Christmas decorations in Siena

Corso Downhill

Walking along the corso (or main street) this holiday season, it strikes me how much has changed in Siena since my first Christmas here fifteen years ago, and I find I am nostalgic for the relatively young, old days that I knew.

Then, there were no public Christmas decorations to speak of, other than the Monte dei Paschi tree in Piazza Salimbeni. Although I like the garlands now hung at intervals along the main shopping streets, those inflatable climbing Santas do not add much to Siena’s splendid medieval façades. Here, Christmas used to be a quiet season, often mild and rainy, the Sienese more caught up with finding a good capon or boasting of the double-digit numbers of guests they would cook for than with gifts, cards or light displays. But it is not just Christmas that is becoming Anglo-Saxonized; the town itself is changing.

At the top of the corso, where there is now an Accessorize boutique, there used to be a tiny grocery store, owned by an elderly Sienese couple. Shelves with dry goods along the right wall receded into the dark back of the store. On the left was a deli counter, proposing a selection of fresh foods chosen on the basis of a to-me-indecipherable logic adhered to by all such small groceries in Italy, in a country otherwise incapable of consensus. These included nets of ricotta, trays of mozzarellas drowning in milk, a suckling pig singed and roasted to be sliced for panini, stuffed hot peppers and silver and white anchovies glimmering in oil. What I bought there, other than milk and bread, were rectangular portions of stracchino, a plain, soft cheese, wrapped in waxed paper, to have after dinner on toast, and little packages of dried Greek figs in cellophane tied with a green paper ribbon. One day in 2003, I was walking along the corso, and the store was simply gone. I was surprised, but why? It is not as if they had owed me a warning.

Near the center of town is a butcher I like for the plainness of his store, a small, tiled room with a glassed-in meat counter, a table for the grinder and slicer and a rickety stand for what passes for a cash register (adding machine, rubber stamp and lock box). No credit cards accepted, and, needless to say, this butcher does not sing. Nothing in the place is designed to attract, and yet, there is something about the gentle tone with which this man answers the umpteenth little old lady wanting “A single slice of roast beef, but mind you, the tenderest piece you have” that makes me like him. The beef and pork are ground while you wait, chickens are only sold whole, and you have to specify the thickness of your steak (two-thumbs is about the Tuscan minimum). Even ignoring his near-retirement age, I wonder how long he will last.

At the end of an alley off the corso—hidden I hope from chain-store developers—is my favorite “merceria,” literally, the “stuff store.” From outside, you can always see a line of women standing waiting along the counter, behind which, from floor to ceiling, are shelves stacked with inch-high boxes. On the end of each box three or four buttons of the same color but varying sizes are glued. The boxes are grouped by color: purple, brown, gold–all told some 700 boxes–such that the wall gives the impression of a mosaic. I think of the story of Frog and Toad looking for a “small, thick, round, blue, four-holed button.” Surely, they would have found it here.

The owner of the merceria, in a camel twinset, a tweed skirt and a heavy strand of pearls, stands on a step-ladder, head and shoulders swivelled around talking to a customer, her tortoise-shell bifocals stuck half-way down her prominent Tuscan nose. The customer has spread a parcel on the glass countertop and is asking whether a clip would extend the life of her husband’s trousers longer than the button he keeps popping at the waist. “That’s what I would do,” the padrona answers, sounding positively conspiratorial, and climbs down to go fetch the clips.

I am there to buy hair ribbons, and when it’s my turn, out comes tray after tray of spools packed in neat rows, from palest yellow to deep gold, from melon to red-orange, sky blue to navy. My mouth is practically watering. I buy a wide, daffodil-yellow satin for my daughter’s sash and two lengths of peach gros-grain for her braids.

At the merceria, I can also find the fasteners missing from a coat, ballet-shoe elastics, sequins for costumes or the cotton bias binding used for pillow case ties. Sixty or eighty euro cents is not an unusual total, and each little purchase is wrapped in thin brown paper, ends twisted and tucked. I have never seen a foreigner here, and come to think of it, I do not even know the name of the store.

Near the merceria, occupying the high-ceilinged ground floor of a vast palazzo with an intricate gothic façade is the dry-cleaners, run by a stately, blond, fifty-something woman dramatically made-up, hair teased wild. She is one of the most active window-dressers in town, show-casing a different seasonal, high-fashion outfit every week, from wedding gowns in June to furs at the end of the year, feather boas, leather jackets, or pleated silk skirts. Whose clothes are these? I wonder, and am I supposed to be able to tell that they were well dry-cleaned? This holiday season, she has eight old irons in the window (the kind that were warmed on coals), to underline, I suppose, her decades of experience.

I give baskets of fruit at Christmas, since citrus is in season, which brings me to my fruttivendolo. There, I wait for ages, as the husband-and-wife owners scurry around the tiny shop selecting fruits and vegetables, suggesting how to prepare them, proffering fresh dates or a taste of a newly-arrived cheese, and filling small paper bags with goods, one customer at a time. By now, I know to look for “nostrale” on the little chalk signs in front of the produce, indicating that they were grown in Tuscany. And I’m ready for the advice about persimmons I invariably receive in December: “To make them ripen faster, place in a paper bag with an apple, and fold the bad over, so just enough air gets in.” Yes, they ripen without doing that, too.

After Epiphany, the owners of the fruttivendolo take their annual holiday, closing up shop for a month. Farther along the corso, though, revenue is prioritised over repose. Calzedonia, a pink-neon-signed sock chain found in every town in Italy stays open through lunch seven days a week. Occitane has arrived too, and despite my doubts about how a French provençal brand would fare in Tuscany, locals and tourists flock in, unaware, it seems, of the irony.

Christmas treeA candy store continues to thrive between an Italian version of an Old Navy and a city supermarket. It is filled with fresh, exotic panforte (extra pepper, extra fig, chocolate-covered) only a Sienese would eat, handsomely wrapped panettoni and torroni, and trays of sugary gelées, mints and toffees of the kind seen in cut-glass dishes at retirement homes. The store is dark and quiet and the sales ladies are impatient and dismissive, making you feel as if you are lucky to be buying there, just like in the good old days.

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Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

One thought on “Corso Downhill”

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