I am just off the plane and about to enter Italia profondomente, the very depths of Italy, full strength Italy far from the showpieces and well recognised stereotypes and remote from attractively packaged, polished Italy Lite. I like to apply the idea of La France Profonde to Italy. This is the idea of deep, profoundly French aspects of the culture of provincial towns and villages where there is still a focus on localism. It’s a respect for tradition in an almost overwhelming onslaught of international mass culture. This is the Italy I am going to.
Simone and Paola are almost shaking with excitement when we meet them. Embraces, kisses, laughter, and tears are distributed to us in equal measure. Anglo-Saxon reserve has no place here. As a surprise our Roman friends Mirella and Nadio are here to greet us as well. I will never become accustomed to this outpouring of emotional joy. I will always be amazed despite how familiar this greeting ritual has become.
As soon as we are away from Fumicino our nostrils fill with a different sweet, heady, scented air suggesting the delights to come. This is a trip, one of my favourites in Italy, which I have taken many times before and never tire of… the green forests, glimpses of ancient villages, the majestic mountains. Added to this is the spice of expectation of reacquaintance with the familiar and the expectation of new experiences. Quickly we leave standard big city outskirts: apartment buildings, warehouses, shopping centres are behind us.
We are on the way to Abruzzo, to true Italy where you will not see the idealised version of the country, that carefully put together shop window for Italy. This is where you see the real Italy and discover how it works, or doesn’t as the case may be. This is a different window where there may just be some dust on the goods on show. The every day. No evidence of visual marketing tricks to be seen. Each item is just as it is and speaks for itself with no added gloss and or filter. It certainly does not need it.
We leave the the Roman plain behind and begin the climb to the Appenines, the mountainous backbone of the peninsula. As usual Paola is driving with purpose. Simone has considerately brought a bottle each of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to help speed the journey, plus plastic cups especially designed for back seat wine appreciation. Two bottles, just enough for a two hour trip. As I try to pour wine into my cup, Paola drives over a choppy section of tarmac. The car lurches and wine spills all over my jeans. One of the dangers of drinking when someone else is driving.
Night driving always adds mystery to the landscape. Cocooned in a bubble of light we glide through night tones of blue and grey across the Roman campagna. Passing Tivoli we begin to climb vaguely following the route of the ancient Via Tiburtina which crept across the mountains linking Rome and Aternum (Pescara). At night the journey is somewhat ghostly. Hillside villages glowing in hazy yellow light appear to float above the landscape rather than being anchored to it as they are in the day time. The moon is full, barely illuminating the landscape. Hills and mountains are back lit by the moonlight. the golden glow of village street lights outline the Fucino basin, once a lake but now drained and given over to farmland; forming an agricultural saucer encircled by mountains. We pass Tagliacozzo, Avezzano, Celano with its floodlit castle, Anversa. Each village a glow of yellow magical light nestled against a mountain. The splendour of the dramatic mountainous backdrop is enhanced by the moonlight. The A25 squeezes through the Popoli Gorge and we are in softer, gentler countryside overlooked by ancient hilltop villages. Presently we are back in Italian urban sprawl, but not for long. A narrow twisting strip of bitumen leads us uphill beneath a canopy of trees to San Giovanni Teatino. Its 10:30 pm and there is still life even though it’s moving at a slow and unsteady pace.
We enter Trattoria di Umberto and I meet two Gianni. One of them looks like he has been here drinking vino sfuso (bulk wine from the farmer), ever since he first learned to drink or at the very least since early evening, every evening. We are here for take away as it is much too late to cook. There is a plethora of notices explaining the rules for just about everything – buying cigarettes, purchasing a Lotto ticket, even credit – Don’t ask for it. Are they all enforced? Or is it like the Italian parliament which passes more laws than any other European nation but find that they are so numerous that it is impossible to enforce them all? I’m introduced to Claudio who runs the trattoria. He’s a “killer”, but more of that in a while. He is serving an unsteady regular a take away digestivo – Nocello by the smell that drifts by me as the bottle is opened. Claudio pours the liqueur into a paper cup and covers it with a serviette. The regular lovingly cradles the valuable cargo in his hands and lurches off into the night.
We wait for our take away Trippa al ragu’ di agnello (Tripe cooked with tomatoes and lamb ragu’). The place looks unprepossessing and I suspect the food will be rather basic. I also doubt any tourist has ever bothered to review it for Trip Advisor. It is possible that Sandra and I are the only people from outside the village to ever walk through the door. Simone recounts why Claudio is called “The Keel-air”. Like many nicknames its ironic. He is a hunter like many of his friends but always returns with an empty bag. “The Keel-air” cannot even shoot the small birds that would be cooked in a ragu’ and served on polenta, Abruzzese style. The polenta is spread on to a large wooden board, smothered with ragu’ and placed in the centre of the table for all to reach out and take a share. This year there has been almost a plague of cinghiale, wild pigs, a hunters dream. Cinghiale have been coming out of the woods and wandering along village streets in a piggy passeggiata. Some have even been spotted sun-baking on the beach. Claudio joined his friends for a pig shoot, probably thinking of rich ragu’ di cinghiale, succulent salame, perhaps even proscuitto. His friends shot 15 between them. “The Keel-air” kept his hard earned reputation intact. He shot nothing.
At 11.30 pm we are all sitting around the kitchen bench as food is spooned onto plates. This is simple and sustaining food, deeply rooted in Abruzzese culinary tradition. The taste of just one mouthful is enough to tell me exactly where I am. Ragu’ d’ agnello with freshly grated Parmigiano and topped with peperoncino thinly sliced into circles – as is typical in Abruzzo. This is good! Lamb in Abruzzo always seems more tender and is without any gamy flavours. Tomato bathed tripe has just the right amount of bite. After being wide awake and eating airline food (I cannot sleep on a plane) for a day and a half, this is absolute joy. The wine gives me both a glow and a buzz.
Standing on the balcony outside the kitchen in the morning there is the familiar and comforting landscape. Hills cut by steep valleys, the green of summer turning autumn yellow, red and brown, gnarled olives trees, freshly ploughed fields revealing heavy, grey brown soil, vines shed their leaves one by one, each fluttering to the earth beneath the pergolas. In the distance I can see through the gentle hazy morning light the tremendous, mountainous bulk of Maiella. I can gaze on this view for hours and feel content. The air still holds a hint of summer warmth, enough to wash the chill of southern winter from me. I am content and in a favourite place.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)