Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber went to Tuscany to start a dance company, but they ended up with the seeds for a successful osteria in Vermont, too. The husband-and-wife team explain how (and where!) to find your own passion for food.
IgoUgo: You’ve said that the inspiration for your Woodstock, Vermont, restaurant—Osteria Pane e Salute—was living in a Tuscan village for a year after the two of you married. How transformative was that year as far as your relationships with food and wine?
Deirdre Heekin: We went to Italy initially to start a dance company. We did that. We also taught dance classes and English, and worked in a friend’s piano bar. In the midst of all this, we had a life-altering experience. We were guests in many homes, shown generosity and kindness; we were made to feel welcome. Much of that hospitality took place in the kitchen and at the table. While we had always enjoyed good food and wine, and Caleb already knew he loved to cook, we were neophytes that first year in Italy. But we began to understand that something else was happening when we sat at the table to converse and share a meal, or stood next to a friend in her kitchen helping to stir a sauce, or learned to make pizza. These seemingly quotidian daily rituals that engaged all our senses affected us deeply, so that when we returned stateside we knew we wanted to recapture those experiences and honor the people who had given and taught us so much.
IgoUgo: As a chef and a wine expert, how important is pairing the right wine with the right dish to both of you? What is your favorite bottle of wine?
Deirdre Heekin: Wine is an integral part of the meal. Pairing can be key to enhancing both the experience of the wine and the food. They play off each other like a conversation, or the telling of a story, picking up notes of scent and taste and translating them into memories and new experiences. But pairing shouldn’t limit how you approach the food or the wine. There are great guidelines for matching wines and food, but like all good rules, they can be broken—the important thing is to find ways in which the flavors of the wine and food complement each other. When we are creating a wine-tasting dinner for our Enoteca series at the restaurant, we always begin with the wine. Our first resource is to look at the food that is grown and cooked in the area. Regional cuisines and types of wines have grown up together for centuries, and there is a lot of wisdom in how regional food and wine marry each other. Terroir in food is just as important as terroir in wine, and we try to match that spirit with our local ingredients while at the same time leaving plenty of room for experimentation.
A favorite wine? Impossible! In Italian wine alone there are about 2,000 varietals with roughly 300 now in production, more and more being resurrected each year. There are too many stunning examples!
IgoUgo: From time to time on your fuoricitta blog, you write “wish you were here” posts from favorite places around the world. Where do you wish you were right now?
Deirdre Heekin: Caleb says he wishes he was in a little boat floating on an English river in the warm, spring sunshine with a picnic of cheese; ham; and good, crusty bread. I wish I was also in the warm, spring sun at the guinguette à deux sous, a rustic, open-air café with a dance floor on the Seine, eating a meal that begins with an aperitif and a plate of cured meats, then an omelet, then roast rabbit—a place and dinner featured in the Georges Simenon novel I am reading right now called The Bar on the Seine with Inspector Maigret.
IgoUgo: Also on the blog, you vividly capture the scene at New Orleans’ Café du Monde, calling it a “culinary temple.” What other spots do you consider culinary temples?
Deirdre Heekin: This is a difficult question because we know there are so many temples out there we haven’t even been to yet! But, off the top our heads, some existing, some no longer: Andre Soltner’s old restaurant in New York, Lutece; the old Auberge of the Flowering Hearth in Chartreuse, France; Osteria del Tempo Perzo (The Osteria of Lost Time) in Ostuni, Italy; the old Les Halles in Paris (the old food market); the Food Market in Vienna; Mercato Centrale in Florence; Osteria San Cesario in San Cesario, Italy.
IgoUgo: How much does place influence your enjoyment of a dish?
Deirdre Heekin: Enjoying a dish in its native place is a luxurious experience and provides a deeper understanding of the dish—this is why we go back to Italy every year to collect recipes and experience the food in its locale. If you’ve had the opportunity to taste something in its indigenous setting, then you can recall that experience when you cook it and taste it at home, and it provides particular nuances that engage your memory and senses. But there is also something incredibly romantic about reading a recipe, or reading about a dish in a book, or seeing it in a film, then trying to recreate that dish in your own kitchen and imagining you are in that place when you sit down to the table. Armchair dining!
IgoUgo: How did you end up writing your book Pane e Salute: Food and Love in Italy and Vermont? Did you always know you wanted to publish a cookbook based on recipes from the restaurant?
Deirdre Heekin: I had always hoped to be a writer. I studied for an MFA in Creative Writing and had thought I might be a novelist. Shortly after we had opened Pane e Salute, when it was a bakery as well, a friend who was a book editor stopped by for a cornetto (the Italian croissant) and cappuccino. He asked me if Caleb and I had ever thought of doing a food book, collecting recipes and memories from the restaurant and from our time in Italy. Since our daily lives were surrounded by food and our life at the restaurant, it seemed like a natural progression. We are hopeful to do more!
IgoUgo: When the restaurant opened, how receptive was the Woodstock community to your take on Italian cooking? Was it an easy transition to take these sorts of dishes from the Italian countryside to New England?
Deirdre Heekin: When we first opened, we were a bakery only. This is a much lower-threshold kind of business than trying to open a fully formed restaurant in a new community. We had moved to Woodstock to open, so we didn’t have the benefit of being familiar with people in town. But good bread is good bread, and that was what first drew people in. Along with good coffee and espresso. Italian food and lifestyle had already become very popular due to books like Under the Tuscan Sun, and a lot of people in Woodstock had lived in cities, or traveled to Italy, so panini, Italian soups, and salads were an easy sell. The pastries we did that related to well-known French pastries had no problem either. It was the more unusual and regional kinds of dishes we were drawn to that took more time to catch on. Our first fall, we made a sweet flatbread typical in Florence during the autumn. The bread is made with local wild black grapes, anise seed, olive oil, rosemary, and sugar. We gave it away just to get people to try it. And now, even though we no longer have the bakery, people still call to see if we will make it come September. It was just a matter of getting people to taste these things and give them a try.
Since we started as a bakery and slowly morphed into a restaurant, there was time to develop a relationship of trust with our patrons. We have always had a pretty game clientele. We can serve things like roasted octopus, or sweet and sour eel, or tripe in green sauce, and diners go for it.
Photo courtesy of Deirdre Heekin. She explains: “It's a frittata with agretti
(a local green that has no English translation, but is a little like
wild asparagus), sausage-stuffed cabbage, and fresh tomato cooked in
our house kitchen in Sutri, Italy.”