The pandemic has led even the most "urban" citizens to question city life: expensive rents leading to questionable roommates in tiny spaces to save on sky-high apartment costs, a lack of accessible green spaces, excessive environmental pollution. This is the price city folk have been willing to pay, up until now, for the attractions and pull of metropolitan cities: entertainment, culture, comfort. And these are all things that the epidemic we’re living in now has seen fit to take away from us.
So, not surprisingly, today, many city dwellers are now dreaming of escaping from the city. Among those who remain, the importance of the “outside” seems to have become a primary feature of interest. Houses with terraces, and even just balconies have surged in property values, so a desire to be outdoors is in full swing.
ESCAPE FROM THE CITY
What for many remains an escapist dream instead became a thoughtful reality for Carol Choi and Francesco Scarrone, a couple in both work and home life. In the summer of 2019, together, they opened the Rantan Farmhouse in Trausella, a town nestled in the mountains of Val Chiusella, technically in the province of Turin, but giving the impression instead of being far from the hectic city.
Carol and Francesco met while both were working in the kitchen of the celebrated Danish restaurant, Relæ, under the tutelage of notable chef Christian Puglisi. Their time in Copenhagen and their experience working in the highest echelons of the culinary world led to their eventual desire to open a business overturning many of the classic patterns and habits of traditional restaurants.
TRADING CITY LIFE FOR COUNTRY LIFE
Rantan’s dining space accommodate a single, communal table 14 place settings. The table enjoys the place of honor, adjacent to the establishment’s glorious open kitchen. This kitchen, like so many of our own homes, is the heart of the structure, providing both the “restaurant," and the home kitchen of this beautiful farmhouse where Carol and Francesco live. They’ve renovated the building’s interiors in a mix of Italian mountain aesthetics, stone, wood, fireplaces, with Nordic sensibilities, the minimalist and warm interiors we associate with Danish hygge.
Carol and Francesco cook and serve a unique inclusive menu at the table suitable for everyone to eat together. If you’re vegetarian, there is menu flexibility with suitable advance notice. A reopening is now planned from January onwards, fingers crossed and health situation permitting, when service is expected to resume with three services a week. Sunday lunch will be open to outside guests, and Friday and Saturday dinner instead will be reserved for overnight guests.
Our hosts are also happy to extend their hospitality of the farmhouses’ two rooms, decorated and styled in charming Franciscan simplicity, and by making this atypical choice, the chefs have identified a way to make cooking and serving guests more sustainable on a human level. Unbeknownst to those outside of the chef world, the often brutal number of working hours and the enormous expenditure of physical and mental energies do take their toll, and alas, are internal human resources that are not infinite.
A MICRO-SEASONAL RUSTIC MENU
At Rantan's, we discovered that the local menu Carol and Francesco create weekly is simply the expression of their work in the farmhouse’s fields. What’s grown is what is cooked, and what’s grown is dictated by the season and availability of raw materials. This approach is unusual even in the world of the most “agriculturally-minded” great restaurants, which tend to work following the logic of the luxury market and their clientele. What doesn’t come directly from the farmhouse’s own green gardens and orchards comes instead from local producers sharing the same values as Carol and Francesco.
Seasonality becomes an asset and not an obstacle, for instance, colder weather doesn’t always mean limited resources and ungenerous lands. Instead, these months can present themselves as the perfect time to rework produce harvested during the summer, and present these elements to the table in a different form: preserved in oil or vinegar, with sugar or salt. These ingredients are intriguingly altered by the elixir of fermentation, which transforms flavors and textures and gives life to whole new flavor sensations.
UNIVERSAL KITCHEN WITH FARM-TO-TABLE CUISINE
Lunch kicks off with an almost ceremonial serving of bread. This has become one of the chef’s symbols of their entire dining program: a whole loaf, served warm and wrapped up as a newborn baby would be. The bread dish is then followed by about ten small courses, including samples and dishes guests can share together. The food doesn’t follow a specific geographical identity: Carol and Francesco present their guests with what they like to eat themselves, straightforward dishes without over-manipulation or alterations of the ingredients, all to keep the original flavors alive in their presentations.
The menu varies weekly, and with just over a year’s worth of work, they’ve already got a selection of guest-favorites: Roasted Summer Cabbage with Toasted Rye Bread, Thyme, and Lemon; Beet Schnitzel with Fennel Mayonnaise; Potatoes Confit-style with Preserved Trout Roe; Korean Ssäm (i.e. roasted pork belly) with Amaranth Leaves, Green Sauce, and Pickled Bear Garlic. The entire menu is priced at the equivalent cost of a single appetizer in the large restaurant where Carol and Francesco met: €38.
While if it’s unlikely that many in the restaurant industry will follow such a radical example, the bravery and courage of experimenting with the concept of cooking without borders, in a truly independent and democratic fashion could certainly serve as a shining example for future generations of chefs coming of age in the unpredictable future ahead.