Monday, January 24, 2011

Italy Part I: San Martino: "Il Bel Far Niente"

Lost in the Beautiful Fog of 'Il Bel Far Niente.'

Too much went on to cover the subject of our November trip to Italy in one post.  I don't know how many I'll actually write, but as of now, this is Italy Part I.  Don't judge me if I end up going back and editing the title because I never got around to writing a second or third part - that's just how I roll these days. :)

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November seems like twenty years ago now that Christmas and the New Year have come and gone.  But I do recall that just 3 months ago I was experiencing copious amounts of excited anticipation over our much-awaited, last-minute return to Rome after 8 years of absence (since Matt and I met, in fact).  I spent days pouring over blogs and websites claiming to have the undiscovered best of Rome's eateries.  Just choosing a hotel took weeks, and I kept going back and forth and rearranging the dates - I think the guy at reception hated me after the whole ordeal - until our itinerary was just perfect and I had a list of golden-nuggety-culinary-finds.

But before we'd even go to Rome, we were making a 3-day stop-over in a small village, just an hour or so outside of Naples in the rolling mountains and hidden valleys of Campania, the birthplace of Matt's ancestors on his father's side.  I'd been there once before, four years ago, and had fond memories of a quaint, vaguely historic little town on the side of a low mountain where people live in the homes of their ancestors and still reminisce about walking miles up the side of a mountain to work on the farm every day during World War I and II.

Our trip to San Martino was largely uneventful and yet infinitely fulfilling.  In reality, we were quite busy: catching up with distant family members, eating a lot, and walking a lot.  It seems that despite their appreciation for enjoying life, with Italian families (much like with Mexican families), you are almost never left any downtime to just observe and reflect on your surroundings.  Not because they don't see the merit, but because you're constantly being ushered from one lunch to another dinner to a coffee date or back to lunch at someone else's house again.  It's intense, but we managed to sneak away a couple of times to enjoy what we'd really been looking forward to in this rustic retreat, namely "il bel far niente" - or "the beauty of doing nothing" - enjoying the autumnal splendor of the Campanian countryside.

Here are the top 5 moments from our time in Campania, in list form. 

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Top 5 Memories of Campania
or, "il bel far niente" of our trip

5. Sleeping with History.
Matt's great aunt lives in a big house on the main street of the village.  It is two storeys and has balconies facing out onto the main street and a small parking lot (recently built) with a small shrine to and statue of Padre Pio across the street from it.  The house has been there well-since before the World Wars, and was the home of her parents.  

a small shrine and the frescoes in the parlor
The ceilings of the parlor are painted frescoes, and the main staircase, which leads you very nearly into the street, is made of solid marble (I swear it could kill you to fall down those stairs).  It has a small indoor courtyard, and side entrance with place to tether horses, and a wood-burning pizza / bread oven in the kitchen which she never uses.  In every corner is a cluster of family pictures, Carabinieri plaques, saint statues, or devotional candles.  In every room there are ash trays, liquer and limoncello cups, silverspoon souvenirs from north Italy.  There is a shelf for the home-tinned tomatoes, for the passata, and always a giant chunk of Pecorino Romano next to the grater.  And in her kitchen wash area there are always piles of new, seasonal vegetables waiting to be used, piled in baskets - at this time there were giant pumpkins, painfully ripe pomegranates, clementines, and persimmons. 

pomegranates, bursting in the fall
I love this house, even though it has been taken over thoroughly by the modern conveniences of the latter 20th Century, and even though it is cluttered and largely forgotten as a place of social gatherings.  I love it because it is a standing relic - crumbling walls and all - of a family's history and place within a community and culture that is slowly but surely shrinking and morphing - dare I say disappearing?

4. The Doors.
When I was a teenager my best friend's parents had a framed poster of "The Doors of Notre Dame" on their wall.  Her uncle, now a priest, had gone to Notre Dame, and being obsessed with it at the time myself, I never forgot the look of the doors of what would one day be my own Alma Mater.

Since then, I've been obsessed with cool pictures of doors.  I shot a series of pictures of my favorite doors in San Martino this trip.  The one I like most is an old gigantic green door with the head of a putto in the center; it has a mini door cut out of it so you don't have to open the entire thing to go in and out on a daily basis.  
my favorite door in San Martino
But there were many more that took my fancy - old, new, rustic, polished.  Doors say so much about a house and the people who live in it.  I hope one day to have a well-worn wooden door for my own residence, one that welcomes and also inspires.

3. "Stasera Mangiate Da Noi": "Tonight, you eat with us!"
I've briefly mentioned the eating that goes on in Italy when you're with family.  Nothing I say can adequately explain the amount of food you are forced to consume when in the presence of not one, not two, but more than 4 Italian matriarchs.  It's staggering while you go through it and almost sickening once you finish, but it's delicious, and it's about as true a cultural experience as you can get in Italy.

A Tavola with Vino Casalingo
(homemade wine) & Aperitifs
You have the aperitif with nuts and other munchies, then the antipasti - usually some kind of cheese or cold cuts with pickles or olives -, then the primo piatto - a pasta dish or two -, then the secondo piatto - meat with vegetable contorni or side dishes.  Wine and soft drinks are served throughout.  At the end you have dolce, a homemade dessert, usually a cake.  Then people will bring out fresh fruit to peel and eat, fresh nuts to crack, and maybe some store-bought pastries, as well as the coffee and digestifs.  You're lucky if you make it out awake. :)
Chiodini Mushrooms (little nails): freshly foraged; Antipasti, laid out and ready to serve

Roman, in typical my-child style, went on a hunger strike our entire time in Italy with one notable exception - a plate of pasta and homemade tomato sauce simmered with beef bones that Matt's great aunt made for him.  At the big family dinner he was offered fresh buffalo mozzarella, all sorts of pasta, and even candy, and he pretty much refused it all.  But he did sit there and look pretty cute with his 2nd (or is it 3rd?) cousin, Greta, eating patatine (potato chips).

The kids' table.

2. La Grottola: The Little Cave
Matt's grandmother always referred to a little place called "la grottola" where she used to work with her family and neighbors before and during the wars.  "La Grottola" is probably dialect and we can't be entirely sure of the meaning to her, but literally it translates into "the little cave / grotto."  
La Grottola
On this trip we were lucky enough to be taken there - to a small patch of land on the side of a mountain, mostly overgrown but still boasting a beautiful small olive grove, with scattered chestnut trees all over.  It has a well and a small barn with a fireplace.  Only one of the original family members still goes there to "work" growing native fruits and vegetables, chopping wood, and maintaining the land which overlooks the Caudina Valley and is marked with a 10-foot crucifix.
the olive grove
chestnuts, waiting to be found
It was like going back in time going there.  And as we approached, another family member passed me with a giant bag of fresh olives she was taking home to make oil out of.  Before we left San Martino a few days later she handed me a 1-liter bottle of homemade olive oil, the perfect, edible souvenir of an afternoon well-spent.

the olives of our oil

1. La Nebbia: The Fog
One morning when we woke up and walked outside, the entirety of the village was covered in an almost unbelievable, ethereal fog.  

view of San Martino
We wandered around for an hour or two, enjoying the still quiet of a weekday in a small Italian village.  There are no tourists there, and so as we walked by the creek, and the old mill where peopled used to grind their own flour for bread, and the old bakery, and the castle and the church where Matt's grandparents were married, we felt almost transported back in time. 

near the mill
Cell phones and computers were forgotten and of no use to us in those moments - and even though brief, they were just the kind of "bel far niente" we'd been hoping for.

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  1. Looks like the perfect retreat to me, I can only imagine how tasty that olive oil is. I made my first batch of homemade brined olives from what looks to be the same type of olives and I cannot go back to store bought. They are just so delicious.

    Funny how you focused on the doors. I've felt the same way about so many of the places I've visited, I took many door pics in Dublin, Prague, Vienna, and Florence. Each had a sence of mystery, I really wanted to open the door and see what lay behind.

  2. Thanks Oyster. Home-curing olives sounds like fun! Where did you get the raw olives to do it? I think we'd have an impossible time finding them here. When I was studying in Greece, I learned that people also dry-salt-cure them in burlap bags with spices. Sounds yummy as well.

  3. We have a Middle Eastern market I go to and know that starting in September its olive season. I head about the dry salt cure, and want to try it next year. Went to an "olive seminar" and they said that method was best for the small ones. The fellow that lead the seminar also said that around here most people with olive trees only use them for decoration so he took to knocking on doors and asking to use them to which he usually got an enthusiastic response. I plan to plea or network myself to my olives, using that 3 degrees of separation rule.