Listen, to have any street cred at all, a hobby has to generate that frisson of excitement that only comes with the knowledge that you may end up either dead or seriously maimed. (Though, if you are a bumbling idiot like I am, pretty much any banal activity can end up, if not mortal, at the very least resulting in a trip to the emergency room. See, for example, soap making.) Luckily one of the most popular pastimes in the Umbrian countryside, despite its innocuous sound, involves enough flirting with danger to justify that certain John Wayne swagger.
Take a walk on the wild side. Wild asparagus, that is.
Around mid-march, when the winter rains have pretty much petered out and the first warm spring sun shows promise, you begin to see cars parked along the country roads as the Umbrians turn out en masse to hunt wild asparagus. “Hunt” may seem a little melodramatic to describe what amounts to tromping through the woods picking shoots, but once you’ve been you realize that these wily little woodland cousins to domestic asparagus are not that easy to spot.
See one here?
How ‘bout here, smartypants?
I told you. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at rousting them out and after an hour in the woods am able to return home with my head held high and a trophy bundle. If you have the time and patience (and stake out your territory early in the day…during peak asparagus season the woods get pretty picked over by the end of the morning and you often see folks climbing back into their cars at lunchtime loading ten or more bundles of the prized wild vegetable in their trunks) you can end up picking enough in one day to put up for the rest of the year.
Note the gloves. Keep reading.
These thin stalks pack a lot of punch with their sharp flavour, so are better used as a condiment than a side dish. Try them with egg pasta like tagliatelle, in a frittata, or as a risotto. They can also be quickly blanched and frozen so you can enjoy them even when they’re no longer in season (which finishes around the end of May).
Asparagus hunter defying death and scraped knees.
But what about the mortal danger part? you may be wondering. As you’re foraging along in the woods through bushes and high grass, and stooping down to stick your hands under fallen leaves and the prickly aspargus plants to snap off your prize, you may run into this guy:
Yikes. Gives me the heebies even in .jpeg
Vipers, or adders, whose venom can be fatal (or, if it’s your lucky day, can just lead to kidney damage), are native to the area around Assisi, and when the sun starts to warm the hillsides they begin to come out of hibernation. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear boots and gloves when you are out hunting your asparagus, and you can also use walking sticks to flush out any unwanted reptile friends before sticking your hands in scrub. I haven’t yet had a brush with anything more startling than a lizard (There are hilarious Park Service signs on Mount Subasio with tips to help you identify a viper, including a description of the shape of its pupils. Like I’m going to hang out long enough to get a good gander at any snake’s pupils, viper or not.) and I hope I never do, as I would probably hang up my asparagus hunting hat forever.
Sure, I want to have some street cred, but I’d like to live long enough to eat it, too.
Just to makes things clear at the outset, this is not a blog about food. Or wine. Or cooking in general. It is, however, a blog about this wild toboggan ride commonly known as Life, and a big part of mine has to do with food, wine, and cooking in general. So, there you have it. And now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Certain experiences are so overwhelmingly paradigm shifting that when you have them you feel like your very molecular structure has been altered somehow and you know instinctively and viscerally that you will never be the same again. When you move overseas, for example. When you become a parent. When someone you love dies unexpectedly. When you are bit by a radioactive spider and suddenly look buff in a skin-tight unitard. When, for the first time, you make jam. Jam?!? Yep.
Pick your berries
Saturday morning found me itching
To get on over to my grandma’s kitchen
The sweetest little berries was cooking up right
And then we’d put them in a canning jar and seal them up tight
I have learned lots of things since moving to a farm:
1. There’s a reason that there are no farmers amongst the annual Forbes 500.
2. Roosters do not crow at dawn, but all effing day (and night, if the mood should hit them. The day I decide–after 20 years of vegetarianism–to eat meat once again, I will personally throttle a rooster with my bare hands and devour it with much vindictive satisfaction.)
3. “A woman’s work is never done.” is one of the truest aphorisms ever uttered.
4. If you want beef that isn’t chock full of antibiotics, hormones, and other stuff you wouldn’t want your dog to eat, you’re going to have to pay more than two bucks a pound.
5. There is immense satisfaction to be had in growing good food, preserving good food, and serving good food.
Chop your berries
We have Smucker’s, Welches, Knotts Berry Farm
But a little homemade jam never did a body no harm
A little local motion is all we need
To close down these corporate jam factories
And that last little nugget of wisdom is all bound up in a jar of homemade jam, which has to be one of the easiest thing to make in the history of cooking by fire. With just a little fruit, sugar, and—that most precious of ingredients—time, through some sort of mysterious culinary alchemy you end up with row upon row of jewel-toned glass jars shimmering on your pantry shelves. Eating a slice of fresh hot bread slathered with sweet butter and homemade strawberry jam brings on such a feeling of life satisfaction that if, in that exact moment, an asteroid were to drop out of the sky and pick you off, you would feel no regret.
Cook your berries
Yeah, we have a little revolution sweeping the land
Now once more everybody’s making homemade jam
So won’t you call your friends up on the telephone
You invite ’em on over, you make some jam of your own
I find the act of making jam meditative…all the time I pick and wash fruit, peel, chop, and otherwise prepare it, sterilize the glass jars, and slowly stir the simmering mixture as it lets out its pectin and begins to thicken into jam, I reflect. I reflect on the abundance of what the earth offers. (When she damn well pleases. The moody wench also likes to send late freezes, hail storms, and record rains. See item number 1 above.) I reflect on how often the most soul-satisfying food is the simplest. I reflect on how many generations of women before me have “put up” food to feed their families, and how in this modern world of the information super highway and molecular gastronomy and Vibram Five Fingers this art remains largely unchanged.
Eat your berries
We’ll be making jam
Strawberry jam, mmmm-mm
If you want the best jam
You gotta make your own
And mostly I reflect on who will be eating this jam, this sparkling jar of distilled love. My boys, whose favorite part of jam making is climbing the fig and apricot trees or going on blackberry picking expeditions along the tracks in the woods. My friends, who know that due to a Aspberger-like social akwardness I often substitute gifts for hugs, but the sentiment is the same. My guests, who have given me so much over the years in exchange for my modest offering of fruit, sugar, and time. And myself, who sometimes needs just a quiet moment with some simple strawberry sweetness to survive this wild toboggan ride of a life.
Eat your berries again, this time with feeling
Aw, one more time
Oh, makin’ that jam
Yeah, Strawberry jam
If you want the best jam
You gotta make your own
–Strawberry Jam song lyrics by Michelle Shocked
It’s a sad day.
It’s a sad day, my friends, when your eight year old son fixes you with a look of impending doom and says, “Mamma, I have to tell you something. But you’re not going to like it.” And your eyes sweep over the china cabinet, which shows no signs of a soccer ball having been kicked through it, your nose sniffs the air, which does not reveal the acrid odor of legos being baked to see if they will stay stuck together, your hand touches the throat of his younger brother, in which a vital pulse is still beating. So how bad can it be?
“Mamma, I don’t, um, really, you know, like peanut butter.”
And in that instant the universe shifts just a smidgen, the light seems to dim, your heartbeat slows in dismay, and what you have suspected for the past eight years is suddenly proven without a doubt.
Your children are not, and never will be, American.
I mean, I have had other clues of this over the years. My sons were scandalized by their American cousins wearing un-ironed t-shirts on a recent trip to the States, they are convinced that eating cherries and drinking water in the same sitting will somehow land them in the hospital, and they have vowed they will never move out of my home (they are in for a big surprise come age 18). They prefer prosciutto and bread to pancakes for breakfast, say that they are annoyed when bored or nervous when stressed out, and are constantly urging me to pass on the right. However, until their rejection of the national childhood dish of the USA, I had harbored a hope that I could still, somehow, claim them as mine.
The one who doesn’t like peanut butter.
There is a famous adage which says that parenting is essentially a process of slowly letting go of your child from the minute he is born, and this process is even more poignant when part of that letting go is not only of your child but of your childhood. Let’s face it, one of the best parts of parenting is reliving your own youth…the one you really had (I got my kids into Star Wars, early and hard) and the one you wish you had (I took them to Disneyland, where I always dreamed of going as a kid.). But when they are growing up in a country and culture different from yours, it’s hard to engage them in your passions, your aspirations, your expectations. You want them to fit in (and, coincidentally, not be ashamed of you—their foreign parent. Their foreign parent who is still concerned with her cool quotient 39 years into the game.) but not go native.
The one who doesn’t like wearing unironed tshirts.
The irony here (because ain’t life ironical?) is that I lived the flip side of this same situation growing up in an immigrant Greek family in the 1970s. I think now about how dismayed Yaya must have been to watch as subsequent generations gradually gave up the Orthodox faith, shunned the language, married non-Greeks, (“Honey,” she would say to me, “You find nice Greek boy to marry. You make your Yaya happy, koukla.”) and finally ended up considering the gyros and yelling “Opa!” as the saganaki was set alight by a Mexican waiter the pinnacle of Greek culture.
The ones who claim they will never move away from home.
My children are not growing up Cub fans, don’t recognize the Good Humor ice cream truck, have never read the Sunday funny pages. They will not have memories of fireworks on the 4th, of a day with cheese blintzes for breakfast/burritos for lunch/spanakopita for dinner, of trick-or-treating. My children are living a life infinitely different from the one I did and in some ways this makes them less mine. My children are putting down roots and flourishing in a different land and I am, bit by bit, letting go of their future.
I am, bit by bit, letting go of my past.
I am, bit by bit, letting go.
I think there is a moment in life when you realize you have finally, after many close shaves, hit bottom. When you have to have the courage to take a good, long look at yourself and admit that you have a problem. That your habit is ruining your health, jeopardizing your family life, alienating your friends, and compromising your career. That point when you suddenly realize that you, like Liz or Betty or that really emaciated model whose name escapes me right now, are an addict and it’s time to reclaim your life and self respect.
I am about to take the first step. Hello, my name is Rebecca. I ate all my children’s Easter candy. Again.
L’uova di Pasqua
It’s not really about candy. It’s about chocolate, since Easter candy here is almost exclusively huge chocolate Easter eggs, which are hollow and hide a surprise (usually a little toy or keychain) inside. My sons got 22 of them this year (we have many, many relatives). Each of them weighs about half a kilo. That’s a lot of chocolate, and a pretty big temptation for an avowed chocoholic like yours truly. It’s like holding a gamblers anon convention in Vegas.
The diabolic chocolate eggs
Every year I say to myself, “Okay, this is the year you are going to show some self control. This year you are going to break up all those chocolate eggs into little pieces and freeze them for future baking. And donate some of the chocolate to starving children in the Third World. And throw a big dinner party and make a huge pot of chocolate fondue for dessert.”
Instead what happens is that those damn things sit there, in their shiny mylar wrapping, calling to me. It wakes me up at night. It interrupts my work. It becomes an obsession. So I say to myself, “Okay, one. You can eat one egg.” I make a tiny incision in the back side of one of the egg wrappings with a really sharp knife, and, with surgical precision, cut away a little piece. It’s Venchi. Milk chocolate. It’s really good. So I grab the egg, rip the paper to shreds, and proceed to stuff the rest of the egg by handfuls into my mouth, all the time keeping one eye on the door should my husband or children walk in on this spectacle.
Note the mesmerizing mylar decorative paper
Luckily, my kids are still kind of fuzzy about numbers above ten, so they don’t really notice that their eggs are slowly culled as the days pass. Plus, I give them the toys, which is all they really care about anyway.
Unfortunately, my husband is not that fuzzy about numbers above ten, and is horrified to discover that his wife has managed to put away about 10 kilos of chocolate in less than a week. I really think it is one of the few times in the almost 20 years I have known him that I have felt real shame. That and the three times I crashed the car.
Why, why can’t they eat the disgustingly unappetizing Easter candy we have in the States here? I mean, if my choices were yellow sugar covered marshmallow chicks and black jelly beans, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. I have a vague recollection of liking those things when I was, oh, five, but the very thought of eating them now makes my stomach turn. It’s funny how we grow out of food. I also used to love that peanut butter and jelly together in one jar stuff and Oreos. Thank God my taste buds have matured, though my self control has remained what it was in kindergarten.
Even more of a temptation when not encased in mylar
We also have a momentous amount of chocolate in the house around Easter because we throw an annual Easter egg hunt. We began when my oldest son was born (I think he was barely walking the first year we held the hunt), and every year the party gets bigger and better. I love the Easter party, though we rarely have decent weather. Usually, about 100 people huddle under our porch watching a driving, freezing rain come down and wait for a ten minute window in which the kids can book into the garden and collect the sodden eggs.
After years of trial and error, and running over months old rotten eggs with the lawn mower, we have, for the past couple of years, only hidden plastic eggs (which still get run over with the mower in August, but just make a terrifying noise without the sickening stench). We hide a couple hundred of them, and inside each one is a little chocolate egg that the finder gets to keep and take home. I buy those little chocolate eggs in bulk, and strangely seem to overbuy every year. It’s uncanny. Call it fate.
My boys with their Easter baskets ready to take to Mass for the traditional blessing; their chocolate eggs are in the center
Of course, that’s far too much sugar for my babes, so the sacrifice I make for them is to consume them all myself. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to take the bullet for your kids.
The Easter egg hunt is a very popular party with our set because of the novelty. They don’t do egg hunts in Italy; it’s very much an Anglo-American tradition, as far as I can tell. Since my elder son was born, I have been really working hard to bring a little bit of American Childhood to Italy. We have the Halloween party, Thanksgiving Dinner, the Christmas Cookie Decorating get together, the Easter Egg hunt. We haven’t had a Fourth of July shindig yet, but I think it’s just a matter of time.
Only Italians would use a bottle of wine for scale
I find it strange, and a bit out of character, that I put so much weight on these American holidays. There are lots of different expat profiles here in Italy, which run a vast gamut of different living abroad experiences. There are those who live in a kind of Anglo-American bubble: they don’t speak Italian, may not even send their kids to Italian schools, don’t socialize with Italians, and are very shaky on Italian law, politics, and pop culture. I suspect they live here primarily for the food. Some in this group, mostly those who have found themselves residents here through marriage or career, also live in a state of suspended animation, passing most of their time and funnelling most of their resources, to those periods that they go “back home”. Home being that place they left, oh, twenty years ago.
Then there are those on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, who have glommed onto Italy with all the passion of the newly converted. They refuse to speak their mother tongue, even when introduced to fellow English speakers, have nothing good to say about their home country, which they visit once every ten years during which visit they annoy all their friends and relatives touting non-stop the joys of living in Italy, have nothing bad to say about Italy, even when the utility bill comes, and wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s even if you held a loaded pistol to their temple.
After a brief stint as a passionate newly converted (until my first utility bill came, which set me in a pining-for-home rut for awhile), I have settled at a place pretty much right smack in the middle. I love the country I live in now, but also have some nostalgia for the one I left years ago. When I am in the States I tend to make pasta and change into clean clothes to run to the grocery store. When I am in Italy, I prepare pancakes for breakfast and drop my kids off at school in sweatpants. I have one foot here, and one there. And both my hands in the chocolate eggs.
Venchi milk chocolate Easter eggs. Say that, and you've said it all.
I have a little confession to make. Each year, right around Easter, I am reminded of this deep love I harbor which surfaces in a cyclical fashion with the coming of spring. I mean, not your normal “Oh, I love that sweater on her” or “I just love to curl up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire” kind of love, but that obsessive, slightly creepy “I want to start a life with you and buy you presents” kind of love.
Which is weird, since the object of my ardor is a foodstuff.
Though, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my passion for food is growing more acute as I have become a middle-aged mother of two and things like heavy drinking, recreational drug use, and sleeping around no longer seem appropriate. Let’s just say that eating is one of the few joys of life left to me.
Torta di Pasqua
And Easter in Umbria offers humanity a dish which represents, in my opinion, the apex of culinary accomplishment. Its ne plus ultra. Its climax. (Ok, now I am getting creepy.) My friends, I present to you Torta di Pasqua (also known as Pizza di Pasqua or simply Torta al Formaggio).
Literally seconds from the oven....
This savory cheese bread is a traditional Easter dish around these parts and the recipe varies from family to family and is a closely guarded secret handed down through the generations. However, from what I can glean from years of attentive observation, there are a few key ingredients used in all its variants:
- a farmwife, between the ages of 62 and 87
- an amazing amount of lard
- an outdoor wood-burning brick oven
- an astounding amount of lard
- eggs, and a lot of ’em
- an astonishing amount of lard
- parmeggiano, pecorino, and swiss cheese
- an insane amount of lard
- some other stuff, mainly flour and salt
The preparation of this dish begins weeks before baking day, as the farmwives start to hoard their eggs (News flash: farm fresh eggs keep forever, and they don’t have to go in the fridge. Things you discover when you move to the country.) as they will be using literally dozens to turn out the numerous mushroom-shaped loaves. I suppose you could even say the preparation begins months before, when they butcher their annual hog at Christmas and put aside the lard (Did I mention the awesome amount of lard? For an explanation as to my non-dogmatic interpretation of vegetarianism which allows for the occasional lard intake, see here.) they will later need for the dough.
Kneading the dough
Preparing the pans for the oven
Surveying the oven-ready loaves (note the dollops of lard dotting each one...did I mention the lard?)
The big day
Early on the morning of baking day, the women light the fires in their woodstoves and knead together all the ingredients to make the rich, cheesy bread dough. This is then divided into at least a dozen different tins (many of them refitted industrial sized sardine cans) and left to rest and rise near the warmth of the oven.
Getting the wood stove up to temperature
Sardine can reincarnated as baking tin
Before the flames
Once nicely double or tripled in size and rounded on the top, they are placed into the oven one by one with a large wooden paddle, an olive branch blessed during Mass on Palm Sunday is tucked in with them, a quick prayer to Santa Rita is said (the gist: “Santa Rita, please let our loaves rise””), and the oven door is sealed with mud.
A surprising number of baking tins fit in that oven
After the flames
When they are done, they should have risen over the sides of their tins to take the shape of giant cupcakes and are shiny and golden on top. As you can see, sometimes Santa Rita is a cunning vixen and they don’t rise as much as the bakers would like…leading to the naming of the saint in much different–and probably unprintable–terms.
Despite olive branches and appeals to heaven, the loaves didn't rise as much as hoped
The elixir of the gods
To slice into one of these torte fresh from the oven is to experience bliss. The lard (did I mention the incredible amount of lard?) yields a short, crumbly crust on the outside and a moist, savory crumb inside dotted with melted cubes of swiss cheese. Some recipes use a bit of pepper in the dough, which I enjoy, though it’s tough to get just the right amount without overshadowing the cheese flavor. Our aunt, Zia Anna, gets just the right amount, for example. And I love her for it.
Crispy outside, moist inside
It’s otherwordly freshly baked, but can also be frozed and toasted for weeks afterwards…still delicious, though will not bring you to ecstatic tears, which a steaming hot slice certainly can do.
Cast and crew: from left Zia Anna, Nicolò, Nonna Emma, Zia Viola
This is my first blog post (yes, I showed up to the party a little late, I’m sorry, the traffic, you wouldn’t believe, couldn’t decide what to wear, does this make me look fat?, but I made some amazing dip, where can I get a glass of wine?), and, as seems inevitable with firsts,—the first of the year, the first day of a new job, the first time you wake up and realize the details of the party you attended the night before are a little sketchy and whose apartment is this, anyway?—it has led to a bit of spontaneous stock taking.
I recently got back from a trip to Hawai’i, where I spent the holidays with my brother, who just moved to Kaua’i (my brother has many laudable qualities, not least of which is his predilection to reside in beautiful places). When I returned to my “hometown” of Assisi, not a few friends, after hearing me recount my absolutely perfect vacation on the Garden Isle (for which I would like to publicly thank the aforementioned Brother, who is also one of my favorite people on earth and really knows how to show guests a good time), asked me in a conspiratorial murmur, “Weren’t you tempted to move there?”
And I have to say that I surprised even myself by answering honestly and decisively, “No”.
Now don’t get me wrong, Kaua’i is breathtakingly gorgeous…but of course, I already live in a place that is breathtakingly gorgeous, though Kaua’i is all about pristine palm-fringed beaches and verdant jungles where Umbria is all about rolling wooded land interspersed with vineyards or olive groves and tiny medieval stone hill towns. However, once you live in a gorgeous place you start to get a little insouciant about the whole marveling at other places’ natural beauty thing.
And the people of Kaua’i are certainly warm and welcoming, in a very forward “ALOHA!!” sort of way. But, of course, the people in Umbria are the same, though in a much more formal and reserved “Buongiorno, Signora” sort of way. In fact, it took me a couple of days to get reacclimated to the American peculiarity of readily starting up long and intimate conversations with perfect strangers, who just minutes later are crowned your New Best Friend. I am considered quite gregarious in Umbria, but a bit stand-offish in Hawai’i.
Rebecca and her sons in paradise
The rhythm of life in Kaua’i is certainly a sustainable one, as is that of Umbria. These are doubtless two populaces who have not tacked up “winning the rat race” amongst their top ten life goals. Both spend an admiral amount of time doing what we humans are programmed to do: enjoying life. One dedicates itself to surfing and pimping monster trucks, and the other to truffle hunting and pimping tagliatelle, but the end product of contentment with their lot is the same.
And speaking of tagliatelle, these are also two places where one can eat wonderful fresh local food. Kauai’i has a cuisine which reflects its social history of successive waves of immigrants from Polinesia and Japan, where Umbria’s is a testament to an immobile and insular regional history, with a cuisine which has remained largely unchanged for centuries (they still eat unsalted bread, after a spat with the Vatican over the salt tax in the mid-sixteenth century. They’re not into nouvelle cuisine, here.).
In short, Kaua’i, according to all the usual parameters is, indeed, paradise on earth. I must be crazy not to want to move there, right?
The thing is, is that sometimes you move to a place for very tangible reasons…its beauty, its economy, its convenience. But sometimes you get off a plane, set your suitcase down, and in a flash, or a wave, or a slow, flowering moment you feel you have come home. It’s nothing you can really put your finger on, but instead a primordial recognition of having arrived where you are supposed to stay. I have experienced that with only one place in my life until now, and that place was not Kaua’i, or Paris, or Charleston, or Mykonos, or even Chicago, where I was born. That place is here, in Umbria.
Not to say that my life here is perfect. In the more than 15 years since I settled here, there have been beginnings and endings, births and deaths, gains and losses…in a word, there has been a life. But I have the conviction that it has been the life I was supposed to have had in the place I was supposed to be. And just that feeling of it being right is…paradise.