Tuesday, 29 November 2011

On seeing Michelangelo at work in St. Peter's, Rome in the mid 1500's, one French traveller recorded: "It has to be seen to be believed. He went at it with such fury and impetuosity that I thought the whole work would be knocked to pieces. He struck off with one blow chips three or four inches thick so close to the mark that, if he had gone just a fraction beyond, he would have ruined the entire work." (publ. "Rome", Christopher Hibbert)

The sun is shining today in a clear blue sky, same as yesterday.  In the sun it is warm, but in the shadows there is the first morning frost.  Last week it did rain for a day or two, sufficient to soak the pale, cloying clay of the soil here.  It is ploughed with heavy machinery and turns over in solid boulders which have to be worked again and again - like kneading dough - the kind I make.  We visited our "site" where the mud adhered to our boots and took hold, piling on with each step like concrete (in another story death by drowning would be guaranteed).  There is no way of getting the mud off.  We tried scraping, stamping, swearing, nothing worked.  This is the stuff from which they make building bricks around here.
The walls of our ruin were, however, originally made of stone.  Each of which is being individually cleaned and, where necessary, replaced and re-fashioned by Alessandro, the stonemason.  He is a master of his craft.  Peter has nicknamed him Michelangelo.  An exaggeration perhaps?  Alessandro is different - less temperamental for a start.  Italy today is still a land of master artisans.  It seeps through all trades.  Everyone (there are exceptions, of course!) seems to take pride in their work, even in the service industries.  All aspiring entrepreneurs would do well to apprentice here.  Here are some photos of men at work, no hard hats in sight.

Today we went to Serra de Conti for the Cicerchia Festival.  Cicerchia are like chick peas, once a peasants staple, now revived as a gourmet delicacy for those in the know.  The streets with their steep, paved stairwells and cluttered piazzas are thronged with visitors for the festival.  All doorways open to makeshift restaurants serving a variety of dishes all containing Cicerchia and all tables fully booked.  On every corner of every little piazza an untended, open log fire blazes ineffectually in the chill of the shadows.  The fires have no guards, people old and young brush by the flames regardless.
The little town of Serra de Conti is famous throughout Italy for this festival.  it may be Sunday but all the shops are open, many selling locally crafted jewellery, pottery and macramé.  Generous samples of local wines, cheeses (and onions!) are on offer and their stalls signposted by cheerful, if disorderly, queues.  The Town Hall has graciously opened its doors to all, with an art and poetry exhibition and, in one little room almost obscured from view, a sole exhibit of a massive, old, cumbersome cinema projector (though not as old as the one used in "Il Nuovo Cinema Paradiso", the iconic, must see film set in 1950's Sicily).  In the main square young children in makeshift costumes were preparing to stage a dramatic performance, ignoring the one little donkey standing forlornly close by.  Donkey and owner were presumably, though not obviously, awaiting takers for a four legged tour of the town;  presumably, but not necessarily, on a route avoiding all the vertiginous stairwells.

Lack of foresight, no doubt fuelled by our ignorance of the allure of Cicerchia, meant we hadn't booked a table anywhere in town and consequently didn't get to taste it (the Cicerchia, that is).  But reasons for not buying a packet of the dried out pulse, at what looked like Festival prices, from one of the eager bancarellisti (lovely word!) lining the ever narrowing passageways, elude me.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"But when the slates came off extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open". (from "Glenmore Revisited" Seamus Heaney)

Days after celebrating 150 years of the unification of their country, the Italians are again flying their flags for the final fall (they hope) of Berlusconi; perhaps like Garibaldi, they'll name a biscuit after him too - fruitier, but less tasty.

We have finally got wi-fi installed in the apartment and here are some photos showing the progress on our house. No front wall and no roof! Although a new interior wall has been built to the first floor and, importantly, within it an original wooden beam has been carefully replaced; it does not look out of place, it's a little lopsided.

One evening last week we were invited to Paolo's house for a celebratory tasting of this year's newly pressed olive oil. Fifteen or so guests seated around a linen covered banqueting table with a wood fire blazing, "help" in the kitchen, and all the courses,starting with polenta and porcini, basked in olive oil. This virgin olive oil is unlike anything Peter and I have ever tasted before. In the bottle it is pale green and cloudy, like grape flesh. Its taste is not at all oily, subtle and slightly bitter. It is treated at table with the reverence afforded a vintage wine.

After the the meal Paolo gave us a proud tour of his house. He not only built it himself, he also precisely chose everything in it from floor tiles to doors to furniture to bath taps, each detail savouring the "rustic" flavour of the original building and of the traditions of the region. He repeats: Of course you can choose anything you like for your house", but this is just rhetoric, we know that, in his view, nothing will be right unless it replicates his vision of the "rustic". His house is a sound premise for his point.

The next day we went back to our man with the red rimmed spectacles, Ricardo (no really, you can't make up alliteration like that). We have to pay the bill for the wi-fi installation. We are invited again to sample "The best coffee in all of Italy" which today comes with a lecture on the production and appreciation of olive oil. Whilst Paolo may be his good friend, Ricardo is not shy of hinting at criticism of his olive oil making methods, nor of its resulting quality, not to mention the consistency of its shelf life. We quickly realise that there is a chauvinism amongst olive oil producers second only to that of "viticoltori" of DOC labelled wines.

As one guest at Paolo's table said: The three most important things to Italians are family, food and fashion (the fourth is women), not always in that order. Flying the flag, it seems, lags way behind in the order of priorities.