by Linda Lappin
Leading the Simple Life in Tuscany
The kitchen is the heart of this old farmhouse outside Siena where I have come to live for a while. My local history book tells me that in the Middle Ages “tutta la vita del castello si svolgein cucina,” the whole life of the castle was carried on in the kitchen, a statement that holds true for me today although this house is not a castle. It is, however, ancient, built around the year 1000, its precise origins unknown. It may have been part of a convent of Benedictine nuns, or it may have been part of a fulling mill where wool was cleaned and thickened. Now it belongs to an Australian family for whom I am house sitting for a few months.
This kitchen has high vaulted ceilings and a red brick floor. One wall is taken up by an enormous fire place; another by a wood- burning stove and a cooking range; the third by an antique dish cupboard crammed with jars of brown rice and orange lentils, and rows of chipped brown terracotta dishes. An ancient, battered stone sink sits below the only window looking out over a meadow where dirty sheep graze around a pond.
On the hill above the meadow stands a tower built in the thirteenth century where a shepherd lives. Just beyond the hill I can make out the tip of a magnificent oak tree, and beyond that, the wooded hump of the Sienese Montagnola. On the windowsill are pots of flourishing geraniums, fuchsia and vermillion, and fresh herbs: sage, chives, rosemary, dill, coriander, basil, and tarragon. In the center of the room an old, scarred, oak table radiates a presence all its own. Over it bundles of pungent dried fennel and sage dangle. Downstairs is shed for wood and tools, a cellar for storing wine and preserves, and an old wood-burning oven.
Since my arrival I have bottled tomato conserve and made jam with wild plums and blackberries. I have dried cannellini beans for winter soups, and collected mushrooms from the mossy floor of the chestnut forest. I have also set myself the task of baking my own bread. It is the simplest bread I know how to make: whole wheat flour, water, salt, and a cup of sour dough, all kneaded together on a wooden surface, left to rise twice, and baked in the wood oven downstairs. A slab cut from this fragrant, crusty loaf, seasoned with a drop of piquant, dark green olive oil and a sprinkling of salt is one of the most satisfying meals I have had in a long time.
Bread has always been the main staple of the peasants here. In Italy cheese and prosciutto, mortadella, or anything else that might go with bread is known as “companatico,” more a garnish or an accompaniment rather than the main thing. Bread was the main thing, always.
Here in Tuscany the peasants baked their bread made of coarse flour with no salt, in huge loaves weighing several pounds that would feed a numerous family of eight or ten for a week. This gigantic loaf was wrapped in a hemp cloth to keep it fresh so that it would last until the next baking. Baking was done once a week. The dough was mixed in a special cupboard called a “madia,” equipped with a mixing and rising trough, found in every farmhouse kitchen. There was typically one large oven for every village and an inexorable hierarchy governed who could put their loaves in first.
Last week’s bread never went to waste. Soups were made of it like the famous acquacotta,or salads, like the summer panzanella still a popular dish in Florence, made of dry bread softened in water, seasoned with olive oil and served with ripe tomatoes, basil, and black olives. Stale bread was never thrown away. To do so was a crime. Many older people in Italy still feel that way, although the bread they buy is not what they remember from their youth before the War. Despite the proliferation of bread boutiques in the larger cities, it is difficult to find a loaf of bread made of stone ground, whole grain flour, kneaded by hand and baked in a wood- burning oven. Such bread, the meal that the poorest peasant once enjoyed, has almost disappeared.
The best companatico I know for homemade bread is pecorino cheese cheese made from sheep’s milk. I have heard that the shepherd who lives up in the tower sells pecorino, so one evening returning from a long ramble through the woods, I venture there.
The yard around the tower is strewn with unsightly objects: an abandoned car, rusted pieces of corrugated metal roofing. A rusted bedframe resting on its side wired to a post serves as a gate. The shepherd, dressed in patched, dirty clothes, comes to meet me and I tell him I have come to buy some cheese. His wife, a neat, plump woman wearing granny glasses and a floral apron, appears immediately on the door step, peering at me and wanting to know who I am and what I want from her husband.
“The signora has come for some cheese,” the shepherd says. Then he turns to me and says, ” But first I have something to take care of ,” and he signals me to follow him into a shed next to the tower.
In the shed, a sheep stands placidly by a table. With a grunt, the shepherd hoists the animal up on the table. He turns on a high power lamp and examines its hoof. The sheep submits docilely as he tends the wound. Finished, he scratches its head and lowers it gently to the ground. “I really love these little beasts,” he says.
He gestures to me to follow him into the tower. Inside the kitchen is dark but tidy, permeated by the pungent smell of smoke andcheese. A huge fireplace fills one wall, an old stone sink another. Although it is late summer and warm outside, a fire burns in the fireplace, where a terracotta pot is bubbling on a grate over live coals raked in a corner. Rounds of cheese take up several shelves near the only window where the glowing disk of the moon rises.
The woman turns on a very dim electric light, selects three cheeses, and cuts a large slab from each one. She puts these on a plate and sets them on the table next to a flask of red wine. “C’ é quello stagionato e quello fresco,” the shepherd explains. One is aged, one is very fresh, and one is in between. The woman invites me to taste them and pours me a glass of wine. The aged one is crumbly, dry, and very tangy. The fresh one is white, creamy, and mild. The one in between is waxier, barely pungent.
She and her husband do not join me as I taste the three cheeses but simply watch me, or rather study me, the way a zoologist might study an unfamiliar animal. I compliment them on how good the cheese and wine are, but the shepherd brushes off my enthusiastic comments with a curt nod. He knows the products of his land are good; there is no need for me to say anything about that. They are good not thanks to any merit of his own, but to the power and the essence of the things themselves.
I tell them that I prefer the fresher cheese. The woman nods with satisfaction at my choice, takes a round from the shelf and wraps it in rough brown paper. I pay her and prepare to leave, but it seems she isn’t ready for the visit to end. There must be more to this momentary exchange between us than just a financial transaction. This “something more” takes the form of a bit of folk wisdom that she passes on to me, unasked for but appreciated.
“You know,” she says , plucking the sleeve of my white blouse then pointing out the window at the rising moon. “The best way to keep clothes white is to leave them hanging out on the line all night under a full moon.”
“Sciochezze!,” says her husband, ” Nonsense. Nowadays the air is polluted even here. If you leave them out all night, they just go grey and stink.”
“That is not true,” says his wife peevishly. “Don’t listen to him. Men don’t know about things like that. You just try it, though, and you’ll see.” Then to her husband, “And your sheep would stay whiter, too.”
I thank her for the advice and say good evening.
On the way home I stop by the garden to water the cabbages and pumpkins. I sit for a while on an overturned bucket, watch the moon rising high above the hill and contemplate a green and silver beetle that alights on a wilted yellow pumpkin blossom. Then I go inside for a dinner of wine, cheese, bread, and wild greens.
After dinner I read then retire for the night, leaving the shutters open. Deep in the night, the soft tinkling of many bells awakens me. I get up to investigate. The pond in the meadow glistens with the reflection of the full moon at the zenith. Outside the tower, the shepherd’s wife has left her sheets out on the line to blanch in the moonlight. Beneath the stars, the huge white sheets sway in a slight breeze. Scattered down the flanks of the hill, her husband’s sheep bleat softly as the moon’s occult bleaching power whitens their dingy wool. I take the blouse I was wearing that evening and hang it in a patch of moonlight now invading the room, the bed, the sheets.
US Novelist and travel writer. Has published in anthologies GREECE A LOVE STORY (Seal Press) and TANZANIA ON TUESDAY (New Rivers Press) and in Transitions Abroad, St. Petersburg Times Tampa Tribune, The American Magazine. Will be in Italy until spring 2012