I just got back from a sunny November week in Calabria. After some recent rain, everything was green and beautiful. Unlike the north of Italy, the air was pure and the sky was such a dark blue that it didn’t seem real. Due to far too much confusion with the cousins, I stayed in an agriturismo ambitiously named “Borgo Erto Grande Agriturismo Schirripa.” Loosely translated, it means the bed and breakfast by the superb big garden of Schirripa. Since I was not furnished with an address, a kind gentleman from the same town sent me a photograph of the place via email. Without that photo, there’s no way that I would have ever found it!
Normally, I travel with my husband, who loves to drive and has an innate sense of direction. This time I was alone, so everything was very different and driving for me is not a pleasure but a necessity. I arrived at the Lamezia Terme airport at dusk, so by the time I had navigated through Catanzaro and up most of the mountain road to Sersale, it was completely dark and quite cold too. I drove along with my trusty photo at my side, wondering how it would help me in the pitch black darkness. Amazingly enough, when I got close, there was just enough light in the sky to outline the landmarks in the photo.
I drove up to a big gate beyond which was total darkness, and called the phone number I had for the agriturismo. I was informed that they would be right there! I sat there, tired, hungry, thirsty and in need of a bathroom, until a car with three people (Felice, Maria Teresa and their ten year old daughter Noella) drove up and led me to the entrance of the agriturismo. All talking at once, and accompanied by four baying dogs and two meowing cats, they turned the lights on, but the circuit breakers slammed shut 6 times before they figured out how to turn on just the emergency lights.
In the cold and semi darkness, I was served a fantastic dinner while Felice explained several times about the problems he was having getting the contractors to finish their work on the building which included installing a front door. My dinner that night included homemade ‘mparrattati pasta with funghi, which had been gathered in the woods nearby. Maria Teresa also served polpetti, but they were shaped like footballs instead of golf balls, cheeses, olives, salamis and great bread. Then they hustled me off to Felice’s mother’s home in Cropani, a town nearby, where there was electricity and heat and I had a chance of surviving the night. In Cropani, I walked into a little apartment, and this lovely white haired lady greeted me at the door. She grabbed my hand and lamented how cold my hands were, “come sit by the fire”, she said, “and warm up!” As we talked, I learned little by little that she knew most of my relatives. And did I know that my cousin Pino Mercuri was burned recently and stayed in the hospital for 8 days? She knew everyone and everything. I sat at her fire with her and we exchanged chocolates. She gave me a piece of hers, and I gave her one of the Halloween Kitkat bars I had taken along with me for that very purpose. I slept in a big bed by myself, in a coolish room, but there were enough blankets that I slept comfortably.
Morning came and I began the typical routine of trying to explain why I could not eat everything in sight. In Calabria, you can be sure you will be full when you leave the table. In daylight, I felt ready to enter Sersale, with its “strette strade” (narrow streets) with many curves. I found a fairly safe looking parking space and headed for the home of the one cousin “Cicciu figlio di Saverio” whose house I could remember the best, which was down a steep path too small for cars. Of course, his wife Annina was home and greeted me warmly. I was welcomed in, and before I could say pasta with broccoli, I was eating again. Have more, this is good! Here, have some of this; take another piece of meat. The fight continued until I had eaten a lot more than I had planned on, and poor Annina still felt like she had lost the battle, I hadn’t eaten near enough. Annina called more cousins, who came over immediately. They had me follow them in their car so I could find their house the next day. They lived “in campagna” which was less than a mile from the center of town, but on a very steep and twisty well paved road. This is not a place you want to drive in the snow. Everyone wanted to know why I came in November. I told them, I wanted to see the Sagra della Castagna, the chestnut festival. So everywhere I went, I was fed castagne. They are very good raw, they almost taste like apples. And they are cooked in the huge bread ovens, for 24 hours and then stored. To eat the cold previously baked chestnuts, you must re-heat them. I was given sacks of chestnuts and was already dreading going through customs with all this produce. (note: all chestnuts arrived in Seattle safely) That night I returned to the agriturismo with the sky lit up by the full moon, and it was colder than ever. They had fixed the electricity, but the building was still freezing cold, and they still didn’t have a front door. I had dinner there again that night, but it was just too cold in the dining room. Above Maria Teresa’s protestations, I insisted; I would not eat in the dining room, I would eat in the kitchen. After that, I ate breakfast every morning in the relatively cozy kitchen. After my dinner of pasta e fagioli, I went up to my painfully cold room. The heater, mounted at ceiling level, was going full blast but cold seemed to seep in from the corners of the room and radiated through the floor. So I jumped into my capilene underwear and then crawled under the covers and stayed there until morning. At last the next day they covered the building entrance with plastic since the door had not yet appeared. Sunday afternoon, I was expected for lunch at Pino and Santina’s house, where life was looking good. They had recently finished building a beautiful house right next to their large garden, about an acre of trees and vegetables. Pino had been burnt by an explosive combustion of alcohol that he was using to start a fire less than 2 weeks before, so he was holding court, and everyone in town was making rounds to come see him. Fortunately he had healed very nicely and was really enjoying all the attention. So each time I came to their house, an endless stream of relatives appeared to pay their respects, making it easier for me to make connections. Every meal with every cousin and friend contained delicious surprises, including homemade pastas, grilled zucca, roast capretto, tender chicken and various fried vegetables. Every meal was different, with the exception of pasta e fagiole, which I had twice, but the recipes were different. I ate chestnuts at every meal, and on my walks, I picked freshly fallen chestnuts off the ground and stuck them into my pockets. After every meal I was offered fruits and nuts. I ate salads fresh picked out of the garden. And thanks to all the studying, I enjoyed real conversations with my family. Finally I had enough grasp of the language to understand what was being said about me, and to be able to ask real questions. A cousin showed me how to make the ’mparrattati pasta, and asked me questions about Genealogy. Another cousin cut me some fig tree starts. This was the first time I’d ever gone to Sersale by myself, so with pleasure, I walked the streets and steps and found everything on my own. Tiny elderly ladies in black eyed me suspiciously until I told them who I was, and then they’d burst out in huge grins with claims that they had known my grandfather, who had left Italy one hundred years before. My last morning arrived much too fast. With the car packed up, I made rounds to all the cousins who were at home and said goodbye. I drove the 25 kilometers back down the hill where I counted 40 switchbacks before I forgot and lost count. At almost the end of the road where it connects to the highway, I saw two women in black. It was Santina and Annina. I pulled over and jumped out of the car. They were next to an olive field. I asked them, “Are those your olives?” No, they weren’t. “What are you doing here?” Santina pulled a small wad of cicoria out of her pocket. “We were looking for greens, but there’s almost nothing here. Now we’re waiting for my daughter to return from work to take us home.” These two women with large gorgeous gardens full of fruit and vegetables were out foraging for greens, go figure. Old habits die hard I guess. I could only imagine that they started gathering cicoria as children so they would have vegetables to eat. I gave them both hugs and bade them farewell, and drove off to the airport, marveling about my adventures. Calabria… It fills me with joy and sadness. There’s no place like it in the world.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Like many fortunate Italian Americans, I had two Italian grandmothers who were great cooks. One of them made taralli, a spicy kind of Italian pretzel.
When I was only 18, I left New Jersey and moved to Boise, Idaho to go to college. I loved the mountains, the wide open spaces, the horses, the goats and the chickens, but after growing up in Northern New Jersey, I found myself in a kind of cultural vacuum. I could not find semolina pasta at my local supermarket, and the only pizza place in the whole state was a chain that sold something akin to saltine crackers glazed with tomato and oregano topped with yellow cheese. So I was always grateful when my grandmother Lucy Fressola sent me care packages filled with biscotti and taralli that she lovingly made by hand.
I suppose taralli are an acquired taste, if you set them out at a non-Italian potluck, chances are that they will be passed over for the richer double fudge brownies and the super chocolate chip cookies and the beautifully decorated designer biscotti that you can buy in stores here. But they don’t last long at my house.
The details of my grandmother’s taralli changed from time to time, but the way I liked them best was when she added both ground black pepper and fennel seeds. They are not sweet like so many other confections.
Over the years, my mother, my cousins and I requested the recipe from her several times, and upon each request, she dutifully sent it to us. We rarely even tried to make them because it is a complicated recipe. To make taralli, you must knead and raise dough, make about a mile of dough snakes, shape them, boil them and then finally bake them until they are just right. This is not a recipe for busy or timid cooks.
Some years ago, after we noticed that every one of the recipes for taralli that my grandmother had given us were different, we convinced her to show us how to make them at a family gathering. My sister, my mother, my husband and I sat and watched as she tried to measure the ingredients; she doesn’t REALLY measure, she was only doing it for us. Then she kneaded the dough, quickly, efficiently and we all realized she wasn’t going to slow down to show us that process. After the dough sat in a warm place for 1.5 hours, we all sat around the table with our own pieces of dough and rolled out snakes, worms, pencils and eventually braids and various other knotted shapes. My sister made the most fanciful designs, I labored to imitate what my grandmother was doing. No matter what, hers were nicer, faster, and more consistent. My mother was intimidated with the boiling water procedure and the slippery wet unfinished taralli but she and my husband managed to get them all in the oven under my grandmother’s watchful eye.
I made her biscotti recipe a couple of times for her before she died, faithfully reproducing her recipe of simple ingredients, but I’d never ventured to make those taralli. When my grandmother died in 2003 she left quite a hole in the family fabric.
That autumn, my family went to her home town of Sant’Agata di Puglia, where her cousin made sure that we went home with the RIGHT kind of taralli. But they were different. I knew I’d never have my grandmother’s recipe again unless I learned to make them myself.
In the kitchen, I generally lean on my husband, who learned to bake bread as a boy while living on a farm. He finds Italian baking very frustrating because to him her basic method is “backwards.” He was taught to make a dough by starting with the water, the yeast, and the oil, gradually adding the dry ingredients until you get a good dough. All our Italian recipes start with; “make a well in a hill of flour” to which you add wet ingredients until the dough is right. Each time I made another disastrous attempt at some sort of bread dough recipe, I would call him in, he would sputter and protest, and I’d watch as he changed that bumpy fractious lump of crumbs and grease into a perfect, soft, glistening ball of dough. It was still a mystery to me, frustrating, just beyond reach.
In the autumn of 2006, my husband spent most of his time in New Orleans on catastrophe duty. This gave me plenty of time alone in the kitchen, lots of time to think. I wanted to learn to make Taralli - by myself.
I planned my attack carefully, I figured I’d make my first attempt while my husband was still at home, and then I’d keep trying until I got it right. I cut her recipe in half, 8 cups of flour was way too intimidating. On my first try the dough came out awful. It was tough and cobbled with lumps. My husband wrassled it like it was a recalcitrant hog, pronounced several choice words, but before my eyes transformed it into something that looked pretty good. It was a very hard dough, but at least they tasted like taralli.
I tried again a couple days later, but this time the yeast didn’t rise. The poor thing just sat there in a lump. I left it out overnight in a warm place. In the morning after observing that the only change was that it was now a darker color, I threw it away.
My husband went back to New Orleans and I still hadn’t gotten it right. I was now ready to solo. If I really tried, I could have some ready for the holiday gathering. I tried four more times before I was satisfied. Five times is a charm? The last batch were salty enough, crunchy enough, they rolled out nicely, they browned perfectly. I finally feel like I own the recipe.
Upon reflection, sometimes my grandmother seemed to be sad because she was the only one that knew how to make these things. I’ll bet she’s smiling now, I’m sure she’d say, “you didn’t roll those out thinly enough.” and “Next time, don’t use so much pepper.” Sharing my grandmother’s taralli is kind of like sharing her. Now the younger generation is assured of getting a taste for her recipe, and perhaps the longing for more. Finally, I was able to preserve another family tradition. Her recipe is safely knit into our family fabric for at least another generation.