■ May 21, 08:00 AM by James Martin
“The most rain in 200 years,” he said, glancing up at the sky.
And then there was the water rushing past the bridge. Usually it’s barely a trickle this time of year. Now it’s got some serious whitewater to it at times.
Lots of water has consequences. Good and bad consequences I suppose. It makes your pictures look bad. Well, not really bad, but it looks like you put your picture in Photoshop and cranked up the green like an addict cranks up the crank.
But really, the view below is the view you get when you take the narrow little road from Fivizzano to Comano. You’re almost to Comano, the Castle tower at Castello is about to come into view. There’s a space to pull off, pretty much the first one you’d dare use. Then this:
See what I mean? Oh, yeah the lens had a smudge the size of Kansas on it, but what you see is pretty much the new growth green, scoured by constant rain until it’s polished like the silvery ball embedded in a pretty girl’s tongue.
We’re looking at the edge of the Tosco Emiliano National Park. It’s pretty country all around.
And if you noticed the picture way at the top, you’ll notice snow. It’s late May. What’s that doing there?
Odd year, innit?
Italy Travel Toolbox
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■ Apr 7, 08:50 AM by James Martin
Crosini (4 kinds x 2), affettata, (sliced meats,3 kinds x 2), sgabei (fried bread), torta di patati (potato pie) Risotto (artichoke and mushroom), ravioli with meat sauce, pork with potatoes, tagliata con rucola (sliced steak with arucola), fried kid with fried artichokes, tiramisu covered in strawberries. Coffee.
It sounds like I’m telling you the choices on the menu, doesn’t it? But no, this is Sunday in the Luni, short for the Lunigiana, but oddly apropos in an Englishy sort of way. This is what you’re having to eat. All of it. An endless array of appetizers, then two primi piatti, risotto and pasta, then three meat courses, then desert (although if you’re a mathematician perhaps you thought you were caught in a diabolical progression and there’d be four deserts, but, happily, no). All served by a women who can selectively ignore any protest of the amount of food she might pile on your plate. She is more selective if the voice is masculine.
You start eating happily. The food is the food cooked in house, by women who’ve been doing it forever. Then, you’re stomach begins to quiver, then protest. You do to. So, Martha says, “basta uno” or “one is enough” and get’s one piece of something. I say “basta uno” and she throws a second on the plate. Picolo!” she says. It’s small, live with it, she means.
Soon you get defensive. You cover your plate with your hands after two huge ladle-fulls of risotto. The minute things calm down and you slowly remove them, plop goes the third.
Then, upon seeing her with a platter waltzing toward your table, you bend over your plate, cradling it in your arms and drawing it toward your breast as you lean over, covering it with your head. Soon you feel the plop, then the long-simmered juices trickling ever so deliciously down the cavern between your ear and skull…
It’s a battle eating Sunday lunch at the Ristorante Apuane, which isn’t alone in the game of Sunday excess. Entirely Luni. But you do it. Once you were poor, now there’s food. It’s cathartic. Live with it.
Oh, I forgot to mention why I like living here. All this, with bottled water and wine, runs you 25 euro per person. No tipping. Ristorante Apuane di Gregori Cristina in Magliano. A bar most of the week, a good food/stomach torture chamber on Sunday. Boy, them people can cook!
■ Mar 28, 08:48 AM by James Martin
After winter I fret coming home to the Lunigiana. What could the bad weather (especially bad this winter) have done to the house this time? How many cracked roof tiles might there be? Is the little inline water meter busted yet again from freezing up, like it was last year and the year before that? Will the internet work? The pellet stove?
Everything looked, well, very va bene when I pushed open the door, dropped the luggage, and checked the internet. Yep, everything was fine. I have mail.
But, hmmmm, there’s a breaker blown. What could that be? Everything seemed to work. It was noon. I had no need to try the overhead lights.
But, you know, overlook something and it’s sure to bite you in the ass.
So…conundrum. The breaker kept…breaking—for no apparent reason.
So we called on Armando. Can he find us an electrician?
Of course he can. Our neighbors are like Supermen. Even the women. We didn’t even have time to go out for lunch; Luigi the electrical guy would be here pronto.
While we were waiting, Martha started checking some old clothing in the spare bedroom. She found water under a box of shoes. I looked under the bed. The wood flooring was spotted, like it had rained under there. The bed itself was dry.
We looked at the ceiling. There were telltale signs of wetness. I got a ladder to investigate. There was a thin line of rust making a squiggly little line down the ceiling light fixture, discoloring the opaque glass bowl that diffuses the light.
I slipped my finger over the lip of the bowl. It was cold. You could have kept goldfish in that bowl. Or maybe a couple trout to be simmered later in Vernaccia. The bowl was filled to the brim with rain water.
So we needed the roof guy. What do we do? Ask Armando. He’ll find one.
Coming right up!
Between the time we arrived around noon and before losing daylight we had acquired 6 new roof tiles and isolated the electrical problem so Luigi wouldn’t have to deal with it—but he arrives anyway because we didn’t have time to call him off. The whole deal, new roof tiles and all, costs us 15 Euro. To top it off, Armando gives Martha a big bottle of wine. Welcome home.
Italy is broken they say. Hey, you try getting an electrician and roofer on a moment’s notice in the “recovered” US.
Armando should give up his superman cape and become Prime Minister. He’s a natural. Things would get fixed. There’d be a pollo in every pot—an air chilled and tasty one, too, like they insist upon in Italy.
Popular These Days
■ Sep 21, 12:33 PM by James Martin
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about why I am so happy to come to Italy. How can it be different than the good ol’ US of A? Well, there are castles. And health care. And, really good food.
But America has really good food, too. So how is it different? Well, darn it, the way food is experienced in each country is almost the opposite I’m thinking.
Let me give you an example. In the US, we have chefs. They (usually) go to something called a “culinary institution” that gives them a hat to wear that is taller than the other hats kitchen slaves wear. They source good ingredients that nobody else gets access to and put them together in a way that no other graduate of a “culinary institution” might have put them. They become famous for this unique trait. By the way, the only other thing we call an “institution” in the US is a place we put crazy people when they become to much for the local constabulary to handle—if a political party will not accept them for grooming that is.
In any case, to access these famous chefs you first find an apartment in a city. A one bedroom hovel will cost you what a six bedroom house on the waterfront in a village outside the city will cost, all because the city hovel has access to chefs.
So, on a sunny day when your favorite baseball team is out of town and you have nothing better to do you phone one of the palaces of good eats owned by one of these famous chefs at least six months before you intend to eat in order to get a table linked to your name. You mark your chosen day carefully on your calendar.
When the day comes you dress in your Sunday best. You exit your apartment, carefully stepping over the homeless who are camping out in front, and walk to your destination—or if you have the extra cash, you hail a cab. When you arrive you marvel at the grit and grime of the neighborhood and you are afraid just a little. You pass up frequent if expensive offers of chemical substances that will ease you into a nighttime ecstasy and—finally!—push open the door to the culinary palace of your dreams.
The scene changes. The room is warm and inviting and glows with light. Hip people with chains embedded in their nostrils and heaven knows where else shout at each other to be heard; the restaurant has been specially designed at great cost to reflect sound so that you will take home a memory of the place in your (sore) throat. (People used to get the same effect by smoking, now outlawed.)
You are seated. You look at your sweet honey. She is looking at you. You wonder why. You pick up the menu, figuring you will use it as a shield from her uninterpretable gaze.
Which allows you to see the prices. Your eyes pop open more violently than a can of shaken Coca Cola.
But you’ve saved up for six months for this. So you suck it up and order. Your friends at Visa Card Services smile.
Your main course arrives. It is arranged. Matisse-like squiggles of moose snot colored with cranberries form a net-like grid over your owl liver, which is stacked upon a swirl of nettles steeped in yak sweat. Your fork quivers in your hand.
What’s on your plate is art. You haven’t seen anything so beautiful in years. You can hardly force yourself to plunge a metallic object into it.
But you do. Ahhh, it’s comforting eating food nobody else in the world is ever going to replicate. Ever. From there, of course, you coast. It’s all coffee and paying.
Now, let’s take Italy. You go to a restaurant in the country where there are no chefs but instead you are likely to find a wobbly grandmother in the kitchen who has been making fresh pasta longer than the homeless have been fornicating in front of your apartment in the city. You can call her a chef if it makes you happy, but she has nobody to be the chief of, so she’s really just the cook.
On the way to the restaurant you have perhaps come upon a castle. Its crenelated walls fill your childish heart with joy. The eye candy of it all lifts your spirits. Then you imagine the arrows flying, the skittish horses waiting for their mounts to flop to the ground into the waiting pools of blood…
Oh, wait, of course you don’t. Scratch that. You think the castle has a perfect form, blending with the surroundings harmoniously, the perfect scene, one that makes you swoon with delight. Or, if you happen to be in a small village in northern Tuscany like Filetto, you walk through a town with archways passageways that invite you to explore. Like in the picture. Nice bit of eye candy, isn’t it?
You enter a restaurant oddly named, like Ristorante Alla Piazza di Sopra, the restaurant of the upper square (or something). You order a plate of pasta. It’s pretty white, except where it’s a little beigey-gray. Perhaps we are in the clouds and they threaten rain.
But oh the taste! Ravioli stuffed with speck and goat cheese, with warm pear slices and clods of pecorino cheese and a drizzle of the most delightful olive oil. To die for. We are in heavenly clouds indeed.
So, it is simple. In America, ugly surroundings, famous chefs, eye-candy arrangement of food. In Italy, inspiring eye-candy surroundings, food that looks, well, like food, and it’s all put together by people who’ve been doing it for years and have no celebrity and expect none. City vs. country. Glorious opposites.
Italy: inexpensive yet tasty wine plunked down on your table for you to be the king of.
America: Expensive wine the waiter keeps so he can dole it out to show you who’s boss.
Opposites. Are we seeing a trend here?
Now to bed. Happy with memories of a fine pasta. Of a carefully sourced olive oil. Zeri lamb and porcini mushrooms just yanked from the forest floor. And quarter liter of fine wine that sets us back all of 2 euros.
You can’t beat that with a stick.
Oh, wait, there’s more! We’ve left a little tip! But no, the cook comes over, looks at the money, and returns the tip and an extra euro to make the bill come out to an even number!
Try to find that in your American palace of fine foods, buster.
■ Jul 25, 12:58 PM by James Martin
My office here in rural California is right beside the street. It has big windows that open onto the small world in which I wallow discontentedly. Maybe once every few weeks someone on a bicycle trundles by. The riders are never swathed in colorful spandex like they are in other countries.
I just found something on Facebook that made me realize yet another thing I miss about not being in the Lunigiana. It’s that walk down the garden-bordered strada, punctuated by the whoosh of a bike gliding by that I can count on when the weather is nice. On weekends the whoosh is louder because there are large packs of riders pedaling the byways, always talking. The talking does not seem to slow them down.
But what I’m really excited about, meaning I’m sad I’m gonna miss it, is a special bicycle race taking place this weekend, the Panigacci Cup. It starts from Podenzana, the nexus for Panigacci restaurants. (Only one other town has a Panigacci tradition, and that is the nearby town of Aulla.)
Podenzana is an odd town. There is no there there, as is said of a place like gigantic (in comparison) Oakland, California. You find Podenzana on a twisty road from Aulla that winds up a hill with strings of houses along it—and panigacci restaurants—but there is no main piazza, no center, no place you can tell folks to meet you at unless its a restaurant.
In case you don’t know what panigacci is, well, it’s a local food we force everyone visiting my humble abode in the Lunigiana to taste. You go to a panigacci restaurant where a guy in front of a humongous fireplace is in charge of ladling unleavened dough into fire-blackened and red hot terra cotta plates called testi and stacking the whole deal until the panigacci brown on the outside and are ready to be put in a basket and brought to your table where you can slap on some meat, cheese, pesto or what have you. Simple. And you simply can’t get something bready as fresh from the oven anywhere else.
Anyway, the bike race called the Trofeo del Panigaccio will be held on Sunday the 29th of July. The notice is here
If you read all the way to the bottom there’s something that caught my eye and made my taste buds stand up and beg, “Poi al termine panigacci gratis per tutti!!!” There’s only one thing better than panigacci on a Sunday. It’s free panigacci.
And here’s something really amazing (well, to me that is). There’s a panigacci restaurant in SPAIN!
Find out more about panigacci in our illustrated blog post.
■ Jun 2, 02:31 AM by James Martin
Last night, one of our last nights in the Lunigiana, we went out for pizza with friends. Real pizza is always something I miss when I go to California. It’s not that the frozen-dough, 126 items on top, messy California pie is all that bad, it’s just that Italian pizza is quite different.
The Gatto Matto has achieved some fame in pizza competitions and is a hit with ex-pats: Winning The pizza hunters of Lunigiana competition handily.
If you are industrious enough to go to the back of the menu, after the “normal” pizzas, you’ll see a short list of some specialty pizzas. These, in my opinion, were the hit of the night. The one you see to the right is (are you truly ready for this?) a mashed potato and lardo pizza.
Ok, I just noticed that the drool has stopped dripping from the corners of your mouth. Who, in heaven’s name, would put lardo and mashed potatoes on a pizza? You’re also thinking, “when is this idiot going to use the phrase, or a slight variation of, “artery clogging”? Isn’t it imperative and required by law when your text is aimed at real Americans and their pristine veins? (I’ll look it up, promise.)
Ok, so it’s not just any lardo. It’s Duca di Tresana lardo, or lardo like they make it in the town of Tresana. It has exactly a 50-50 fat to lean ratio; you can see the lean bits on the picture, the fatty parts have dissolved lustily into the pizza. And the mashed potatoes are made special with the addition of nutmeg, the magic spice that transforms food into something, well, magical and exotic. Fab pizza. You should try it.
There was also one dribbled with some of what I’m thinking might be the last remaining stock of Balsamic Vinegar, considering all the storerooms that have collapsed due to recent earth-moving trembles. It also was studded with speck, chopped radicchio, and Parmigiano-Reggiono shavings. A close second place.
And then there was Martha’s rather plain, normal pizza, with those logs of fat asparagus floating in a sea of sauce you see up top there.
A great night, thanks to good friends and good pizza.
Gatto Matto, the Crazy Cat Website
Click on the pictures. They enlarge and they like it immensely.
■ May 29, 07:37 AM by James Martin
I write about Italy. I get some response. But when I stick my camera out my window and snap a picture of my village I get more response. I don’t know why that is, but I’m willing to think that the rural areas of Italy are getting more attention these days, especially the pretty rural areas.
Here folks make their own food. It’s good food. They forage a lot too. That’s good food. Perhaps the industrial crap food you get in America is making you crazy for rural Italy and its good food. I’m just guessing.
One of our walks is a bit of an uphill crawl toward what the Italians call an ex-monastero, a building that used to be a monastery but these days functions as an Agricultural school. The Lunigiana Chorus rehearses here.
Once we reach it, I go immediately to the top of the hill upon which the school’s vineyards sit, and I look out over the valley and see the little towns and the Apuan Alps, the marble mountains of Massa and Cararra, looming in the background. It’s a great view.
The vineyard itself is lined with roses, which as susceptible to the same fungal infections as the grape vines, so are grown as an early warning system. You can see this in the Napa Valley as well. All in all we have a tiny slice of what it is to live in a place where good food is a priority. Where wine isn’t for the wealthy, but cheap enough for almost everyone.
I can take the same path back, a wide, well maintained path that could carry a stout car or some small farming machinery, or I can take the road. My neighbors tell me that in fall they gather, at various times, porcini and chestnuts along the path.
Oh, you can click on these pictures to make them pop up into bigger sizes. Nice, eh? Don’t you wish you could hang out in the Lunigiana?
■ Mar 10, 12:20 AM by James Martin
The picture shows the modern mixings. You buy the ingredients in a vacuum packed bag. It contains pre-soaked beans and grains. The ingredient list: ceci, fagioli, grano.
Mesciua is a soup that originates in La Spezia, specifically at the port of La Spezia, where women would come after ships were offloaded and pick up the stuff that had fallen on the pier. Perhaps if you have a fertile imagination you can picture stout women bending with agile grace to pick up the odd bean here, the odd grain there, placing them gently in a sack.
At home you’d put what you had gleaned in some water and boil it. When it was done you seasoned it with salt and pepper and drizzled some olive oil in it. Our package advises us not to even stir it while it simmered.
We did what it said. The resulting Mesciua was good on a chilly Lunigiana night.