One Perfect Summer
I’ve written about how the Italians know how to live. We kept hoping some of that would rub off on us. Their way of life seems much more civilized. Italians take their vacations every year - usually August, when most of the country shuts down. They eat long, leisurely dinners, they take passegiati every night, they talk, they dance, they sing, and they work hard. It’s a life-balance that I envy and hope one day I can achieve. And as it became apparent this summer would be our only one in Cingoli, we did try to adopt that way of life.
On Saturday mornings, almost without fail, Steve and I would walk or drive to Cingoli for a cappuccino and a pastry from one of the two bakeries in town. As the snows melted and spring slowly crept in, our Saturday jaunts up the hill became ever more pleasant. The largest and most popular bakery in Cingoli is Panificio Alberto e Massimiliano Piccinini, but we just called it the panificio.
To say that Italians know how to make pastries is like saying Van Cliburn could play the piano. They are true virtuosos. Cream filled horns, Pasticiotto, which is a miniature cream pie, Taralli, or crispy, round donut-shaped cookies, and Canolis...my God the Canolis! We tried to make ourselves try some of their many different offerings, but once we had the cream-filled bombola, nothing else existed. First, they know how to make a great bread: light and airy with just a bit of an exterior crunch, and very buttery. Then they cram it full of the best vanilla cream filling I ever tasted. It was rich, but I could never get my fill; I just wanted more and more. I am not certain, but I believe the amount of cream inside the bombola far exceeded the volume of the bread. Don’t know how they do it, but it seemed never-ending. Great gobs of the cream squish out the sides of the light, airy bread, and your mouth, as you attempt to take just a small bite. After one bombola, I was done for the morning. Great food completely satisfies and satiates. Those Saturdays became our little ritual and I thought all week about them. I tried to be non-chalant with Steve about going to the bakery each Saturday.
Me: “So, you wanna’ go to the bakery this morning?”
Steve: “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think?”
Me: “Well, I’ll go if you really want to.”
Steve: “Well, I don’t have to.”
Me: “Well, okay, maybe we should just skip...what, are you CRAZY?! I’m starving for one of those pastries! I gotta’ have one, I tell you! Get up...GET UP!”
Steve just smirked at me while putting on his walking boots.
We would sit at one of the three tables inside the bakery, savoring the incredible flavors as the line of customers grew and grew. Every bite was as surprisingly good as the very first bite I had had back in September. Falling into a pattern of Saturday breakfast in the panificio was as easy as falling off a log.
The passegiato I had a bit more trouble getting used to. I mean, who walks in the U.S.? If God wanted us to walk he wouldn’t have invented drive-thrus.
But in Italy, in every town we visited, there was a passegiato walkway. In Lucca it was on top of the city’s stone wall. In Venice it runs along the Grand Canal. All of Rome is one big passegiato. And in Cingoli it stretches along the west side of town and snakes its way alongside the road leading to the many small towns east and south of Mount Cingulum. The walk is lined with old oaks, with park benches set every 100 or so meters on the cobblestone walkway.
We have walked the passegiato in the daytime and at night, and it is almost always in use by the locals. By day women walk arm-in-arm, talking. Mothers push baby strollers. Runners pass by with a whizz. At night entire families stroll along the walk before heading to a local pizzeria for dinner. We tried several times to add this little ritual to our daily routine, but we just couldn’t do it. We figured that just walking up the hill to Cingoli was passegiato enough for us. Besides, I get bored easily. I had a better time walking down Via Coppo, through Torre, and beyond. I made that walk four or five times each week. But we did spend a good amount of time walking Cingoli’s passegiato.
I don’t know about all of Italy, but in our area around Cingoli there is a traveling market.
A man and his wife sold fresh cut, cooked porchetta sandwiches. They cut thick slices of meat off a freshly cooked pig and served it up on hearty buns with mayonnaise, if you so desired. So after our tour of the market we had to stop for lunch and grab one of those incredible pork sandwiches.
In Italy, dinner is another matter entirely. I cannot tell you how many hours we spent at long, leisurely dinners in Cingoli. When you eat at a restaurant in Italy you are supposed to make it an event. There is no busboy waiting to pounce on your table to turn it around for a waiting customer. You sit, and sit, and eat, and drink, and sit, and have dessert and after-dinner drinks, and sit, and talk, and then, just maybe then the waiter will bring your check.
The best time we ever had was when we had dinner with the Cingoli chorus. We ate at Il Ragno (The Spider), a very popular pizzeria restaurant in town. It is down the street from the Porta Pia, the rear gate into/out of Cingoli. Ilda, the chorus director, ordered all kinds of different pizzas, and the waiters brought them to our table as they were ready. She also ordered stuffed, fried olives, called Ascolana. They were like little balls of heaven: tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, with a delicate meat wrapped around a green olive, dipped in batter and fried golden. We would return to Il Ragno many times and order only Ascolani and wine.
As we left March behind and entered April it was time to put out our vegetable garden. This is something I had wanted to do for a long, long time, but never quite found the time or inspiration. But sitting on that hill overlooking the Marche valley was all the inspiration I needed. Every day I saw farmers preparing fields for their crops, usually sunflowers. And everyone has at least a small garden next to their house. So we got out pencil and paper and drew out our garden plan. It was to be 30 by 10 feet, with rows of peas, green beans, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes of course, potatoes, carrots, onions, and herbs: oregano and rosemary.
We found a garden center about 8 kilometers down the road to Macerata and bought our seeds and bulbs, along with fertilizer and some equipment. The next day we began removing the grass from the garden plot and Cathy lent us their tiller, which made plowing the plot a breeze.
I had the best time working in that garden every day. I wasn’t sure I would stick to it, but I found it incredibly rewarding to see the little seedlings grow to mature plants that, by June, began bearing fruit, er, vegetables. The first to come up were the onions, and they were fantastic. But that was nothing. By June’s end we began harvesting potatoes and a few tomatoes, and added to the harvest each week. We ate all summer out of that garden. We had so many tomatoes that we began canning them. Fresh peas are to die for, and a just-pulled carrot has a sweet flavor that gets lost sitting in a store. The green beans all seemed to come in at once, so we ate a lot of beans for a couple of weeks. I roasted vegetables in the oven many times, topped with our fresh oregano and rosemary, and we ate all kinds of potato dishes. When we had to leave Cingoli I remember thinking how much I was going to miss that little plot of land that was our garden.
Also in the spring we saw the various fruit trees, bushes, and vines on our property begin to produce. There were three cherry trees, each a different kind. We were over-zealous when the first tree sprouted thousands of cherries; we picked them all and canned 50 jars of cherries and froze another 10 pounds worth. Steve’s sister and brother-in-law visited in June and Kurt could not stop popping the cherries in his mouth. He said they were “like candy”. Indeed they were.
We also had three fig trees on our property which produced the sweetest, juiciest figs. We made about 25 jars of fig jam and enjoyed it all summer on toast or crackers for breakfast, or anytime for a great snack. There were grape vines, of course, but they had been buried under 20 years of neglect, so they did not produce much that summer. But we harvested tons and tons of elderberries and made jam from them, too. I had always thought elderberries were only in Kentucky.
We had persimmons, blackberries, and one tree produced a fruit that looked like a pale tomato. We asked and asked what they could be but no one seemed to understand our description of them. We got several answers about what they were and never could settle on a definitive one.
On day in May – that dangerous month – we were walking down the hill from Cingoli. We passed through a street that cut down a different way than we normally went and came across a landing at the bottom of some steps that was covered with chestnuts. We wondered why no one had bothered to pick up all these little treats and roast them at home. Knowing for certain that that would be the case very soon, we quickly walked home, grabbed some plastic bags, and drove the car back up to town. We loaded up the bags with our secret treasures and quickly threw them in the back of the car, all the while looking around to be certain no one saw us. After all, we were newbies in town; surely local residents had first dibs on these little gems.
Back at home we split the brown nuggets and roasted them in the oven. About an hour later out came the first batch, steaming hot and looking quite alluring. I took a few into the living room and Steve and I popped them open and dug out the meat and popped it in our mouths.
“Kind of bitter, don’t you think?”, Steve said.
They were more than bitter, they were terrible.
“Yeah, not what I expected. Maybe we got bad ones.”
We each ate another, but the result was the same: a biting, very bitter taste so strong that you just wanted to spit them out.
“What’s wrong with these things?”
“Did you roast them correctly?”
“Can’t really go wrong with that…you just put them in the oven.”
Something was not right, and so I turned to our modern information source, the Internet. I looked up chestnuts and looked at the photos to compare them with ours. They were close, but there was a subtle difference. And as I read about chestnuts I came across a little line that said something about not confusing chestnuts with buckeyes, which are non-edible to humans and, in fact, poisonous.
Alarmed, I grabbed the plate of buckeyes I had roasted and took them to the kitchen. Should I tell Steve? Or should I just wait and see what happens? If he died I’d never have to admit my stupidity.
“Uh, have some news for you. Pretty funny, really.”
Steve just looked at me with that look of “what did you do NOW?!”
Seems these are not chestnuts, but buckeyes. They’re kind of poisonous.
We actually had not eaten enough of the buckeye meat to make us sick. It was so awful tasting that we spit most of it out. But what a couple of dolts!
The next Saturday market day we bought some roasted chestnuts from a vendor.
“Oh, so THAT’S what they are supposed to taste like.”
Spring also brought all kinds of outdoor events. The festivals had continued all winter, but now there were other kinds of events to attend. In March we drove to Fermo, about 20 kilometers from Cingoli, for “Tippicitta”, set in an industrial area outside Fermo. There were vendors and marketers pushing travel, selling or giving away samples of their products, and generally promoting Les Marche.
Also in March was the Energy Show in Villa Potenza, just outside Macerata. It showcased the latest in energy-saving technology, such as solar and wind, as well as improved appliances and other home devices.
In April was the annual Cingoli bike races, which saw participants arrive in Cingoli from all over Italy and Europe. The main race must have had 500 bikers.
Easter in Italy is, as you might expect, huge. The shops and bars are full of plastic and fabric easter eggs filled with candy and gifts. One was so large that it covered one of the tables in Patty’s Place.
Also in June was the aforementioned Mongelfiere, or balloon festival. The balloon staging area was the open field just on the other side of the road to Cingoli. As the balloons filled with helium we were treated to the sight of all of them rising into the air at the same time. They then slowly drifted over our house and down into the valley below. About 2 hours later we watched as they each found an open field to land in, their chase vehicles finding a road to where they finally landed.
There were many more festivals, gatherings, and day-trips. As summer came to a close we faced the fact that the Italian government was not going to issue us work visas, which we would need to operate the B&B. We spent a lot of time at the immigration office trying to find the person that would say “yes”, but to no avail. In September we made our sad plans to return to the U.S. But first we had to sell our dream – if we could.