This is a true story. Not unlike other true stories I tell here. Just more true in the sense that it is more personal and needs to be told. It is about reconnecting with your true self. You see, my mother always told me growing up that I was a very special boy. She told me I was artistic, which in Italy, where this story unfolds, to be artistic, is everything. It is a country that cherishes the arts and beauty of above all else. Home of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and…another Ninja Turtle I can’t remember. Italians – have an unrivaled appreciation for the arts and artists. To be artistic – is to be touched by the divine. So if I were to finally find my life’s work, my passion, my purpose, calling on my artistic talents may be what just what I needed.
And that is how it began, with a simple quest to get back in touch with my creative side and feel some divine inspiration. And so it began, rolling through the majestic hills of Emilia Romagna in a 4-cylinder euro economy comfort car.
Nicholas: Tucker…tell me…how is your Italian?
Turner: Actually Nicholas, it is Turner. And my Italian? Not too bad. I mean, I hablo the Espanol and all. Took three years in Spanish in school. So I got no problemo with da Italiano if you know what I am sayin’o.
Nicholas [bemused look]: Bravo Tanner! And are you artistico?
Turner: It’s Turner. Yes. I am quite…autistico.
Nicholas: Yes – I can see that. Well I think I may have a job for you. It is a very special job. It is a job that only one person left in the world does. Have you heard of the Piadina Pan?
Turner: Of course. Who hasn’t heard of this piedda pand…
Nicholas: [smile] Right.
The Piadana Pan incase you have not been to Italy, or in case you were a little distracted by other Italian nuances during your last visit – off the top of my head, mouthwatering food, delicious wine, gorgeous unattainable women, flirtatious men, high fashion, opera, unparalleled design, sexy sports cars, ‘guilt free’ gelato, overly-dramatic football, classic Vespas, animated yelling, charming towns, more animated yelling – and so on and so forth. I feel you. You may have missed this special pan. However, it deserves a spot on the aforementioned Italian nuances list. The Piadina Pan is special pan that is responsible for producing the famous Italian flatbread- Piadina bread – a bread worthy of the gods. It is traditionally made of terra-cotta, yet today most restaurants use flat pans made of metal or griddles. Like artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the skill to craft such work is a lost art with only a select few still possessing the knowledge to produce such wonders, which is why if I was to rediscover my own lost artistic side, learning how to make the Piadina Pan was the perfect place to start.
As we arrived at the Villa di Monetetiffi, I could see San Marino; the small principality perched atop a hill in the distance. This villa, carved into the façade of hillside and surrounded by vineyards, was one of the last vestiges in the world still producing Piadina Pans in traditional terra-cotta form.
An Italian woman, emerged from the small workshop, and headed to my translator.
Nicholas: She wants to know if you speak Italian?
Turner: Un poco senorita.
Nicholas [smile] She wants to know if you posses any artistic skill and have used a pottery wheel before?
Turner: No worries. Tell her I am like an American Micheangelo. I am quite autistico. No problemo.
My translator and my new boss exchanged worried glances. It was strange, but Italy was still a new culture to me, perhaps they didn’t understand my Italian accent.
We began the Piadina Pan production with throwing down layer of small, gritty rock onto the pottery turntable to give the area some traction for the clay. Then, you start the pan by grabbing a big ball of clay and forming it into a big ball. You really need to slap this thing around to make sure it is nice and smooth. Basically, if you made big ice snowballs as a kid, you will innately have this skill.
Then you slap this big ball of clay onto your turntable wheel and spank it flat as you can while you use your foot to spin the table. You have to do two things at once: use your foot to turn the table and slap the clay in harmonious union. Needless to say, being a typical male, multi-tasking is a challenge for me. It probably explains how Italians make such good potters, as they can walk, smoke a cigarette, drink a cappuccino and wave their arms in conversation at the same time.
With the wheel spinning via your foot kicking the turntable around, you really need to slap the hell out of this clay to flatten it evenly. You need to occasionally soak your hands in water so that your hands, when slapping the clay, don’t stick to the pan you are making, otherwise you risk ripping the pan off of the table altogether. Or so I am told…
Before you know it, your clay starts to take form (in theory) and you need to use two hands in your pan slap down as it gets bigger. Then you need to make the clay/would be pan smooth by using a little bit of water and a delicate touch. If you are doing it right, it should be smooth, soft and flawless as a baby’s bum, if you are doing it wrong, so I am told, it will be bumpy and rough like a bum that has seen one to many fast-food establishments. You kind of feel like a DJ in a club after a while as you work the turntable, smoothing out your pan.
Then it is time to give your pan some character; you do this by pinching the edges to give it a rim and proceed with smoothing that out too. You can see, there is a lot of smoothing involved. Your pan must be treated like a woman: delicately. Hence my epic struggle.
If you are doing it right, you will hear “ba bene”, which in Italian roughly translates to, “this is okay you useless dog”. Then you use this piece of cloth to really smooth out the rim, so that it is flawless and perfected like an Italian masterpiece. The final step is to use the cloth to smooth the center of the pan out, which, surprisingly, is even more difficult to achieve with even more at stake. If done correctly, you will be a true Piadiana Pan producer with the village holding parades in your honor and the town’s minstrel making folk songs about you as Italian women throw their womanhood at you in hopes of being the lucky one to get to produce your offspring. If done incorrectly, you will lose all hope of finding love in Italy as the village elders will cast you out and likely stone you to death in the town square, and worse yet, the pan will be ruined. It is clutch time as they say in America. Not for the faint of heart, which is why I felt the need to put the clay on my face to make war paint, because I was in fact going into game mode. That is how we do in America. It was what led to the great success of the Native Americans.
Italian Boss to Nicholas: He really is autistico.
And finally once your masterpiece pan is complete, it goes into the pan drying room vault, where it rotates on different drying platforms. The moment of truth arrives two months later during the drying the process if your pan doesn’t crack or explode, which I thought was a great turn around time, as I usually have to wait 9 months before I realize a grave error in judgment has occurred.
Nicholas: She says thank you for taking the time to learn how to make the Piadina Pan. You are now a Piadina Pan maker, a very rare trade that is left in Italy.
Turner: Really? That is very sweet of her. I was a bit worried my pan didn’t quite look as…round as the others.
Nicholas: No, no yours was quite fine. She says she can use it once it dries.
Turner: Really? That is great.
Nicholas: Yes. She says she needed a new plate for her cats.
So in the end, I may not have a promising career cut out for me as a traditional Piadina Pan Producer, not unless terra-cotta cat pans become all the rage, but I did re-discover something that I had long forgot: I am truly am as autistico as my mother once foretold.
Watch out Mike, there is a new artist in town.
I want to give a special thanks to the fine blogger cartel of iAmbassador and the folks at Emilia-Romagna tourism board who put me up in #blogville and helped me to find the last great Piadina Pan makers.