Today is Saint Joseph’s day and in northern and central Italy we traditionally eat rice fritters. I bought some this morning at the bar-pasticcieria in Ponte a Serraglio. I couldn’t resist taking a couple of bites before I got home to take the photo. Every family has its secret recipe. These are light and airy, but the ones Eugenia made for the wild boar dinner Saturday night were lusciously creamy inside.
The celebration of Saint Joseph’s day is also tied to a pagan tradition allied to the annual agricultural cycle. It was the day of bonfires when all the dead remains of the previous year’s harvest were cleared up and destroyed in huge fires that burned throughout the night as a rite of purification and to welcome the spring. In the 20th century it was designated as fathers’ day and children made presents for their fathers.
The Befana is a good witch. She arrives on her broomstick on 5 January, the eve of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. She goes from house to house, accompanied by villagers singing a begging song. In Casabasciana she brings presents for good children and lumps of coal for bad ones. Adults receive a present too, in return for which they make a donation to the upkeep of the village church, and the end of the song thanks them for their gift. It’s interesting that an apparently pagan character is willing to handover her takings to established religion.
In some villages in the Garfagnana there is a tradition of the Befana being a cross-dressed man. We run an equal opportunities policy; last year a woman dressed up in the costume, and last night a man played the role. Besides the broom essential for locomotion, a large nose, glasses, a wild wig and headscarf are de rigueur.
The evening begins at about 8 pm when the men gather in the bar and the women take the befana-to-be to the village hall to dress him or her. When they emerge everyone sets off on a zigzagging route stopping at each of the inhabited houses of the village. It’s misting gently, but if traditions are to be preserved, one mustn’t be put off by a little rain.
At each house we sing Casabasciana’s begging song (each village has a different one and, yes, it’s a bit boring after the 20th time) and deliver presents, different ones for girls, boys and adults. All the children of Casabasciana must be good, since no one receives a lump of coal. Did anyone consult their parents?
Ancient hilltop villages abound in nooks and crannies that invite decoration. Outside Margherita’s house, at the top of the village on the site of the original fort, is a charming little presepe.
By 10 pm we’ve reached Angela’s house where we’re welcomed to refreshments.
Angela has baked befanini and cialde, both of which are typical here for the night of Befana.
Befanini are simple biscuits, cookies decorated with coloured sugar sprinkles.
Cialda means wafer. Here they are flavoured with anise seed and rolled into cones. Anna Rosa makes hers the old-fashioned way, baking them between patterned iron plates heated over a flame. Angela has a cialda machine. I wonder if I could tell the difference in a blind tasting.
Some bottles of fizz are uncorked, the donation box is opened and the grand sum of €380 is declared. Satisfaction all round, since the take is better than last year despite the economic crisis, someone observes. By 11 pm a happy glow follows us as we depart for our own houses.
A village feast is not only a time for the inhabitants to socialise, but also to work together. When I go up to the shop this morning, Anna Rosa, Dalida and Eugenia are already upstairs in Dalida’s kitchen baking a cake for our New Year’s Eve dinner. I ask when I should come to help. This year almost everything will be cooked in the wood-fired oven in the piazza, so there isn’t much to do; just peeling the potatoes and laying the table. At 3 pm I head up to the old school, now the community hall. On the way I stop at the oven. The men have brought the bundles of wood: thin branches for lighting the fire or getting it going quickly if it starts to die down and thicker logs to burn longer and get the oven up to temperature.
In the school I join Assunta, Luciana and Penny around the sack of potatoes and a big water-filled basin into which we drop the peeled potatoes. Although I cooked every other Sunday in a Good Food Guide restaurant in England, here I do as I’m told, even if it seems irrational. For example, the peeled potatoes have to be cut into chunks to be roasted. I would get another basin of water, take a whole potato from one basin, cut it up and drop the pieces into the other basin. Not in Casabasciana. There’s only one basin. You take a whole potato, cut it up and drop the pieces back into the same basin. At first it’s easy to find whole potatoes, but soon, everyone is fishing around among the bits, trying to find whole potatoes. Have we finished? No, here’s another whole one. I guess it takes longer this way and we have more time to gossip.
The men have already set up the trestle tables and we spread out white tablecloths and lay the table. Fifty-one places. A little greenery and some red ribbon creates a festive mood.
In the kitchen the potatoes are spread out to dry and the wild boar, larded earlier by Renato and Michelangelo, our two butchers, is waiting to go into the oven. Angela is cutting up some radicchio for salad and Ebe slices bread for crostini.
With nothing more to do I head home (only 2 minutes’ walk from the school). It’s dusk, the Christmas lights are on in the piazza and a quarter moon smiles down from the sky.
Last episode: On 3 September a group of friends set off from Crasciana along a woodland path, but hunger forced us to turn back before reaching the end. At the end of December, we resume our expedition.
Last Sunday some of the same friends and I arm ourselves with pack lunches and set off early to the same lay-by beneath Crasciana. This time the trees are bare and the undergrowth has died down. We see all sorts of things we hadn’t noticed before.
At the Rialto bridge, the ‘car park’ is now occupied by several 4x4s, but the hunters and dogs are invisible. I hope they’ll be successful, since the wild boar population now exceeds the number of humans. Our hunting squadra has already killed 151 animals since the start of the season on 1 November, but they are still foraging for food on the cobbled road that leads from Casabasciana to the old pieve (parish church) below the village. They dislodge the cobbles with their tusks, and the manpower and know-how to repair the damage have vanished. It was the responsibility of the families through whose property the road passed, to keep the road in good condition, but that was in the days when families had many children and before the exodus after the last war.
As we ascend on the far side of the bridge, we hear goat bells overhead and shots in the distance, and soon a goatherd and his flock appear coming toward us. ‘Always exploit a local’ is my rule of thumb, but don’t get me wrong; I mean the Italian valorizzare, to add value or utilise something to best advantage. The most useful question on walks is, ‘Where does this road go?’ Locals are pleased to be asked, since it allows them to show off their knowledge of the territory. The goatherd confirms my suspicion that it’s one of the many routes to Monte Battifolle, the highest peak along the ridge visible from Casabasciana. He cautions us that it takes two hours and we might be shot at, but we bravely continue on our way.
A little farther along we come to the 1778 ruin, which Michelangelo (Eugenia’s brother) identified from my photos as a wayside chapel called Aiole. We continue gently climbing, following way marks for about an hour.
As we round the nose of a spur, we hear shots on the far side of the valley, and we feel safely out of range. Our feet rustle through a carpet of dried chestnut leaves, through which at places we discern the remains of a wide, cobbled mulattiera (to translate this word as ‘mule track’, as my dictionary does, is to demean the super highways of another era).
We dip down to a stream. Since the wild storm the week before, the stream is in full spate and the stepping stones nearly submerged. We pause a minute, but won’t give up now and make it across dry-footed.
After a very steep climb, we come again onto a wide mulattiera, which makes us wonder whether at some point we took a wrong turning onto a minor side road. Perhaps a landslide had swept away a portion of the original road, and it was never repaired, like the modern road between Borgo a Mozzano and Anchiano, where a landslide of two winters ago is still blocking half the road. We stop to rest and contemplate the view over serried ranks of mountains.
Another steep climb and we’re at a T-junction at a dirt road running along the top of the ridge. Cars have passed this morning breaking the ice on the puddles in the ruts.
I think Monte Battifolle is to our right, but I’m not sure. Five years ago I walked there by a different route with people from Crasciana, so I’ll know it when we get there, but at 1109 m it’s only 200 m higher than Sargentino, the peak to its left along the ridge, and it’s hard to tell which is which when you’re up close. We see way markings in both directions. Until now they’ve been on rocks or trees, but here other objects have been utilised.
I recognise the poles with numbered orange hats as the boundary between Lucca and Pistoia provinces. I have the 1:25,000 map with me, but it’s so inaccurate that I’m convinced someone in an office drew in the trails on a whim. The GPS navigator on my mobile phone thinks for a long time and then gives up. We decide my hunch is as good as anything and turn right. The traces of a path forking left into the brush attract us onto slightly higher ground and, as we push our way through the scrub of broom and saplings. Through the veil of bare branches, we see Casabasciana.
Suddenly we stumble upon an upright man-made stone.
Despite the lichen, the engraved characters are clear and sharp: XVIII above the date 1795. A little farther along we find XIX and XX, but they’re not equidistant. What could they be? What was happening in 1795? Absolutely nothing, according to my later searches on the internet. Renato, in the shop at Casabasciana, suspects they are the old equivalents of the present-day orange-hatted poles. A mystery to pursue.
We’re beginning to doubt my instincts about the direction of Battifolle. It’s nearly 1.00 pm and time for our picnic lunch. I try to hail a couple of motor bikers on the dirt road, but they don’t hear or see me above them. We drop down to the road and are just about to turn back when a car approaches from a side road. Time to ask a local again.
We’re nearly there, he says. Just 15 minutes more. OK, let’s go. Here the landscape is more open, and our informant drives on down to a small hunting hide. Does he shoot little birds from it or is it a refuge from which to contemplate the world from a distance?
We set off with renewed confidence, but just when we think we’re home and dry, we come to a five-way intersection with no markings whatsoever.
During a necessarily brief Twitter conversation with Alex Roe of @newsfromitaly and Blog from Italy about the Slow Food Compitese e Orti Lucchesi soup tournament, he asks me what one wins. I know every contestant gets an apron and a certificate, but what does the winner get? I look at the announcements, the menus, the Elegy to Zuppa and the rules of the competition. Nowhere is a prize mentioned. I email Marco Del Pistoia, the leader of Slow Food Compitese. No reply. I telephone. Hesitation. ‘Ma’, I can imagine the shrug of his shoulders, ‘we haven’t decided yet. Maybe a hand-painted ceramic soup tureen filled with local produce.’ So whatever the official prize turns out to be, the contestants are really competing for the love of soup.
If you haven’t had enough soup yet, try my soup story at Sapori e Saperi Newsletter vol. 2 no. 4 where you’ll find out the basics for making a zuppa yourself.
Correction to my previous post: There are six rounds, not five, to determine the finalists. The play-off will be on 27 February at the Frantoio Sociale del Compitese, Pieve di Compito. To be absolutely clear, the remaining rounds take place at 20:00 as follows: 22 January at Effecorta, Marlia; 23 January at Aquilea (sold out), 30 January at Sala ex Collegio Cavanis, Porcari; 5 February at Ristorante La Pecora Nera, Lucca; 6 February at Sala Parrocchiale, Santa Maria del Giudice. Each round is a full dinner, not just soup. Only €20 per person (€17 if you’re a member of Slow Food). Go toDisfida della Zuppa 2010 Lucchesia e Compitese for booking information. Don’t miss the chance to help choose the champion soup maker!
As soon as Marco del Pistoia, leader of Slow Food Compitese e Orti Lucchesi, told me they were organising a soup tournament, I asked him to put me on the mailing list and ever more excited emails keep arriving about the pilgrims already being on the road. The contestants are volunteers each believing his or her soup recipe to be the best in the region, or more probably in the world; the juries are self-selected gourmets and gluttons from the public. There will be five rounds to determine the finalists who will compete on 6 February for the ‘World Championship’ at the Sagra della Zuppa (Soup Festival) at Santa Maria del Giudice, not far from Lucca. The soup will be variations on zuppa alla frantoiana, a thick vegetable soup based on a brodo di fagioli (bean broth) and drizzled with new-season olive oil. Some people maintain the tradition of including wild greens; those suitable for soup are only in season from January to March. It takes at least a day to prepare, or two days if you count the 12 hours needed for soaking the beans and the time spent scouring the fields and hedgerows for the wild herbs. It would be a great course for Sapori e Saperi Adventurers. I’ve signed up for the jury on Friday and Saturday evenings and am already wondering, what is the equivalent of a tiebreaker in a soup tournament — who can throw their soup pot through the kitchen window first? If they’re not all deep dark family secrets, I’ll come back with some recipes.
In case you’re near Lucca and are in the mood for some good warming soup, the full programme is at: Disfida della Zuppa 2010 (it takes forever to load, Slow Web?). If you need a translation, send me an email at email@example.com
I try to take the train to Pisa airport from Bagni di Lucca, a 20-minute drive from my village of Casabasciana. But a train journey that takes 1 hour and 15 minutes at 8.12 in the morning, takes 3 hours at noon because there’s a two-hour layover at Lucca. So this morning I drove to the airport along the Serchio River valley. Bamboo has colonised much neglected land around Lucca, especially in stream and river valleys. This appears to be generally a good thing, since strong, tall bamboo canes are needed to support tomato plants, of which there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, including the canestrini, a knobbly variety found only in Lucca province. At first I found a good, accessible stand of bamboo along the road to Bagni di Lucca in the Lima valley. But now that more and more strangers are invading the area (including me), the old-timers are erecting fences, and last summer the track to the bamboo was blocked by a chain. I found another really good stand on the Serchio flood plain along the road to Lucca. This morning as I passed, bulldozers were busy clearing the whole stretch. It looked naked in the bright sunlight.
When you get to Lucca, you have to know you follow the green autostrada signs to ‘Firenze’ and ‘Genova’. There is not a single indication anywhere around Lucca that there is an airport only half an hour away at Pisa. I put this down to ancient animosity between the two cities. When getting on the autostrada you follow signs to Livorno which lead you, almost accidentally, to the airport on the way. To get to the centre of Pisa, you take the airport off-ramp, drive through the airport and out again, following signs saying ‘PIsa’ followed by a bull’s-eye denoting the city centre. Woe betide anyone who exits at Pisa Nord, thinking they’ll be at the airport or the Leaning Tower. Think again! I wonder whether those who program GPS systems have got this one right. I won’t even attempt to tell you how to find your way back to Lucca.
At the airport there’s a long-stay car park, but low rates only kick in after the first 7 or 8 days, during which you pay the same rate as the short-stay car park; last time I looked it was €15 per day. Much better is Park to Fly, on the wrong side of the tracks from the airport. You follow signs to ‘Chericoni’, who were the previous owners. It only costs €8 a day, even for just one day, with a free shuttle service to and from the airport. On a warm, sunny day like today, now that baggage surcharges have disencumbered us of large suitcases, it’s a nice 10-minute walk. Book on line at www.parktofly.it.
Today I go straight through security to the departure lounge, remembering to remove Renato’s sausages from my bag and put them in a separate plastic tray. Last time they set the x-ray machine off, being the culinary equivalent of hand cream. The lounge is nearly empty. Everyone must be out doing their Christmas shopping. British Airways announces boarding for their flight to Heathrow, departing before my EasyJet flight to Gatwick. One couple walks up to show their boarding passes. A few minutes later a single young man rushes up. Shortly after him a woman with a child and baby in a push chair arrive at the desk. Increasingly frequent calls in Italian and English announce the imminent departure of the BA flight. Another couple saunters up. Then a group of four immaculately dressed Italian businessmen, including one sporting shades, who could be a pop singer or actor, plus one stylish young woman. Now an announcement naming three missing passengers. Someone comes back from the plane having found one of the missing persons. In the end I count 17 adults, 1 child and a baby. If you want to avoid the crush of Ryanair and EasyJet, fly BA — if they’re not on strike already.
It was a rabbit. Renato cut it into pieces for cooking in umido (stewed) and showed me the little wedge of white tissue he removed from behind each knee. He smelled it. No scent, but when cooked it would give the rabbit the ‘dirty’ flavour people didn’t like.
Next I turned to Eugenia, Renato’s wife and a good butcher in her own right, to check the recipe. The usual garlic, rosemary, white wine and tomatoes? That’s it, then add porcini, already sliced and sautéed with garlic and nepitella (calamint), at the end of the cooking to season it. She wanted me to understand that people don’t usually add porcini to rabbit these days, but they used to so it’s OK to do it. Every recipe needs authenticating by the past.
I go up to the village shop, which sells meat as well as almost everything else you could possibly want, to order a guinea fowl for lunch tomorrow. I explain to Renato, the butcher, that I really want a rabbit, but I’m not sure whether the one American and two Brits who are coming to lunch like rabbit. Many people, especially the British, don’t. ‘I’ve heard they think of them as pets, like cats’. ‘Perhaps it’s partly that, but’, I counter, ‘many people say they find the flavour “dirty”’. Renato understands perfectly. He explains that a rabbit has tiny glands, particularly behind the knee, but other places as well, which cause that ‘dirty’ taste. I can be absolutely sure when I buy my rabbits from him they won’t have that flavour, because he removes every little gland himself. With that reassurance I tell him that if he can’t get a guinea fowl, I’ll take a rabbit. I’m almost hoping he can’t get the guinea fowl after all.
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