Pasta in Italy, Past and Present

I just wrote a short research paper for my class, you know, the one that went to Italy? Turns out that we had to do something other than drink wine and eat heartily for credit. Bummer!

Now I can get back to writing up my journal.

Here’s part of my paper. The other part is on another post: Making Ravioli with Loredana.

Pasta in Italy, Past and Present

Many people recall being surprised by the widespread tale that pasta, the food product for which Italy is most famous, was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo. Any work that addresses the history and culture of pasta begins with debunking this myth. While it is true that the Far East has a tradition of noodles that predates Europe’s traditions, it is also true that pasta, made from a variety of grains, was developed in many different areas of the world at different times in history. The reason is simple: pasta is one of the most practical, inexpensive foods on earth. A basic combination of flour and water, its name means “paste.” It could be preserved by drying and reconstituted as a filling, nutritious meal later. Depending on the sauce used to top it or stuff it or layer with it, pasta could be decadent or simply life-sustaining, easily adapting to whatever else was on hand.

Italy became a center of pasta culture and business because it was supremely well-suited for it. Most food historians now believe that the first Italian pasta was produced in Sicily, brought across the Mediterranean Sea by Arabic sailors and traders. Al-Kitab al-Rujari, written by an Arab geographer in 1154 A.D., says about Sicily, “there is the town of Trabia, enchanting place, rich in perennial waters and wheat mills, where they produce food out of flour, an abundance of pasta in the shape of strings which are exported to Calabria and many Muslim and Christian countries, even by ship.” (de Vita, Who) The word used for pasta is the Arabic “itriyah,” which means “bread cut into strips.” (Mondelli, 2) The dry climate of Southern Italy was ideal for storing dried pasta, and the forests of Sicily were cut down to devote its land to growing wheat for the Roman Empire. (Bugialli, Fine, 156)

Although it is thought that pastilli, small grains of pasta made from toasted wheat, was eaten as long ago as 490 B.C., the first mention of pasta in literature is written by Q. Horace Flaccus in 35 B.C., when he describes a meal that includes “leaks, chick peas, and lagane.” “Lagane” itself is described a few hundred years later by Apicio in a dish layered with meat and sauce as “a sheet of pasta” to be broken and boiled. (Mondelli, 2) “Lagane,” is from the Greek “laganon,” a flat dough that was sliced into strips, and the Latin word “laganum.” The term is still used in Southern Italy today for “lasagne.” (DelConte)

Another proof of pasta in Italy before the time of Marco Polo comes from a relief carved on an Etruscan tomb that depicts various tools used in the making of pasta, including a jug, board, knife, “laganatura” or long rolling pin, and pastry wheel. (DelConte)

In the example used most often by food historians, a will ceding a chest or “bowl full of maccheroni,” was drawn up in 1279 Genoa. Sixteen years later, Marco Polo returned from China and declared that the lasagne made with “tree flour” there was “as good as the ones I have tasted many times in Italy,” settling the argument that Italian pasta may have originated with the famous explorer’s visit to the East. (Mondelli, 2)

Originally, pasta dough was kneaded by men with their feet on “a large flat board with high edges,” adding water and taking turns before handing the dough over to the women. The kneading bar was introduced in the sixteenth century, which simply introduced a panel on top that the worker “[sat and hopped] on the edge of it.” Kneading the dough quickly to prevent fermentation and in large quantities remained a challenge but improvements in “kneaders” continued until the twentieth century, when a worker in a brick factory took inspiration from a machine and invented a machine that kneaded and pressed the dough into shapes. Modern machines now replace human hands, feet, and behinds in the manufacture of commercial pasta. (De Vita, From 1)

Pasta makers began to separate from bakers and form confederations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apprentices were expected to serve under experienced makers and had to provide their own equipment. With the introduction of the die, used with a press to make hundreds of different shapes, the first pasta factories began to appear in Naples in the seventeenth century. (De Vita, From 1) The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century rapidly expanded the mass production of dried pasta, with innovations such as the mechanical kneading trough and the hydraulic press, and as a result replaced many human workers with machines. (Mondelli, 5)

In the 1930s, an Italian futurist poet name Marinetti set off a firestorm of debate when he denounced “the absurd Italian gastronomic religion,” pasta. He and his supporters maintained that “Pastasciutta, however grateful to the palate, is an obsolete food; it is heavy, brutalizing, and gross; its nutritive qualities are deceptive; it induces skepticism, sloth, and pessimism.” Mussolini, although he admired the outspoken Marinetti for his nationalistic stands, (David, 65-66) ordered many acres of central and northern Italian farmland to be planted in wheat, with the aim that Italy should be self-sufficient in its grain needs, resulting in the movement of pasta production away from its Southern roots. (DelConte)

Today, large corporations such as Barilla, founded in Parma in 1887, and De Cicco produce thousands of tons of pasta made from imported and domestic wheat to be shipped all over the world. The major pasta manufacturing area centers on the town of Fara San Martino in the region of Abruzzo, near the foot of the Mariello Mountains, where the spring waters are of high quality. The second largest pasta exporter in the world, De Cicco, was founded in Fara San Martino in 1887, but since then many other pasta producers of smaller size have been drawn there by the superior taste of the water as well. Italy can no longer produce the vast amounts of grain needed to produce this kind of volume, so large companies like De Cicco use a blend of semolina flours from several countries. (Callen)

Smaller artisanal and organic companies such as Bionaturae, based in Pisa, and Nonna Luisa depend on older traditions in the manufacture of their pastas. For example, Bionaturae buys its organic grains from Italian small farms and its presses use antique bronze dies. (Bionaturae) Nonna Luisa hires consultants from older traditional small pasta factories. Artisanal factories also take pride in their drying processes, using either the sun or solar mimicking processes to dry their products slowly, rather than flash-drying them with super-high heat. (Callen) The use of bronze dies imparts a slight roughness to the texture that enables the sauce to adhere to the pasta more easily. (Bionaturae) Modern technology has moved toward using Teflon dies, which have a much longer life and perform most reliably, but they produce a smooth surface, which is not preferred by pasta connoisseurs. (Dry)

Up until the eighteenth century, the most frequently used words for pasta were “maccheroni” and “lasagna.” Rounded long pasta was generally referred to as “vermicelli” or “spaghetti” because of its resemblance to worms or strings. Worldwide, the word “macaroni” came to connotate refinement and riches, explaining the line in the song when Yankee Doodle was so deluded and vain that he “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” London had its “Macaroni Club,” open only to the rich gourmets who could afford fine imported foods. (Mondelli, 4)

Stuffed pasta has been enjoyed in Italian cuisine since at least the fourteenth century, when tortelli, another name for ravioli, appears in Florentine cookbooks. Unstuffed pasta made its appearance in upper class dining rooms in the late eighteenth century with the introduction of the three or four pronged fork. Until then it was seen as a sloppy food, eaten gracelessly by common people on the street with their fingers. During the nineteenth century, as pasta production moved northward with the Industrial Revolution, pasta of all kinds became a more frequent part of the formal Italian dinner, first replacing the minestre (soup) course from time to time, and later becoming a regular staple of the primi piatto (first course). (Bugiallo, Fine 156)

Although pasta has been important to the fortunes and cuisine of Italy, it has never had quite the overall importance that the rest of the world tends to ascribe to it. In certain regions of Italy, rice and bread are the most popular foods for grain-based dishes. Nevertheless, pasta is hugely popular all over Italy and the world, and its popularity continues to grow. Regional differences still remain in the preparation of many pasta dishes, and even the names of certain shapes of pasta differ from region to region. As the world becomes smaller, even Italy is seeing a certain amount of loss of food traditions and varieties of pasta as it becomes more homogenized and industrialized. Fortunately, the “white art” of making fresh pasta at home has not been lost.

In the home kitchen today, most pasta begins as a mound of semolina or durum wheat flour with eggs, oil, and/or water mixed into a well at the top. Ingredients to color and flavor the dough may be added to the mix, such as spinach, tomato, herbs, garlic, or even squid ink, which makes the pasta black.

The flour is incorporated gradually into the wet ingredients to form a dough, which is kneaded for at least ten minutes, then allowed to rest. At this point, it can be rolled out onto a board or table with a long smooth rolling pin, called a laganaturo or matterello, (De Vita, From 1) or a ridged rolling pin that patterned the dough, called a troccolo. Another tool for stamping patterns on flat dough is a wooden board with a traditional herringbone design called a cavarola. Most pasta shapes with a center hole such as macaroni are bought as dry, but occasionally a tubed pasta is made by rolling small pieces of dough around a smooth stick like a wooden knitting needle. These can be patterned with the use of a tool called a pettine, which resembles a comb and leaves a slightly ridged pattern on the rolled pastas. (Bugialli, Pasta, 249, 273)

Modern cooks usually employ the use of a pasta machine to stretch and flatten the dough, feeding it around a roller that can be set to different thicknesses. Once the dough is stretched to the desired thickness, it can either be fed through a second roller designed to cut it into lengths of flat or rounded long strands, or it can be laid out on a flat surface to be cut by hand. One cutting tool that has become rare is called the chitarra, named for its resemblance to a guitar. The flattened, stretched dough is laid across strings or wires on a wooden frame and pressed through to cut them into even widths, much like our modern hard-boiled egg slicers. (De Vita, From 1)

Once cut into shapes, the pasta is cooked within thirty minutes, especially if it is stuffed, since it will need to be sealed with the fingers or a fork to keep the ingredients from escaping into the pot. Fresh strands of pasta may be cooked briefly, no longer than a few minutes, and served with a sauce, or they can be dried on a rack to preserve them for later use.

The ingredients used in making fresh pasta vary from region to region, as well as the types of sauces used. In Tuscany, egg. oil and salt are added to the flour, and the preference is for a lighter, more delicate thickness. The Bolognese use a thicker pasta, and the Genoese do not generally use eggs. (Bugialli, Fine 157-158) Names for the same type of pasta vary from region to region as well – for example the fettucine in Rome (and the United States) is more commonly known as tagliatelle in other parts of Italy. Linguine is not commonly known in Italy. Americans are familiar with the different names for varying thicknesses of rounded strands of pasta, but before standardization of length for packaging, there were also different names for different lengths, such as bigoli, which was very long. (Bugialli, Pasta, 10)

Major olive oil producing regions of Italy use the local olive oils in their dishes, and others use the fat that is most available. Thus, northern regions of Italy tend to prepare butter-based sauces, and the region of Campania, which is surrounded by olive producing areas but does not produce much of its own, uses lard. Cheese is used regionally in the same way, with Pecorino used more in the regions of Tuscany than the more famous Parmigiano of the southern regions. Cheese is not added to dishes in Italy with the gusto that Americans are accustomed – it is usually added to pasta before it is served at the table, and often not used at all. (Bugialli, Pasta 11) Favorite herbs and spices vary from region to region as well; basil may be the star of Genovese pesto, but in other regions of Italy, sage, rosemary, parsley, and nutmeg are the preferred seasonings.

Works Cited

Betti, Loredana. In the Spannocchia Kitchen with Loredana. Siena, Italy. 18 October 2006.

Bugialli, Guiliano. Bugialli on Pasta. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

—, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. New York: Times Books, 1989.

Callen, Anna Teresa.“The World’s Best Pasta.” Food and Wine Magazine. May 1999. 28 October 2006 <>.

David, Elizabeth. Italian Food. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin, 1999.

De Vita, Oretta Zanini. “Who invented macaroni?” Professional Pasta. 1 November 2006 <>.

—, “From the ferretto to the die: brief report about the tools to make macaroni.” Professional Pasta. 1 November 2006 <>.

DelConte, Anna. Gastronomy of Italy, quoted in “About Pasta,” 2 November 2006 <>.

“Dry pasta machines / the die.” Professional Pasta. 1 November 2006 <>.

Stipo, Gina, Loredana Betti, Daniela Casarin, and Francesca Stratton. La Cucina di Spannocchia. 2nd Ed. Siena, Italy, 2000.

Mondelli, Mariaelena. “Old and true…like pasta.” Professional Pasta. 1 November 2006 <>.

“Organic Pasta.” 6 October 2006 <>.

Works Consulted

Hazan, Marcella. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. New York: Knopf. 1992.

Romer, Elizabeth. The Tuscan Year. New York: North Point, 1989.


Arrivederci L’Italia

Li vedrò questa estate. I will see you this summer.
Domenica, 22 ottobre 2006

I arose early and took some final shots of the farm and the main buildings in the morning mist. We ate a quick breakfast and bid a sad goodbye to this wonderful place, boarding the same private bus that took us back to the Firenze train station and airport. All the photos in this post are from the last morning in Spannocchia.

A few of us stayed in Firenze another night or two, and some went on to other destinations, such as Venice. We stayed in the same room at the Hotel San Giovanni and didn’t try to do much of anything different, since most of the museums and churches were closed on Sunday afternoon and evening. We wandered over to the market at Santa Croce and ate lunch from a German vendor, took a nap that afternoon, and then ate pasta with clams and ravoli for dinner at an outdoor table at a restaurant next to the Duomo. Sandy said that he was ready for meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I was ready to not eat for a week. We were both ready to go home and see the critters. I think that as soon as I stepped on the bus at Spannocchia, my brain decided that the trip was over.

Lunedi, 23 ottobre 2006
The taxi driver played Motown on the way to the Firenze airport at 5:30 a.m. The flight home was long and uneventful, thank heavens. The airport at Milan was much easier to navigate than Charles de Gaulle. At take-off, a young man across the aisle from me would not stop using his cell phone after the flight attendant told him point blank to turn it off, turning it back on and text messaging so that the flight attendant couldn’t see him. This made me nervous so I worked up my courage and reminded him to turn it off, which annoyed him but he did turn it off. What a jerk.

I finished up a Stephanie Plum novel and did the puzzles in the magazines.

When I go back, I’ll try to book a seat in the center aisle. I don’t care about looking out the window and I envied those people stretched out asleep in the center rows. They definitely knew what they were doing when they chose their seats, especially on the overflight flight across the Atlantic. And I will NOT forget the Dramamine this time. No way.

Going back to the United States involved a lot more security than the other way. Our carry-on bags were thoroughly checked and we went through a long customs line in Philly. There were no problems. This was my first time ever going through customs – those people are some serious dudes.

Then our luggage was lost between Philadelphia and Greensboro. I read later that the Philadelphia US Air baggage had one of the highest rates of losing luggage in the country. But it was delivered to us the next day, and everything was intact, thank God!

It took me about a week and a half to get my body back on schedule so that I didn’t wake up at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at 8 p.m.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done with my Italy journal until next summer. Ciao!


Rainy Siena

Siena in the Rain

Saturday, 21 ottobre 2006

“It rarely rains in Siena…” ~ Rick Steves, Florence and Tuscany 2007

Guess we just got lucky! I kind of enjoyed the rain. It was the good drenching kind that gardeners and ducks appreciate, and it gave me a different perspective. When we arrived at Spannocchia, I noticed that it was very dry. I’m sure that they welcomed the rain, too.

The bus let us off at the bottom of the hill and we walked up to the famous center of Siena, Il Campo. The first thing we all did was sit down under some tents at a caffe, have some hot drinks, and make plans for splitting up and meeting later. Sandino and I opted to go to the Duomo and take advantage of “free” admission (included in our class fees). We had somehow missed going inside any churches or cathedrals in Firenze, although the outsides of those structures were quite impressive.

The inside of Siena’s Duomo was magnificent. If you’ve ever tried to photograph the inside of a cathedral, you understand that it is not possible to do it right. I was able to get a bit of a sense of it without my flash. The inlaid marble mosaics on the floor probably got as much of my attention as anything (see the photo at the bottom of this post for a famous one), but this was easily the most beautiful indoor space I have ever seen.

Sandino and I walked in and out of shops for most of the rest of the time, but we didn’t buy anything. Sandy wasn’t interested in the food shops and I wasn’t interested in much else, so we finally went back to the same caffe overlooking the Campo and had a couple of birre (beers). Carol joined us and we started swapping stories about Greensboro, and eventually others drifted in. The waitresses began bringing out free appetizers that were really good, so it was hard to restrain myself, but we were about to go eat a major meal at a restaurant. I enjoyed just kicking back with some good companions, looking out at people reappearing on the sidewalks as the rain subsided, and watching the restaurant staffs getting their places ready for the evening crowds.

When we got to Antica Trattoria Papei, we found that they put our group in a separate room. I’m sure that they thought that this was special, but I looked forward to a more authentic restaurant experience in the midst of the other diners. I suppose that was hard with a group of nineteen. Nevertheless, the meal was wonderful and our server was gregarious and friendly. I wish that I had jotted down notes about the meal, but I do remember that the waiter would not tell us what the meat spread on the crostini was until after we tasted it – spleen – and that the secondo was pheasant with a contorno of spinach, and that I finally tasted grappa after the meal – whew – and that I was so thoroughly stuffed that I thought that someone would have to roll me to the bus. We had several toasts and it was a little sad for me – this was our last dinner as a group in Italy.

Firenze is much more convenient to an airport, but I wish that we had spent a couple of nights in Siena. It was an interesting place, and very beautiful. When I go to Spannocchia this summer, maybe I’ll get to go back and see it in a different light and season.

To be continued…



Saturday, 21 ottobre 2006

This was our typical breakfast, except that breakfast this day featured bread baked by Stefano in the brick oven the day before. The granola is made after the last pizzas are baked in the brick oven on pizza nights, left in the warm oven overnight to bake. Here it is served over fresh plain yogurt. What’s missing in the photo that was available each day is homemade jam and preserves and hard-boiled eggs.

I stopped by the Spannocchia gift shop (a small room that also served as the guest check-in) and bought my souvenirs from them. I purchased La Cucina di Spannochia (a self-published cookbook), an embroidered apron with the image of the “Castello di Spannocchia” on it, several laminated bookmarks with sprigs of wildflowers and herbs, honey, one bag of farro (an Italian grain similar to wheat), and two bottles of red organic Spannocchian wine.

Charlie and Debby decided to take us to a small town that was off the tourist track, and which also had a museum dedicated to the subject on which we were concentrating – the Museo della Mezzadria.

Buonconvento had a street market on Saturday mornings which sold many different kinds of items, including produce, meats, cheeses, household goods, shoes, and clothing. This was a shopping place for the regular Italian residents, although we still ran into a few Americans. No wonder people get sick of us – we’re everywhere! Rain sprinkled off and on and the sky threatened more to come, so I bought a cheap umbrella and Sandino, who is much too manly to be caught dead with an umbrella, bought a wool cap. Along with his wool coat, his outfit performed a lot better than I expected, I’ll admit.

I spent a few euros here on a tablecloth with a green/blue olive design (to remind me of those tablecloths in the Spannocchia dining room), a cute little woven kitchen rug (which, of course, Miss Jazz anointed within a month), and a gold wool zippered sweater whose price mysteriously increased between the time I asked about it and the actual purchase, but I let it go and didn’t argue about it. I’m a terrible shopper at these places – lousy for me but great for the vendors to whom I finally break down and relinquish my money. And I do love the sweater – it was the only clothing purchase for me other than the apron from Spannocchia and my Firenze walking shoes.

The main street had small businesses with residences above and was quite lovely. I would have liked to have spent a little more time here, just to dawdle a bit, poke around in the little shops. As we all turned the corner to enter the museum at the end of the street, the sporadic sprinkles turned into heavy rain. We spent the next hour roaming the museum by ourselves, and the museum staff was kind enough to lend us an upstairs education room to have our picnic lunch in.

The museum was focused on the mezzadria agricultural system, the owner-manager-tenant farm system that was suddenly dismantled during the 1960s. In the United States, the new industrial agricultural system took decades to overtake the small farmers and sharecroppers. Surprisingly, in Italy, it was much swifter. We like to have a romantic ideal of the small Tuscan farm, when in reality, they have struggled with the same “get big or get out” demand made by multinational corporations all over the world.

Many of the tenant farming families moved to the cities and took industrial jobs, and just like the Americans, few of the younger generation consider entering the farming profession. Does the problem of aging farmers with few replacements in training make you wonder what will happen to our food system? Not many people are aware of the problem, and it’s just around the corner.

After some debate on whether to return to Spannocchia because of the weather, we decided to continue on to Siena.

To be continued…


Baking with Stefano

Friday, 20 ottobre 2006
(Continued from A change in the weather.)

Friday arrived still damp and threatening more rain. The agenda for the morning was baking with Stefano, a professional baker who took a day off to show us his artistry with dough and a wood burning brick oven. The first step was for Charlie to begin the fire in the oven while Stefano prepared all the goodies to be baked in it later that morning, with the help of the class who hovered around the table in the fattoria kitchen.

I was not feeling great that morning so I decided to drift in and out with my camera rather than handle the food ingredients. Sandino needed some down time so he slept late and then disappeared into the villa library for a few quiet hours.

The main thing that I got from watching and listening to Stefano was that he truly loved his work and considered that passion to be vital. Several times he said, “To make bread is nothing. What is difficult is to bake.” He was a real food artisan.

He turned out an incredible amount of baked goods in just a few hours, including sciachata con uva, a grape tart with rosemary and walnuts, several different focaccie and pizzettine, and a peasant bread that was filled with “all the leftover parts of the pig.” This sounded awful, but it was delicious, just as he said it would be. He snipped some rolls with scissors to raise a spiked crown on top, and sprinkled sugar into the spaces. We had these for breakfast the next two days.

The weather lifted for long enough that we were able to set up tables out in the courtyard and have lunch as the different dishes came out of the brick oven. Staff members and family from Spannocchia and Lapo the sheepdog drifted around and munched happily with us. Debby said, “Doesn’t it remind you of a Fellini movie?”

Hope you’re near some good food right now. If not, do forgive me.



To be continued…


A change in the weather

Thursday, 19 ottobre 2006
(Continued from Working at Spannocchia)

That afternoon brought a chilly drizzly rain. Sandino did a big load of laundry that morning, and since Spannocchia does not have a dryer, we ended up hanging damp clothes all over our room. These wouldn’t get dry until the morning we left.

Debby led an informal “drawing on the right side of the brain” in the small parlor where a few of us did contour drawings of a still life and each other. The rest of the group played chess, napped, and read in the large parlor near the fire. I found a beautiful slim cookbook with color pastel illustrations entitled A Table in Tuscany, by Leslie Forbes. It is out of print but I ordered it from a used dealer when I returned to the States, and I’m really glad I bought it.

Later that afternoon, we expected a rep to lead a wine tasting of Brunello wines, which are known to be very fine, and have a chance to buy them at a good price. However, there was a mix-up about the date and Charlie ended up leading the group in a tasting of wines he had bought. He did a great job, despite a little choking episode that gave us all a chuckle, because he has the imaginative verbal skills to pull it off. I have a very hard time matching words to tastes. To me, wine tastes sweet or dry, smooth or bitter, and like grapes. That’s about the extent of what I can come up with.

Dinner that night was superb, as usual, but perhaps even a little more towards a unique Spannocchian experience:

Primo: Zuppa di Porri (leek soup)
Secondo: Polenta con Cinghiale (Polenta with stewed wild boar)
Contorno: Broccoli
Dolce: Zuppa Inglese (I don’t remember this one! Probably too stuffed from the cinghiale.)

This is the meal that Sandino keeps telling our friends about. Was it our favorite? I don’t know – every meal at Spannocchia was simply amazing.

To be continued…


Working at Spannocchia

Wednesday, 18 ottobre 2006

We returned to Spannocchia that evening, where it was pizza night. Pizza night was a big deal at Spannocchia, when the wood-burning brick oven was fired up that afternoon and interns dressed up a bit for the evening. We sang happy birthday to my friend Deb Bettini, who celebrated a big one that day. Pizza after pizza was delivered to the dining room until no one could even consider one more delicious bite. Until the amaretto “truffles,” anyway.

Thursday, 19 ottobre 2006

This morning was work time for our half of the class, while the folks who had worked on Tuesday morning had their cooking lesson with Loredana.

First, Charlie took us into the cantina where the wine is pressed, stored, and bottled. Karl-Heinz, whose hobby is home-brewing, was particularly interested in the wine making process so he ended up working in here.

Then Charlie took us on a short tour of Spannocchia wastewater system. In their efforts to return the estate to a more sustainable ecosystem, both graywater and blackwater natural systems were built to recycle the water back to the land. Part of Charlie’s role in his work at Spannocchia through the volunteer organization WWOOF was in planting the terraces with plants that would naturally filter their water as well as provide beauty. Charlie put many other permaculture methods to work at Spannocchia, including herb spirals.

The verdant photo to the right is the end product of the gray/blackwater system, a small lagoon where the used water from Spannocchia eventually ends up. By the time it filters through the septic tank, which catches the fats, oils, and sludge, and the natural system, it has no smell and can be used to fertilize the fruit orchards and is pumped back to the buildings with solar power pump to flush the toilets. The plants growing on top of the ponds can be scooped off and composted. Rainwater from the roofs is also directed to the pond. Since Tuscany is prone to periods of drought, this saves the use of fresh water from San Bernandino’s spring.

At this point, the group split up, most of us going to work on repairing a fallen stone wall. I was quick to volunteer to help turn over a row in Carmen’s orto, along with Wood. Even if it was just using a pitchfork and pulling grass roots and rocks out of the dirt, I was grateful for an opportunity to work in the garden. Leeks had been grown in this row and Carmen was preparing it for a cover crop. The soil was rocky enough that I bent a tine on my sturdy pitchfork badly enough that we couldn’t use it and couldn’t bend it back. Whoops. Later, when talking with Debby about volunteer work, I found out that working in the vegetable gardens is a primo assignment, usually saved for interns. We were asked to help because the two interns were getting over being ill.

Sandino jumped at the chance to help out in the cantina after deciding that he didn’t have the knack for masonry. Not to disappoint you “I Love Lucy” fans, but he was scooping out the mashed skins and pulp with a bucket, not stomping grapes. He had on rubber boots. It was hard work and his clothes were purple and pungent by the time Charlie rescued him and Karl-Heinz from their labors to play chess.

Meanwhile, the folks in the cucina (kitchen) were having their cooking lesson with Loredana. For the primo piatta, they made gnocchi, which I never cared for until trying THIS version. They made the patterns with forks and by rolling them over a cheese grater. The secondo was saltimbuca (veal rolls), and the contorno (side dish) was one of my favorites, finocchio (braised fennel). For dolce (dessert), salame chocolat. Oh! molto bene. I have this in my notes: “Cooking class had pears with gorgonzola – jealousy!” I hope that I’ll be able to get these recipes from them.

To be continued…


The medieval Manhattan

Wednesday, 18 ottobre 2006

San Gimignano is called the “medieval Manhattan” because of its many towers. It is one of the most beautiful Tuscan hill towns, making it a mecca for tourists. The city itself was lovely, but the views from it were absolutely stunning.

Our bus parked near the bottom of the hill and we walked up to the center of this pedestrian-friendly town. I immediately made a beeline to the farmacia, which was in the center piazza, marked, as all pharmacies are, by a green cross. Italian towns don’t have the big stores that offer everything – each little store has its niche. When I got there, the farmacia had just closed at 2 for an afternoon break until 4:30. Knowing that pharmacies stagger their hours in Firenze, I stepped into the tourist information station next door.

I stood at the counter until it was obvious the person behind the counter was not going to acknowledge my presence, then said, “Scuse…”

She looked up at me with irritation. “Is there another farmacia in town?” I asked meekly.

“It opens at four!” she snapped and looked back down at her magazine.

“But,” I tried again, “is there another farmacia in town?”

“NO!” she barked, not bothering to look up this time.

I have to admit that when I was told to go to these tourist information stations for the best information, no one said that they had to be polite about it. But my irritation at her rudeness got my mind off my queasy stomach long enough that I realized that I’d be okay until 4:30. Although, by God, that pharmacy had BETTER open back up. I had little trust in my luck in this matter by now.

By this time I had totally lost Sandino, so I wandered around the little shops and galleries in town. This was the first length of time I spent on the trip when I was not compulsively snapping photos, because Sandino had the camera. I felt the pangs of addiction, and then I enjoyed my solitude. I talked to a tapestry weaver who incorporated his tapestries into sweaters and shawls. I watched a potter turn tall bottles in his studio shop. I climbed up to the highest level and sat, looking out over the landscape.

There was one disjointed moment in a gift shop when “Stuck in the Middle with You” was playing over the sound system.

I went into an art supply shop to buy a sketchbook, and the proprietor, an older man, did not switch to English when I attempted to speak Italian. We spoke at length about colors, etc. and I was delighted every time I made sense! He was quite friendly and patient and addressed me formally, using Lei, which impressed me. I selected several small items and totaled it up as costing 25 euros, handing him the money. He asked me if I had one euro, and I assumed that I had miscalculated the price and it was 26. Then he handed me five euros back. He had given me a discount without me asking for it. This was the only time I experienced such Italian charm (other than Spannocchia), and I appreciated the encounter.

Finally, the farmacia opened and I bought 10 pieces of Dramamine gum for 10 euros. That came to about $1.30 a piece, and they were worth every penny. Even though San Gimignano was a tourist town, I noticed that the prices still seemed lower than Firenze. I bought a cheese grater in a olive wood box, a purchase I would later find to be unusable, but it’s pretty.

I kept running into classmates (this was a really small town) who told me that Sandino was looking for me. We finally found each other and treated ourselves to gelati. I recovered my precious camera and snapped a photo, looked at it, and told him he would hate it because he was eating ice cream with his stomach poked out. So he posed for another one sucking it in.

At the bottom of the hill, before getting on the bus, I finally had my first European squat and pee experience in a public bathroom. I had wondered what the heck everyone had been talking about – except for some differences in how to flush them, the toilets so far had all been familiar sit-down versions. It’s not so bad, there are ridged tiles that you put your feet on and a handrail for balance. And no, the toilet paper was not like wax paper, or craft paper. It was regular toilet paper. It was given to you by an attendant as you walked in, who you tipped.

Sandino is responsible for the other photos in this post.

To be continued…