ST. HELENA — The meal was a celebration of the Napa Valley’s modern-day culinary and wine culture – and also the celebration of a long-ago civilization that made much of it possible.
From the smoked eggs and olives adorning the salad, to the risotto cooked from farro, to the sour figs seasoning the pork loin, the ingredients served Sunday afternoon at V. Sattui Winery provided a window into the past for about 40 guests – with a scholar of ancient Italian history pointing their way.
“We have the Etruscans to thank for today’s banquet,” declared Tom Davies, president of the St. Helena winery.
“The Life and Afterlife of Etruscan Banquets” was a history lesson in five courses, with Lisa Pieraccini as their guide. From salad to main course to dessert – and then with a presentation of Etruscan artifacts from the eighth to the fourth centuries BCE – Pieraccini, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Del Chiaro Center for Ancient Italian Studies, described the food and folkways that inspired the Romans and left their mark on modern wine and food culture.
“We know a lot about the Etruscan diet based on archaeological evidence,” she said of the funerary paintings, murals, drinking cups, bowls and other finds that have survived more than 2,500 years around the cities they built in Italy, many in the area still known as Tuscany.
According to Pieraccini, the evidence of the Etruscan civilization is drawn from their imagery rather than their writings, of which few passages other than funeral inscriptions have survived.
Renowned as ambitious, prosperous traders, the Etruscans settled numerous cities in the Italian peninsula and left behind artifacts that bear witness to a love of cookery and feasting, she told her audience.
Paintings bear witness to elaborate meals, often as the centerpiece of funeral rites for the wealthy and prominent. Excavated vats point to the large-scale crushing of grapes, and surviving amphorae (tall clay vessels) hint at long voyages by ships exporting Etruscan wine to foreign ports. Even the presence in paintings of men and women dining side by side – and toasting one another – captures the degree of social equality that scandalized Greeks and other peoples that kept the sexes mostly separate in public life.
The mix of cuisine with culture was an especially enticing combination for one couple that had planned their Napa Valley trip around the feast.
“We left the house at 4 a.m. today – drove up from Westlake Village (west of Los Angeles) especially for this,” said William Schweitzer, who dined at Sattui with his wife Karen. “It was for the food and wine, and the history – we’re both history buffs.”
“I loved that they were able to implement ancient ingredients in a meal of today,” added Karen Schweitzer about the meal, which also served as a publicity event for the Italian studies center where Pieraccini teaches.
While images of food and wine may not speak to modern-day people as directly as books could, Pieraccini described such evidence as perhaps the most durable symbols of their character.
“The Italians have a saying, ‘The food and wines of a people are the only exact evidence of a civilization,’” she said.