Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chestnut time

It's October and in Cervinara that means only one thing: chestnuts.  This little town is obsessed with everything to do with chestnuts.  Historically, these tasty treats were a main source of income for the people who owned the mountains.  They were also the source of nutrition during hard times when food was scarce.
During World War II, Cervinara , like so many other parts of Italy, suffered real hardships.  People wasted nothing and everything was used up and recycled until it couldn't be used any more.  The residents here used chestnuts in every way imaginable; roasted, boiled with a bay leaf, dried and ground into flour, sweetened and made into a type of marmalade, pureed and even as a replacement or adjunct for pasta.  Now, the chestnuts are more of a seasonal treat that everyone looks forward to but no one relies on for much more than pocket money and an after dinner delight. 
Harvesting chestnuts is a tricky business.  First, the underbrush has to be cleared away.  In September, controlled fires burn away the tall grasses and dried leaves that have accumulated under the trees.  Then, beginning in October, the actual harvest begins.  The trees that have been pendulous with chestnut "ricci" (the spiny coverings that protect the fruit), begin to drop their burdens.  The ricci litter the ground and become a real hazard to anyone not wearing good heavy shoes.  The men who harvest the chestnuts gather up the ricci and using heavy gloves to protect their hands, they open them up and pull out the three or four chestnuts that are nested inside.  Without gloves, your hands immediately become a sore and bloody mess because the ricci are so sharp and pointy.  The chestnuts get loaded into huge bags, either burlap or a kind of plastic mesh, and are taken down the mountain in tractors.
Talking to some of the old folks here, they remember the harvest before there were the tractors and other mechanical help.  Women used to handle this hard work, trudging up the mountain (before the road was paved) and into the chestnut groves.  They would gather up the nuts into huge bundles (using heavy sheeting material as their packs.)  Then they would heave the hundred pound bundles onto their heads and walk down the mountain again to deliver their burdens to the consortium.  I can't imagine this kind of heavy labor, done for pennies a day. 
Back in those days, the family here would gather up all the chestnuts and put them into an upstairs room for curing.  The cousins talk about this room being so deep in chestnuts that the kids would climb up the outside ladder and jump into the room through the window, covering themselves completely with the ruddy colored nuts.  The image I have in my head is that of one of those inflatable cages filled with nerf balls that kids love to jump in at McDonald's.  This was the Cervinara version of that favorite childhood activity.
Now, we barely go up to the mountain, except to enjoy a bit of a walk when the weather  is nice.  We lease out the concession to Gianluca and he and his crew handle the prep work and the actual harvest.  Gianluca comes to our door with a sack of chestnuts for us and the rest are sold at market.  No one has  the burden of carrying those bundles on their heads anymore, thank goodness!  While the work is certainly easier, the folks here still look forward to these autumn delicacies with the same eager expectation. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Third Tier Italy

For such a small country, Italy has way too much to see.  Everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what their interests, starts with the "Big Three": Rome, Florence and Venice.  Those three cities are worthy of several visits in and of themselves, but unfortunately most travelers do two days in each place and then fly home.
Once the big three have been checked off the bucket list, folks generally go  to the second tier cities.  These usually include Naples, (or Pompeii and Capri to be exact), Milan, and some of the Tuscan hill towns such as Siena or San Gimignano.  All lovely spots and well worth visits, for sure.  I never tire of taking our little train into Naples to get a taste of its special chaos.  And as many times as we have gone into Tuscany and Umbria, there are still more medieval hill towns to view. 
Then there are the once off the beaten track towns that are now must-sees.  These include any in the Cinque Terre, Perugia (oh, the chocolate!), Verona, Bellagio on Lake Como and a host of others.  You can see why people keep coming back to Italy!  This year, we did some third tier towns and found them to be special gems as well.  Thanks to my sister Martha's impetus, we added some smaller destinations to our must-see list and were not disappointed in any of them. 
Our first stop was Padova (or Padua in English).  While most people know this town as the home of Sant'Antonio of Padova, there is so much more to see.  The most important moment for us was visiting the Cappella degli Scrovegni.  This chapel was built by the Scrovegni family after Dante put the father in Hell in his masterwork "The Inferno".  The Scrovegni's were usurers and Dante had a special place for loan sharks.  The Scrovegni children offered up this chapel in the hopes that dad (and the rest of the clan), wouldn't end up where Dante imagined them.  So, what is so special about this chapel?  It has the most amazing frescoes painted by Giotto, more beautiful and spectacular than we could have imagined.  Giotto formed a bridge between the medieval and the renaissance and these frescoes truly show the transition from the iconic painting of the 1100s to the realism of the 1300s.  Each scene in the life of Christ is full of action and emotion.  The panels are breathtaking and our 20 minutes that we were allotted to visit this small chapel were just not enough.  Once you have seen the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper, your next stop must be the Scrovegni Chapel.  It is truly a sight to behold.
The next town that we visited was Vicenza, the home of architect Andrea Palladio.  This town doesn't need museums because every street is a work of art.  Palladio designed and built so many amazing palazzos that are still in use today.  It's unfortunate that so many are private homes because it makes it difficult to see the interiors of these buildings, but just seeing the facades is awe-inspiring.  The undiscovered treasure here was the Teatro Olimpico.  This was the last building designed by Palladio before his death, and it wasn't finished until several years after his passing.  It is an amazing theater and the visit there was inspirational.  As we were sitting on the wooden benches in the theater, the lights went out, music started and a traditional sound and light show came on.  One by one, details of the theater were illuminated, allowing the audience to focus in on each work of art and how it fit into the whole.  Truly a delight. 
Then of course there is "La Rotonda", Palladio's masterpiece that inspired Monticello.  It's outside the city center, in the middle of a field surrounded by more modern bourgeois houses.  It is only open on Wednesdays, so we were unable to get in to see the interior, but just seeing this home from a distance was a thrill.
After Padova and Vicenza, we spent a day up near Udine, but we didn't do any urban visits, preferring to drive through the mountains and on into Slovenia for a quick visit.  At this point my sister and her husband left us to go to Bled, and Mike and I wended our way east to Trieste.  This seaside town isn't nearly as charming as the previous two, but it did have some wonderful sights to see.  We went up to the nearby village of Duino to walk the Strada Rilke, and then down to Grignano to visit the gardens and the castle of Mirarmare, both with phenomenal views.  Downtown Trieste is an odd mixture of seaside resort and bustling metropolis, where work and leisure blend together to make for a satisfying lifestyle.
Our last stop on this road-trip through third tier Italy was to Lucca.  Dwarfed by Florence and outshone by Pisa, Lucca is not on most itineraries, and that is what makes it so charming.  Its immense walls have protected the city center from the incursions of modern society and once inside, it's easy to forget the noisy traffic and bustling crowds on the outside. 
Mike and I have two different ways of visiting new places.  He wants a checklist of sites to visit, with the shortest route possible between each locale.  I prefer to wander and get lost, believing that that is how we get lovely surprises.  On this trip, I was right!  We had gone to visit the church of San Martino (on the checklist) and were debating about where to go next when I just started heading in a random direction.  Mike was annoyed but I persisted.  The end result?  We found San Giovanni Cathedral, the oldest in Lucca, where there are nightly performances of opera dedicated to Giacomo Puccini, Lucca's native son.  We bought tickets, toured the church and its excavations and then went back at 7 pm for some fantastic music.  If we had kept to our checklist, we never would have found this church and would have missed out on a wonderful evening's entertainment.
So, if you have done the big three, and have done the Tuscany "villa" experience, consider going third tier to some of the lesser known but just as beautiful cities.  You will miss the crowds but you won't miss the culture.  You will get a much closer look at what Italy is like for those who live here rather than a hit and run bus stop for hoards of tourists.  And you will come away with memories that will stay with you forever. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The kindness of strangers

Southerners tend to think that we New Englanders are a cold sort, rather inhospitable and just plain unfriendly.  There is a similar prejudice in Italy.  Those living in the "mezzogiorno", south of Rome, are convinced that the northerners have just a bit too much of the Teutonic in them and that they are boring, cold, rule-abiders.  After spending the past ten days here in the Veneto region, I would like to take issue with this conception.
On more occasions than I can count, we have come to depend on the kindness of these strangers and they have never failed to impress us with their concern for our well-being and their genuine friendliness.  Some moments that stand out:
  • the gentleman who saw us studying our map of Padova, trying to find the Basilica di Sant'Antonio.  He directed us once and we went on our way.  When we got off the right track again, he happened across our path and pointed us in the right direction.  A third time....and once again he patiently turned us back around.  Grazie, to this kind bicyclist!
  • on the bus in Trieste, we didn't know at which stops to get off.  We asked one woman if this bus went to the tram stop in Opicina and she acknowledged that it did.  When we arrived at that stop, she walked to the back of the bus where we were sitting to remind us to get off then.  The bus driver on another route hollered out our stop to us, knowing that we were looking for Miramare, which wasn't easily visible from the road.  Not only did he remind us where to get out, he got off the bus and showed us where the entrance to the gardens were and where to wait for the returning bus.  Another woman, with a cute little black puppy, took us in hand to lead us to the Strada Rilke in Duino.
  • Hoteliers may be paid to be polite, but no one could fake the kindness and sincerity of the owners of the agriturismi where we have stayed.  Girolamo and Ruth spent part of every day explaining the workings of their farm, how they met and the best local restaurants to us.  Antonio was so kind when we had to delay our arrival one day....he wasn't concerned about losing two clients for a night but just about our safe travels.  Stella and Nicola never spoke without a smile on their faces and a willingness to share everything from their knowledge to their tour books and guides with every new arrival.
  • Most memorable of all was the kindness of the strangers who helped us after our serious car accident.  As we were returning from a lovely day of visiting Vicenza and Bassano del Grappa, driving through quiet farmland, we were struck by a speeding car on the front driver's side.  An immediate spinning around of the car, explosion of airbags, and a forceful jostling of our bodies ensued.  Glasses went flying.  Bumps and bruises.  And panic.  Immediately, people came running out of their homes.  One called for police.  Another helped us out of the car.  Someone brought out a chair for my sister to sit in and some water for us to drink.  She had a pretty bad bump on her head and felt faint.  As she laid on the ground, a pillow appeared for her head and a lovely gentleman held her hand and told her to breathe deeply and quietly.  The police arrived immediately and were so kind to us all.  They helped us handle all the paperwork and the stress of this accident while ensuring our safety and well-being.  After the ambulance took my sister and her husband to the hospital to be checked out, the family on the corner took Mike and me into their home.  They gave us something to drink and just chatted with us kindly, helping to take our minds off what had happened.  When it became clear that we would need a taxi to take us back to our hotel, they offered to drive us there themselves.  If the police had not already called for the cab, they would have been happy to have done so.  We talked about our children, about their little dog, about the small things that unite us all.  As we were leaving, the mamma kissed us and wished us well and told us to be sure to let them know that all was well.  Such kindness will never be forgotten.
So, when people complain about the coldness of the north, and they aren't talking about the weather, they will have to deal with me from now on!  I have been there and I have seen the warmth that really matters.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Feste, Sagre, and other entertainments

In my last post I wrote about the Festa dell'Immacolata, the festa that we celebrate in the Castello/Ioffredo section of Cervinara.  Last night we enjoyed an evening of music at the Festa dell'Addolorata, celebrated in the Ferrari section of town on the Piazza Elena.  Once again, a lovely evening with good music and nice company.  So what are all these festas about?  And just what is a "sagra"?
Every town, and every "frazione" or neighborhood has a patron saint.  Usually these saints are linked to the local churches, but not always.  For example, our church is San Nicola, but I've never seen anything dedicated to festas, no processions, nothing.  But inside our church is a statue of the Immacolata and another one of Saint Anthony of Padova, and for some reason those are the folks who are honored with processions and festas. Our Immacolata is a lovely statue, with the requisite blue mantel and a crown of stars. In the Santuario down in Ferrari, there is a statue of the Addolorata, or the grieving Madonna.  She is dressed all in black and is rather lugubrious in appearance.  It is in her honor that the first weekend in September, the Ferrari frazione holds its festa.  Of course because the Chapel of San Rocco is also in Ferrari, they get to organize a festa for Rocco too....that's the second weekend in August.

The processions are great money raisers.  As the statues go by, people come out and put money in a box or a basket and get a picture of the saint in return.  They are also ways for the town to provide free entertainment to the populace.  The town and local merchants work in concert with the churches to pull everything together, from the entertainment to the vendors to the fireworks to the lighting displays.

The lights are ubiquitous in Southern Italy.  During the summer as you drive from one town to another, you pass under arcades of brightly colored lights.  They form an arch across the streets and, when illuminated, are quite lovely.  There are companies whose only source of income is to design, install and take down the many lighting displays in each of the towns.  We have watched them be put up and taken down and sometimes it is a hair-raising process.  Last year we happened to be in Aversa, a big city of over 70,000 people, when the lighting displays were being dismantled.'s obvious that OSHA doesn't exist over here!  Workers were climbing up the most unstable of ladders, unhooking the wires that were taped together and that had many exposed wires where the insulation had worn through.  They hung from posts and poles to undo connections and basically risked life and limb to do the job.  We were amazed that they came through unscathed!

Another source of local entertainment is the "sagra".  A sagra is not linked to any religious event but is always connected with the culinary gods.  Sagras celebrate a local food product or crop and tend to bring out massive crowds of hungry folks who want a good time and some good food.  Along any stretch of road now, there are posters up for one sagra or another.  From May when cherries are celebrated in Arpaia to the end of October when chestnuts are celebrated in Cervinara, every weekend could be devoted to some great culinary treat.  Oftentimes we don't even know what food is being offered, because it may be some local type of homemade pasta whose name is not known outside that particular village.  We saw a sign yesterday for the sagra of "Panuzzo e patate al forno".  I asked Mike what 'panuzzo' was....he had no idea, but it was being linked with baked potatoes.  Go figure.

In Dugenta, they spend every weekend of September and October celebrating the "cinghiale" or wild boar.  They set up stands in the piazza and every dish offered has some cinghiale in it.  There is also lots of music, dancing in the streets and strolling through the town.  Last October we went to the Castello sagra of the chestnuts.  Every street was decorated with murals, chestnut branches and local artifacts of the chestnut industry.  Busloads of people came in from Naples.  Local families turned their homes into restaurants where visitors could enjoy a chestnut based meal, or some other rustic specialty such as polenta or homemade tagliatelle.

Anyone on a diet has a tough time here, believe me!  There are temptations on every street corner in every town.  But it's a lovely tradition, that of sharing your local products and celebrating the fruits of local labor.  I wish there were more opportunities for public gatherings such as these in the States.  It brings a community together, adds to the local economy and gives folks something to look forward to.  It's a small town feel, even in the big cities.  Viva la festa!  Viva la sagra!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Festa della Immacolata

August 28 and 29 were the Festa della Immacolata in Cervinara.  This is the biggest festa of the season for the parish of San Nicola and it involved the whole Castello/Ioffredo frazione.  First, there were three days of special masses in preparation for the procession.  The Madonna was taken out of her niche and placed in front of the church.  Sunday morning, the marching band arrived and went around the neighborhood playing marches, most by John Philip Sousa, to announce the arrival of the feast day.  Masses were said as usual.  Then, at 6 pm the bells of the church went crazy, ringing for 10 minutes announcing that the procession was about to begin. 
This procession is the longest of the year and entails a cast of dozens.  First were the little children, dressed up as angels and cherubs.  Then came characters from the life of Mary; when she was a child, as a young woman, as a young mother, and then grieving after the loss of her Son.  There were people dressed as Jesus, the Wise Men, shepherds, Jesus carrying the cross, interspersed with children carrying banners with bible verses of what was being depicted.  Women in pale blue kerchiefs lined up to say the rosary.  The cantors and the priest began with prayers and hymns for everyone to repeat. 
The first stop on the procession was to Don Giorgio's house.  About six weeks ago, Don Giorgio Carbone fell in front of his house.  He has been bed-bound since then and he wasn't even able to go to the window to see the procession pass by.  But we stopped by, the visiting priest took the portable microphone in to his room and he, with voice cracking with emotion, blessed the entire enterprise.
The procession went through the entire town and lasted almost four hours!  By the time the parade returned back up the hill to the church, the excited faces of the children had become fatigued and the old ladies who insisted on carrying the statue were lame and limping.  I made it through about half of the procession before surrendering and taking a ride home from cousin Giovanni!
As the statue of the Madonna was returned to the church, fireworks exploded in a display that could rival anything we have seen at home.  There were 15 minutes of explosions and star bursts, a couple of more hymns sung, a final benediction and then everyone headed off to home.
The next day a stage was set up next to the church in preparation for that evening's concert.  Scheduled to begin at 9 pm, it finally started around 10.  There was a great group of Neapolitan singers, performing traditional songs and tarantellas, the latter accompanied by some very talented local dancers.  Booths were set up where customers bought mixed nuts, candies, "per e mus" (pickled pig snout and feet), and toys for the kiddos.  The Bar Rinascita brought out the grills and cooked up sausage sandwiches for many who decided to have supper outside with their friends.  The pizzeria up the street ran out of pizza dough, there were so many enjoying the cool night air out on the restaurant's terrace. 
All in all, the entire weekend provided a pleasant mix of religious and secular entertainments and there was something for just about everyone.  Sadly, this event marks the end of the summer and the arrival of cooler and rainy weather.  But that doesn't mean it's the end of the festas!  There will be sagras for chestnuts, for wild boar, for porcini mushrooms and for all the other products that will come into season in the fall.  While the mountains of the Samnites aren't cultural centers that attract lots of tourists, there are still many ways to enjoy oneself all year round.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Memento mori

Zio Giovanni Raviele passed away yesterday at 8:30 am. He was 88 years old. Zio means uncle in Italian and, though he wasn't our uncle, he was still Zio Giovanni. When a man reaches a certain age, he automatically becomes zio for the younger generations. It is a term of respect and affection, both of which were well deserved by Zio Giovanni.
When I got to know this man last year, he had already suffered several strokes and was pretty frail. It was hard to have conversations with him, given that Italian isn't my native language and his difficulty with speaking. It didn't matter. His daughter Virginia would walk him down the hill to the bar and he would sit at a table, smiling at the commotion and expressing himself as best he could. He would sip a cappuccino or espresso, glance at the newspaper and just enjoy being in the company of his friends and family. We would make small talk...he was happy to exchange a few words with the Americans, but mostly he just smiled a warm and tender smile.
Word spread fast of Zio Giovanni's passing. By noon, the "manifesti" announcing his death and the details of his funeral were posted. People started arriving at his house to pay their respects by early afternoon. His body stayed in the house where he had spent his entire life, until this morning when the undertakers came to carry his coffin to the church.
A small band proceeded the hearse and the funeral procession to the church. While they didn't play New Orleans style jazz, they also didn't play a funeral dirge. It was pleasant music to accompany his loved ones to say their final good byes. Everyone entered the was filled to overflowing. A mass was said, hymns were sung, and people lined up to express their condolences to his son and daughter. A eulogy was offered by a long-time family friend...something that doesn't usually happen at Italian funerals. He spoke of the simple kindnesses that Zio Giovanni offered, of his gentle spirit and loving heart. He spoke of hours spent together in front of the fireplace, warmed by his stories and memories of past times. All of us who loved Zio Giovanni were moved by this tribute, and there were few dry eyes to be seen.
We gathered outside in the shade of the trees that line the piazza in front of the Church of San Nicola and waited for the coffin to be brought out. Two trumpeters played taps, in honor of Giovanni's service during WWII. Then his coffin was put into the hearse and they headed slowly down the hill to the cemetery. We all waited silently for a few moments, then gradually the crowd dispersed and people headed off to their own daily activities.
I didn't know Zio Giovanni as well as those who have spent their lives here in this small town, but I did know that he was an icon here and a bastion of support for his loved ones. He will be missed. Rest in peace, Zio Giovanni.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This has been a strange summer, here in the foothills of the Apennines. May, June and July were quite chilly, cooler than normal. Except for a few days in mid-July, we have been cool and comfortable, until the past 10 days or so. Now, when summer is waning, when we should be putting on a light jacket after sunset, we are in the throes of a massive heat wave.

The entire Italian peninsula has been invaded by hot winds from Africa. A high pressure system has kept clouds from forming and tourists and residents alike are wilting like roses in front of a blast furnace. The Telegiornale tells us that visits to the ER are climbing and hospital staff keep a constant supply of IV fluid in refrigeration, the better to cool down overheated bodies quickly and efficiently. The elderly, who often still believe that air conditioning is bad for them and refuse to even turn on a fan, are the most frequent victims of this heat. Their odd insistence that being in a draft will give them bronchitis or a stiff neck is incomprehensible to me, but that is their position and they are sticking to it!

One of the unfortunate side-effects of this heat is the issue of forest fires, and we in Cervinara are not exempt from this problem. For several days now, smoke has been seen on the mountains and ashes have been drifting down over the entire Castello-Ioffredo district. Helicopters bearing water fly regularly overhead to fight the flames. Forest rangers in off-road vehicles are coming through our narrow streets in greater and greater numbers. There is real concern for the chestnut and walnut trees, as well as for the safety of those who work and live in the hills.
Our neighbor Bertuccio, who knows these hills better than anyone, has said that things are under control, and so we have faith that the fires will be put out and that the damage will be limited. But the weather forecasters predict at least another week of this heat, and there is no rain on the horizon for weeks. Until we get a couple of good soaking rains, the problems of the forest fires will continue and the concerns about the chestnut harvest will linger. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for a positive outcome.....but it is certain that this summer will be one for the record books!

Monday, August 22, 2011


So, Mike and I were sitting outside the bar last week, minding our own business, sipping our cappuccinos and reading the paper, when a truck with a loud-speaker announcing a great deal came driving up the street. The great deal? Crates of peppers, peaches, melons and eggplants at ridiculously low prices. Mike: Let's get some eggplant. It's too cheap to pass up. Me: A whole case? Are you crazy? There's only two of us! Mike: But it's such good eggplant. seeds at all. Me: Are you crazy? Mike: We can share it with the neighbors. They'll be happy. Me: Are you crazy?
Long story short, Mike wins, buys a crate of eggplant for three euros and we trudge home. We give five to Mariarosa and five to Bianchina. We haven't made a dent in the crate. I start contemplating my fate and it ain't pretty.
Seven days later: my hands are stained an ugly purple-brown. My arthritis is acting up because of the peeling, chopping and stirring. We have had eggplant parmigiano, eggplant ai fungiatelli, stuffed eggplant, indorato e fritto eggplant, eggplant pasta sauce. There is eggplant in the fridge and eggplant in the freezer. I have made pickled eggplant sott'olio....a gallon jar of it!
In the hottest weather of the summer, with nary a breeze to cool us off, I have peeled, chopped, fried and boiled the entire case of eggplant. Today, as I made it down to the bottom of the crate, I actually celebrated when I found some rotten little buggers that had to be thrown out! Yeah!
Now....we start on the peppers!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


It's beginning to be harvest time in Cervinara and the fruits of everyone's labors are seen all over town. While we don't have much of a garden, just some herbs and flowers, we are the recipients of the largesse of lots of friends and neighbors. Bertuccio is the first to come knocking on our door; cherries in May, squash and green beans in June, tomatoes, potatoes and garlic in July. Last week he came in with a huge basket of potatoes that he had just dug up and they were wonderful....odd shapes and sizes, but sweet and buttery when cooked up. Cousin Antonietta has been a source of many wonderful treats, from zucchini blossoms to San Marzano tomatoes, cucumbers and plums. Our neighbor Bianchina sent over a huge bag of eggplant along with a lovely head of lettuce. I feel bad for our fruttivendolo, because no one is stopping by his truck on his travels through town.
Adriana, our barista, is a great one for providing us with special treats. She gave us some hot pepper plants that will be giving some added spice to our dishes, she often has some taralli that she offers us for breakfast or some fresh homemade bread that we will eat with some tomatoes fresh off the vine. I don't know what we would do without Adriana, because she also gets us eggs right out of the chickens and many other helpful items.
As I mentioned before, we don't really have a garden and, even if we did there is no way we could match the great tasting fruits and vegetables of these old time farmers. But of course, we reciprocate in any way that we can, usually by providing folks with some of the great mozzarella that we bring back with us from Aversa. Aversa and the whole region around Naples is known for its buffalo mozzarella, but the buffalo milk doesn't make its way up to the mountains, so for the Cervinarese, mozzarella is a rare treat. So, every time we are down visiting family, we are sure to bring back an extra kilo of this milky goodness to divide among our friends and neighbors. It's always received with great pleasure. Lately I have also begun doing some baking and the biscotti and ciambelle that have been coming from my oven are also well received. I've pretty much perfected my walnut biscotti, different from the ones that I make in the States. These are very simple with no butter or oil at all. The only liquid comes from the eggs used to moisten the dough. They are so good dunked in our morning cappuccinos or a little after dinner glass of vin santo.
While the people of Cervinara tend to be very jealous of their land, protecting every square meter of what little plots they have, they are very willing to show off their agricultural skills by sharing whatever comes from those little bits of land that they hold so dear.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Mike and I have never been barflies and have never had a corner bar where "Everyone knows your name"....that is until now. Now, we have La Rinascita right down the street and, even if everyone doesn't know our name, everyone knows we are the "americani", and that we go down every morning for our cappuccino and to read the daily paper.
Adriana is the barista, and she gets there about 6 am every morning to open the bar and heat up the espresso machine. She stays until around 11 when her son Mateo comes to relieve her. They are open until around 12:30, then close for lunch, and reopen from 4 pm until 11 pm. Every day, Adriana is there, providing us with some fun conversation, pouring beers for the card players and putting up with their teasing.
Besides the regular daily visits for coffee, beer or a quick shot of brandy from the adults, the children in the neighborhood drop by at all hours to pick up an ice cream or a bag of chips or, their favorite, nutella with dipping sticks. Yum!
In the evening there is a gang that gathers to play cards. They play all sorts of games, from Scala a Quaranta to Scopa to TreSette. One thing is consistent: the yelling that goes along with every hand. If one were to take the yelling seriously, the police would be called at least once a night! But they accuse each other of cheating, curse the gods for their bad luck and then buy a round of beers for the table. It's all just part of the routine.
When a special occasion happens, a marriage, birthday or saint's day, the honoree usually provides some special treats for the evening gatherers. Last night, the son of one of the fellows got married, so there were cookies and pastries galore. When her granddaughter made her first communion, Adriana pulled out the grill and cooked up sausages and chops for the whole crowd. She also had a variety of peppers, eggplant, cheeses and salamis there to be sampled. Needless to say, everything was delicious.
It's so nice on evenings like that, sitting around this dinky little terrace, with a couple of wobbly plastic tables and lousy plastic forks, digging in to the local treats with gusto. We make all sorts of noise and no one complains, at least to us! As darkness settles in and the children get called to bed, the crowd disperses and everyone heads home to relax and enjoy an evening of TV, reading or just visiting quietly with neighbors, knowing that tomorrow La Rinascita will reawaken and provide our little corner of town with refreshments and entertainment. We finally have a place "where everybody knows our name"!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ponza and the Pontine Islands

July 14 was our 38 anniversary, and we were lucky enough to be able to spend it with our dear friends Nicola and Rosanna on the island of Ponza. Ponza is the largest island in the Pontine archipelago and it is a mostly undiscovered area, at least to Americans.
Everyone knows about Capri. It is the "go to" spot off the coast of Naples. We have been there five or six times, the last time just this spring, and it is always lovely. The trouble is that it is so crowded, it is impossible to appreciate its beauty. Ponza and the other islands in the archipelago is a perfect place to spend some time just because that is not the case. Here we were, in the middle of July, peak beach season, and there were lots of seats on the Aliscafo that took us over to the island, there were seats available at every cafe and restaurant, there was room for leisurely strolls through the narrow streets, and the beaches and coves were not covered wall to wall with umbrellas and sun bathers. This was what Capri was like 50 years ago. Ponza is now my island of choice!
There are cute little cars to rent for very reasonable prices and with which you can drive all around the island, and down to the little coves for swimming and snorkeling. We rented a little yellow Panda that was quite the adventure to drive! Our good friend Nicola was our chauffeur and he was a little put off at the soft breaks and the lack of a working horn, but once we got on the road we realized no one was driving over 15 miles an hour and it was a great adventure.
We drove down one narrow lane after another, going to different spots for swimming and sunbathing, and just to enjoy the beautiful views. The pastel houses reflected the warm sunshine, the water pooled quietly in some spots and roared powerfully against the rocks in others. An occasional sailboat dotted the horizon, and fishermen hauled up their catches in colorful dories.
There is much more than the island of Ponza to explore, including the populated island of Ventotene and the unpopulated Palmarola. Palmarola has some of the clearest and most beautiful water and swimming coves imaginable. Our next time there, we will take more time to visit the smaller islands, as well as to get to know Ponza better. It's only 1 1/2 hours from the port of Formia to Ponza on the Aliscafo, twice as long on the traghetto if you are taking your car across. If you are considering an island vacation, consider Ponza or Ventotene. Unless your idea of fun is stifling, crowded streets and buses with cranky, sweaty tourists on every corner, you will be very happy there!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Flowers, Flowers Everywhere

It's June and it is a floral paradise in Cervinara. Gardens are resplendent with color and texture and people take care of their plants and flowers as if they were members of the family. Pots of geraniums, beds of lillies, bushes of hydrangeas all abound. But my favorite way to appreciate the flowers of Cervinara is to find them in fields, growing as weeds along the roadsides or sprouting out of rooftops and ancient walls.
Earlier this month I enjoyed a trek up the mountain to visit the remains of our old castle. The walk was challenging but it was so pleasurable because of the quiet of the pathway and because of the variety of flora that surrounded me. I took dozens of photos, of Scotch broom and poppies, daisies and jasmine, and many with names unknown to me. That experience turned my eye to other places to find flowers and, in spring, there are many! Sitting on our front stoop, we enjoy purple blossoms on the roof of the garage next door. Walking through Piazza Trescine, I saw old pillars with the same purple blooms. Flowers adorn our pathways and side streets and make for a concerto of colors and scents.
As summer progresses, the wild flowers die down and become dormant in the hotter, drier climate. Then as we come into fall, a new set of floral delights await. Asters, chrysanthamums, and other late bloomers are ready to adorn the cemeteries on November 1 & 2.
Spring, summer or fall....the flowers of Cervinara make this a most beautiful spot to enjoy.

The Piazzas of Cervinara

Cervinara, like just about every other Italian town, large or small, has its share of piazzas. In Italian culture, the piazza represents communal life at its most vibrant. It is the place where children gather to kick a soccer ball around, where teens strut their stuff for members of the opposite sex, where parents watch their children run around freely, and where senior citizens sit on benches and talk over the good old days. In short, the piazza is at the center of every neighborhood and it plays a vital role in everyday life.
In Cervinara, there are several piazzas. The one nearest our home up in Ioffredo, is in front of the Chiesa di San Nicola. After the floods of 1999, the church, surrounding homes and the piazza were either damaged or destroyed. Now, in 2011, the town has begun reconstruction of the piazza, making it into the pleasant place to hang out that it used to be. Repaving, using small paver stones, has been completed. We are awaiting the finishing treatments....lamp posts, benches, fences that will protect little ones from falling into the river, etc. We can't wait to see the whole project finished, but we're not sure when that will be!
A short walk from our neighborhood takes us to the Ferrari section of town. The centerpiece of this neighborhood is Piazza Elena, named for one of the queens of Italy. It is, in my opinion, the prettiest of all of Cervinara's piazzas. There are lots of benches for sitting while enjoying an ice cream from one of the two bars that are located here. There is a lovely old fountain from which young and old alike take refreshment. There is the Palazzo Marchesale, the old palace of the Marchesa, which fronts up to the piazza. And, most importantly, are the trees....centuries old yet still offering shade to the tired pedestrian.
Further down into town is Piazza Trescine. This is the political center of town. Here we find the Municipio or town hall, banks, newspaper stands, bars and restaurants, etc. There is a new fountain that was put in a few months ago, not nearly as charming as the Ferrari fountain, but still a nice addition. The town has worked hard to make this piazza a welcoming one, adding benches and planting trees too.
Finally, another brief walk from Trescine is the Villa Communale. This is the largest piazza in Cervinara and offers something for everyone. It is a gated piazza, so children are free to run around through the playground and parents don't have to worry about them darting into the traffic. There are trees, statues, shaded paths for strolling, and most importantly, a great gelateria. Micione makes some of the best gelato anywhere. Their menu is limited to usually eight flavors, but that is because they make it fresh daily. Any sunny Sunday afternoon will find the Villa Communale bustling with families working off their dinner, children scampering through the monkey bars, lovers strolling hand in hand, and people like us enjoying a gelato.
Without its piazzas, Cervinara would not be the same. Without its piazzas, Italy would not be the same. These areas allow for a gregarious and lively people to meet, play and talk together as few places in the United States do. Tutti in piazza!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Weddings in Cervinara

Before we left for Italy, I had become sort of addicted to a strange show, "Say Yes to the Dress". The show is centered around a bridal store in NYC where women come from around the world to pick the dress of their dreams. It is sort of like driving by an accident on the highway, where you feel guilty watching the mess but you can't turn your eyes away. I am always appalled at the crassness of some of the clients, sometimes mothers and daughters coming to blows over price points, wow factor and all the other cliches that are thrown around on the show. It is a sad display of some of the worst of American culture.
Weddings in small Italian towns tend to be different, a little more modest and more restrained, yet with their own charming traditions. While I have seen some pretty horrendous dresses advertised on TV here, for the most part things are fairly tasteful and geared to family and close friends. Bridezillas don't usually rear their ugly heads here!
This Sunday there was a wedding at the Church of San Nicola, our local parish. Just about every home in Cervinara is within easy walking distance of a church, so when a wedding takes place it involves the whole neighborhood. While we didn't know "Salvatore and Angela", the bride and groom personally, everyone is welcome to participate in some aspect of the celebration.
Balloons were tied festively to the railings on the bridge over the river and to any pole or door knob that was available. After the church service the bride and groom, as well as the guests and wedding party proceed on foot through the streets, usually to the bride's home. Along the way, well-wishers shower the couple with confetti, rose petals, sugared almonds and other treats. Sometimes a bottle of champagne is opened and poured for anyone in the vicinity. Fire crackers are de rigueur for a wedding celebration. After the procession, either the family or a hired pyrotechnician will set off a fireworks display. There will be many episodes of booms and explosions throughout the rest of the day, not to mention the continual honking of horns as the wedding party eventually drives to the reception.
The day after the wedding, evidence of the revels lingers. Stray candies litter the streets, along with confetti, deflated balloons, rose petals and bottle tops. Very often the host family will share their leftover biscotti with folks at the bar or will hand out bombonieri (small packs of sugared almonds wrapped in lacy fabric) to anyone who passes by.
By their very nature, weddings are happy but emotional events, shared with those we love most. In Cervinara, as in most other small Italian towns, they are also shared with everyone along the way, and we are all happy to join in the celebrations!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Unexpected Italy 2

Unexpected Italy

In case our life of retirement in the hills of Cervinara was too stressful, we decided we needed to get away from things and enjoy a few days in Ischia. Once again, it’s a bit of Unexpected Italy that isn’t often on our traditional itineraries.

Ischia is an island off the coast of Naples, bigger than Capri but far smaller than Sardegna. It is about an hour by traghetto from Pozzuoli to the island, and it is well worth the trip. When we arrived yesterday it was pouring rain, everything was gray and sorry and depressing. I wasn’t happy! As the day wore on, the rain stopped and the clouds parted and we could see some of the beauty that was hidden behind the drizzle. By evening, we were in love.

Our hotel, while not much to look at, is in a nice location in the town of Forio. It is right next door to some wonderful gardens, I Giardini della Mortella. These gardens were started by William Walton, an important English musician and composer of the 20th century, and his wife, an Argentine woman who loved flowers and plants. My niece, the cultural expert, highly recommended that we visit these gardens and, since there was a concert there that night we decided to kill two birds with one stone. The evening’s entertainment was a recital using two pianos, the musicians a young Russian woman and an equally young German man. We were enthralled from the first notes.

The program consisted of music from Bach, Mozart, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. It was thrilling to watch the communication of these two fine pianists as they wended their way through their repertoire. The room was packed with music lovers and the response to the performances was positive and enthusiastic. We felt so lucky to have found such great entertainment in such a beautiful setting.

After the concert we walked through the gardens, enjoying the fountains, flowers and fragrances that surrounded us. It was so nice to have this quiet interlude as the sun began to set over the water. It is so important to leave yourself open to opportunities such as this, to find the unexpected that awaits around the corner, and to take advantage of these moments when they present themselves. It is far too easy to get bogged down in our daily lives or to get so tied up in our “bucket list” that we fail to see the gifts of the unexpected. La dolce vita!

Unexpected Italy 1

One of the best reasons for living in a place rather than just being a tourist is the opportunity to take advantage of the lesser known places and events that are known only to the locals. I think of this as the “Unexpected Italy”, and one never knows when it will appear.

Last week our daughter Marta and her fiancĂ© Dan arrived for their visit to Italy. They spent four days with us before leaving for their own tour of the big sites. On their first day here, we did the expected Italy; Pompeii, Sorrento and the historic center of Naples. On Sunday, we did the Unexpected Italy; a tour around Lago d’Averno, a visit to a vineyard with Neapolitan entertainment, and then a walk across an active volcano!

My niece is a member of Siti Reali, a group dedicated to protecting and promoting the amazing gifts that southern Italy has to offer. They planned the day’s activities, which started with an adventurous drive out to Pozzuoli to get to the Lago d’Averno. This is a crater lake, formed in the crater of a now extinct volcano. It’s quite small, a pond by our standards, perhaps even a puddle, but it is very deep and quite lovely. It’s an easy walk around the entire circumference, with ruins of a temple to Apollo and lots of vineyards and terraced hillsides. Our guide explained some of the ancient myths and stories linked to this place, including the belief that it was the entrance to the underworld. There is a good sized hill right next to the lake called Monte Nuova, new mountain. This “mountain” sprang up out of nowhere in three days almost a thousand years ago, a testament to the instability of this whole area.

After our walk around the lake, we were treated to some entertainment in the traditional Neapolitan style. A trio of singers, two women and a young man, sang some old songs from this region, in the old Neapolitan dialect. The music was lovely, even though the lyrics were hard to understand. This dialect is challenging! After that brief interlude we proceeded on to the vineyard where we were going to have lunch. We were greeted with lots of bottles of their wine and some water, plates of local cheese and salamis and were given the opportunity to relax in the shade of their arbor. This was followed by a tour of the vineyard where we saw vines over 200 years old, fig, peach and pear trees and, my favorite, nespole trees.

I, like most of you, had never heard of nespole before moving to Italy. My husband was thrilled to be here at a time when they were in season, because they were one of his favorite fruits as a child. But every time we bought them at the market or from our green grocer, I found them to be overly tart and just not worth the effort. The nespole that we picked at the vineyard made me realize that he was indeed right and that this little fruit is an amazing tasty treat. These had the consistency of an apricot but the flavor was more that of a pear/peach combination. They were sweet and juicy and made me crave more and more of them! As we toured the vineyard we continued to pick these lovely little nuggets off the trees until we were sated.

After our tour we went back to our arbor for baked pasta (cooked in a wood-burning oven fueled by grape vines, grilled sausages and salad, and finally more nespole for dessert. The wine that we drank was light and refreshing and we were happy to buy a case to take home.

At that point we were tired and full, but our day wasn’t over. Another piece of Unexpected Italy awaited. Pozzuoli is, as mentioned before, a very unstable area, with a history of earthquakes and eruptions. The last major earthquake was in November of 1980 and at that time much of the city was damaged and many of its residents were forced to evacuate. One of the remnants of that instability is “La Solfatara”, an active volcano that is the smelliest place imaginable.

La Solfatara is a volcano that has a relatively thin crust of earth plugging it up. As we walked across this barren moon-scape, the smell of sulfur was at times overwhelming. When you take a rock and throw it hard onto the ground, the sound is not one that you would expect. Instead of the dull thud of rock hitting solid ground, there is more of an empty hollow sound, similar to knocking on a big pumpkin. That is because it is empty underneath that crust of earth….walking across the Solfatara is like walking across an island, floating in a sea of lava and hot gasses!

There is a large area where mud bubbles up to the surface, boiling hot. Another area is filled with hot steam that works its way through fissures in the earth. It is nature’s sauna. Then there are the “stufe”, the ovens. One is called purgatory and the other is inferno. They are small tunnels dug into the side of the mountain. One can walk in a foot or so and can stand it for maybe five seconds before being overcome by the smell and the heat. These spots are not for the faint of heart.

All in all, our day in Unexpected Italy was a joy. It provided us with beautiful views, good food, wonderful company and lots of new experiences. What more could we ask for?