At Montinore, Maialata Celebrates Food and Life
For centuries, the people of rural Northern Italy have taken advantage of the darkest time of year by processing pigs into charcuterie, and sausage, ribs, and roasts that would keep over the harsh winter. This community task ended with a feast celebrating family, hard work, and one of the world’s most beloved and versatile delicacies: the pig.
For six years now Montinore Estate has recreated this tradition as owner Rudy Marchesi and Nostrana owner and chef Cathy Whims partner up for an event that includes a live butchery demonstration, sausage stuffing class and other workshops, great wine, and a feast in Montinore’s underground wine cellar.
Maialata 2018 will be held Sunday, March 4, beginning at noon. If all this sounds like your kind of day, get tickets here.
We spoke to Rudy Marchesi about his Italian heritage, biodynamic principles, homegrown food, and how this intriguing event came into being.
How did all this start?
My dad was born in Italy and all my relatives were first-generation Italian Americans, so I grew up in a culture of Italian food, and our family is from Lombardy where there’s a great deal of DOC [certain traditional Italian foods are given an origin designation, just like wine] cured meats, salamis and so forth. I grew up eating that stuff, and about 30 years ago I met a guy who knew how to make prosciutto, so I started doing it myself. It just evolved into this thing where we would have our own Maialata, not knowing it was a tradition in Italy—we just called it Pig Day. My friends would get together and we would get a bunch of pork, sometimes a whole pig, and make all this stuff. We weren’t that good at it at first, but we got better.
When I moved to Oregon I doubled down and started having bigger Pig Day celebrations with my friends. I got talking to Cathy [Whims, of Nostrano] one day, saying, you know, you might enjoy coming out and spending the day with us; it’s really a lot of fun. Then she went to Italy and someone had said to her, “They’re having their Maialata,” about this town in Friuli. They explained it to her, and it was basically what I had been doing for years. It’s the first Sunday after the first new moon in January and people would all get together and slaughter their pigs and the whole town would make all their products for the year. One of my dad’s uncles was what’s called a norcino—a specialist in making cured meats—and he would go from town to town to each Maialata and helped them out. Cathy and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to have an Oregon version for people out here? We could do butchering demos and Cathy could have pasta-making stations and we would invite other chefs from Portland who were interested in cured meats, and everyone would bring their homemade product and share it with people that wanted to come.
This is our sixth year now and it’s gotten to be a sold-out event; it’s really a lot of fun. Cathy knows a famous butcher from Tuscany, Dario Cecchini, and Dario agreed to come last year so we flew him out and he did the butchering demo. He’s a real character and a showman and lovable guy, and he’ll be back this year. We end the day with demonstrations and the people who come participate in making sausages and pastas, and then the chefs that are there and all the kitchen people cook it all up and we go down into the wine cellar and have a big meal as the culmination.
How does Maialata fit into your biodynamic philosophy?[Laughs] You got four hours? To me it’s just so logical. I look at winemaking as a process that starts in the vineyard and the quality of the wine is directly related to the quality of life in your soil. That’s what biodynamics is all about: bringing life into soil and enhancing and revitalizing and enlivening the life in your soil, which in turn makes your vines that much healthier and happier and that extends to your fruit and then your wines. It’s all related.
From a practical point of view it’s kind of odd that people think it’s expensive and esoteric. It’s actually very practical, and once you get your vineyards to the level of health where you can do it, the farming becomes easier and less expensive. Since we started this 15 years or so ago, our farming costs really came down and we have much lower costs per acre than conventionally farmed vineyards. For example, we would normally do 12 sprays a year, but our vines are so healthy and resistant that last year using only organic we only needed 8 sprays. That adds up. It’s kind of a holistic approach to making wine—you’re looking at it from the entire life system.
Like using the whole pig?
It’s kind of like using the whole pig but making sure the pig ate really well. If you want your kid to do well and finish college, you don’t feed them Coke and twinkies, you feed them a balanced diet. The food our plants eat is in the soil; why would we poison it with herbicides just to kill some mildew? It weakens them and limits their availability to micronutrients that really change the character of the wine. It’s beyond what our scientific instruments can measure, but at some point I’m sure we’ll be able to do some measurements on it.
What do you hope guests take away from this event?
The root word in Maialata is maiale, which is pork. It’s a celebration of the pig. I think one of the things I hope people walk away with is an appreciation of pork. It’s not just pork chops or ham, there are so many wonderful food products we can make out of a pig. We start illustrating some of that in the things that we do over the course of the day.
And then also in a demonstrative way I think we help people develop a greater passion for beautiful handmade food. My wife and I grow our own food and make our own wine; our menu is always changing depending on what’s still alive out in the garden and what cured meat is ready and perfect right now. We start digging through the pantry and what we put aside from last year in the garden, or the root vegetables. You get creative and of course with every bite you take you knew this food when it was just a seed in your hand before it started growing. There’s a sense of gratitude, a sense of satisfaction, and self reliance—it’s a good way to live. If people can get a sense of that I think that’s a gift that we can give to them.
By Julia Burke
Julia Burke is a wine lover originally from Buffalo, New York, who moved to Oregon in August 2017 to work a harvest and decided to stay. She is the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s marketing and content coordinator and a fan of Riesling, peanut butter, and the Chicago Cubs.
Featured photo by Cheryl Juetten.