Living, Loving, Learning
A Little Personal History
Rome: the Tevere looking to Ponte Vittorio and St. Peter’s dome
I fell in love with Italy, like so many of my compatriots, the first time I came here, so long ago I’m embarrassed even to tell you when it was. Suffice to say, I was captivated—the landscape, the food, the people, the art, the boys—so much so that I returned the following year to confirm my rapture. And then waited a dozen years before landing once again on these shores and quite impulsively buying a house.
Not actually a house, it was a tumble-down stone cottage with not much of a roof on ten hectares (that’s about 25 acres) of steep, heavily forested land in the remote hills of eastern Tuscany. That was half a century ago and I’ve been coming back regularly ever since, including several stints of living in Italy more or less permanently.
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And I never ever fail to learn something new, many somethings, every single time I come back. Sometimes it’s a new kitchen technique, sometimes a new (old) food or wine, sometimes a piece of history about which I was formerly clueless. With that last in mind, I’m reading Emilio Lussu’s A Soldier on the Southern Front, about the Sardinian writer’s experiences on the Austrian front in World War I, where my late neighbor Agostino also fought and came home with the meme: “uomini di ferro, ufficiali di paglia”—men of iron, officers of straw. It was, he said, what the Austrians said of the Italian forces. (And no, I do not know why Lusso’s title in English refers to the “southern front” since the battles were fought on Italy’s northeastern frontier.) This is a time and a struggle that fascinates me, not least because with World War I, social historians tell us, young Italian men were called upon to defend the mysterious assemblage of states called Italy for the first time since the decline of ancient Rome. It points out what never fails to amaze me, that Italy, as a united country, is actually almost a century younger than the United States of America.
As for old/new foods unknown to me, there were grains like farro, an heirloom wheat (most often, but not always, Triticum dicoccum) with antecedents beyond ancient Rome that was still grown in Tuscany and Umbria when I arrived on the scene, or cicerchia (Lathyrus sativus), a legume with even more remote ancestry, a cultivated form of wild chickling vetch.
Fresh porcini, little pigs (Boletus edulis), Cortona
But more than any other food, I think of the wild mushrooms that are such a cult object, pursued with religious fervor in late summer and early fall. After a heavy rain, like what we experienced just last week, Mita, next door, would chant, “In dieci giorni si fanno funghi”—in ten days there’ll be mushrooms. And she was almost always right. It takes exactly this combination of soaking rain followed by a week or ten days of warm sunshine to bring out the mushrooms, especially prized porcini (Boletus edulis) and ovoli (Amanita caesarea).
I have never been a good mushroom hunter but Mita was a champion. There were certain secret spots she went back to over and over again, year after year, but she kept the locations very close. It was a competition, albeit unspoken, to see who in this mountain community would score the most. One year it might be Gino, another year Mita herself, out in the bosco at the very first flush of light. Often one or the other would take the morning bus into Cortona with an overflowing basket of aromatic funghi to sell to markets in town. Now, with Mita and Gino both long gone, it’s Mita’s son who combs the forest after a rain. Here is what he brought me yesterday to my intense delight:
These are Amanita caesarea, ovoli in Italian (Caesar’s mushroom in English), and prized beyond even the great Boletus edulis or porcini. In Maine where I grew up, funghi of all kinds were suspect. My father would only eat B&B—for “broiled in butter”—mushrooms in a can (search for them on Facebook to find a hilarious series of posts); he called all others “toadstools.” Enough said. When I harvested a basket of big beautiful porcini from the woods on his place in Maine, he begged me not to eat them, not to feed them to my children, but of course I did. And we survived.
With the ovoli that Arnaldo brought me, I made a salad of the utmost simplicity, really nothing but sliced mushrooms, olive oil, salt and a scattering of minced garlic and parsley. This, to me, is the epitome of Italian cuisine—a recognition that the materia prima, the primary ingredient, is so incredibly special that it needs almost nothing added—slight enhancements to exalt the flavors but nothing that changes the subtle intensity of the original. I think it’s something all cooks might benefit from practicing.
Do you need a recipe for this? I don’t think so: take your fresh wild mushrooms (it works well with boletes too or any mushroom that is tasty in the raw stage), trim them of any unsightly bits, dust off any forest soil, slice them thin—about a quarter of an inch—and spread the slices on a plate. Sprinkle with good sea salt and freshly ground pepper, not too much, and some of the very best, freshest extra-virgin olive oil in your pantry, a squeeze of lemon juice, a scattering of minced garlic and parsley—and then leave them for 30 minutes or so to absorb some of those flavors.
But let me go back for a moment to that earlier time, to Firenze in August of 1959, when it was peach season in Tuscany. I was traveling with Joanne, a classmate. Both recent graduates, we had been in France, Belgium and Rome and now we were in Florence, which, as experienced travelers, we said was the best.
In the Sant’Ambrogio market we bought a kilo of big, dusty peaches, deep yellow tinged with pink, from a farmer who had picked them at dusk the day before. We rinsed them in the market fountain and took them down to a bench on the banks of the Arno where we ate them for lunch. The peaches were fat and so ripe they oozed when you pressed them ever so gently and when we bit into them the juices ran down our arms.
Later we went back to our pensione on the Oltrarno and took a siesta and wrote in our journals and sent postcards to our siblings and rinsed out our underwear and did all those things two college girls were meant to do on a post-commencement trip to Europe.
How we met the artist is a detail I’ve forgotten. But I can picture us seated at an outdoor table in the early evening when the sun has gone off the Piazza della Signoria but the day’s warmth still rises from the flagstone paving. We are sipping Campari-sodas from glasses filled with ice, which was in short supply in Italy in those years. And we are feeling smart and smug because, after four days in Florence, we know we belong here.
The artist, for that is what he said he was, may have been sitting at an adjacent table. Conversation begins, halts, gets picked up again: Where are you from? How long have you been here? Have you seen the. . . perhaps the Donatello sculpture of the Magdalene? The Pontormo deposition in Santa Felicità? Would you join me for dinner?
That night we dined with him in one of those Florentine trattorias called La Buca di. . . whatever the owner’s name was, Mario, Stefano, Franco. In those years places like that were prolific in Florence but far off the main stream for young tourists like us. We didn’t actually care much about food—we could subsist on peaches from the market and Campari-soda. We wanted fine art and cute boys, preferably not in that order, and had no interest in this old man who might have been all of 32.
But the artist proposed his favorite trattoria and so we joined him, down three steps from the street to a cool, cave-like interior where he was clearly a regular, well-known to the waiters. I can picture what we ate although, again, I remember no details: pasta, of course, and a bistecca fiorentina, and a plain green salad. A carafe of the house rosso. And then the artist called for peaches for dessert and they were brought to the table, still damp and spangled with drops of water, in the perforated silver basket in which they had been rinsed. A fine, fruity aroma rose from the basket, flooding the room.
The artist reached to caress each peach before he chose one and transferred it to his plate. Then he took a table knife and, using the blunt edge, rubbed the peach over carefully, top to bottom and all around, working up a little peach fuzz against the blade of his knife as he did so. I had never seen anyone do such a thing; where I come from, if a person peeled a peach (and few indeed were the peaches worth peeling), he used a sharp blade to cut away the rough skin. Or he ate the whole peach, fuzz and all. No less notable than the technique was the care and attention the artist gave his undertaking. He must have sensed me watching him, though his eyes were intent on his task. With a swift move, so deft I could not have described the moment, in one motion he lifted the peach skin off the fruit and set it to one side on the plate.
Then he looked up: “You are surprised,” he said. “We Italians, we can peel a peach.” He paused for one long moment, staring directly at me. “And yet we lost the war.”
I will confess that up until that moment, it had not occurred to me that Italy had lost a war. World War II was only 15 years or so in the past but that was way more than half my lifetime. Ancient history indeed.
I would like to say that the evening went on till dawn, that we (or one of us) fell in love with the artist and ended up staying with him, to her mother’s despair, for the next three or four or fifteen years, but such was not the case. Somehow we extricated ourselves from what must have seemed to him like a very promising evening, said our goodbyes, went back to our Oltrarno pensione, and left the next morning on the train to Venice.
Joanne does not remember any of this but I do. I remember the war. And I remember the peach.
I remember the peach. Years later I realized that, in that one deft and elegant stroke, all of Italian culture, all of Italian history, had been laid out for me. The intricate nature of the silver basket that cradled the fruit, the ripe and mellow aroma of the flesh, the artist’s nimble-fingered expertise, the irresistible sensuality of an experience that was ostensibly built around food but incorporated so much more, and then the statement, bald and incontrovertible: And yet we lost the war.
If I didn’t fall in love with the artist, I did fall, and hard, for Italy.
Rome: Sampietrini (cobblestones) in the autumn rain.
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