How can anything be “extra virgin”? Olive dearest, either you have or you haven’t been pressed. And that’s the thing. Nobody around here talks about “virgin” olive oil. The olives get milled, the oil comes out, the pith gets discarded, or used, these days, as fuel in some new kinds of furnaces. The salient point, rather, is age, and “new oil,” the just-pressed oil available only in October and November, is everyone’s passion. Even though we have our own olives, if we spot a bottle of new oil for sale before we get around to making ours, we’ll buy it without a split second’s hesitation. It’s too good not to.
Throughout the year, that neon green, delicately peppery, fresh-cut-grass-smelling oil has week by week, almost imperceptibly become a yellower, less zesty condiment with a muted, leafy aroma. The new oil is like a drug, and we halt all culinary projects, health programs and weekly meal routines to gorge on it.
When I quit my job and moved to Italy in 2001, the resistant tradition of the three- or four-course evening meal was—for the first few months at least—an excuse to dedicate lots of time to cooking. In the back of a dusty cupboard in the seldom-used upstairs kitchen, I found an old yellowed cookbook, in which I searched futilely for cooking temperatures, until I realized that by “flame” the book referred to that of an actual fire.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts from L’Arte di Mangiare Bene, by Pellegrino Artusi, published in 1891.
“The act of cooking is a rascal: it often brings us to the brink of despair, but it also gives us pleasure, because when we succeed or overcome an obstacle, we feel so satisfied, we sing victory. Don’t trust cookbooks, especially not Italian ones.”
“This is an easy dish; yet, although it is hard to believe, not everyone knows how to make it. In some countries, the artichokes are boiled before being fried. Non va bene! In others they are drenched in a batter, which is not only unnecessary but robs this fruit of its natural taste. Here is the best method, the Tuscan one. The Tuscans, making enormous use and abuse of vegetables and herbs, cook them better than anyone else.”
“Our yard is on fire!” I yelled into the phone, over the sound of the helicopter swooping down to the swimming pool to fill its bucket.
“Does that mean you’ll be late for lunch?”
It did. A week earlier I had written to my neighbors, old English aristocrats, about their garden. Or about my garden, to be more accurate, with which I wanted their help. Their garden, open to the public and well known from coffee-table books, was reputedly a marvel of Italian Renaissance design, maniacally tended by four full-time gardeners, one of whose sister-in-law was my cleaning woman. Through her, I had sent them a note explaining my project—a redesign of our front lawn using only the flowers, herbs and shrubs found in Italy in the Middle Ages. I wanted their help and advice, but I was also secretly hoping to be offered a private tour of their grounds.
The Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.
Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:
Life in provincial Tuscany involves a cast of what seemed at first like supporting characters but, fifteen years in, have become in many ways the people I know best, simply because we’ve been through it all—together.
If you like antiques, you had better like carpenters, of which, here in Siena, there are a confusing variety of specialists. There’s the one we call “quello bravo,” whom we hired to make cabinets out of some three-hundred-year old, massive chestnut shutters. Then, there are the two who repair antiques, one rebuilding the damaged section, the other, called the “shiner,” who buffs or waxes or polishes the reconstructed section so that it blends in with the old. There used to be yet another carpenter, whom we called the “candlestick guy,” because the first time I went to see him was about a pair of termite-stricken antique altar candlesticks. He specialized in anything very old, or very precious, or very small.
When I got a dog last year, all these carpenters seemed pleased. Animal lovers, I thought, until one of them explained, “Dog owners are my bread-and-butter.” I didn’t make the connection until Kaya, my Maremman Shepherd puppy, chewed through the bottom bar of a four-hundred year-old chair.
At dinner parties in Siena, the tables are boy-girl, i.e., the men sit at one end, all together, and the women at the other. The main topic at the men’s end is, apparently, the Palio, or professional soccer. One summer, with my family visiting, during a party at our house, my sister and I got up from our women’s end to clear one of the courses, and once safely in the kitchen, she asked me, “So what are the women discussing?” “Floor wax,” I told her, in truth. The day my Italian ex-husband’s first wife moved out of the 11th-century fortress he calls home, his aunt moved in to keep house for him, and the day I moved in, she handed the housekeeping over to me. “I do a floor a day,” this 76-year-old explained, “starting at the top, on Monday, with the bedrooms and bathrooms,” including it turned out, washing their tile walls. I started to laugh when she pulled out the feather duster, but she carefully showed me how to clean the intricate woodwork of the bed with it, then how to brush the rugs—no vacuum-cleaners on site—with what looks like and must originally have been a bunch of twigs bound with twine, although not before clearing the walls and ceilings of cobwebs by means of a ring of bristles stuck to an extendable pole. She explained the importance of vinegar, for the drip stains on the shower doors, and bleach for the toilets and bidets. Had they ever considered hiring someone to clean, I asked? “Che ci vuole?” was Auntie’s answer, “What’s it take?” by which she meant, hardly any effort at all.
In order to instill a lifetime of sound eating habits in your children, all you need is an Italian grandmother, and the will to stand back for twelve years or so, while she feeds them the opposite of what you would. You won’t have to foist the responsibility on her—she will take it as soon as she can. Conversely, should you not care to hand it over, you’ll find her expert slavish service to your child will remove your entire generation from the running.
The moment I gave up nursing, my mother-in-law, Rita, stepped in with a diet of bottles of baby biscuits dissolved in boiled cow’s milk that continued (in its later stages by stealth) until Giorgia was almost five. Starting around six months old, my daughter also got a raw farmer’s egg to drink mid-morning, which quickly became a favorite. (Even the Italian physician balked at this: better a store-bought egg, she said.) At a year or so of age, she was ushered into the three-meals-and-two-snacks day that accompany Italians from the cradle to the grave.
When I moved to Castelnuovo last year, I immediately made a mistake. I drove over to the mechanic’s, got out, introduced myself and explained what was wrong with my car. “Lei e’ ricca, signora,” the mechanic said in turn. It was the car that misled him. It’s a ten-year old diesel VW, but a big one, and one of the rare automatics found in Italy—a car that apparently says to the world its owner has cash to burn. The last thing you want, especially as an American new in town, is for anyone to think you’re rich. If I had only driven my Golf–dented on both sides, covered in dust from our long dirt driveway, a war zone inside thanks to popcorn fights on the way home from school and 150,000 miles on the odometer—everything would have been different.
“Put it in the tourist apartments!” was the solution when any ugly, cheap, useless piece of furniture or décor was found in the tower or barn or basement at Poggiarello. It was the early 1990s, and agriturismo was a new vacation idea, devised mostly by the English, who wanted to spend time on a working farm, joining in planting or pruning or harvesting and cooking for themselves, while enjoying Italian country life at the fraction of the cost of a hotel. We were a long way from the designer-decorated, Jacuzzi-outfitted, air-conditioned standards of a typical Tuscan house rental today. At the time, the Italian government offered funding to property owners who would restore buildings and open an agriturismo. Needless to say, anyone with an empty chicken coop found a way to access the money, and within a few years, guest houses opened all over the region. Continue reading Agriturismo Galore
It’s still Easter in Italy, in a manner of speaking. Yesterday, Sunday, was “Pasqua,” and today, Monday, is the holiday known as “Pasquetta,” or the mini-Easter, the day on which friends and family vie for the right to host rather than attend one another’s buffets of leftovers. So, while the spirit lingers, here are the ten ingredients for a real Tuscan Easter:
1. Reserve a lamb in advance with the nearest sheep-herding Sardinian farmer. When you go to pick it up, remind him that last year’s was tough and overpriced, in the hope that he’ll feel bad and give you some of that fresh ricotta he is sure to have made for the holidays. Put the lamb in the freezer. Continue reading On the Second Day of Easter…