Friday, November 11, 2011

Mangia


[Back home now, but with time to process my trip and some feelings about it, I’m still pulling out notes for Italy posts. I hope you enjoy this one.]

Diego's hanging tomatoes, Giugliano, Italy 2011

Here is how an outsider realizes what is inescapably central to Italian life. See if you can guess:

We are sitting at the table eating lunch.
On the television is a news segment about various kinds of cured meats.
When we pause to speak, it is about the food we’re engaged in eating.
Sometimes, talk turns to what we’ll have for dinner . . .
. . .or perhaps what we’ll have for lunch tomorrow.
Or about whether or not the owners of the preferred pastry shop have returned from vacation.

A brief news item comes on telling of the death of someone in Amalfi who fell off a balcony--they mention, of course, that the victim of the tragedy was eating gelato at the time.  No, I’m not kidding. I suspect a lot of Italians die while eating--they practically dare you to each time you sit at a table. Either they will eat far too much, or the simple amount of time spent eating will increase the odds that death by natural causes comes during a meal. So, this additional detail in the story does heighten its poignancy for a people so endearingly oriented to gastronomy. Diego and I both mention, a bit irreverently, that we hope it was his best gelato ever. Then, of course, we seamlessly return to eating.

After lunch, we go out to the garden, where much of what we’re eating was grown. At a large table on the patio, Luisa and I take the tomatoes and some fresh basil and smash it down with a pestle into large glass jars--on this day, about twelve of them--and then Diego tightens the lids and carefully stacks the jars in a giant metal container outside, fills it with water and connects the outdoor gas line to it for the fire.

Do you have a separate gas line in your garden? I don’t. These people mean business.

In between these activites, we pump our veins full of more high-octane espresso, if for no other reason than to give us fuel for future eating, later in the day.  Perhaps to give the espresso time to work its way into our bloodstream, we might also take a nap on one of the hammocks in the garden, where we dream of gelato or cured meats or tomatoes. . .

Dreaming of food under the orange trees, Giugliano, Italy 2011

Or dream of figs. I confess, I now have a serious addiction to fresh figs--but only fresh. How could I even consider the dried ones after having access to two giant figs trees right outside the door? There is one with green figs, and one with the darker purple ones. 

One of Luisa and Diego's fig trees, Giugliano, Italy 2011

I have fallen in love with them, if you want to know the truth of it. That’s not hyperbole or a metaphor. My brain is experiencing the same chemical rush, the same crazed longing that is typical of those “in love”. It’s like Dante and Beatrice, only I get to actually have them. How amazing is that?! I go to sleep with my belly full of them, and I wake up thinking of them, knowing they’re right there, growing next to the patio. Through the open windows, as I slowly awaken to the world, I hear them calling to me, singing their sweet, figgy song from up high in the branches. They're singing it in Italian, too, so how am I supposed to resist this? I sneak out past my hosts, not wanting to appear as greedy and desperate as I actually am, and make my way to the trees, looking to where the perfect, ready-to-burst ones are. There is a long metal hook near the tree, used for grasping higher up branches to bring them within reach. But like a plague of insects, I’ve nearly stripped this tree of ripe ones over the last few days, to the point where even the hook can’t help me. I’ll have to climb, so there in my bare feet, I try.

I’m bad at this. I used to be good at the whole tree-climbing thing. I tell myself that the downgrade in my skills is because I’m getting older, and no sooner has the thought entered my mind than I hear Diego’s voice behind me. “Mi permetta,” allow me.

Apparently, Diego didn’t get the memo that he’s 70. Like some previously unknown breed of Italian monkey, he’s up into the highest parts of the tree that could be considered safe (and some that definitely are not), in a matter of seconds. The man has no sense of danger (as evidence, his driving may be the subject of a future blog post if I can bring myself to recollect our journeys). He has the hook, and I’m relegated to the role of foreman, sighting the big ones and pointing to where he might snatch them. He starts handing them down to me, and I quickly realize I don’t have enough hands. I snatch an apron off the table where we canned tomatoes, and before long my apron is overflowing with the little beauties and I’m in ecstasy.

I can’t just wolf them down, though. Oh no. I have to savor everything about them. I take in their shape, the beautiful green exterior, then slowly and neatly slice them in half so I can admire their glistening ruby interior, the color almost as intoxicating to me as the taste. 

Ruby-red fig and friends, Italy 2011

This is kind of painful to write, since I am now separated from my loves by an ocean. Yes, you can occasionally get them here where I live. But even at my favorite market, a small plastic container full of 7 or so of the smallest and saddest specimens you’ve ever seen costs 6 dollars. I’m spoiled, clearly. How can I pay that when I’ve enjoyed big, beautiful, totally fresh figs, as many as I can stuff down my gullet, for FREE? The good news is that we’ve discovered a fig tree (right now, more like a small bush) growing next to the driveway. The plan is to transplant it and protect it through the winter, to baby it and sing to it, to massage its leaves, read to it, “water” it with limoncello, whatever it takes to bring forth its lusciousness.

I would say I left a trail of fig rinds behind me in Italy but, because he is a true Italian dog, Bruno will eat anything. This includes fig rinds. I appreciate his enthusiasm for destroying the evidence I leave behind of my addiction. Way to go, Bruno.

Apart from figs, I think it’s fair to say that I probably consumed at least two whole boars in Italy. OK, maybe not that many, but it certainly felt that way. At nearly every meal, lunch or dinner, Luisa would say, while waving a plate in my direction, “Blanche . . . prosciutto!” [note that she doesn’t actually call me Blanche. She knows my real name]. She had the wild boar variety a few times. Every time I picked up a sandwich at a shop during the day, there was inevitably prosciutto involved. Some pasta dishes also often included it, especially when I was in Tuscany. However, while I love prosciutto, I am steering clear of the stuff for a while. It didn’t have the same addictive properties as the figs. Perhaps I’d feel the same need for “space” from the figs if they had a snout and tusks, but they don’t. Does that make me superficial? Maybe. 

Luisa and Diego's little paradiso, Giugliano, Italy 2011

There was something wonderfully and refreshingly real about these meals, I must say. There wasn’t processed-anything, there was never ketchup or mayo, or some mysterious “cheesefood”. There was cheese--lots of it--and therefore it was indeed food. I ate much more than I do when in the states, but it didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel heavy or stuffed--I felt nourished. I felt supremely satisfied. Buffalo mozzarella that’s fresh from the market, and ricotta that’s also fresh, has a very different taste than at home--and is often eaten all by itself, no need of accompaniment. The fish and tiny clams Luisa picked up at the outdoor market were also amazingly fresh and tasty. Olives that haven’t been brined beyond recognition--that actually taste like olives--are a rare pleasure for this Americana, though Italy does have the briny ones, too. Cucumbers and broccoli rabe, tomatoes and peppers that were just picked tasted of life itself, like the warmth of the sun itself. 

Diego and Luisa's plums, Giugliano, Italy 2011

A dessert of freshly picked, juicy and beautiful yellow melon, white grapes, prickly pear cactus fruit, gigantic peaches and nectarines, or deep purple plums was like some kind of divine communion, each bite saying “you are loved. Do you get it yet? You are loved”. Of course, there were also the home-grown and home-vinted wines, “from a friend”. We should all have such friends. We ate slowly, usually outside, without the hurried need to finish up and clean up and be on to the next thing--in Italy, the next thing would probably mean preparing for another meal, anyway.

And this was every day.

--except when Diego rescued a neighbor who had locked herself out of the house. With a rod, he reached through a window (thankfully they don’t have screens on the windows there) and retrieved her keys to much rejoicing. The next day, by way of the grateful neighbor, there appeared on the lunch table a golden box of pastries so big that despite our enthusiastic consumption, it was also there at dinner. Nothing says “grazie” like cannoli, sfogliatelle, creme tarts topped with plum slices or apricot, creme puffs, rum babà, chocolate tort, and millefoglie. I was briefly tempted to try to steal her keys for a repeat performance. 

A hero's "grazie", Giugliano, Italy 2011

All of this probably goes a long way toward explaining why I would, while in Italy, go to great lengths to try to get the tomato smell out of my hands after a day of canning. If ever the smell of tomatoes would be an aphrodisiac, it would be to Italians. It could be dangerous to go into Napoli proper with this stuff so permeating my flesh. Unless I can thoroughly wash it out, it’s just asking for trouble, really. Let’s not pretend that Italian men need any encouragement (“Ciao, bella!”).

It might not be the worst idea, though, for me to occasionally drench myself in tomatoes here at home, if only to flush out some lonely expatriates willing to talk food and eat food, share fantasies of growing lemons and oranges and olives in New Jersey (could this be an up-side to global warming?), and help me tend a small and hopeful fig tree. This tomato scent, perhaps with a touch of basil or garlic behind the ears, will be my signature and my devastating weapon, to lure artichoke recipes next spring and maybe a garden laborer or three. I know there are real Italians here, and as God is my witness, I will find them. Perhaps I’ll market this fragrance in a little tomato-shaped bottle to like-minded Italophiles yearning for company and support. Eat your heart out, Calvin Klein--you don’t know nothin’ about obsession.


3 comments:

  1. WARNING! DO NOT READ THIS POST ON AN EMPTY STOMACH (as I did). Oh, and please pass the figs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. During the course of my life I have become aware of 4 major mistakes. One of them is that I was not born and raised an Italian.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @jupiterwasp: Hah! Now you have me curious about the other three, of course. ;-)

    ReplyDelete

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