Dog Days

two white dogs at the gateMy boyfriend didn’t want a dog. We got one, and now the boyfriend lives in New York. My ex-husband advised against getting a second dog. We got a second dog, too, and he’s still my ex-husband. My daughters, on the other hand, wanted a dog more than anything in the world, and after two years of house breaking, leash training, dog whispering, and dog chewing-of-MacBook-power-cables-and-Italian-designer-shoes, we are one big, happy family.

Except not so happy that the dogs never try to run away. If I accidentally leave the gate open, their preferred course of escape is directly down the 800-yard driveway, out from behind a blind curve and across the road to the neighbors’ lawn where their ducks hang out. The first time they did this, I ran after them, planning the contrite apology, the purchase of new ducks (the frying up of the freshly-killed ones, too), the months of tension with the neighbors, only to arrive there and find my two 80-pound dogs sniffing hesitantly after a commanding-looking duck, while the neighbor clutched at his chest.

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Rich?

The car that screams "I'm loaded:" My ten-year-old VW Touareg, with the side mirror taped on.
The car that screams “I’m loaded:” My ten-year-old VW Touareg, with the side mirror taped on.

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.

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Agriturismo Galore

Table, fireplace
One of the apartments in the early 1990s.

“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

On the Second Day of Easter…

yellow linden blossomsIt’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…

Down to Earth

pizze margheriteYesterday, Lidia, Luciana and Bruna came to make pizza. They came early, built a huge fire in the old brick oven, and sat on folding chairs on the lawn while it burnt all day. Then around five, they went to work extending the dough on the rectangular, aluminum teglie, smearing the sauce across, scattering the mozzarella, and at last shoveling out all the coals and settling the pizzas toward the back of the oven’s dome to cook. The tomato sauce was ours from the garden, but the mozzarella was supermarket, yet the pizza was divine: crispy, tangy, milky, and tinged with roasted flavor. Continue reading Down to Earth

Wine Writing 101

The Italians have terroirs and varietals as noble as any in the world, but prefer to keep them hidden: hundreds of millions are spent on consultants and equipment, often with financing from the Italian government, to avoid the straightforward, even simple, approach of the best winemakers (for example, some Burgundians), who make their wines themselves, focusing, first, on viticulture and second, on the handful of cellar elements that make all the difference. And the Italian wine press only acts like the crowd around the emperor, admiring his new clothes. Evie, for one, would like to change all that:

Evie is a new writer at the popular wine-lovers’ monthly, Passion for Wine, and, after an initial trip visiting wineries in Italy, she’s back in her New York office pitching her first article to Deborah, a seasoned wine-world editor.

wine glassEvie: How can I establish credibility with my readers?

Deborah: Say you’re Italian.

Evie: But I’m not.

Deborah: You like Rome, don’t you?

Evie: Well, it looks nice in films.

Deborah: There you go.

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Reading, Writing and Lunch: Scuola all’Italiana

The spring my older daughter Charlotte turned six, I went to the office of the elementary school in Siena and put her name on the list for first grade, a five minute procedure that, in light of the standardized tests, recommendation letters and interviews to which my Stateside friends were subjecting their children, left me suspicious: could anything so readily accessible and totally free of charge possibly be any good?

Math and Italian workbooksIn superficial ways, her first years of elementary school were baffling. My confusion would start with the list of supplies we had to buy, the word “quaderno” (notebook) appearing repeatedly with various endings like -ino and -one, which indicate to a real Italian mother how many spiral notebooks to buy, how many three ring binders, or what size squares the graph paper pad should have, but to me meant only that the guy at the school supply store was going to have fun with me. Once, I remember feeling relieved to see listed a “vocabulario” which I knew to mean “dictionary,” until I saw the next item on the list, “dizionario.” Continue reading Reading, Writing and Lunch: Scuola all’Italiana

Renovation in Translation

As sure as porcini appearing ten days after a rainstorm, the winter real estate sections of the FT or the New York Times inevitably feature a couple who has bought and renovated a house in Tuscany, making it the center of their leisurely, but culturally rich and intensely social lives. I can only marvel at how quickly they assimilate, how friendly they become with the quirky but helpful, open-minded locals, and how thoroughly they live the dream.

Silhouette of arched window“Dale and Lori Hutchinson had always longed to buy a house in Tuscany, and while they own other properties, they now consider their house here in Lerigno, an out of the way corner of this beautiful region, their one true home.” Dale and Lori came to the Tuscan real estate fad too long after the publication of Under the Tuscan Sun to get anything within fifty miles of civilization. They come for the middle two weeks of August and not a day more.

“Lori’s passion for nature and all things Italian meant that she felt at home here from the beginning. ‘Here, we can be close to the land. We grow our own vegetables and the children play in the fresh air all year round,’ Lori explains.” Lori speaks Rosetta-Stone Italian to her gardeners, without realizing they’re Albanian, while the kids hunker down in the basement media room. Continue reading Renovation in Translation

To Market, To Market

Last week, the first really cold one this winter, I was at the farmer’s market in Siena, standing in front of the “Azienda Agricola San Pancrazio” meat booth, trying to think of something seasonal to cook for dinner, which in January means pork. With the grapes and olives harvested and the fields frosted over, the post-holiday lull has traditionally afforded farmers the time to undertake a task that kept their families fed for months. I had been in Tuscany almost a year when that task showed me first hand what “local” and “organic” really mean.

Ape“Tell him we’ve killed the pig,” squawked the voice, and hung up. I called my soon-to-be-husband, relayed the message, and was told, “You’d better go get him.” So I started up the ape, our ancient, three-wheeled, stiff-clutched, over-steering little pick-up, and, after one false start (my mother-in-law came running out of the house, hollering over the roar and grind of the ape, “Don’t forget the blood!”), drove up the mountain to the neighbors’ farm to collect our apparently free-ranged pig carcass, which then spent the night in our barn.

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Bar Tips

Foamy cappuccino in a cupTo those who come to me asking how to see “the real Tuscany,” I say, forget the Uffizzi, the wineries and the villas, and go to a bar—a bar in the Italian sense of the word, that is a café. Ah, you think, a welcome break in the pace and pressure of travel with family, twenty minutes to slip into neutral, park myself over a long, warm coffee, and shoot the breeze or flip through the paper. But that wouldn’t be Tuscany at all.

First, make your entrance. Open the door, step inside, and stop. The whole bar will turn and look you up and down (they know you’re American by now), at which point, stand tall, try to look bored and mildly disdainful, and scan the room, as if for danger or possible prey. Then, walk straight to the pastry counter. Order “un’ brioche,” which is the thing that looks like a croissant, or if you absolutely have to point, say “quella,” not “quello” because pastry is feminine. When you are handed your pastry in a napkin, resist the urge to thank anyone, and don’t smile; it looks suspicious so early in the day. Continue reading Bar Tips