Italian visitors to the Hudson Valley
By Paul M. Bray
Last year a delegation from the Hudson Valley visited the Province of Ferrara and the Po Delta in Italy. Bill Benson from the Palmer House Cafe in Rensselaerville and folks from the Culinary Institute of American (CIA), the state’s agriculture and environmental conservation departments, Scenic Hudson and Cornell University made up the delegation.
They went to see how Ferrara fostered a regional identity based on local foods, natural environment and heritage. Carol Hawran who purchases food products for the CIA from local farmers pined to have the “hearts and minds, as well as stomachs” of Americans be “as entrenched in the delights of food and their culture” as she observed in Italy.
In March the Ferrara delegation returned the visit the Hudson Valley where the Greenway seeks to fashion a regional identity from the Battery in Waterford, Saratoga County to Battery Park in Manhattan based on the natural environment, heritage, and local food.
Greenway Director Carmella Mantella, her staff and steering committee on which I participated organized a five-day visit showing off some of the finest culinary, artistic and heritage features in the Valley. Carmella has a Greenway vision of “partnerships” and it took many partners to pitch in to return the Italians first class hospitality.
The visitors went to farms like the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Westchester County (an organic farm, restaurant and educational facility) and Sprout Creek Farm in Dutchess County, the Rovendell and Whitecliff vineyards in Ulster county, fine restaurants like the CIA’s Catarina Di Medici, Cosimos in Poughkeepsie and Depuy Canal House in High Falls, heritage sites like West Point and Washington’s Headquarters, art sites like Storm King Art Center and the Dia in Beacon and the field station for the Hudson River Estuarine Reserve.
What makes these Italian-New York exchanges successful is the high quality of the people from Italy and New York who get involved. Poughkeepsie Mayor Nancy Cozean, former TV newswoman in the Albany area, hosted the welcoming dinner at Cosimos and was inspirational in talking about the colonial heritage of her city, her educational partners in city revival like Vassar and Marist colleges and efforts to help local farmers sell to local schools and in urban neighborhoods.
Carlo Alberto Roncarati, President of the Ferrara Chamber of Commerce, was equally inspirational when he spoke at a Roundtable toward the end of the visit. He called their river, the Po, the great mother and spoke of their love of the land. Carlo’s idea of “progress” is joining economy and environment to have healthy food, good environment and a high quality of life.
The Ferrara agriculture minister, Davide Nardini, talked about the importance of respecting the environment and biodiversity. Italians realize the connection between being able to produce high quality food products and environmental quality. In Nardini’s words, “When we eat, we eat with our brain and our culture, not just our stomachs”.
The organizer, Paolo Regina, connects the farms, restaurants and park and heritage attractions in the Province through a route of wine and flavors. Paolo’s pride glowed as he talked about Ferrara as the first modern European city in the 1500s where ancient traditions are preserved. Every Ferrara dish has a special meaning like the Ferrara bread (the star shaped coppia) and chocolate Christmas pudding (pampepato). Paolo sees Ferrara as part of a larger Po Delta Regional Park that is habitat for fish, animals and 300 species of birds.
Gloria Minarelli from the Delta Institute at Ferrara University described promoting good practices in sustainable development. They assist farmers to become multi-functional with accommodations for farm holidays, educational programs for school children and product development. Collaboration with Hudson estuary scientists about sharing research efforts for sturgeon and eels in our respective rivers is in the works.
The Italians are facing the same forces of globalization of food. They found colleagues here to make common cause in preserving and enjoying our respective regional assets.
If high tech is the lyrics of the song for the Valley’s economic future, the Italians and the Greenway reveal how local food, environment and heritage make the music.