MAY IN UMBRIA, Panicale–Our favorite month in Italy is probably always going to be May. Why? Short answer is Roses. The longer answer is everything is so green, so full of hope, promise of sultry summer days and swallows and sunsets.
But every now and then in May, you may want to know where your coat and hat are. And absolutely your umbrella and even gloves might feel good. Every moment of running back from Aldo’s with a coat over your head hiding from a sudden downpour is worth it, if for no other reason than for the roses. Whatever it takes to keep our new roses happy. One small bush, when seen from a walk by in the garden, seems a poor, underwhelming plant with no flowers to its credit at all. But, not so fast. Let us not judge this book by its cover . . . turn the page, move in closer and what the heck, it is over-producing. Its flowers are so dense and heavy that they point down like divining rods. Once we saw that, we just cut and then cut them some more. Roses for everyone. Roses on the house! Vases in every room.
TALK ABOUT CHANGEABLE.
Bruna, (on left, below) of Ristorante Masolino fame, has been the ranking chef, with the most seniority and history in Umbria for years. She lives a few steps from us one way, and her restaurant is a few steps on the other side of us. So, we see her coming up or down the street in front of us regular as the tide on Casco Bay. You can see she’s wearing an umbrella and a parka. And trust me, she needed both. For that moment at least. Look past her on the right of the photo. That is the top of our garden wall. In the other companion picture, at another moment, is Midge at the bottom of that wall, basking in the sun albeit in one of my sweaters. We’d be in the house and all of a sudden we’d see the sun was out and in a flash we’d be in lawn chairs and feel like we were in a solar cooker. At that point “someone” would “be up anyway” (gardening) and get sent in the house to fetch sunglasses. And before they could get back, the world would turn black. The theater would go dark. Summer would become winter.
Ma, va le la pena and worth the trouble too. In fits and starts, a chapter here, a page there, books were read, big thoughts mused, weeds met their final match. Glasses and spirits were lifted. And we put it to a vote, and we decided all was very right with the world.
To have an Italian friend is to be constantly in debt to them. You can but live and learn. And maybe–if you are good, very good in this life – you may get to come back. As an Italian.
PANICALE, PADOVA, TORINO, Italy–If we live to be a hundred, we will never get to the point on the Generosity Chart where Italians seem to be born. Like a Ferrari, the average Italian has some extra gears they can shift into, at a moment’s notice. They make it look so easy and effortless,
A couple examples. We were in Padova, years ago, at our Italian foreign exchange student’s home for the first time. We were seeing the house and doing the polite, “What a lovely home. Love that painting! Gorgeous flowers here on the balcony . . .” Which was all fine, until we got ready to leave and they had elaborately wrapped gifts for all of us. And after those individual be-ribboned and bowed packages had all been opened, there was one more. A bonus round “for the family.” It was the framed oil painting we’d admired on the wall. You have to be careful out there, admiring things.
And food. Be careful there too. That tide may only flow one direction. We were almost coaxed into a food coma at our friends in Torino’s home. They fed us like Christmas geese. “This is wonderful, but three helpings is fine, please, thank you” didn’t seem to work. And so we were lovely and polite, and kept on eating our way through the food pyramids in front of us.
Later that vacation we invited them to a similar feast in their honor at a place we were renting near Sarzana. They looked at the food we put in front of them, and looked at us like we were a tiny bit deranged. “What is all this food they asked?” They ate a bit of this and a bit of that. You know, normal people portions.
So, if you think you can “get even” or return the favor, that would be a rookie move. Here in the states we hear people say “Oh, we owe so and so a dinner. They had us over and we need to pay them back.” This is patently impossible in Italy. Repeat after me: You can not out-gift or out-feed Italians.
We ate so much marvelous food on our most recent trip. But I’m quite sure my favorite was Lunch at Bruno’s Mom’s. She’s ninety, her garden is vast, and lunch was equally so and fit for a king. The home-made tagliatelle was the best ever. I told her so and she waved me off. This? I just tossed this together” They double-teamed me. They had me at the end of the table, between them. When I looked to my left at mom while we talked, Bruno on my right, would fill one of my glasses, with the more of the fine red wine he made from her grapes. If I looked back his way, mom would upend a serving dish of pasta or salad on my still-full plate.
And even though we were all going to a town-wide Festa Dell’uva dinner that night together, Bruno and I still got a to-go box. The grapes are mom’s, as are the tomatoes. The melon? Bruno and I liberated it from a field outside Paciano that had been mechanically harvested. They missed a couple. We didn’t.
Moral of the story: When you are up against the kindest, most generous people on the planet, you cannot compete. To have an Italian friend is to be constantly in debt to them. You can but live and learn. And maybe–if you are good, very good in this life – you may get to come back. As an Italian.
PANICALE, Umbria – Kiki’s birthday was yesterday and she was telling us about the cake she got as a birthday gift from her new best friend, Salvatore in Panicale. Here she is in words and pictures below. Kiki, Kathleen and Salvatore. Clearly La Dolce Vita goes on as usual in Italy.
———————————————————– Discovered Salvatore’s, “Sapori dell’Umbria” the new take-out in town. Best bread ever, plus wonderful seafood lasagna (recommended by Giovanna) and torta di Napoli.
Salvatore is from Napoli. He makes the best bread in Italy. Crusty outside, soft inside and a bit salted. Yummm. Salvatore is across from the post office, where the grocery used to be. Just past Aldo’s. We … love …. it.
Styoo! Of course we’ve been to Aldo’s. The first morning Salvatore bought us coffee there. The second morning Nico bought us coffee. Today Rob experienced the scene — along with Daniela in fish net stockings. Wow!
We went to Castiglione del Lago today for lunch … visited Fabio the framer to get Francesco’s painting all dude’d up … then hit the lake so Kathleen and Rob could swim. They loved it.
Side note: It appears from initial conversation down-loads that Kiki accidentally asked Fabio to marry her. She was ok with that, in general, but her intention at that moment was just asking him to “dispose” of a box. Who knew? She figured “disposare” was close enough in Italian to “dispose” in English. But of course “sposare” is to marry and well, I’m sure that is how some dream matches have been made.
That is the latest in Italian News for now.
If you can’t get to Italy this Spring – and you happen to find yourself in New England – remember the Italian Life Expo is in Portland, Maine, June 9-11. Yes, the Bad Monkey (as we affectionately have named our Vespa-made 1982 Ape) will be there. With loud speakers on, blasting Italian music and generally calling attention to itself. Prima donna is Italian and fits this monkey to a T. If you are feeling adventuresome, come pat our little green Ape on the head during this fun waterfront weekend. Paul Turina’s baby blue, hard-working ape (Good Monkey?)The Turina Italian Wine Ape will be there too.
“Oh, waiter, table for sixty, please. And could we sit outside?”
Cavolfiori does these marvelous dinners all around Italy. this one was at Spannocchia outside Siena.
This is where I was a couple days ago. And a world away. May Day Celebration of Spring and an Italian Slow food event at the 1,100 acre non-profit AgriCultural estate of Spannocchia. It is just outside Siena in Tuscany. And only an hour from our house in Panicale, so we find ourselves there often. There are several mini videos below of the festivities so you can enjoy the sights and the sounds of Springtime in Italy.
“OH, WAITER, TABLE FOR SIXTY, PLEASE. AND COULD WE SIT OUTSIDE?”
Cavolfiori does these marvelous dinners all around Italy. Check their site to see where their next event is. Come hungry.
THE MENU FOR THE DAY WENT SOMETHING LIKE THIS
Farro, asparagi, fave e uova.
With Bianco Toscano 2008 vintage grown right there at Spannocchia. As were all the other ingredients for this course. Farro is an ancient type of grain grown here that has been rescued from obscurity in recent times. They told us there is something about this grain’s tassels that tickles their tusks or in some way bugs the wild boars and those cinghiale won’t eat farro any more than kids will eat broccoli. Big benefit / built in defense system for farro.
Isn’t it interesting how they sliced the asparagus long ways and made it look so different? At a glance it seems to be something else. It looked fantastic and with a hint or two of lemon it just took you away on this sunny day.
Crema di borragine, ricotta di pecora, with more white wine
Borage is basically a weed, harvested by a New Zealand lady staying at Spannocchia. We sat with her at the table and went on a plant identification walk she led after. Oh, the blue flower is the borage flower. And the green is the warm borage colored, potato-based soup you pour around the sheep ricotta. Sure. We eat like this at home, too. Pretty much. In our dreams
Coscia di Suino Cinto nel forno a legna insalata di campo.
Full leg of Spannocchia pig (The famous cinta senese. They are black with white belt like a Belted Galloway cow) slow cooked in a Spannocchia wood oven with Spannocchia wood, too. With a red 2007 Spannocchia wine
Brownie, yogurt e mele
and there were tiny flowers involved, tiny pale yellow flowers. If I knew what kind of flowers they were, I’ve forgotten now. Note number of wine courses. Forgive, forget.
2006 Vin Santo dessert wine from Spannocchia.
Very light, very drinkable. We did. See above.
The whole meal presentation was a thing of great beauty. Afterwards we went on a forage-for-borage walk-about with the lady from NZ who sat with us. She harvests whatever greens she needs from whatever woods she’s in. She was an inspiration. And a font of logic. Made it all sound so reasonable. Biggest tip on eating weeds? Shouldn’t have to actually say this but . . . tiny bites. And, remember “no mushrooms please.” Just don’t. We ate tons of what she had harvested at the meal. That crème of borage soup was wonderful and bright, bright green poured around fresh white ricotta and garnished with the ever helpful borage’s blue flowers. Startling colors of white blue and green on my plate. I was so surprised it was warm and served in glass pitcher. I’ve got to get out more. Really, I do.
The photo of the camera is mine. As are the clunky videos. The luscious food photos were by our buddy Paul Avis. He is a pro. I’m a pro too. But just at eating all the food they put in front of us. Slow Food group was doing this food fest two days in a row there. All sold out. We just barely got squeezed in. glad we did. What a day. Roses in bloom up to the top of the third story of the villa. Wisteria all about, lemons on the trees in pots, grass was green green. Fine, fine, memorable moment
About the camera that sat on the table next to me. Its owner was Francesco, a Roman from Naples he said. His wife from Sardinia. Tan, with slicked back, pewter gray hair, black wrap around sun glasses, articulate, wry sense of humor, very sociable, laid back. I can see him contentedly filling his pipe from its leather tobacco pouch. I want to be him when I grow up. Just dying to be cool I think Mick Jagger might say. For contrast, I had my rats’ nest of iPhone, italian cell phone, Flip cam and old pocket camera. All of which are disposable at some level. He had this show piece. The word pristine does not do this 1957 Leica justice in any way. He bought it new. The case gets polished. The camera is more pristine than the case. And he had little accessory leather covered parts. Separate but right at hand. Right there. How does this happen?
Anyway, this is a case where the camera does tell a story.
The mid afternoon in seventy degree breeze and the sun and the food made for a day that was off the tracks good. I was like Where ARE we? I knew but it was a kind of out of body experience.
And to go backwards, just in time. Let’s talk about the May day celebration at Spannocchia that happened just before the Slow Food lunch. Everyone in folk costumes, bandanas, woven hats with flowers in them, and even one with tomatoes. hopefully fake. There were flowers in baskets, flowers growing up the walls around us. No question it was spring and we were all glad to see it and celebrate it. Farm manager Riccio’s merry band started entertaining at ten in the morning. From Spannocchia they headed out and entertained in towns all over the region. Coming home at ten that night well fed and can you say well drunk? Not really but just happy, lubricated and probably ready for a long night’s well deserved sleep. The videos here are a snatch of folk singing and then a quick view of the chaos around the snack table right after the singing but pre lunching. The fun never quits at Spannocchia on May Day.
But first thing in the morning Andrea whips up a couple dozen loaves of bread in it. Our first night in town, before we knew they were baking their own bread, I said “Andrea what is this fantastic bread with these little black things in it?” Turns out that was the right question.
PANICALE, Umbria– One of my favorite things to do in Italy is to watch our little town come to life in the morning. Bruno unloading carts of groceries into his wife’s grocery’s storeroom. Emiliano and his Ape are out and he’s sweeping the street with his stick broom. Sometimes I like to poke my nose into Masolino’s Restaurant and see if I can bother Andrea. His whole family has been up till surely midnight, cooking, cleaning the spotless kitchen. And yet, here he is in the kitchen. Bread making. “Getting pretty close to getting in sister Stefi’s pastry-making zone” he admits, making that kind of dismissive, circular motion of his hand that seems to say “but here we go anyway.”
This is a new passion for him, tied in with their new German oven. It is in action during lunch and dinner every day and generally is slow cooking some thing over night, every night. But first thing in the morning Andrea whips up a couple dozen loaves of bread in it. Our first night in town, before we knew they were baking their own bread, I said “Andrea what is this fantastic bread with these little black things in it?” Turns out that was the right question. He was happy to talk about his new bread baking skills and tickled someone noticed. How could I not notice black truffles? Being warm gets the truffles all excited and they start throwing off waves of that truffle perfume every time you go to take another bite.
The day I took these pictures, it looked like he was cooking a green salad. But no. Onions and leeks. Just making them “sweat a bit” in the pan he said. When he had them how he wanted them he added them to bread dough and put the loaves into the oven and told it to have them ready at 12 noon, sharp. Wonder what tomorrow’s bread du jour will be? Finding the answer to that question is just about all the excuse I’d need to get back on the plane.