In 2006 I was teaching at a private school, enrolled and planning to attend law school part-time in the evenings after work. We were recently married and living in Wilmington, DE at the time. Before the farmhouse. Before kids. My deposit had been submitted, my first payment was due any day, and classes were set to begin in a month. But after a two-week apprenticeship at Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, Vermont, I dropped out of law school and our life took a very different path.
We first learned of Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin of Pane a year or so before through their book, Pane e Salute (recently reprinted as In Late Winter We Ate Pears) — part cookbook, part memoir of time in Italy when they discovered their true calling. We found it by chance in Borders. We felt great kinship with the authors and were eager to travel to their restaurant. We hit it off and set up plans for an apprenticeship.
Woodstock is a special place. Full of tourists, to be sure, but also full of charm and great beauty. It is one of the most picturesque and elegant places I know. During the apprenticeship, every afternoon and again every night around midnight I had the privilege of walking the mile or so from my lodgings to the restaurant, which is in the heart of town, though tucked away on the second floor out of sight from the main street. It was a magical walk in many ways, particularly after work in the deep silence of midnight.
The restaurant was also magic. It was then and still is now the most Italian of restaurants I know of, not only in its preparation of food, but also in its intimate space. Seating around 20 guests, the space is full of charm and comfort. The menu is organized in the Italian style in courses. Caleb does nearly all the cooking himself, and as with all good cooking, his personality shines through.
It was from Caleb that I first learned how to roll cracker-thin pizza crusts, as one finds in Tuscany and Rome. From Caleb I learned to season without fear. From Caleb I learned just how minimalistic great cooking can be. Slices of zucchini deeply browned and seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The great Roman classic cacio e pepe, spaghetti tossed with pecorino and black pepper. Prosciutto sliced fresh and accompanied by local mozzarella di bufala.
Between the cooking at the restaurant and time in the agricultural countryside around Woodstock, I was reconnected to the way of life I really wanted but had put on the back burner in recent years. I knew then it would be a harder life, but the one we really wanted and were drawn to, as one is drawn to a lover. Six months later, we were expecting our son Peter and had just purchased the farmhouse. Walking through in the harsh mid-winter what is now our green dining room but was then a room full of potential with a hole in the ceiling, we thought that it could be a bed and breakfast… or a restaurant. Exactly a year after that, we served guests at our first dinner in the same room, which would not have come to pass if not for Pane e Salute.