When the Game of the Goose gets serious

WORDS BY ROBERTA CORRADIN | PHOTOS BY LAURA MAJOLINO

Arfanta
Veneto

Augusta and Roberto Tessari started their goose farm and farmstay in 1985. In 2010 they passed the baton to their eldest daughter, 38 year old Manuela, who keeps the family traditions going with a modern flair.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon and even today, a day which for many is a day of rest, Manuela cooked a full menu based on meat and goose eggs for 70 people. “When people tell me how well they’ve eaten, it is so satisfying” she says, and finally she sits as a smile spreads across her youthful face, framed by dark hair, peppered with the occasional silver strand.

In the beginning however, it wasn’t this straightforward.

In 1985, Roberto and Augusta moved to Arfanta in the hills of Conegliano in Treviso when the young Manuela was just seven. Her father Robert, a former teacher at the College of Agriculture has a contagious way of recounting the significance of the humble goose across time and cultures; from the Egyptian hieroglyphs representing the goose, to the recipes found by Apicius in Ancient Rome, the diffusion of geese breeding throughout Europe thanks to Carlo Magno and its significance in Jewish gastronomy – the goose was at one time ‘the pig of the poor’.

Mondragon farm was founded with the intention of recovering the disappearing art of breeding geese and the ancient art of making ‘oca in onto’; a conserve which was traditionally prepared during winter and preserved for months in carboys to be consumed during the hot summer months when working in the fields was arduous.

From the start, Augusta and Roberto decided to raise their geese on only natural feed, and not stuff them processed fodder as many other breeders do. For their oca in onto, the goose meat is cut into pieces and confited in its own fat along with bay leaves, juniper, onion, thyme, marjoram, fennel, oregano, basil and white wine, infusing layers of tantalizing aromas and flavours. It is preserved in glass jars and is the perfect starter that transports the eater to the open fields where the geese spend their days.

September 24th 2010 – the day that chaos ensued. Augusta was hospitalized and remained in intensive care after a heart scare. Over the course of a few hours, Manuela found herself catapulted into the kitchen. Call it pure coincidence or by a strange premonition, but a few days prior Manuela had asked her mother to give her the recipe for oca in onto, which, along with other preserves has over time become one of the family’s signature dishes along with their goose ragu, smoked goose breast, sweet and sour goose and liver paté – which Manuela stresses is not foie gras because “our flock of 2000 geese live serenely on a natural diet.”

The exchange of the entire corpus of recipes from mother to daughter took place in front of the ICU. Manuela remembers one Friday afternoon in the kitchen and carrying her young son Tobia on her back who was crying because he didn’t know if his mother could pull it off…and neither did she.

Manuela has friends who are also chefs but jokingly, in her own words, they are “true cooks, not like me”. Over the years, she has also been a guest on various television shows, which along with the support from her friends, “has helped me a lot”.

Like a boomerang, Augusta returned to watch over the kitchen. The baton had been passed from the older generation to the younger, but she is still the reigning queen in this castle. “ Even today at 71 years old, she is still here constantly giving advice, criticism and suggestions,” laughs Manuela, who is married to a Scotsman, who speaks Italian with a Venetian accent, and together they have two children Margherita and Tobia who are eight and five years old respectively.

“I do not know if history will repeat itself, or even if my children will choose to stay here when they grow up; I try to share the passion that I have for my job with them without emphasising some of the difficulties we have ” she says. But in the end as with Manuela, only time will tell.