Eventually in Italy, after five months of acclimating and procrastinating, I got down to some real writing. Pam and Sophia would go off each morning, leaving me to write until lunchtime, but not before I’d take a long walk, think about the writing I had done the morning before and what I wanted to write that day. In Italy, though, in the plush and rolling spring countryside, there are no such things as just “walks.” These are portals into postcards, where senses are soothed and imagination stroked, and the destination as rewarding as the journey.
In the rising light, I’d leave the barn and exit down the driveway of Marta & Paolo’s villa. Through the high fence, smoky green hills stretched into a distance studded with Cypress trees and a bright green valley just beyond the rural road. I’d walk the road, chalky and stumped with rocks, along the high wall built by Etruscans. Insects were everywhere, bustling in the lemony light. Fresh air filled my lungs and sunlight pressed against face, heating my hairline, slanting my eyes.
Under an arched entryway to our private road, little cars zoomed down the hill into Florence. Using the mirror to gauge approaching traffic around the bend, I’d cross the street and walk against the current of commuters. The narrow shoulder bordered a vast grove of shimmering olive trees. After an incline towards the rising sun, I’d cut across another worn road, leery of snakes drawn out by the gathering heat, moving down now, past more groves and patchwork gardens of small houses, tight-roping the edge of a twisting road, towards the hollow of a valley and the village of Antella.
The town “square” is really more of an elongated rectangle, maybe 70 yards wide and 30 across, split on the far side by a one-lane road. Beyond the church that anchors the near corner, the piazza of Antella is all commerce in the form of quaint shops. Some days I’d take a coffee with our married friends, Rebecca (the American) and Francesco (the Italian), who owned the cafe on the piazza’s far corner. And some days I’d cross the piazza, past the old men in their tweed jackets and caps, sitting around the statue, arguing with each other and feeding the pigeons that Sophia would chase around later in the afternoon. And some days, at the Alimentari (grocery), I’d buy wine from the gracious Michaeli. And some days, I’d pick up an International newspaper from the handsome man with a handlebar mustache. But every day, no matter what, I went to see my friend the butcher.
Lorenzo was the third generation Paoletti of the Antica Macceleria Paoletti, located in the corner space of a pastel building caddy-corner to the church. His son, Alfredo, was more my age and more in charge, but the father and I just hit off. He’s a joyous man with a face that blows into a red balloon when he smiles, which is often. “Oh!!!!” he called every time I walked into the shop. He called me “Johnny” in reverence for the Allied soldiers who stayed in the village when he was a child and helped liberate Florence from the Germans. One morning, while making sausages, he tore off two hunks of bread and spread the mixture thick on both pieces. We shared a breakfast of raw sausage together; and, I thought I was going to die. Surviving the sushi-sausage experience must have bonded us even further, and after that, “Johnny USA” as I began to call him, became our official ambassador to Antella and everything local. And on two occasions in the month of March, he took us to incredible “sagras.”
Italians like to celebrate with festivals. And these events are arranged around a theme. And these themes usually involve food. Sagras happen year around in Italy, but especially in the spring and fall. We’d seen plenty of signs advertising events posted on trees and walls, but we never had the courage to attend since they seemed like local events for local people. People in the know. And we knew that we were strangers, but Lorenzo Paoloetti, third generation butcher from the ancient village of Antella, was a hardcore local. He knew everybody; and, now, he knew us. So we hit the sagra circuit in March with “Johnny USA,” his lovely wife Bruna and their best friends, the other Bruna and her husband Rigoletto.
The first sagra was thrown by the local hunters’ organization. It was in a meadow on a top of a mountain so steep I though the car was going to start rolling backwards on our way up the hill. Up there, amidst all the grass and trees and clouds, it felt like The Sound of Music minus the Nazis. The idea was for the local hunters to share all their leftover game from the previous hunting season in a giant cookout. And while the meat turned in a makeshift spit, boxes stuffed with Fava beans were delivered to the long, shaded tables; wheels of fresh Pecorino were passed around. The men yanked out their knives and began hacking up the cheese while the Brunas expertly shucked the beans from their coarse green pods. I must have left my knife at home, so I poured wine into plastic cups from a giant jug. What a combination: the fresh beans and soft, salty cheese, washed down with fruity Chianti. And while the meat continued to turn on the makeshift spit, from the makeshift kitchen came pasta with tomatoes and olives served straight from pots. After that, I was stuffed, just in time for the meat to arrive, gently roasted and succulent with a touch of game: pigeon, hare, rabbit, pheasant. Afterward, the men lumbered over to the makeshift grappa stand for a hard glass of much-needed digestive. Silently amongst the men, Lorenzo worked a toothpick while Rigoletto slow-dragged on a cigarette. I watched Sophia run through a field of wild grass and thought of how lucky we were to be there.
The second sagra was in honor of the mighty cinghiale. Wild boars are abundant in the Tuscan countryside and thankfully nocturnal since they are thick and mean, unafraid of humans. In the daylight, we’d see the circles their snouts left under trees as they furrowed in the darkness for truffles and other edibles. Lots of meat shops had stuffed versions on display, and even after a visit to the taxidermist, these things are scary: bristly dark fur and beady eyes, long noses and sharp tusks. I don’t know who hunts these things in the middle of the night, but they need to find themselves a day job. Not that I’m ungrateful for the bounty, since cinghiale, when cooked right, is a delicacy of nearly indescribable proportion. Of course, Italians use the meat to make everything imaginable, but this tough cut from a tough animal can only be perfected through the magic of braising. Low and slow cooking amidst aromatics and moisture breaks down the toughness, when done right, leaving something silky yet strong on the tongue. Chingiale ragu is a staple on Tuscan menus, and we’d enjoyed it all over, with mixed results, usually seasoned with whole peppercorns and served over pappardelle (wide pasta ribbons). The lack of consistency was testimony to the difficulty in breaking down such a tough cut. But at the Sagra di Cinghiale, with Johnny USA and company, in the covered courtyard of a tiny village nestled between rolling hills and a bend in the River Ema, we ate mountains of braised cinghiale piled on pillow-like polenta. It was possibly the meal of the year. You could fork the meat, but it fell apart in your mouth as the layers of flavor dispersed. And the polenta, usually the consistency of oatmeal, was cumulus-cloud fluffy, absorbing the sauce of tomato and wine and peppercorn. The Italians laughed at how much I ate. And then the men dragged me to a cafe for a grappa. And while I badly needed the digestive powers of the grappa, I didn’t want to wash the flavors from my mouth.
Ragu di Cinghiale