“Our target was not exclusively food: we wanted to bring back the tango, the umbrella, and to celebrate a leisurely daily pace.”
– Folco Portinari, architect of the Slow Food Manifesto on the beginnings of the Slow Food ideology.
Times are changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of travel, as global economics have considerably slowed the tide of tourism witnessed in the boom decades of the late-eighties/early 90’s and earlier part of the 21st century.
The wanderlust of the time was fueled by a sense of adventure reinforced by the belief it’s one’s inalienable right to experience all the various delights the world has to offer. Some were looking to reinvent themselves through travel, innately knowing the course they’ve been on is no longer desirable, or even healthy. Some were looking for an outsider perspective by immersing themselves in alien cultures, and some used it as a badge of courage, or a means to have an amusing anecdote at the ready to impress with at cocktail parties and the like.
Whatever the reason, travel was (and is) a major part of life, and always will be, for the journey is part of the human experience, and, is in fact hard-wired into our DNA. In addition, our sense of adventure is also inextricably intertwined with a romantic element, leading our imagination to compose our identity and ego through travel, giving us a sense of purpose.
Corresponding with the economic slowdown, was a less pronounced switch in the collective unconscious which made us acutely aware of a need to slow things down. Political unrest, widespread corruption, and a clear picture of man-made effects on the planet’s ecology were the impetus for said change, and consequentially produced an emphasis on quality over quantity.
At the forefront of this qualitative shift was a group of Northern Italian Socialists including Carlo Petrini, co-founder of the international Slow Food movement, who, since the mid-to-late 80’s had been working with Catholic-based community festivals (which always had a food element attached) and grappling with the concepts of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the inventor of modern gastronomy who said real gourmets “eat slowly and savor thoughtfully.”
According to Petrini in his co-authored Slow Food Revolution, sometime in the late 80’s, his group had begun unraveling the thread of thought that would manifest in the Slow Food Manifesto of 1989 and its subsequent global organization, saying, “What our group was beginning to understand was a new balance between conviviality per se and a system of cultural values.”
Their search led not only to the creation of the Slow Food movement, but to affiliated programs like Slow Cities, the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the Ark of Taste (a compendium of endangered food products) and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.
At the core of the Slow Food philosophy is the belief that the culture and production of food are directly affected by politics and legislation. Correspondingly, the programming looks to go beyond production and the enjoyment of food to include exposing and dealing with policies which affect the long-term sustainability of the planet and our human right to a slower pace and deeper appreciation of life.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Growing up in New York, Richard Spera was a hard-working Italian-American kid that diligently did his time in Italian restaurants as a dishwasher and busboy, learning the business and developing a strict work ethic that would take him from his humble roots, to Cornell’s prestigious Hotel & Restaurant Management Program.
“Cornell was great for getting me in the door of the industry, but I’d have to say it was my training assisting the old-school waiters that’s more defined my work ethic,” Spera tells me as we walked the grounds of his Casa Gallina one recent hazy fall morning.
After Cornell, he went to work in Manhattan for a high-end restaurateur, becoming his indispensible right-hand man and learning big business on the fly.
While the work was invigorating and fulfilling financially, Spera felt a disparity between the handcrafted worlds of his youth in the highly nuanced world of tableside service: a world of rustic gentility where timing, detail and mood are everything, versus the fast-paced, trendy world of international business and finance, where such things as a “personal touch,” don’t exist.
Inside one of his impeccably designed studios, under the lush green wall of leaves of a well- kept house plant, Spera is enthusiastically telling me about some of his favorite spots to send guests for a hike, when he suddenly jolts out of his chair, grabs a cloth off a nearby table and proceeds to wipe a small smudge he’d seen on the mirror hanging behind me, without missing a beat.
After a decade or so in Manhattan, Spera felt a need to immerse himself in a completely different culture and went what’s called paseando in Hispano New Mexican, walkabout in Australian, i.e., a journey of regeneration with no particular destination.
“It’s a totally authentic place,” Spera surmises from one of his cottages 70’s -inspired Scandinavian chairs as the mid-morning sun is beginning to show white behind him in the south-facing window.
“I pride myself on attention to detail, on craftsmanship, anticipating people’s needs, the culture of not only met, but exceeded expectations…and from an artistic perspective, Taos is like no other place in that regard,” he concludes, pausing to look out the window before adding, “and Winter really is the best time to see it.”
I’d have to say I agree with him. The vistas are grand here at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, particularly in the golden hours of winter days, when the snow reflects every nuanced shade in the setting or rising sun, and the frost turns the azure sky impossibly blue. All is silent, quiet in the still echo of freshly fallen snow, it’s the perfect time to, as Spera says, “Slow down and read a book, take a nap, light a fire, and smell the incense of the piñon.”
He intimately knows how the day unfolds at Casa Gallina: where the light falls at certain hours, what the weather will be like, what will be good to eat, what’s going on in his gardens…there’s manicured kindling neatly arranged in Zen-like rows patiently resting in the buckets of cottages, light filled nooks with hammocks and copious pillows…the place is homage to the slow lifestyle, offering plenty of places to slouch into.
That fact is not accidental; Spera has taken a lifetime mastering the art of prepared relaxation. He is innately attuned to people’s needs, knows his environment inside-out, and has hand-picked the best of local culture to decorate the respective cottages in rich fabrics, unique woodcarvings, brilliant paintings and sumptuous textiles.
The ancient mountain of Taos and its pueblo anchor the deep, slow rhythms of this place, effortlessly exuding a sense of holiness and austerity, and from Casa Gallina’s unique perspective out on the broad plain of Ranchos de Taos, close to the gorge of the Rio Pueblo on an historic parcel with an acequia bisecting it, one can’t help but get a sense of what’s oftentimes referred to as a “mystical” quality.
Past and present co-exist in Taos in much the same way it’s various inhabitants do: by rubbing up against one another but never truly fusing, making for rather distinct cultural differences; pueblo guy in front of you in line at the supermarket with a skirt over his jeans and heels chopped off his shoes next to the Hispano mother of four loading up on groceries and the jet-setting blonde in après ski wear.
The question people who’ve never been to New Mexico ask most frequently when they find out they’ll be travelling here is, “Do I need a passport?”
It’s a valid question. Taos, in many ways is a foreign country, a Casablanca – like refuge where many have come to watch the larger dramas in the world unfold from a safe perspective. It’s not perfect, but perfectly imperfect.
Life is innately slow here, although what takes time is beautiful when it comes to fruition. Taos produces art and produce in this way, and when it’s time to enjoy, you can be assured you won’t be hurried through the process.
Like the Italian towns where Petrini and his kind cut their teeth, Taos is an ancient place acutely aware of its cultures and traditions. However, like the Old Italian towns, Taos finds itself at the crossroads between stasis and growth.
The Italians have this to say about that particular conundrum:
“The only way to protect and defend slow regions is to slow down growth and enhance quality-oriented development. The concept of a slow life can be applied not only to a region but also to many aspects of our society – indeed the use of the term “slow” has grown exponentially, as if “slow” could be used as a broadly applicable concept to identify styles of life in which quality plays a substantial role.”
At Casa Gallina in Taos, Spera has tapped into that energy, bringing his critical eye and impeccable taste to bear. A background in bodywork has instilled a pronounced sense of empathy in him, which allows him to anticipate moods and needs: the bedrock of true hospitality.
After listening to him tell his story in his tastefully done living room, hearing how he came into each painting hanging on the walls of the cottages and his relationship with each artist, it suddenly occurred to me that Richard Spera is the most brilliant concierge in the town of Taos.
I tell him so and make him blush. But I can also see that he takes great pride in that fact. And so he should. He’s personally created a haven for those who innately feel the need to slow down and be enchanted in a natural way. His brand of elegant-folk can be seen as a new standard for a different sort of travel, a slow-crafted approach that is intentional and sustainable.
He invites guests to settle into the cottages and cook for themselves by supplying fresh eggs, coffee and produce, among other locally sourced fare, as Casa Gallina isn’t a Bed and Breakfast, but more of a sanctuary where one can center themselves and tune into the inner-voice that’s always there.
Also like the Italians, he’s brought “back the tango,” literally, Spera’s a dedicated dancer who boldly told me, “It’s my religion…or the closest I’ve got to it,” and he regularly offers classes in the large studio on property and hosts milongas. The haunting echo of the bandoneon is the perfect soundtrack for the rustic elegance of Casa Gallina, a place that like the tango is both simple and complex, elegant and familiar. If you want to embark upon a journey of…let’s say “self-dicovery,” there can be no better place than Richard Spera’s slice of shangri-la up here in one of the last truly original outposts of America.