In 1916 when British-born Kinta Beevor was five, her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield, bought a sixteenth-century castle, La Fortezza della Brunella, near the village of Aulla. Waterfield, his wife, the writer Lina Duff Gordon, and their three children moved into the imposing fortress with its improbable rooftop garden that looked like "it had been abandoned under an enchanter's spell." For the next twenty-five years they lived a bohemian life, punctuated by visits from friends like Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, D. H. Lawrence, and Iris Origo. Kinta and her brothers were often left to the care of Aullan servants while her parents devoted themselves to their work and the rehabilitation of Fortezza della Brunella. Beevor wrote, "It was often said of my parents that they had all of the luxuries of life, but none of the necessities . . . they seldom had money for those things that their relations considered the basis of civilized life."
Their lives in Tuscany ended with World War II. Beevor's parents had a harrowing escape from Italy and relocated, unhappily, in England. Her two brothers and her husband served with the British military; her brother John was killed in combat. Aubrey Waterfield died in 1944. But the indomitable Lina Duff Gordon returned to the heavily damaged Fortezza after the war. The destruction of her husband's frescoes and the memories evoked by his rooftop garden proved too much for her and, after several years, she returned to England. Kinta Beevor's only book, A Tuscan Childhood, from which this is excerpted, was published in 1993, two years before her death. She concluded that La Fortezza was "the most beautiful and magical place in the world. But when I look back, I can easily see why friends and relatives . . . considered my parents wildly imprudent, if not mad, to settle in such a place. Thank God for imprudence." from
A TUSCAN CHILDHOOD
In those days, just after the First World War, the kitchen was the best place in which to get to know the region. And the herbs and vegetables, still smelling of the warm volcanic earth, could start a love of Tuscan cooking that would last a lifetime. For the servants, as well as their friends and relations who dropped in on visits, the kitchen was not simply a place of work but the centre for their favourite subject of conversation. Everyone, men and women alike, compared recipes. When somebody talked of a particular dish, another might say that a cousin of theirs who had married a Piedmontese prepared it a slightly different way. They would argue the relative merits, go away and experiment, and discuss it again the next time.
The cooking of the Lunigiana, while essentially Tuscan, reflects its geographical reality as a border region and its history of "armies, pilgrims and merchants" passing through. Surrounded by Genoese Liguria, Parma and Reggio nell'Emilia, it has borrowed what it likes: pesto with pine nuts in the Genoese style; the curing of hams and the preparation of sausage and coppa
from Parma (the pecorino
cheeses from up the valleys also bore a strong affinity to Parmesan); and the local favourite of panigacci
-a form of unleavened maize bread cooked between iron dishes and eaten with pesto
The basis of life sixty years ago was la cucina povera
, peasant cooking, which made the best use of home-grown raw materials-maize flour for polenta, semolina for gnocchi, onions and beans for soups, fresh vegetables from the orto
for stuffing and tomatoes for sauces, while the wild mushrooms, herbs, nettles and particular grasses gathered from hillsides went into torte
(flans) and even tortelloni
. But almost every meal depended upon that ancient trinity of bread, olive oil and wine.
Polenta, a pale golden colour from the flour of Indian corn, formed the solid staple of winter months when no fresh vegetables were available. Cut into strips, it was eaten fried in olive oil, baked with Parmesan or served with a sauce and a little meat if available, such as goat, garlic salami or zampone
-a pig's trotter made into sausage. So central was polenta to the diet of the northern Italian that southerners used to call them polentoni
. Tuscans were also called the bean-eaters, because the fagioli
gathered in the summer, then dried, shelled and sacked up for the winter, provided the bulk of their protein, usually in the form of minestrone.
Beef was almost unheard of, unless an old animal had been killed, and veal was a rare luxury. Often the tougher bits were boiled, making a consommé, then the meat was served with salsa verde
, a green sauce made from very finely chopped parsley, onion and capers with oil and sometimes an anchovy. Any pieces of meat left over were minced, then augmented with egg, breadcrumbs, parsley and basil or other herbs in season, and used to make ripieni
-stuffed vegetables, such as tomatoes, onion, aubergines, zucchini, or lightly boiled cabbage leaves made into a parcel.
Most fresh meat came from chickens, pigeons and rabbits, which were cheap to raise. One of my favourite dishes, which both Mariannina and Adelina cooked superbly, was a bomba di riso
of squabs or fledgling pigeons. For this you line a bowl with partly cooked rice mixed with egg, then fill the remaining cavity with young pigeon breasts in a mushroom sauce with chicken livers. It is a dish you do not often find today, but as soon as you mention it, people suddenly remember the taste from their youth with a reawakened longing.
I never really liked eating rabbit, not because I thought of the animal as a cuddly pet, but because I was exasperated by Adelina-whose lack of scientific reliability was all too apparent even to us children-insisting that it contained lots of iron and so was especially good for padroncini
, or little masters and mistresses.
Tuscans have deeply held beliefs about the effects of food, some of which are no doubt true, while others are fanciful. Figs, they say, are bad for you at night. You will avoid illnesses of the liver if you use only the very purest olive oil. Red chilli is good for stomach trouble. A tea made from fennel seeds helps soothe a baby's colic. Eating raw garlic keeps mosquitoes away, and also, one might add, other species from vampires to Lotharios.
Another range of sayings I remember concerned the preparation of food. Basil should be torn, not cut with metal, otherwise it loses its taste as well as its goodness. Parmesan should never be grated because the friction cooks it. And each cooking utensil-knife, cutting board or pan-should be used for one purpose only so that flavours do not mix.
Variations in the cooking of the Lunigiana are, like in other areas, dictated by the seasons, but certain foods are clearly associated with specific feast days. For the Aullesi, one of the most important annual events, the Feast of San Severo on the first Saturday of September, is even known by the name of the dish-the Festa della Capra
. For this celebration of that local favourite, kid and polenta, the meat is slowly brought to the boil. The water that is produced, known as the selvatico
-the wild element-is thrown away. The purified capra, a very lean meat, is then cooked in oil with soffritto
-lightly fried onions, celery and dry sausage with herbs-capers and mortadella di Maiale
. Meanwhile, a sauce for the kid and the polenta is prepared consisting of tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery and white wine.
The calendar ran roughly as follows. In Carnival, exotically stuffed tortelloni
were popular; and a surprisingly unfestive choice at this time was boiled chickpeas. The onset of Lent was a penance that sat easier on the poor who could seldom afford to eat meat. And since fresh fish was also too expensive, the diet of peasant families changed little, except for the addition of zuppa di magro
-or Lenten soup. It was also a time when people remembered the story of the "zuppa dei poveri
." A poor man arrives at the door of a house and asks the wife if he could have some water for his soup. She peers into the saucepan he is holding and sees only a stone.
"What?" she exclaims. "Soup made with just a stone and some water?"
"Well, signora," says the man, "it is true that it would taste better with a carrot as well."
"But soup made with just a stone and a carrot . . ."
"Well, it would be better with a potato if you happen to have one to spare." And so on.
Easter was a time for peasant families to kill a chicken, either to prepare pollo in umido
or pollo al cacciatore
served with carrots and shallots cooked whole. Chicken in those days, thoroughly free-range and fed on maize, had a deliciously gamy taste. But the paramount importance of the chicken for producing eggs was borne out of the year-round popularity of frittate
-cold omelettes-and quiche-like torte
. We were always given onion frittate
in a picnic basket. And fairly often appearing on the table would be an onion tart, known as la barbuta
, or "the bearded woman," because the fine slices of vegetables were supposed to look like hair; or a torta
of spinach cooked in the bread oven, or even, in the spring, a torta
made with nettles when they were still young and fresh.
The centre-piece of Aullese Christmas fare was usually a capon, but most of the other dishes were very different to British tradition. The first course was often tortelli
stuffed with ricotta and wild herbs or mushrooms, followed by a torta di verdura
-a rich quiche with pumpkin, leeks, spinach, beet, onion, nettles and borage.
The seriousness of the whole enterprise, above all when preparing for a feast day, was not to be underestimated. Tasting was not just a formality; Mariannina's expression was genuinely preoccupied until reassured both by the taste and, after a loaded silence, by the after-taste. Only then would she pronounce her work satisfactory.
Much later, when all was eaten and the copper saucepans cleaned, polished and hung up, Mariannina would sit down in the large kitchen chair and take out her embroidery. This was the best time to beg her to tell us fairy tales. In a typically Tuscan way, most of them involved delicious food produced by magic as well as the more conventional rewards of great riches, or marriage to a prince or princess.
MARKET THEATRE IN AULLA
For Mariannina, as for any Tuscan, the first step in the preparation of the day's meals was seeing which vegetables were ready in the orto. Only then would she consider what produce was fresh and reasonably priced-either in the market, or available from travelling vendors. Anything not grown at home was automatically regarded with suspicion, so selection was as important as the cooking itself.
Vendors used to turn up unannounced with frequent irregularity. Coming down to breakfast, we would often find a peasant woman seated upon the hall steps, surrounded by scrawny chickens with their legs tied together. She would pinch the poor fowls to show how fat they were while Mariannina or my mother bargained. Others arrived with sacks of chestnuts or baskets of apples, eggs or home-made cheeses.
On one occasion, Mariannina opened the door of the salone
and shepherded in a live turkey as if announcing a rather shy guest. The turkey stalked haughtily around the room and eventually came to a halt, contemplating the fire in fascination. Mariannina wanted my mother's agreement on the price before concluding such a major purchase. They decided to buy him. He would be quartered outside by the magazine and fed on maize and acorns in preparation for Christmas.
Our turkey, an apparently tame and complacent creature, took on the habits of a domestic pet, wandering in through the portone
, up the steps to the hall and even to the kitchen. His imprisonment was incomparably more civilized than that of most large birds destined for the pot. In many farmhouses the capon or cock being fattened up for Christmas was kept in a wicker cage near the kitchen fire. Yet perhaps our turkey suddenly perceived his fate on one of his perambulations, for one day this hitherto willing prisoner jumped from the outer wall into the ilex wood below, softening his fall with an energetic flapping of stubby wings.
Ramponi, who had spotted the escape, was certain that such a slow bird could not elude him. He delayed his pursuit until he had finished what he was doing. But this proved a severe miscalculation for which Mariannina never forgave him-or indeed herself, since she had been the one who had persuaded my mother to buy the bird in the first place. She and Adelina had long discussions afterwards about whose pot the turkey had disappeared into, but their speculation on his fate only increased their frustration.
The temptation for both travelling vendors and stallholders in the town to get the better of the English-to be furbo
, or cunning-with stones in the bottom of the sack or other such devices, was often too great for them to resist. In those days, when the lira sterlina
was still on the gold standard, English travellers and residents were automatically assumed to be milords and charged acordingly, which meant at least double the price demanded from Italians.
Local friends would laugh at my mother's disappointment after a particularly nice vendor turned out to have been dishonest in a transaction. "Never trust your neighbour," they would tell her. "Your neighbour does not expect it." Life was a process of cheat and be cheated, a circle of rough justice. Peasant women who could neither read nor write were constantly tricked by shopkeepers in the town, and they in turn would get their own back from anyone they thought could afford it.
The only weighing machine anyone trusted was the one at the railway station, and many people used to rush there to check their purchases. It was Signora Fortunata, the wife of a local merchant, who eventually mustered the courage to turn the butcher's scales upside down. She tore off the weights that were concealed on the underside and lectured him so loudly that a crowd gathered, peering in at doors and windows to watch him quiver under her magisterial tongue-lashing.
In a small town like Aulla, shopping and social life were closely linked. The local inhabitants were of course keenly interested in the price as well as the quality of the food on offer, yet the market itself provided the main source of excitement. This meeting-place, inevitably the main centre for gossip, was above all a stage for declamatory theatre and dialogue-a public contest in which the bargaining reputation of both stallholder and housewife was at stake.
Bargaining was an immensely serious business, a matter of state; yet for many it was also the most exciting part of the day, and a subject for endless discussion afterwards. But once the duel, however acrimonious, had run its course, it was suddenly resolved. The purchaser, extracting the money from a purse hung round the neck, maintained a watchful eye in case a different article to the one she had chosen was placed in her basket or bag, then the whole encounter was concluded with nods and smiles and mutual compliments. My mother, although a writer with no natural interest in housekeeping, was fascinated by the game that was played out there each day, but she found it very hard to follow Mariannina's advice to be constantly on guard.
Copyright © 2005 by Alice Leccese Powers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.