Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"A little piece of paradise" (Letter #11 from Italy: April 28, 2013)

Francesca picks us up at 8:30 a.m. to go with her to the nearby village of Gorfigliano. The Custodi del Piano, a local group (of which Francesca is a member) dedicated to preserving nature in the area, is holding a fundraising event. We have no idea what to expect, but Francesca has brought along two extra pair of rubber boots for us. We stop along the way for a caffe (Francesca tells us she cannot bear to go without her morning cappuccino. We are agreeable, being fond of our coffee as well).
We arrive and are introduced to Alessandro, who owns the land we'll be exploring today, and is a founding member of the Custodi del Piano. Formed two years ago with three members, it has grown to 15 ("Slowly, slowly," says Alessandro). 
Today's adventure will include foraging for edible herbs with an expert who has come to the village from Lucca
The guide speaks Italian only, so we understand only what Francesca and others who speak English tell us. When the guide points out several herbs, he says, "mortale." We get the message. Mark, one of the other participants on the tour (he and his wife Michelle are from England and have a home in Tuscany), shares a piece of wisdom from the tour guide: "In nature, whenever you have a lethal plant, the one next to it will be the antidote. That's the balance of nature." I trust in nature's brilliance, but won't be putting this one to the test today.
Although many herbs are new to me, we see the familiar dandelion (dente de lion - lion's tooth - I will never look at the weed the same way again!). Francesca, braver and slightly more familiar than we are (although she still counts herself a beginner forager), gathers some thyme and other herbs.
For me, today is less about the herbs and more about the people and the surroundings. We are rambling the fields with locals and a few other visitors, and while we can't understand the specifics of the tour, we can soak up the experience.
The ground is wet from more than a day of rain, feeling spongy beneath our feet; the boots are a blessing. Since Judith and I can't understand the tour itself, Mark regales us with stories and facts. On the hillside, we can see a marble quarry - home of Carrerra marble. According to Mark, Michaelangelo would only carve Carrerra marble. Picasso, in addition to being a painter, was also a sculptor. He once sculpted a large horse (40x50x30) out of marble and a woman said to him, "It must be difficult to carve a horse from a block of marble." He responded, "Not really. I just cut out all the bits that don't look like a horse!"

When Mark and Michelle were househunting in Tuscany, they noted to the real estate agent that no one grows flowers. "You can't eat flowers," said the agent, and Mark notes that the Tuscans waste nothing – all plants can all be eaten. "They have a memory of hunger," says Francesca. "It is a long memory," says Mark. He says in Lucca, there are flowers everywhere (we saw this for ourselves). It is a sign of wealth.
Francesca tells us that there are many wild boar (cinghiale) in the area. While one species of local boar originated in the area, humans introduced another species, which produces more offspring, and since there are no natural predators to kill the boar, they are now overpopulated; human intervention gone awry as it does so many other places when trying to interfere with nature.
We see and hear swallows (rondine) as they swoop in the sky. "They are a sign of spring," says Francesca, who tells us the birds winter in Africa.
One of the participants stops and kneels down on the ground, staring. Several of us gather to see a butterfly (farfalla), whose wings look as if they've been intricately painted by a skilled Italian artist. On top of each wing is a small leaf-like shape that looks as if it's been woven in gold. Its wings move almost imperceptibly in and out, like breathing.
We walk past a stream, water running over raw marble and rock, and I wade into the water in my borrowed rubber boots. "You are a little bit crazy," laughs Francesca.
As we walk back toward the farm for lunch, I have a moment to talk to Alessandro. While he works outside of the village during the week to make a living, his heart is here - on the land. This place, which is his love and that of his family, fills his weekends. "You do that you like," he says. "You do that you like. Psychology," he says, pointing to his head, "...and soul," he says, placing his hand on his heart.
The group returns to the farm, hungry for lunch. There are tents, tables and benches set up outside, and there are bread and wine on the table. Before long, more food is delivered to us - a form of scrambled eggs mixed with herbs, followed by pasta with a sauce of oil and nuts, prepared outdoors by our hosts (we watched them work the pasta with their hands first thing this morning). 

Francesca gets a fresh bottle of red wine and begins to pour. She says, "Sometimes people ask me: ‘Do you drink wine?’ I say, ‘I'm from Venice!’" Not suprisingly, we have noticed many grapevines in our travels so far. Judith asks if many people use their own grapes to make wine to sell, or if they simply make it for their own consumption. Mark tells us farmers will sell their grapes (as long as they are certified as a particular variety, such as Merlot) to a co-operative, which will press them and make them into wine. "No sulfites. 100 per cent wine," he says. It is delicious. Mark recommends trying "fragolino," a light strawberry sparkling wine, while we are in Italy. I will keep an eye out for it.
 Today the clouds have been unpredictable, sometimes sprinkling, sometimes not, but generously they spare us a downpour. As we sit eating our lunch, the sun bursts out; everyone cheers.
As enjoyable as the food and wine is the conversation. Topics include the Scottish separatist movement (a conversation led by Mark and a friend from Britain) and separatist movements in general (Judith and I are able to chime in with our knowledge of Quebec), and the state of the European Union. Unemployment is remarkably high in the EU (one of the men says it's more than 50 per cent among youth in Spain). Francesca says many young people are living off the retirement savings of their parents.
Steven, a friend of Mark and Michelle’s, also from Britain, pipes up. "We're in a field drinking wine. Life is not so bad!" Francesca joins in. "Couragio. We must be courageous in everything. Let's toast - to the future - have faith!" We hold up our plastic cups of wine and touch them together. To faith - and to the future.
We finish our meal, and one of the lovely women who prepared our meal comes to see how we enjoyed it. "We did it with a lot of love," she says. "We could taste it," I tell her.
Before we leave, I stop to thank Alessandro. As is customary, he leans in to kiss me on both cheeks, and I do the same to him. "Thank you for coming," he says.
"Thank you for having us."
"It's a little piece of paradise here," he says. "Tell your friends."
"It is a little piece of paradise,” I say. “I will." 


  1. Thank you Margaret
    This is a special present for me and for my friends :)

    1. My pleasure, Alessandro. It was a wonderful day. Thank you all!