In the past month, Ferdinand has learned to ride a bicycle, to ride a scooter, and does laps daily at the pool at Mimi’s agriturismo in Mercatale; the chocolate eggs with a prize inside that he gets every morning at the bar for breakfast, or the chips with another prize inside that he gets for lunch are not enough to keep the whole thing going. On top of the energy level, I have to consider that yesterday he came up to somewhere around my knee, and when I put him to bed last night, it seemed to me that he could be at eyelevel by Friday. I think by next year, my grocery list is going to increase at least by four just to feed him, so it is time to think about saving. There is a cut that sits right above the back ribs, very tender since there is not a whole lot of muscle up there, and a good price, since it isn’t too pretty. There is a little bit of this and a little bit of that that you have to work your way around with your fork and knife, but Ferd loves it, and it takes about two minutes in a hot pan, drizzled with olive oil, salt, and a whole clove of garlic, uncut, and just for flavor. Serve it with good bread, fried in the pan and long string beans.
My friend Liz called me up when she was planning the baptismal party for her son, and said Faye, “if you were throwing a party for the second coming of Christ, or to baptise your son, in the Italian tradition, they would be the same.” I have to say I have found this to be true. In this little region, it is really only the baby that has to show up at the church; everyone else goes directly to the food. Last night, there was a table outside of antipasto and drinks, my favorite a mix of campari, blood orange juice and prosseco. Inside, the rest of the food was on display for about an hour until the baby showed up. There is nothing better than porchetta for party food, a huge whole pig, turned on a spit seasoned with fennel, sage and rosemary, until the skin is absolutely crisp and the inside is as soft as butter on a warm day. You don’t really need anything else, but just in case, there were twenty different platters of food to tempt you away from any ideas of not overeating. Whole forms of ricotta served with fresh fave, all types of sliced salume and sausages, chianina beef thin as paper, with a salsa verde, grilled vegetables, pasta in every form, faro, fruits, and then eight desserts.
Ferd played “Don’t let the fox catch the chickens” with the girls outside.
I don’t know how I could have missed it, living as long as I have, but yesterday, my friend Caroline showed me a flower that grows wild along the road to her house above Mercatale, that I have never seen before. It is called Love in the Midst. The most beautiful sky blue petals with tiny deep purple grapes around the center, and a web of tiny green threads that are something between a brides veil and morning fog. She showed me how to eat witch’s broom blooms when they are still closed, and where the cammomile grows for making tea, and under a great tangle of Spring, a treasure of wild strawberries. Ferdinand said, “I do like these”, in his best British accent, and climbed the tree at the top of the hill with Caroline’s cat Mulberry.
It is my heart that is broken, and for no good reason. Sometimes it just happens with no warning and out of nowhere, and it feels as if the world has gone all hushed and grey and words disappear into a fog that goes nowhere. I think that the past can stand up on its hind legs every once in a while and nash its teeth for the time it takes to remember that I no longer live there.
On days like these I find trips to the butcher, who is very handsome, for paper thin slices of prosciutto can be very helpful. I don’t even need the bread really. And then al dente spaghetti, to give your teeth a job to do, tossed with ever so finely chopped lemon zest, golden minced garlic, fried parsley, a few red hot peppers to start a sweat, the purest olive oil to soothe all ills, and a fine Spring Parmigiano Reggiano to remind you of those tiny new blades of grass that the cows slowly worked their way through to give such a delicate and at the same time demanding flavor. For dessert, there is nothing better than cherries soaked in grappa straight from the glass.
There are days in May when the only thing you can really eat is fruit salad. There is no need to suffer though. Fruit salad and a piece of creamy French full fat cheese of any kind, with fresh baguette and maybe a few pieces of baby arugula with toasted walnuts, and raisins, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, are good to anybody. I only made it through the fruit salad, but I think I am in a waking state of hibernation. A little wine, a cherry, a piece of bread, and sleep. I like to think that I am about to come up with some amazing idea for something, and that’s why my brain is in such a state of exhaustion. Or maybe I am just subconsciouslymoved by the work of the earth, pushing out all of those leaves and flowers, that I feel like I was the one having the baby. If you think too much about what’s around you here, you start crying. It is a lot to take on. Poppies running wild through the fields, tiny white flowers shoving their way through the leaves on the olive trees, wheat fields swaying in the rush of a breeze, and wildflowers everywhere. Growing out of doorways, through tree trunks, out of the walls. Life is taking over in Italy.
Ferd is having noodles, if I can reach them–my arm might not stretch that far anymore–and I’m having whatever is in front of the refrigerator. I don’t care if it is yogurt or old string beans. I have the blues, and sometimes cooking is the best thing for it, and sometimes I can’t even look at a fork much less the frying pan. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I think I just need to be sent to that kind of camp where people get massages and pep talks. I’ll be back to at least fried eggs with toast by tomorrow night.
Ferd woke up in the middle of the night last night and asked me if I wanted to go for a drive. Sometimes the world makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t.
There is something about picking up a frozen block of white fleshed fish packed nice and tight into a styrofoam pack with lots of saran wrap and a stay fresh label that goes somewhere near Christmas, and watching the boat with the fish line up next to the restaurant, and then ordering whatever came of the boat. I went to Castiglione della Peschia yesterday, just before beach season officially starts, to lie on the beach and eat fish that can stand up on two fins and be proud to be a fish. We stayed in a really cheap hotel, but the beds were great and we over looked the ancient castle that towers over the town. As long as you forgo the weak coffee and old bread in the morning, you’re all right.
I love shellfish in the summer, and if you have garlic, olive oil, tiny little green mussels the size of quarters, some good crisp white wine, lemons and fresh oregano, you have everything but the spaghetti. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil for a pound of pasta. Heat the garlic, about three to four cloves finley chopped, ever so gently in the oil until it looks like it is thinking about going golden. Let it color lightly, and then add the oregano to taste, and spill in a cup of white wine. Let it reduce for a few seconds, and add the mussels. Cover for about three to four minutes, until the mussels have opened. Meanwhile, cook the pasta, and add immediately to the mussels. Toss and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
Last night Jonathan, Ferdinand and I drove up into the Umbrian hills above Bastia Creti, to go to a party. Even with the party balloons that marked the way, we covered most of the narrow white track roads around the house to find it; always the best way I think to get to know an area, especially if you are a bit timid about parties to begin with, and a bit worried about not owning an iron and the state of your party clothes. I have to remember to buy some really bright lipstick to distract people’s attention from my neck down.
Within minutes after arrival, there was confusion about what to do with piles of radicchio and fennel, so I started cooking. I prefer it. Give me a knife, and I can talk all night. As soon as I am just a guest, it is easier talking to a clam that doesn’t want to be cooked, than me. There were already steaks and sausages on the woodfire outside, so I chopped each of the lettuce and fennel heads into quarters, suggested rubbing the grill with olive oil, grilling the whole lot, and once they were off, drizzling them with my favorite flavor enhancer, more olive oil, and salt. You can oil them before hand as well, but it tends to make the fire hover near your eyelashes.
I don’t remember eating anything but strawberries the size of marbles and sweet as
Everything got on the dinner table last night, but we threw order to the wind and had tiny grilled lamb chops first, seasoned only with salt, and then once they are off the grill, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. We had them with a papa al pomodoro, or tomato, fresh basil and bread salad. Then we had two kinds of pasta, my favorite penne with fresh ricotta and mascarpone, tender arugula leaves, golden slivers of garlic, and parmigiano reggiano, then a spaghetti with lemon cream. Slowly reduce the heavy cream with whole cloves of garlic, a big piece of lemon peel (no pith) and a sprig of fresh thyme. Press the whole lot through a seive, and toss with the pasta. Add parmigiano reggiano, some finely chopped parsley, and a little extra zest.
We finished with vegetables. Deep purple artichokes picked down to the tender leaves above the heart, braised in water, a drizzle of olive oil, parsely, a little salt and thyme, then pulled from their bath and stuck in under the broiler for just a few minutes with another drizzle of our life lifting olive oil. Finish with a squeeze of lemon. Or almost finished. Dinner is not dinner without dessert. Panna Cotta with both crackling and creamy caramel.
We sat on the terrace and watched the sun go down behind the hills and ate and drank until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. The sky and I are drizzling this morning. I miss everyone already.
After wandering through the market at Camucia, most of the ladies did no more than stop at a bright yellow concrete house to pump one of the best kept secrets, Cortonese Chianti, from the tank in the corner into a bag in a box before the went home for the afternoon to eat just a little bit more, and fall asleep in the sun.
You have to rest somewhere between olive groves and pastry class and Montepulciano and Perugia. It is hard work tasting olive oil, and we wanted to prepare.
You know how I feel about olive oil. Like love. You might fall for someone who might not smell that great or make you laugh but works hard and will last you forever, or you can nearly be able to catch your breath from the natural aroma of their skin, and life feels pumped back into you at the sight of them, and at the same time that you want to savor, you only want more.
It is true that you can get extra virgin olive oil for four dollars a gallon at Mr. Amazing, and it will grease the bottom of the pan until the cows come home and knit themselves a sweater.
But see if you can’t pour yourself a drop of olive oil, made from olives picked from breezy green hills at the perfect point, handled like a newborn, and pressed practically within minutes to taste the fresh cut grass and fruit of the olive.
It can be hard to find. But so is love, and once you know it, there is no going back.