Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Trollopes: A family of writers in Tuscany

This was the title of the international conference held in Bagni di Lucca on the weekend of 23rd and 24th October. I sadly, because of work commitments, could only attend the Sunday morning session but really enjoyed dipping my toes into the golden age of the Anglo American community in Tuscany of the mid 1800s. The setting was perfect: the ’Chiesa Inglese’ in Bagni di Lucca. The church is now the local library and also houses a collection of books donated by Charles Greenleaves, an English diplomat. 

Bagni returned to its hay day when literary discussion was in the air between the expatriate community exiled from the hot summers in Florence, such as the Brownings, Byron and indeed we must not forget Fanny who spent two months in Bagni di Lucca. Shirley Foster described this episode in her paper titled ‘Fanny Trollope at Bagni di Lucca: being a tourist.  I was very sorry to miss this slot, so happy that my beautifully prepared conference pack contained a summary of her paper. It seems Fanny enjoyed her time in this little spa town but found it hard to mix with the locals and missed the grandeur of Florence. On the Saturday evening I heard conversation continued over a long Italian dinner.

For me this conference was also about meeting friends. A dear friend, Pam Neville-Sington, gave the first paper on Sunday morning. I was I admit slightly abashed when I received the program and discovered that her paper was at 9.30am on the Sunday. However, it meant I was able to attend and it is always a joy to meet up with old friends. The whole family arrived therefore on the wettest Sunday you can imagine. My heart went out to the English contingent that as well as literary delights were probably also hoping for a bit of Sun. Pam brought alive the expat life in Florence against the backdrop of The Risorgimento. She explained that the Anglo Americans were “all equally Italianissimi” and these events are covered in Fanny’s novel “The Old World and The New“, also by her son Tom with whom she lived in Florence in “Tuscany in 1849 and 1859" and his wife Theodosia in her “Social Aspects of the Italian Revolution”. However the highlight was her imaginary conversation between the Trollope family on the subject over the breakfast table. The chairman asked Pam if breakfast discussions were as stimulating in her house and I can confirm that they certainly are!!  Two other joint friends who are English teachers in Florence were also able to come so we all joined up for a wonderful post conference Tuscan lunch which is always a perfect way to celebrate.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Preparing For A Tuscan Autumn

In autumn the light becomes softer and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder most householders are thinking about getting ready for the winter. Hearty Tuscan fair returns to the table and mushrooms and truffles for those lucky enough to get their hands on them are eaten with reverence. The grapes have been harvested and the quality of the wine lamented or rejoiced. In the sweet chestnut woods on the hills around Lucca strange machines can be seen that bear a strong resemblance to “Naughty Noo Noo” of Tellytubby fame. This little tanker with protruding tubes sucks up the chestnuts removes the husks and gets them ready to be dried in little stone houses called ‘Metati’ with a fire beneath them so that they can then be turned into flour. Soon we will be able to enjoy ‘Neccis’ a sort of chestnut flour pancake, which can be served either as a savoury dish filled with ricotta and sausage or as a desert filled with Nutella or just plain ricotta.  For sweet dishes ricotta made from cows milk should be used and for savoury dishes sheep’s ricotta. Neccis are a must to keep out the cold at any winter outdoor fest. castagnaccio is another delight. It is a cake made using chestnut flour with pine-kernels, olive oil and rosemary.

In the villages and countryside most people heat their houses with wood. The hills are covered in Acacia trees, which are sustainable timber. I can’t believe how quickly these trees grow. Wood heating seems to produces far more calories than the gas. I don’t know if this is a scientific fact or just a perception as people who heat with wood can have the heating on longer as it is so much cheaper! . I can however confirm that levels of comfort go up and bills go down when wood is used. Modern wood -burning stoves, boilers and back boilers in fireplaces are now very energy efficient re-burning and watching a flame is warming in its self. Sitting by the fire reading a book or watching a movie with a glass of something is pure heaven and makes winter in the Tuscan hills very appealing.  On those evenings by the fire my mind meanders through what I have learnt during my time in Italy and though my Italian may still leave a lot to be desired I can do a beautiful woodpile and I have to admit it gives me great satisfaction. Piling up the wood not only warms you up but on a beautiful sunny morning one can almost believe that it is still summer. The sun has warmth in its rays all year round and the October sun can give the final boost to the olives so that they are ready for harvesting. The debate is when. Do you harvest earlier when you get less oil but it more ‘piccante’ stronger in flavour and I can only describe it as slightly peppery or you wait longer so the olives swell producing more oil. This is very much a personal choice. Tuscan oil is famous for its delicate flavour and low acidity. In some parts of Lucchesia the olives are grown at relatively high altitudes up to about 500meters due to micro- climates. This means that olives have to be stripped by hand rather than shaken.

Tuscany has got very good press from "Under The Tuscan Sun" and therefore it is often assumed that the sun is always shining but the truth is it can be very cold. Lucca city is only an hour away from a ski resort and so in the winter attention moves away from the sea and hills to the high mountains and to skiing and snowboarding. Here in Abetone we have produced Olympic champions but the snow hasn’t arrived yet and the autumn rains are just around the corner so I am happy to enjoy the last figs and just think about all those wonderful Tuscan soups and large Sunday lunches. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Nearly Had a Prosecchino with a Celeb

I am in many ways an old fashioned kind of a girl. I have let my jowls sag naturally and am one of the few who walks down our local high street without plumbed up lips. When it comes to boobs I haven’t even gone as far as a padded bra but I do like a bit of glamour and therefore couldn’t miss the chance of sharing a prosecchino with the new Miss Italia. Italy like so many countries is obsessed with appearance and young girls will go to great lengths to get into showbiz and on television. It seems that looks are often more important than brains and being a “Miss” can lead to many opportunities. One of the presenters of the morning news program is an ex “Miss “ of course we mustn’t forget the most famous Miss Italia contestant of all time, Sophia Loren. I find it sad that in 2010 young girls still have to prance around in bikinis and be interviewed by people who are fully clothed. It somehow doesn’t seem very dignified.
Miss Italia here must have a certain cultural level though, as one of the compares of the program was Emanuele Filiberto the Italian Prince. Well he would be a prince and heir to the throne if Italy weren’t republic.

I don’t believe in being judgmental, so I happily joined the crowd to see Francesca Testasecca at the opening of a new local restaurant and anyway a free buffet in Tuscany isn’t to be sniffed at. The first thing I noticed was that the expectant crowd had a much higher young male contingency than normal. The tables were ready under the large umbrellas and were sagging under the weight of the buffet. The well-behaved locals all waited patiently for the newly crowned beauty queen to arrive with no one sneaking past the flowerpots to have first pick.

Eventually our patience was rewarded and “Miss Italia” elegantly alighted from the taxi looking like an old pro even though she was only crowned a couple of weeks ago. I was immediately disappointed as I had somehow expected her to be wearing her crown even though it looked hideous on the TV. After she was presented with a designer bouquet, a few stalks of architectural rather than beautiful flowers, she disappeared into the restaurant. It seemed we plebs wouldn’t be allowed to dine off the same table though I was astounded that the crowd still hadn’t jumped on the free food and drinks. My question was answered as flash bulbs started to click and then I could just see a sparking crown. I recalled this crown from a previous “Miss Italia” pageant, so perhaps you wear an older model for less formal occasion though I have to admit it looked the part and was much prettier than this years. She then stood on the threshold while we all snapped away giving us the feel that we were at a real celeb event. She then retreated again and the hoards descended on the food. I however hovered on the doorstep and was rewarded by being ushered in to gawp at the poor sweet girl who just kept smiling while being asked to pose with the elite guests. I must add she had now removed crown, it might have been an older model but it was certainly no fake.

My little eye was suddenly drawn to her ankle and I remembered that this “Miss” would remain famous for being the first tattooed winner.

I can’t give any view on the restaurant, as the only thing left when I reached the buffet was some Salami nevertheless I would like to wish the restaurant and this very modern “Miss” the best of luck.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mercato delle Carogne

Since Medieval times the Mercato delle Carogne is always held on 29th September, San Michele’s day, and closes the “Settembre Lucchese”. It is the final of three maxi markets and therein probably lies the secret of its name. The literal translation for Carogne is carrion, which comes from Middle English and means decaying flesh. This however is not a meat market but probably refers to the fact that in Medieval times the livestock section was the most import and being the final market all the best beasts had already been sold.

The market can be found just outside the city walls in the area know as Borgo Giannotti. There are about 400 stalls and the atmosphere is certainly one of medieval confusion. Many of the stallholders shout to attract attention and other demonstrate gadgets that will turn us all into domestic Goddesses but there are also real boys’ toys. Here they drive Lamborghinis only they are tractors. The pulling power in every sense I am told is just as effective!

The clothes stalls are numerous but mainly cheap Chinese imports, however on the piles of second hand clothes I have been known to find the odd gem like my little black Ralph Laurent number for 2 Euros. The quest for a hidden Gucci however requires dedication and determination but once you have got your first bite the addiction starts and a second hand stall can’t be ignored. My advice for vintage hunters is to park your male partner by the Lamborghinis where they also serve free wine as their bored faces distract one’s concentration!

I love the stalls in front of the traditional shops of the quarter selling kitchenware and baskets. Tuscan baskets have always been made from strips of chestnuts and these are woven into all different shapes and sizes for different tasks. The traditional terracotta kitchenware is another favourite, even a simple tomato sauce when it is cooked over a slow heat in one of these pots takes on velvety richness.

The food stalls are of course never to be missed. Here food is still quite local but these markets attract stallholders from all over the peninsula giving us the opportunity to discover new delicacies. I can never resist a porchetta sandwich.  As I sink my teeth through the fresh wood oven baked bread to the seasoned stuffing of this roast pork I am transported back to the days I was working on a project in Rome where the dish originates from and discovered it in another street festival.

The children are not forgotten as the market finishes in “Luna Park” the fun fair that last the entire month to the particular delight of the teenagers on a Saturday night. For some reason all the sweet stalls are concentrated in this area and the brightly coloured vans are full of colourful delights. They sell Brigidini, which are wafers flavoured with aniseed. I love to watch the machine stamping them out. The other treat that appears on every local sweet stall is croccante, which is basically nut brittle, delicious, but dangerous for both your waistline and teeth. Then if you have any energy left you can enjoy all the fun of the fair. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lucca Goes Back in Time

September is festival month in Lucca. The main event is a candle light procession, the Luminara, which is held to venerate the Volto Santo or corpus of a crucifix. A 13th copy is housed in the Duomo of San Martino. The original supposedly by Nicodemus arrived in Lucca in 782 but was destroyed by overzealous pilgrims.

This ancient celebration with its thousands of candles is still a very important day for the whole province. It is this fact that makes the event so special. Old friends from outlying villages meet up.

The church paraphernalia paraded through the streets looks somehow more mysterious and magnificent outside their normal religious setting further adding to the atmosphere of celebration.

The costumes and the sound of the drums transport Lucca back to another age. The streetlights are turned off so that solely the candles that frame the windows of the elegant palazzos and the torches burning in their ornate iron holders illuminate the city.

Tuscans are very proud of their origins and Lucchesi from around the world return annually to be part of the column of local dignitaries, religious leaders, medieval archers, flag throwers and personages.

The cort├Ęge snakes through the crowed streets and piazzas from San Frediano, culminating in a Mass held either inside or just outside the cathedral. The facade is also outlined in burning candles. The music from the choir and full orchestra resonates above the city lifting the spirits and emotions of the crowd.

The finale of the evening is a firework display, which can be enjoyed from the walls. The whole city seems to vibrate and echo as the rockets soar into the sky and one can image how frightening it must have been to be under bombardment behind the locked city gates. The cries of joy from the children and the applause bring one happily back to the 21st century.