It’s planting season in Tuscany, the time of year I think of my role-model and rival in all things green: Mario, my former father-in-law.
When I came to Tuscany in January 2001, Mario had just retired, and he and my-mother-in-law still lived in Siena. He would come out to our house in the country for the day, though, and I would cook him lunch, a primo and a secondo, which he ate in the upstairs kitchen while I stared at him across the table and tried to make out what he said in those first weeks of submersion in Italian. “Don’t bother,” my husband said. “He garbles. No one understands a word.”
Sixteen at the outbreak of war, Mario never had to fight, because his father had been wounded in the First World War. His parents were farmers, so Mario and his brother Marcello kept on eating chickens and eggs and vegetables throughout the war, while in town food was scarce, only really waking up to the conflict when a bomb dropped through their roof, down through the floor of their bedroom into the kitchen, rolled out the door and across the lawn and came to a stop at the edge of the woods, unexploded. The four of them, and soon the neighbors, stood in a circle around it, staring skeptically and wondering what to do. Finally, Mario and Marcello picked it up and carried it into the woods.*
Mid-winter is belt-tightening season, literally and figuratively, everywhere except in Tuscany. The Tuscans eat just as much now as they do during the holidays, partially because, with the last feast, Epiphany, falling on January 6th, and Carnevale starting, some years, hardly a month later, there is no post-holiday season, and partly because the three- or four-course meals they enjoy over the holidays continue at family Sunday lunches all year round. So the belt stays on the same hole year round. Figuratively speaking, there is no household budget trimming either in the wake of Christmas, because frugality is like religion here—touching everything and everyone.
Before moving to Tuscany, my idea of frugal living was mid-1990s New York on a legal assistant’s salary—i.e., I couldn’t afford to go to Dorian’s every night of the week. The Tuscans, though, have taught me to interpret the term more strictly.
One of the first things my future mother-in-law noticed when I moved here was the price tag on some dish soap I had bought: “It’s thirty cents less at the other supermarket,” she pointed out helpfully. She also taught me how to save at the dry cleaners: “Just have them clean the skirt, not iron it. You can do that yourself,” which got me 50% off.
The hunters and hounds that traipse through the wheat fields and oak forests around our house on fall and winter mornings drive our dogs–Maremman shepherds–crazy: the dogs were bred to defend the flock, so the approach of strangers makes them nervous. By January, though, at the end of the five-month hunting season, their barking has become such a familiar background noise that my daughters and I can often sleep through not only that but the regular booms of distant shots being fired. The quiet is surprising, when it finally comes in February.
In Massachusetts, where I grew up, hunting was not a particularly classy endeavor—certainly in my parents’ circle of liberal friends, if they mentioned it at all, it was without first hand experience and in a tone of derision. In Europe, of course, hunting has the opposite reputation, having been the exclusive privilege of the nobility until after the French revolution.
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. Continue reading Corso Downhill
This morning I pulled into a parking lot in Siena next to a brand new Ferrari, price-tag $250,000. I had a 2006 Golf ready to trade in, I joked with the parking attendant, who immediately blurted out whose car it was: the owner—I’ll call him “J”–of a big, brand-name Tuscan winery. Maybe I’m jealous (my winery breaks even, as long as my partner in the venture and I work full-time jobs to cover its costs and our families lend us money now and then). Still, I started to imagine what kind of logic had led to a purchase like that. Now, I think I’ve figured it out.
“J”’s Ten reasons winery owners should drive Ferraris:
1. Because we’ve earned it. (Not me, personally, of course. I inherited from Dad, who inherited from Grand-Dad, etc. but, you know, someone in the family must have, at some point, worked.)
2. Because all publicity is good publicity, and driving around abandoned hilltop hamlets in remote areas of Italy in my Ferrari gets me just that. Bound to lead to stronger wine sales—Marketing 101, man.
3. Because I’m a role model. If I drive a Ferrari, the Romanian guys that work in my vineyards (wherever those are) will understand that if they keep at it, one day they’ll be driving Ferraris too. I’m their inspiration, and that, even I find inspiring.
A friend of mine has a very valuable car. It’s a Fiat Punto with over 250,000 km on it, a dent on one side and a door that doesn’t close properly on the other. That might not seem very glam, but here’s the thing: it’s still registered to his ex-girlfriend, an Australian who left Italy in 2008. He parks it wherever he wants.
You wouldn’t think that using a car in a town like Siena (60,000 people) would be particularly problematic, but Bernardo devotes plenty of time to devising ways to drive under the telecameras at the city gates without getting a ticket (for example, with the hatchback open, so the camera can’t see the license plate number) or park near his office in the center of the pedestrian zone without paying. Most of the time he uses (illegally) one of the half-dozen spaces in front of the pricey hotel across the piazza from his office. He once told me he “knew some guy” there, who kept an eye on his car. You can park in the public lot next to the hotel for 60 Euro cents an hour, so it hardly seems worth asking the favor, but I guess for some the principle of free parking matters a lot.
If Bernardo arrives late, and the hotel slots are full, he parks (illegally) around the corner in front the courthouse, putting a handicapped-parking pass on his dashboard. The original pass belonged to his Aunt Silvia’s neighbor, Lucia, a blind woman who lives across the hall in their apartment building near the Duomo. Bernardo had his aunt borrow the pass now and then on his behalf, and when color laser printers became relatively common, he made himself a pretty good copy. Continue reading Playing by the (Italian) Rules
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.