November 2, 2011

Fall Backward

The hour changed here, one week earlier than in the U.S. I don’t know why that one hour always seems dramatic; I’m more bothered by it than by the six-hour time change when I fly to Italy. I suppose it is the early dark, the sudden creation of long winter nights.  When I hear “fall backward,” I simultaneously think of falling into a big pile of autumn leaves, and of the time when I can again “spring forward.” Yesterday was, to my mind, the end of fall, end of the tourist season, and the beginning of the delicious time when Italy returns to calm, big feasts, and anticipation of holiday gatherings with friends. What a joy to wake up to the changing hillside:


1 November is All Saints, a national holiday; today is All Souls, which was once a holiday too but has been demoted. This is the time of year when Italians travel to their home ground to place flowers on the graves of family members. There’s a huge business in chrysanthemums, flower of the dead. (Never take a pot as a gift!) We spent the day in other pursuits. The chestnut woods around our mountain house are in full glory so we took a basket and went out to gather. Around here, people look especially for the sweet marrone.  Of the many trees, few are of this type that produce the choicest nut. Of course the regular ones roast beautifully, too. Encased in spiny little garages, chestnuts are well protected until they fall and break open:


The burs (one -r) hold one to four nuts, though I’ve read that some types hold up to seven. The marrone are single. America used to have four billion (I read this online–can it possibly be true?) chestnut trees, until a blight in the early 1900’s destroyed most of them. What a tragedy.  They are enchanting trees.


Walking down the road, we don’t even talk. We just absorb the golden smells, the loamy ground covered with the charming little hedgehog chestnut casings, and the great gift of silence.


We were lucky enough to be invited to our neighbors, the Italiani, for the holiday feast, served at one p.m. and ending around four. The are our neighbors on the mountain, Ivan, his parents Domenica and Giovanni, and the grandmother Annetta. They are just amazingly self-sufficient people with a huge vegetable garden, chickens, geese, rabbits and all the mountains around providing wild berries, game, mushrooms, chestnuts, asparagus, crab apples, and field greens. Ed’s sister Anne and her husband Paul also were invited to this amazing pranzo. They cooked the porchetta in their bread oven. The skin crackled and the meat, fall-apart tender, was so flavorful with the garlic and herb stuffing.


The two bruschette are black cabbage and cannellini beans, doused with new oil from our grove. That’s it in the bottle but it’s rich green really.  The dish in back holds baked fennel. Ivan likes to serve meat on big cross sections of chestnut logs. After the bruschette, Domenica served her homemade pappardelle with lepre (wild hare) sauce. While the pasta cooked, Annetta heated her preferred iron on the wood-fired stove.



Domenica’s pasta was lighter than air, the sauce rich and meaty. Giovanni carved the pork and we all succumbed at least twice to big servings. We barely could reach for the fennel and salad. Then came a delicate panna cotta with Ivan’s blackberry sauce, followed by that classic Tuscan dessert from the “poor kitchen,” cucina povera tradition: castagnaccio. A taste of that and you are way back in country tradition when there was no sugar, not much of anything, so a dessert was concocted from somewhat sweet chestnut flour, a few raisins, some rosemary, and what nuts were on hand. It’s usually a flat, strange cake that I always thought you had to have been fed while under three to like.  But Ivan has revised my thoughts! Look at this beauty and the proud maker.



All saints be praised!  All souls, too. With the time change, dusk was beginning as we drove home. A low fog covered the valley far below and the orb of sun seemed to wobble toward the horizon. Or maybe we were wobbling. Giovanni’s homemade new wine was delicious. And the espresso sent us flying out the door.  We were not hungry for dinner but around ten, Ed make an omelet with eggs Domenica gave us and we had a small glass of Giovanni’s vino, raising a toast to the family.