Traditionally, on Easter Monday Italy to goes for a picnic. Not your common or garden, cucumber -sandwich- on- a -tartan- rug picnic mind you, but a flown-blown feast. A long table packed with food and wine for about twenty is about average, just like you’ve seen in those beautiful slow-moving Italian movies.
Gina, Toto, Maria and I had been invited by Carmen, a colleague of Maria’s, to join her and her family at a country spot near Bova, a little place on the coast just south of home. The preparations however, start a good three days before the event. Gina baked a traditional Easter loaf called “Cudduraci”, a sweet bread often shaped like a fish or a dove, where the dough is wrapped round an egg which then cooks in its shell, inside the loaf. She also made a number of “Pastiera”, a rustic cake containing ricotta, candy and, of all things, barley. Meanwhile Maria prepared her speciality of minced-beef roll stuffed with ricotta and spinach while Toto and I snuck out to our little winery and sampled each cask of wine carefully to select the best for the bottles we would take. That was our excuse anyway. By 9.30 on Monday morning Gina had cooked off the Veal Milanese and the car was packed with wine, food, Amaro Del Capo, and our own home-grown olives, matured in jars of salt water and chilli. At last we were ready for the off.
After about half-an-hour’s drive and as the sun was burning off the last of the morning’s mist, we pulled off the main road and slowly, very slowly, made our way down the remains of a dusty farm track, nerves jangling to the sound of the car sills scraping over the pot holes and baked ruts. Then, suddenly, just after a small church in the middle of nowhere, we turned right and found ourselves driving through the middle of a massive olive grove. Already the place was busy with dozens of groups setting up for the day, putting up tables, laying out food and lighting fires to cook over, certainly not for heat. We pulled up in the grass next to the area where Carmen’s extended family were busy laying the table. As I unpacked our contribution to the feast, we were passed round the family and introduced; cousins, uncles, aunts, children and grandparents all queued to be met. About twenty one of us in all. All around, the sound of happiness danced its way through the olive trees to the rhythm of Tarantella music.
“What is this place “? I asked looking around, unaware that I’d broken into some considered murmuring that was going on between the men. “Does the owner not mind all these people descending on his land?”
Everyone looked at me for a moment, then at each other quizzically.
“We’re not quite sure to be honest” someone eventually concluded, “But people have been coming here for years with no problem. A long time ago it used to belong to the same barons that owned the mansion and lands around Pellaro, or at least the same family.”
“No-one’s quite sure who it belongs to now.” Added another.
“Are the olives harvested, does someone take care of it all?”
The best answer seemed to be a group shrug. “Boh” they said and quickly dismissed any further awkward questions by returning to the more serious topic of Toto’s wine. “Mmmm, this one’s got a very round body”.
I took the hint and joined in – the world is not our affair, at least not for the moment.
Carmen’s daughter came over to me, she’s about three. “My name’s Ilaria” she whispered.
“Really? That’s Hilary in English, I have a sister called Hilary.” I confided.
“So I’m Hilary, Yes?”
She took possession of my hand and led me away for a walk. All round the grove there were soft-red flowering fields and hills, there were vineyards and old crumbling buildings, pastures and woods. Patiently I followed as she led me back towards a group of teenagers who were playing Tarantella (a sort of cross between Celtic and Cajun). The accordion was being passed around to a new performer after each song, the girls dancing the traditional dance while little groups of picnickers gathered to watch and listen. Young people playing their own music, talking in their own dialect.
When we returned to our own picnic, Carmela (Carmen’s aunt) was grilling some pancetta over the fire. It was sliced thinner than usual, perfect for bacon and eggs one morning I thought.
I went over and (thought) I said “We call this bacon, I haven’t seen it look so thin in Italy.” She looked at me a little sadly I thought, never mind. Then, just as if some ultra-sonic whistle had gone off , one only audible to Italians, the place went suddenly quiet as the whole site sat down to eat in their respective camps. Food was passed around, up and down the table. Wild mushrooms, olives, bread, pasta, Milanese, salame, all sorts of flavours, meats and cheeses and of course, rich, deep red wine. Carmela offered me some sausages…and a slice of lemon.
“Lemon with sausages?”
“Of course, it helps the digestion”
So I tried sausage with a drizzle of lemon….fantastic.
“Would you like some, bacon?”
“Yes please!” I declared, as I picked a hot rasher and drizzled a little more lemon, beautiful.
Within seconds of finishing the bacon, Carmela was back at my side. “Bacon, would you like some more?”
She filled my plate with a huge helping of lasagna and smiled. I looked at the plate, obviously confused.
“Don’t you like lasagna?”
“No, No” I assured her, “I love it”.
“Then eat, bacon, eat.”
The table started to vibrate to suppressed laughter. Carmela and I looked up. They’d been watching the entire exchange.
“What? What did I do?” I looked at a weeping Maria for some explanation.
“Carmela, his name’s Charles, not bacon.” She spluttered.
“But he said he was called thin Bacon, I’m only trying to put some “beef” on him”.
By then most of us were happy to have a sip of Amaro Del Capo and relax, but it wasn’t over yet. There would be no rest until the mountain of tiramisu, cakes and huge, beautifully wrapped chocolate Easter eggs had been respectfully reduced to a mole hill. Then, just when you thought it was safe to lie down and sleep, the fresh espresso kicked in. The men argued and put the world to rights, the women talked and put the men to rights.
Now, lunch is over. The sun hot, so we lie in the shade, Maria and I. I look up and see a perfect sky through the green and silver olive leaves. It doesn’t matter how thin the bacon you bring home, life can still be a picnic.