If you love travelling, food culture must be the centrepiece of a holiday in Italy. Plates piled high with handmade pasta, generous pours of Chianti wine with your aperitivo, a gelato to cool you down on a hot summer’s evening. But perhaps what makes food culture most unique in Italy, is not just the joy to be found in eating Italian food, but the joy in serving food as well.
My friends and I found this joy when we spent an evening volunteering at the Social Tables Ghirlandina in Modena, during a foodie pilgrimage from Sydney/London to Osteria Francescana. In setting up Food for Soul, Massimo and Lara have used their restaurant expertise to create a transformative dining experience that tackles the issue of food waste and poverty. Every Monday chefs and volunteers serve people in need a three course meal, in a beautiful and relaxed dining room decorated by local artists.
Our day begins with a visit to the Albinelli market, where local vendors have set aside boxes of surplus produce to share with the Food for Soul team. After our market scavenging, we push a fully packed shopping trolley across the pretty backdrop of the Duomo Di Modena to unload in the Social Table kitchens. Later, over a giant wheel of pecorino cheese we witness the chefs unloading the trolley and brainstorming a menu. The two chefs serving tonight decide on: an ‘insalata di riso’ (rice and vegetable salad, with apple), handmade pizzas and a fruit mousse. Camilla and Arturo from Food for Soul tell us that the organisation has partnered with a local Chef’s Association to coordinate a regular lineup of chefs each week. Whilst the chefs initially found cooking with a mystery box of ingredients difficult (“what do you mean we have to cook without onions!”) they enjoy the challenge, and many come on a regular basis. This is visit number 4 for one of the chefs cooking tonight.
As the dining room fills, we can hear the gentle rise of people’s voices and the sound of seats scraping against the floors – a signal that we’re ready to begin service. We work quickly with a regular team of local volunteers to promptly serve each course, making sure that guests feel welcomed and cared for. At a guest’s request, we even serve Parmigiano cheese with the rice salad in spite of the volunteers expressing their utmost disapproval of this pairing. We figure out that this may be as sacrilegious as asking for tomato sauce on a roast dinner! Seeing guests chatting and laughing together over their food, you can feel the room warm with appreciation. Often men, alone, attend the Social Tables for a well cooked meal, but most importantly they visit week after week for the friendly interaction with other guests and volunteers.
At the conclusion of the dinner, the chefs emerge to a round of applause. Some guests stay after the meal to chat to volunteers, a few who can speak English ask curiously about where we’re from, and regulars vibrantly express their thanks to the team (some even with big bear hugs!). We eventually sit down with leftovers and a glass of prosecco with the chefs and volunteers, sharing our own anecdotes about food and adventures all the way from Sydney and London. As we chat over dinner, we’re reminded that a love of good food is the same no matter who you are or where you are in the world – and that’s an experience worth travelling for.