“Know that on the right hand from the Indies exists an island called California
very close to a side of the Earthly Paradise”
from “The Adventures of Esplandián” by 16th Century Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo
As a kid driving with my parents down the Tuscan coast, hunting for a good seafood meal and later on, during my teen years, riding my Vespa for a spring weekend or a summer vacation at the beach, I would pass by a place with a magical, almost mystical name. The site was not what inspired me, it was just a small hamlet with a handful of buildings strewn along Via Aurelia, a highly trafficked truck route along the coast; the name on the road sign did it: La California. My world was very small then but that name conjured something indescribably large and meaningful. Little did I know then that I would spend half of my life (…and it seems like the rest of it too) in California.
The name of the village comes to life with the story of Leonetto Cipriani, who in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the middle of the gold rush, shuttled between the Mediterranean and California, and was appointed honorary Italian consul in San Francisco. When he returned to Italy, he gave the name California to what was then a village of farmers and fishermen. The sleepy burg is literally a stone throw from Bolgheri, where the world famous Super Tuscan wines, like Sassicaia, are produced.
It is not a coincidence that at 16, during summer break, I accepted a job as garde-manger (cook responsible for cutting and dressing meats) in a resort just few km south of La California. First time on my own, I had a life forming experience in the workplace and out. In that kitchen I learned how to butcher a cow hindquarter, dexterity with knives and much more. Working with a large crew (about 30 cooks) educated me in the importance of team playing and leadership. I also learned how to make a killer Cacciucco (the Tuscan version of cioppino) from an older, kitchen-tough lady who was manning the hot entrees. The freshness of the produce and the seafood of the coastal area were astounding. I remember receiving shipments of fresh tomatoes from local farmers; the fruit were still hot from being under the sun! Or having to be in the kitchen at 2am to secure the freshly caught fish and seafood, which was usually still moving, in ice. Back then, between being very eager to learn the tricks of the trade and wanting to squeeze every precious free minute on the beach, I don’t recall ever being tired.
Oh, and last thing: the section of the resort where the staff bungalows were located was called…California (don’t know why). I guess it was meant to be!