Rico: Adventures of a Truffle Dog

1 The Nose

by Laura Martin Bacon

Writer’s Note: To celebrate the Dog Days of Summer, here’s one of my all-time favorite canine interviews, originally published in the Wild River Review.

There’s something about the forest that brings out the adventurer in every dog – and when you add truffles to the scene, the ultimate companion for woodland discoveries is my canine pal, Rico.

Like many of the world’s great truffle dogs, Rico is a Lagotto Romagnolo – a rare Italian breed that originated with the ancient Etruscans. Rico was born into a distinguished family of truffle hunters in the Sicilian village of Mazara del Vallo, arriving in America as a puppy with a keen nose for exploration.

Like many Sicilians, Rico has a charming talent for storytelling. He agreed to grant this exclusive interview if he could recount the truffle tales in his own words – read on for our question and answer session!

Lagotto Romagnolo Baroque Painting by Guercino

Lagotto Romagnolo Baroque Painting by Guercino

How did you first learn to hunt truffles, Rico?

When I was a tiny puppy in Sicily, the only toy I had was a tartufo (that’s Italian for ‘truffle’) sewn into a cloth bag called a borsa. Mario, my first tartufaio (truffle hunter), started my training by throwing the borsa for me to retrieve – and giving me a treat when I brought it back to him.

When that got really easy, Mario started hiding the borsa so I’d have to search for it with my nose. Next, I learned the secret of being a champion truffle dog: you have to really dig truffles – literally. Now, when I wanted a treat, I had to sniff out the borsa wherever Mario had buried it. He didn’t make it easy, but it turns out I’ve got a great nose and tireless paws.

These days, I’m a truffle hunting pro who travels all over the world – if there’s a truffle (or even truffle spores) anywhere around, you can count on me to bring you the treasure!

Puppyhood Truffle Hunting in Sicily

Puppyhood Truffle Hunting in Sicily

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Craig Ramini & Audrey Hitchcock: For the Love of Moms & Mozzarella

Ramini - Craig & His Water Buffalo Buddy

by Laura Martin Bacon

Writer’s Note: Two years ago I wrote a joyful story about Ramini Mozzarella, a Northern California farm founded on love and dreams. It was the story of Craig Ramini, his wife Audrey Hitchcock—and their endearing family of water buffalo, who were helping their human guardians produce some of the first authentic mozzarella di bufala in the U.S.

Today, the story and labor of love continues, but without its patriarch. In 2014, Craig was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma—and less than a year later, the cancer took his life. These days, Audrey is a “single mom” of a growing family of water buffalo—and the valiant matriarch of the farm and artisan cheesemaking venture.

It hasn’t been easy. But the seasons of farm life and its edible legacies go on. As Audrey says, “Ramini Mozzarella is our baby: Craig and I raised it together and our family will live on.”  Below is the story of then and now—and a dream that endures forever.

Audrey with the Water Buffalo Calves

THEN: May, 2014

At Ramini Mozzarella in Northern California’s pastoral Marin County, every day is Mother’s Day.

“This is a very female-oriented society here on the farm,” Craig Ramini tells me. “Everything comes down to the mothers and their babies.”

Mom & Daughter Dinner Time

Any mom will tell you that the secret ingredient in her signature dish is love—and water buffalo moms are no exception.

These majestic females are the proud producers of the decadently rich, creamy milk that’s the foundation for one of the world’s most legendary cheeses: authentic mozzarella di bufala.

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Dorothy Trepal: Bumps in the Soup – A Slovenian Legacy

Dorothy Trepal's Slovenian Soup with Bumps

by Laura Martin Bacon

My Aunt Dorothy would have been the first to tell you that she wasn’t a cook. It’s what she told me when I asked her to describe the Slovenian recipes I remember her preparing when I was growing up.

But that can’t be right. I know this because, in a long-ago kitchen inside my mind, I can see myself sitting at a speckled Formica table spooning up a fragrant elixir so powerful it could transform even the bleakest day into something good and true.

“What about soup?” I ask my aunt one late-winter morning, when snowdrifts are piled like icy mountains against the windows of her Ohio living room.

“Oh, well, soup,” she says, settling back in her recliner. “That’s not cooking. Everybody makes soup.”

I start to protest, “But they don’t. Almost nobody bothers with homemade soup anymore. Usually, it comes out of a can. Or if they really want to go gourmet, they buy it ready-made from Whole Foods.”

Aunt Dorothy doesn’t reply – she’s fallen fast asleep, a normal occurrence for her these days. Her old body, stricken with a raging infection, is failing fast. I’ve traveled from my home in California to the state where I was born, paying her what the doctors say will likely be a last visit.

My optimism is as incurable as Aunt Dorothy’s illness. My plan is to help her get well by learning to cook her favorite recipes and bringing them to her apartment at the assisted-living facility. Continue reading

Vince Rafello’s S.F. Cioppino: A Vintage Taste of Fisherman’s Wharf

Rafello Fish Market - Main Photo

by Laura Martin Bacon

If anyone knows the historic secrets of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s my friend Vince Rafello. This coastside cook combines a briny Sicilian-Portuguese pedigree with a fishing heritage that dates back nearly three centuries.

“We’re seafaring folks,” he tells me. “I’m pretty sure we’ve all got saltwater running through our veins.”

On a cool, windy coastal afternoon, I sit by the fire with Vince and his wife Ruth as he shares fond memories of a dockside childhood. I’m fascinated by his stories of happy years spent helping out at the family’s fish market – one of the first on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Rafello’s Fish Market was founded in 1915 by Vince’s grandfather, a local fisherman who ran the business with the help of his wife and two sons. Continue reading

Alf Bexfield: Harvesting a Century of Memories

01-Alf in Fields & at Home

by Laura Martin Bacon

There are few legacies as powerful and enduring as the one Alf Bexfield left to his family – and everyone with a passion for farming, innovation and growth. For over a century, he sowed and harvested the seeds of change, leaving our world a far better place when he passed on at the age of 101.

In celebration of what would have been his 102nd birthday, it’s a pleasure and privilege to add Alf’s story (originally published in the November 2012 Issue of the Wild River Review) to our Edible Legacies archives:

“It is unlikely that any generation in history has seen the changes that my generation has. I can vividly remember my dad, James Scarlet Bexfield, driving oxen – and here we are today with everything computerized and able to put a man on the moon. What a change in one man’s lifetime!”

At nearly 100 years old, Alf Bexfield is a vigorous man with a farmer’s strong hands, a twinkle in his blue eyes and a raconteur’s lilt in his voice. It’s not surprising that he seems to love music as much as farming – and that the down-home twang of Alf’s banjo has accompanied a long lifetime of adventures.

When you listen to Alf tell his stories, you realize how long a century truly is. Over ten of the most vibrant decades in North America’s history, Alf has witnessed the extraordinary journey from homesteads, covered wagons and living-off-the-land to a tech-savvy society charged by the superpowers of computers, cell phones and corporate-owned mega-farms.

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Chuck Williams at 99: Celebrating the Pleasures of Cooking

Chuck Watercolor - Framed

by Laura Martin Bacon

Writer’s Update – October, 2015: In celebration of Chuck’s 100th birthday, I had the privilege of writing a four-part story of my culinary mentor’s long and intriguing life, beginning back in 1915. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find it here.

Whenever I visit with my friend Chuck, I feel as though time has stopped—or as though I’ve entered a magical time-out-of-time. Of course, the colors of the San Francisco sky and bay outside the window are always changing, as are the jewel hues of the ever-dapper Chuck’s beloved cashmere sweaters.

But regardless of the weather or sweater, there’s a twinkle in Chuck’s eye and an energetic curiosity in his posture as he leans forward to ask a question or clarify a point. And there are decades of memories hidden on bookshelves or nestled comfortably in antique armchairs, just waiting to take shape in one of Chuck’s stories.

Sitting with Chuck as we sip tea and indulge in chewy molasses cookies or buttery chocolate shortbread, it seems as though there is all the time in the world. Nothing about Chuck is rushed—his soft southern voice is as warm and careful and orderly as the culinary landscapes he has created.

Over the years, Chuck has patiently – often passionately – answered my questions by reaching back into the memories of a long and delicious life. Chuck’s culinary vision has made history—and his own plain-spoken words tell it best.

Chuck at Age 12 -ZeBlog Continue reading

Chef Justice Stewart: A Neighborhood Chef Cooks Up Dreams

Chef Justice on the NY Waterfront

by Laura Martin Bacon

Justice Stewart is a real neighborhood guy. On weekdays, he works at his construction job in Brooklyn. On weekends (and during every other minute of free time), he’s a creative cook, avid fisherman, fanatical food blogger – and executive producer of an online TV show called Neighborhood Chefs.

“Basically, I’m an everyday guy with a passion for cooking,” Justice tells me. “Let’s face it, we all love food. Humans are the only species on earth that prepares and serves food in a ton of different ways. Food is like art and music – it’s a universal language that lets us all share and express ourselves in a uniquely meaningful way.”

Justice says that he wasn’t always out there advocating for great food. “After my dad died, I was a young kid without a guiding hand to help steer me in the right direction. I wound up making a few bad choices that resulted in some not-so-good results, including a couple of scrapes with the law. Yet, even during those difficult times, I found that food and the love of cooking were a part of me.”

As a kid, Justice spent a lot of time watching his mom, aunt and grandmother cook – and those memories stayed with him. “I took a job in the construction industry and willed myself off the streets. I started cooking gourmet meals at home – and realized how happy it made me.” Continue reading

Chef Jack’s Secret Ingredient: Love

Jack Shaping-Meatballs

by Laura Martin Bacon

“Food has more love when it’s homemade – it just tastes better. For me, my mom’s cooking is comfort food that’s almost like medicine. All those weeks in the hospital, it helped me heal and feel better.”

My buddy Jack Witherspoon is barely twelve years old – but he knows a lot about secret ingredients for recipes and life. And he says love is the most important of all.

Jack was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two, went through years of hospital stays and chemotherapy – then relapsed when he was six. His mom, Lisa, recalls: “When Jack relapsed, I was devastated. It meant the chances were down to 50% that he’d survive. They weren’t guaranteeing us anything.”

But in a world with no guarantees, Jack and his mom found something they could always count on.

During one of Jack’s hospital sojourns, he discovered the magic of cooking. “I was channel surfing and found the Food Network. I was totally intrigued!” Jack says. “I asked my mom to write down ingredients so we could make the recipes together when I went home. Cooking was something super-fun that even having leukemia couldn’t stop me from doing.”

Jacks Family Photos

Lisa remembers when her six-year-old son announced that he had a new life goal. “Jack looked so little sitting there in the back seat of the car. He didn’t have any hair, but he had a big smile on his face when he told me ‘Mom, I want to be a chef when I grow up’.

“I told Jack that now when we cooked together, he would be in training for his new profession,” Lisa tells me. “It’s funny: I’d never paid much attention to cooking before – I was always so busy. But when your child tells you something like that, everything changes.

“Cooking together gave us a focus that kept everyone’s energy going. Instead of concentrating on all the negative things, we found a positive energy that’s helped get us through some of the hardest times.”

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