully absorbed by the silk. The silk then becomes semi-transparent, revealing rich subtleties of colored wax underneath. Murky layers of wax on top of the silk can add depth, mystery, and freeze the fabric in the moment. Working with encaustic in many ways is like working with fiber. There is a tactile quality to the wax that makes one want to touch it. The translucent layers of wax are similar to working with layers of dye. Wax can reflect and absorb light like various fibers. There are the textural and sculptural capabilities of wax as there are with fibers.
When I started thinking of my “paintings” as “objects,” it stimulated ideas of working sculpturally and freed me from thinking within the confines of the panel. It opened up the possibilities of working with other fibers, materials, and techniques. Incorporating these materials and working in this way, my intention is to create artwork that evokes a sense of transcendent mystery and purpose. The goal is to imbue the work with a vulnerability and vitality that reflects the presence of the maker. Each piece is a personal meditation on what connects the past and present, the beauty of imperfection and age. The challenge is how to make the things that inspire me and at the same time place them in a contemporary context. How do I celebrate these inspirations, use these traditions, and express it in a way that is relative to my own culture?
As I travel and seek inspiration, I am aware of how tourism and commercialism affect these places. Traditional weaving patterns can be found printed cheaply on cotton fabric. ”Fake” batiks are abundant. Natural dyes and materials are often replaced by cheaper synthetic ones. Symbolic meanings are in danger of being lost as techniques and knowledge may not be handed down to future generations. I believe that it is important to recognize the value and conservation of traditions and cultures with awareness and mindfulness of our impact on them. Threads of Life and the Bebali Foundation in Ubud, Bali, seek to preserve and restore indigenous textile cultures in Indonesia. They work with women’s weaving cooperatives to help manage their resources sustainably and relieve poverty in remote areas. The Bebali Foundation does botanical research of natural dyes and mordants. I spent a wonderful afternoon in the Bebali Natural Dye Garden dyeing with the indigo that is grown there. The garden beds are filled with different varieties of indigo and plants for other colors and mordants.
My consciousness and respect has grown for the beauty existing in other parts of the world as a result of my travels. I am grateful for the rich heritages that endure and am optimistic of how they might evolve. I am looking forward to future art inspiring journeys in Italy, India and a return to Java with others who share a similar interest in appreciating the artistry of cultural traditions.
Susan Stover teaches and shows her work nationally and internationally and maintains a full time studio practice in Graton, CA: www.susanstover.com.
This article first appeared in the Surface Design Journal Winter 2015/2016 “Wax & Fiber” issue, Volume 39, Number 4. The Journal is available in single print issues for purchase at: www.surfacedesign.org/marketplace .
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