Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. She and her husband run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita, where they are active supporters of the slow food movement. Get to know our new Italian food expert with the following Q&A, and please help welcome Marla to the Menuism community!
I lived in Colorado and had been working for a British tour company during the winter ski season. I spent summers in the Alps of Slovenia and Austria as a holiday representative and walking guide. I was so drawn to Italy for its cuisine and in such close proximity, yet was unable to be placed in Italy due to visa constraints. Fortunately, along the way, I met someone that seemed to have my dream job as a chef for an English art school in Tuscany. When she left the job, she recommended me for the position. I happily worked for them for two summer seasons and met my future husband, Fabrizio, that first summer. We decided to move up to his family home in the Alps of Piedmont, where we have been since 2003.
I was in complete awe of just about everything, the light, the food, people shuffling up and down the main street of our small walled village. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to weep for the sheer beauty of it all or sing my head off, if nobody was listening. I just wanted to greedily drink it all in, the fields of scarlet poppies next to dark silhouetted cypress trees lining the hilltops or dusty dirt roads. Everywhere I turned, there were landscapes begging to be painted, cafés to linger over cappuccino in, and food, simply presented, to be discovered. The food and wine was a revelation for its graceful simplicity whose flavor made me sit up and pay attention. The culture, the cuisine, and the sheer beauty of the Tuscan hills spoke to me daily, gently, quietly, and I leaned in and listened. I needed to savor every last possible drop.
My husband’s family ran a very successful mountain restaurant, “La Baita” for many years before retiring. There were rooms attached that had never been used for their original purpose and the 2006 Winter Olympics were going to be in our neighborhood, as we are part of Turin Province. We thought since the rooms were empty it might be a good time to see what we could do, and here we are, all these years later running our “Bella Baita B&B.”
I grew up with my mother making delicious American farm food that everyone made sure they got a sampling of when it was on the church’s potluck table. Pies were her specialty and I followed in hot pursuit, to be able to produce tender flaky pastry as soon as I was on my own. I grew up in a rural area, in a time when culinary school was not on the radar till after I had already gotten a horticulture degree. While getting that degree, I worked with a natural foods catering group and made pastries for a local coffee shop. When I lived in Colorado, I embarked on the “earn as you learn” program of cooking and waiting tables in a small café, where I learned that a high-altitude baker was in great demand. Next, I worked in a small European-style inn with a classically trained chef who handed me Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking, and I worked my way through a good portion of the pastry part. I quickly worked my way up to pastry chef during my 12 years with Copper Mt ski resort, turning out pastries and breads for the hungry masses. The company sent me on short culinary courses over the years to Johnson and Wales and the CIA Schools. I also had the benefit of working with many talented chefs over the years before becoming a chalet host for a British tour company.
Italians are passionate and knowledgeable about food. They are very discerning shoppers and diners. I am always amazed at the critical eye of shoppers at the market and the sometimes rigorous questioning of the food vendors or wait staff in pursuit of knowing what particular brand or technique the dish is undergoing before making an educated decision on their food choices. Lots of lively discussions will then ensue at the table or in the marketplace about which type of this, that, or the other is the best and all the reasons why. Food is also eaten throughout the day in mostly small portions. People like to linger and discuss food and wine at every possible chance, and there are many opportunities to share this passion with others. Food and drink unites Italians in a way that not much else can, even if each region fiercely holds to their belief that their regions specialties are the best and the defining cuisine of Italy.
“Slow Food” is an organization that was born in Piedmont Italy as a reaction to fast food and the industrialization of food. I was aware of this organization for many years in the States without realizing where it had started exactly. This group of people believed, and I think rightly so, that the traditional dishes, food, and biodiversity were being rapidly lost in the stampede to the convenience food style for our busy lives. They organized, put out a food manifesto and have been evolving ever since in promoting local foods, traditional methods of growing or producing that tries to not damage the planet and its ecosystem and supporting biodiversity. I support that 100% and have been trying to live by these principles my whole life with varying degrees of success. I think it’s important to question where your food comes from, how it was produced, and who it actually benefits. I love shopping at the market here, because when I hand my money over, I know that the money goes directly to the people who worked so hard to produce it and it didn’t travel very far to come to the market. I have always been a cook-from-scratch person, and I think it a blessing to enjoy the whole process from start to finish. It is so vital to participate in this daily act and find pleasure in the eating, preparing and ultimately sharing of food. It’s always a treat to eat someone else’s cooking that celebrates these same principles, whether it is in someone else’s home or in restaurants that cherish these principles as well. You can taste the difference.
Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita ("beautiful mountain house"), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.