The day was foggy in Pavia. It often is. The Po valley in Lombardia is known for its humid weather, even in the cold winter months. The fog often hovers above Pavia’s Ticino River, though sometimes the nebbia has a distinct mustard tinge and looks more like the industrial smog that wafts down from the outskirts of Milano. On days like that, it’s good to get out of town and head for the hills.
After meandering through some delightful and very distracting small villages with hardly a soul in sight, we headed for the wineries, the tenute and cantine of the Oltrepò wine growing district situated in the hills next to and above the Po River. Ascending the foot hills and driving along country lanes, the road trip afforded excellent vistas, a fine contrast to Renaissance museum and church overload. No sign of the Visconti or Sforza ruling families up in these hills.
The Oltrepò Pavese region produces more than half of all wine made in the Lombardy region as well as two-thirds of its DOC-designated wines. As the area sits well above that infamous nebbia, it is clear and cool, enabling the production of delicate mineral tasting Riesling, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines made according to the méthode Champenois. At our first stop, the manager of Travaglino was a charming host and explained each wine style in detail. He also insisted we return for a wine tour of the cellars and property after lunch: as it was close to midday, restaurant recommendations were offered as NOTHING gets in the way of a decent Italian lunch.
La cantina dentro Tenuta Travaglino
Distracting village en route.
Getting lost in the Oltrepo hills, Lombardy
Travaglino, the village that became a winery.
Two fine gentlemen
Rainy day in the Oltrepo
The superb Riesling sold at around €6.90 a bottle. If I lived a little closer, I might be making that journey into the hills each week. After a superb Risotto Milanese at a country osteria, followed by a tour of Travaglino’s cellars, we headed back down to the town of Broni for another most unusual wine tasting. In some ways, it was more like an episode from Black Books. But that’s a story for another day.
A ‘borrowed’ map of the Oltrepo wine district, just because I love maps.
The district of Lake Como is famous for its gardens and villas, and despite its proximity to Switzerland and its soaring dark wooded peeks ( over 2000 m high in some places), the weather is classified as humid subtropical. In winter, the lake helps to maintain a higher temperature in the surrounding region. Average daily temperatures range from about 3.7 °C (39 °F) in January to 23.4 °C (74 °F). Averages, in a sense, don’t deal with aberrations, like the exceedingly warm temperatures (above 25) we experienced in Como in late October recently. The lake is 400 metres deep and is Y-shaped, with two distinct arms. Travelling about by ferry, you can reach most of the 31 municipalities on the lake, all the lovely small Comaschi villages that don’t feature in glossy magazines or brochures. Keep an eye on the ferry timetable though and double-check with the ferry captain about return times, especially when travelling out of season. At each spot, you’ll probably find a small osteria serving the local lake fish or a good risotto. The Province of Como is more than its tourist namesake, the town of Como, which, as a single destination, is disappointing.
The clement weather helps explain the presence of palm trees and the luxuriant gardens that make Lake Como so special. The gardens of famous villas can be visited when open during the main tourist season. Many provide backdrops for American weddings. You’ll see plenty of ‘Wedding Planner’ signs around the province of Como. After all, the property rich but cash strapped marchesi need to keep up a certain bella figura.
Not all the lovely gardens are attached to villas. Public spaces are transformed through careful planting. Simple boxy looking houses take on more glamour when draped in Autumn creepers. Some gardens are wild, using the native chestnuts and pines of the ridges above: others are over manicured and formal. The synergy of garden and built environment ( house, village, church, dock, villa) results in a harmonious and glorious whole. It’s a lovely place to visit, especially if you get away from the main tourist traps.
The following collage is a media file full of gardens. Click open the first, then use the arrow to view some of Lake Como’s gardens.
Green on green.
Smoke on the water, aircraft in the sky.
Gardens of Lake Como
Docks and Creepers
Stairway to heaven? A funicular to elevated garden!
Gardens of Lake Como Como
Gardens of Lake Como
Gardens transform a plain building. So does paint.
Gardens bordering the lake, best viewed from the ferry.
As close as you’ll ever get to George Clooney’s place.
Wild Gardens of Lake Como
Gardens on Lake Como
Nice spot George
Gardens of lake Como
Gardens of Lake Como
One of our favourite restaurants, Fioroni, Urio. Lake Como
Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
And I see fire, blood in the breeze. Ed Sheeran.
One of my favourite Ed Sheeran songs came rushing in as I watched a blazing wild-fire gain momentum on the peaks of the densely wooded forest high above Lake Como. It was a windy night, following yet another unseasonably warm late autumn day. The dark mountains near the comunes of Veleso and Tavernerio were on fire, the lines gaining speed and the fire front broadening. The few people we saw around the village and in the local osteria in Laglio didn’t look perturbed, and as I didn’t have access to the internet or television, I had to assume that this was a controlled burn off. Or an out of control controlled burn off. If I had been at home in Australia, I would have been terrified.
The next day we woke to the low buzzing sound of helicopters and Canadairs. The war was on. Not unlike a scene from Apocalypse Now, the planes swooped down into the lake, filled their tanks with water, then rose back into the sky in a circular aerial ballet before dropping their load on the smoking mountain. The mission went on all morning, though I did notice that all action ceased at 1pm: nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of an Italian lunch! After the first day, the fire was still visible and threatening to take off once again. The helicopters and Canadairs kept up their vigilant water bombing for three more days until the area was declared safe.
Coming from a bushfire prone district in the low wooded hills, the designated Green Wedge and lungs of Melbourne, and having been personally affected by the disastrous Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, I was keen to find out what was going on. This required those old-fashioned and timeless investigative skills- chatting to locals, asking more questions, and buying the local newspaper in Como from a very happy dope smoking giornaliao.
The gentle dock master down at the Urio ferry stop was concerned about the lack of rain. It was late October, only a few days before All Saint’s Day, and yet it hadn’t rained for two months. The weather had been warm with temperatures in the mid twenties. The little lakes and sources of water high up in the mountains had dried up, and at night the ‘cinghiali, caprioli, volpi, lepri e cervi scendono per bere al lago’, (the wild boars, roe deer, foxes, hare and deer come down to drink at the lake). He looked concerned, apprehensive even, like some modern day St Francis. ‘They hide during the day,’ he said, ‘even the wolves come down to drink at night.’
By Monday, the newspaper was full of reports, with pictures of fire fighting scenes taken at the fire front, which was estimated to be around 400 hectares. The local brigade, i vigili del fuoco andthe local fire fighting volunteers were praised, and along with the aerial bombardment, the fire was kept away from hilltop farms, ancient trails, and the densely populated small lakeside villages. There was some discussion about pyromaniacs and the careless cigarette butt throwing drivers. The following day, another article suggested that the blaze began as a result of a contadino, a peasant farmer, doing some cleaning up by burning off.
In later discussions with other Lombardi, it was suggested that these fires may have been deliberately lit by those wanting to buy land cheaply. Start a fire, watch your neighbour’s land burn, then snap it up for a bargain price. The pernicious Sicilian mafia are alive and well in Lombardy. This behaviour is well documented in the rural areas of Sicily but in Como?
I raised the issue of global warming and the need for more care and vigilance in summer and autumn. The locals do worry about long, hot and rainless autumns that are becoming the norm, as well as the perennial yellow smog that chokes the beautiful historic towns, villages and hamlets within a 30 kilometre radius of Milano. They are also concerned about the long-term pollution of their underground drinking water, necessitating reliance on plastic bottled drinking water in some parts, about the nuclear waste buried under a recently constructed road in Lombardy that can never be removed (construction contracts have been handed out to the mafia as local government corruption takes hold in the North) as well as a raft of other environmental issues confronting Northern Italy. But global warming? Beh, what can you do? The issues are huge.
The blaze in the Comasco hills cost around €500,000 (AU$750,000) to quell. Let’s hope this fire was an aberration, but also a warning and a message.
Along the journey, I lost my way, though not in any real or physical sense. I lost my writing muse, a frequent visitor to my early morning half wakefulness. She still made some attempts, and suggested I take up the pen again but being out of touch with that older, and more time-consuming form of editing, I repelled her constant intrusions.
This drastic shift in daily habit came about due to the absence of WiFi. Our friend, SK, had generously offered us his house on Lake Como, and along with it, a non functional internet service. Ironically, this same friend is an IT programmer and when he left Como to return to London, he assured us that the internet would be up and running within a day. It didn’t happen, and while I don’t wish to sound terribly ungrateful for the opportunity to live in his gorgeous house just up the road from George Clooney, the internet free time had profound consequences.
During the first two days, I became extremely anxious and fidgety and came to understand my addiction as a physical thing, not unlike addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or obsessive behaviour. I felt totally lost and cut off and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had been permanently connected for the previous 12 years, including during visits to the Australian outback and along remote stretches of the Mekong River in Thailand. After some tearful moments, I was ready to leave Lake Como.
Slowly things improved as I adjusted to the reality of the situation. We were staying in the small village of Laglio, some distance from the larger towns dotted around Lake Como. Our village was in November mode, with only one operating osteria and a tiny alimenatari with totally random opening hours, both a kilometre or so away. There were no internet cafes to tap into and the supposed community WiFi service near the bus stop was dysfunctional. So we walked, and asked more questions, and bought newspapers again, and read timetables on walls and at Batello stations. The nearest ferry stop was 2.5 kilometres away: the ferry left and returned three times a day and was the only reliable way in and out of the village. We never mastered the buses due to lack of faith or trust. We did have a car, but left it safely locked up in the garage, given the Lake’s goat track and hair pinned roads and serious dearth of parking. Getting out of the village meant access to other towns, tourist brochures, and a variety of restaurants, often stumbled upon and not tediously researched. We walked at least 10 kilometres a day in our search for food, services and information.
And as the week went by, I noticed a few things. I slept really well. I thought nothing of walking the 5 kilometers round trip to catch a ferry, even in the rain. Or walking late at night to the only winter surviving restaurant at Laglio. I became fit. I read Italian newspapers back to back, and read the books laying idle on my Kindle. And then I stopped writing.
In hindsight, I enjoyed the break and intend to do this more often. Even when reconnected once we arrived in Pavia, my addiction had abated and I rarely tapped into the service.
How do you cope, dear reader, when the internet is unavailable? Do you feel anxious, or relieved to have a break from constant communication and availability?
During a solo visit to Rome, almost 25 years ago, I vividly recall the colour of Rome more than anything else. It was February, wintertime, and although cold in the morning, by late afternoon the buildings seemed to glow salmon and pink. My senses were heightened during that particular visit. During this year’s visit, the rawness of that earlier time has crept up on me. Rome is still bathed in pink, despite its ochre, yellow and beige buildings along with white and grey marble. Roman light is a magical thing.
During that 1993 trip, I stayed close to Piazza Navona and wandered around the campo each morning before the visitors arrived. I always enjoy revisiting Navona when in Rome and usually find something new to consider. This year, Bernini’s marble river gods look very appealing in the rain.
I mentioned yesterday that memories are subject to revision when revisited. In the past, I found the semi- naked Gods in Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi far too mannerist in style and not unlike the images found in a beefcake magazine. This time, the rain bought out the transparency of the skin and the gracefulness of male movement. It’s simply a matter of turning a blind eye to the not- so- well- hung, or should I say, not so well endowed, statue of the Moor standing nearby.
Each stature represents a river- the Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de Plata.
“The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river’s navigability. The Nile’s head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile’s source was. The Danube touches the Pope’s personal coat of arms, since it is the large river closest to Rome. And the Rio de Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America could offer to Europe. Also, the Río de la Plata looks scared by a snake, showing rich men’s fear that their money could be stolen. Each is a river god, semi-prostrate, in awe of the central tower, epitomized by the slender Egyptian obelisk, symbolizing by Papal power surmounted by the Pamphili symbol. ( the Pope’s family crest, patrons of this work) In addition, the fountain is a theater in the round, a spectacle of action, that can be strolled around. Water flows and splashes from a jagged and pierced mountainous disorder of travertine marble.”¹
Given the rain, we took refuge in Borromini’s church, Sant’Agnese in Agone. I was thinking about the appropriateness of this title, given the state of my legs, but it turns out that ” in agone” has nothing to do with that martyr’s agony but is a reference to the original name of Piazza Navona, which was Circus Agonalis, a competition arena for the Roman military. The church was full of other rain escapees sitting quietly in the pews. I was also keen to find the doves with olive branches set in marble on the floor. These doves spoke to me during my 1993 visit and in my memory, they were small and graceful. This time, they appeared awkward and primitive, and more like chooks! There are three to be found, again symbols of the Pamphili family who commissioned Sant’Agnese.
Rome is never very cold in winter and although still busy, especially on Sunday, Italian is the language you’ll hear most in the crowd. It is, for me, the best time to visit, away from the maddening crowd, the tour groups, and the loudness of foreign tongues. It’s the season when Rome is bathed in pink.
Rome, my favourite city, is often visited at the beginning or end of our travels. There’s a problem with this and it’s taken me 32 years to work it out. Visiting Rome before heading off on a long journey allows you to see her wonders with fresh eyes, vigour and enthusiasm but often the visit is cut short by an eagerness to travel to the proposed, more anticipated, Italian or European destination. Visiting Rome at the other end of the holiday often means that you are less eager to wake early and are suffering from church and museum overload. Your legs will hurt as you wander along kilometres of Rome’s cobblestoned ways, but at least your muscles have been in training.
Often a mysterious melancholy descends when you realise that Rome needs more time. It always does. It doesn’t matter how often you visit, Rome will continue to unfold and excite, tripping you up along the way with unexpected finds, more exciting lanes and suburbs, new bridges and villas. I use the word ‘unexpected’ as this is what Rome does. Once away from the usual Roman icons, you discover lesser known classical ruins, just lying about, some rarely visited, and suburbs with real markets, Roman lifestyle and ‘local’ osterie, views never imagined from yet more hills, and more of that exciting Roman night-time brio. And just when you think you know Rome, you realise that you know nothing at all.
Memories are reinterpreted and revised as favourite districts and churches are revisited, a rainy day enlivens Bernini’s sculpture, all that masculine flesh glows with new vigour. Wet marble and muscle, pink and black veined. Sant’Agnese provides shelter from the storm and a rest for weary feet. Another Baroque church beckons, Sant’Andrea delle Valle, or maybe a visit to Feltrinelli’s bookshop, or is it time for a Prosecco?
Although winter is nigh, Rome glows pink. I want to keep wandering all day and night, but my legs can’t keep up with my desires. And that thing that I finally discovered so late in life? Rome is a destination in itself. One day I’ll just go there and nowhere else.
Australians and New Zealanders will be celebrating ANZAC Day today, a national holiday which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and conflicts, with a particular focus on the landing of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25 1915. Coincidentally, April 25 is also significant in the Italian calendar as it marks theFesta Della Liberazione (Liberation Day), also known as Anniversario della Resistenza (Anniversary of the Resistance), an Italian national holiday. Italian Liberation Day commemorates the end of the Italian Civil War, the partisans who fought in the Resistance, and the end of Nazi occupation of the country during WW2. In most Italian cities, the day will include marches and parades. Most of the Partisans and Italian veterans of WW2 are now deceased: very few Italians would have first hand memories of that era.
One of the more accessible documents from the partigiani era of the 1940s is the well-known song,Bella Ciao, which has been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world since then. The original Partisan version is included here. Open this clip: you can find the lyrics in English and Italian at the end of this post.
Many Italian versions, including this modern rendition by the Modena City Ramblers, have appeared over the years, while international adaptations include punk, psychedelic and folk versions in many languages. A Kurdish version was revived after an ISIS attack in 2014, and the Anarchist movement has also appropriated the song. Popular folk songs are often derivative and evolutionary: the history of BellaCiao makes a fascinating study in itself. There are two threads to follow here. The original version of this song dates back to the 1850s: the first written version appeared in 1906 which was sung by women workers in the risaie, or rice paddies of Northern Italy. The lyrics concern the harsh working conditions of the Mondine. The fascinating rice workers version can be heard here by Giovanna Daffini, recorded in 1962.¹
”The Mondine or Mondariso were female seasonal workers employed in Northern Italy’s rice fields, especially in Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto. Their task was to remove weeds that could stunt the growth of rice plants. Working conditions were extremely hard, as the job was carried out by spending the whole day bent over, often bare-foot, with legs immersed in water; malaria was not uncommon, as mosquitoes were widespread. Moreover shifts were long and women were paid significantly less than men. For these reasons since early in the 20th century, mondine started to organise themselves to fight for some basic rights, in particular to limit shifts to 8 hours a day.’
The other thread concerns the euphony of the song itself. The much older women’s version, a slower folkloric piece, reflects the plight of the women rice field weeders in their struggle for better working conditions. The 1940s partisan version became more masculine and heroic, despite the sombre sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Most of the modern versions sound Russian, revolutionary, or defiant. Slower versions suggest Yiddish as well as gypsy roots, which may indicate the melodic path of this song during the 19th century. I’ve selected two more versions which reflect these latter impressions. They can be heard here and here.
The partigiani make fitting heroes for Liberation Day: no one would deny that their struggle was courageous and honourable. However, one might question the level of mytholgising when it comes to patriotic days such as Liberation Day. The day was initiated by Alcide De Gasperi, the Prime Minister of Italy between 1945 to 1953. It could be seen as a very astute political move to create a national holiday centred around liberation.² It signified a break with Italy’s fascist past, an era spanning 25 years, as well as assisting the new Italian government establish a stable democracy.
Parallels may be drawn between the idealisation of the ItalianPartisans and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers of World War 1. The stories and the images of those struggles are often used to boost a sense of national identity and patriotism in both countries.
See also my previous posts on April 25, Anzac Day.
¹ Giovanna Daffini (22 April 1914 – 7 July 1969) was an Italian singer associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement. Born in the province of Mantua, she started associating with travelling musicians from an early age. During the rice-growing season she worked in the rice-growing districts of Novara and Vercelli where she learnt the folk-songs that afterwards made her famous. In 1962 she recorded the song “Alla mattina appena alzata”, a version of Bella Ciao, for the musicologists Gianni Bosio and Roberto Leydi.
If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.
After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, acooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.
Di’s Beurrre Bosc pears
Grapes and Pears and a snail. Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670
pear tree turns to Autumn
Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.
“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹
I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.
Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.
The Pastry Case
First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter) and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.
The Ricotta Filling
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
375 g firm ricotta, drained
60 gr icing sugar
2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
25 ml full cream
Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.
Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.
4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
500 ml water
150 gr caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
2 strips orange rind
1/3 cup vincotto
Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.
The brûlée on top.
Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.
Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.
Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.
All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.
I used to look forward to All Saints Day when I was a child. In Catholic schools, All Saints Day was a religious holy day of note, which meant that we had another day off school. November the first blurred into November the second, Melbourne Cup Day, which is a State holiday in Victoria, and if the days lined up nicely with the weekend, even better. The beginning of November meant horses, saints, holidays and good weather, with only one down side, the traipse up the road to Church, a small price to pay for another day off. I don’t remember much about those saints or what the day was about. To me, it all seemed a bit morbid and sinister so I conveniently blocked it out.
It was in the tenth century that Odile, the abbot of Cluny in medieval France, transmuted the Day of the Dead, Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast of ancestors, into a Christian holy day, All Souls Day. Curses and blasphemy, I missed out on all the Celtic fun and got Odile’s version, made extra ominous by the Irish nuns who taught me. At least in modern Italy, the day still goes by the name I Morti, the dead, and the practices are more in tune with traditional pagan legends than the version I grew up with, though I’m sure there’s a bit of Church attendance involved. Going to mass in Italy often means chatting through the service and ducking out for a smoke. Other than the widows up the front, Italians often don’t seem to take church too seriously. Church is a local catch up and a ritualised prologue to a good lunch.
In Sicily, legend has it that on the evening of November 1, departed relatives rise up from their tombs and rollick through the town, raiding the best pastry shops and toy stores for gifts to give to children who have been good during the year. Children write letters to their dead relatives, just like the Christmas letters written to Santa. On this day, ancestors and relatives “feel an attraction to the living and hope to return for a visit and families set the table for ancestors returning from their graves.”
What a wonderful legend. Just to think that you might have a visit from your dearly departed loved ones for a fleeting moment in time. When it comes to a good Celtic legend, adapted along the way by some wily Siciliani, I’m in. Time to write a letter to the dead and make some sweet things for I Morti
Pan co’ Santi – A sweet bread from Siena to share with I Morti.
Makes two small loaves
300 gr raisins
1 ½ cups tepid water
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
25 gr sugar
3 Tbls lard or olive oil
500 gr unbleached plain flour plus 2 -3 Tbls for the raisins.
8 gr sea salt
1.25 gr freshly ground pepper
100 gr walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1 egg yolk for glaze
Soak the raisins in the tepid water for at least ½ hour. Drain the raisins, but reserve 1 1/3 cups of the soaking water. Warm the soaking water to 105-115 degrees.
By mixer: Stir the yeast and sugar into the raisin water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lard or olive oil in with the paddle. Add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until the dough comes together. Change to a dough hook and knead until firm and silky, for around 3 minutes.
First rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1¼ to 1½ hours.
Filling. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching it down or kneading it, pat gently with your palms into a 35 cm/14 inch circle. Pat the raisins dry and toss with 2-3 Tbls flour. Work them and the walnuts into the dough in 2 additions.
Shaping and second rise. Cut the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a round, tucking the ends of the loaf in and trying to keep the raisins and walnuts under the taut surface of the skin. Set each loaf on a lightly floured peel or on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with towels and let rise again until doubled, around 1 hour and 10 mins.
Baking. Heat the oven to 220° C fan forced. With a razor or sharp serrated knife, slash the dough with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical cuts. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk, then bake for 5 mins, then reduce the heat to 200 F and bake for 30-40 minutes more.
It was October by the time we reached Camogli, located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino, Liguria, northern Italy. The days were still warm but it was not exactly swimming weather. Mischa didn’t take much convincing: it was her only opportunity to swim in the Mediterranean sea. It was the icing on the cake for Mischa.
Whereas the cherry on top for me was choosing a restaurant. It always is.