Winning over Italy

A "heel to toe" look at Italy by C.C. Winning

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St. Martino And The Missing Beach

Toto with the 1st bottle

November 11th and the day of St. Martino.   This is the traditional day for tasting the new wine, a sort of informal Beaujolais Nouveaux and not without a race, well a brisk walk to the end of the garden to pour the first bottle from the barrel.  As I mentioned in my last post, Toto and I had sneaked a glass before the appropriate hour…. just to check of course.  All over the country people were opening the new vintage, whether it be their own or purchased from a good vineyard.  Ours, as I have discovered over the last year, is usually one of the best in the neighbourhood.  Certainly good enough to trade for the best fish at the docks or for Calabria’s finest manure (another story).   We made the wine some eight weeks ago, over the weekend before the builders arrived on site.  I’d been warned to be ready before 6.00am for the grapes to arrive on the Saturday morning as it’s extremely important to get going with the pressing from the minute they arrive.  They’ve already been off the vine for eighteen hours by this point and the juice will have started leaking and fermenting in the delivery baskets, on the other side of the Straits before the morning’s first ferry.  As it was, Toto had managed to unload the fruit before I’d had my coffee and we still had 48 hours of intense labour ahead.  “Wear the oldest clothes you have and don’t expect to wear them ever again.”  My brilliant white tee-shirt was regarded with some heavenward looks, guidance for what I was about to receive.  You can never dress down enough for wine pressing… fact better not dress at all to be honest (apart from the boxers).  It was still September and hovering between 28 and 30 degrees with no cooling breeze.  I used muscles that hadn’t heard from me for many years, I used bones that thought they’d gone into early retirement on full pension and I used language that I’d only recently learned and would be more suited to a Neapolitan bordello.   While I stacked crates of black grapes on the wheel barrow and carted them to the ‘cantina’ at the end of the garden, Toto emptied them into the polished hopper and began the first ‘grind’.   “Hurry, faster, we don’t have a minute to lose.” He cajoled.  “That was a full glass-worth of wine you lost on the last trip.  Gina will kill us if she sees!”  The large, square ceramic-lined vat was filling up with roughly pressed grapes and juice as the morning progressed until…”Stop!”  Cried Toto.  “What?” I asked peering into the gloom of the cantina, brushing away the swarms of mosquitoes and flies that had been following me all morning, feeding on my sweating brow and the sugar-sweet juice that had got into every pore of my skin. 

“There’s too much, how many crates are left?”

“About twelve I think, why?”

“Mannagia,(Damn…politely put) we have a problem.”

“The vat’s still only ¾ full.” I observed.

“And when the grapes really start to ferment?  The vat will fill to the brim.  We can’t afford to lose a drop.”

Suddenly we had an emergency.  We had to find alternative vessels for the remaining crates, and quick.  We rushed round the village trying to find more containers, without luck.  Those that were making their own wine needed what they had.   We were so desperate we even promised a hundred litres to someone, just to be sure it wouldn’t go to waste, if they could find a container.  They shot out to join the hunt.  No deal.  Eventually we had to go to the farmer’s cooperative, through whom we’d purchased the grapes, to buy some huge plastic basins to hold our overfill as well as another two hundred-litre barrel to hold the resulting wine it would produce.  “Mamma Mia. We have too much wine.” Toto grimaced.  “This crop is better than I expected.  Think we’re going to have more than a thousand litres.” “Still, let’s look on the bright side.” I said, thinking that there were far bigger problems in life than what to do with an excess of good red wine.

By the end of the first day Toto and I had done all we could for the time being.  The juice would have its first go at producing alcohol before we started again on the fine pressing, the really hard work that awaited us the next morning.  Gina came out with a large ladle and some neighbours to try the black liquid as the sun began to set and the heat subside.  Hers is the true opinion on how the wine will eventually taste.  We waited with bated breath, Toto proud and satisfied with his work but nervous none-the less, me tired and ready to drop as my back wailed in agony.   Gina took the ladle and sipped, then sipped again.  Her face didn’t change as she silently filled some plastic cups and passed them round the neighbours.   At last Toto and I were allowed.  It was the sweetest, darkest nectar you could imagine.  It was almost black in colour and the sense of sugar would have kept you buzzing for a week.  This was going to be strong stuff when it turned to alcohol.  We looked anxiously at Gina ,waiting for her judgement on our labour. 

“This will be the best we ever had.” She proclaimed.  “Don’t you fools lose a single drop, understand?”  She smiled and patted me on the back.  “Shame about the tee-shirt.”  she sighed, as she walked back to the kitchen.  

Vespa and oranges in the back garden.

The next day we were up at the crack of dawn again, making the real presses.  Every last possible drop was extracted, even by taking the glue-like mass of the first tight pressing and breaking it up to put back into the wooden compressor for another squeeze.  This was the hardest work.  More effort is expended on the last 10 litres than the previous 990.  At the end of the second night we collapsed and poured hot baths to ease our bones while Gina nagged us about our sticky clothes.  It takes a full week to clean your hands of the ingrained stains.  I cut my finger-nails three times that week just to get rid of the black colour under them.  

Gina wasn’t wrong.  The wine is awesome, even on the first tasting.  After a month or two it’s going to be worth twice the fish and manure of last year’s production.  I’m looking forward to Christmas and mulling a drop or two.

 Of course we’ve had to sample other people’s stock, it’s St. Martino after all.  We turned up at Piper Cafe for an evening’s tasting, after work on Friday night .   The weather had been pretty stormy for the previous three nights and the hills were rapidly turning back to a vague olive-green as a result.  A rather depressed looking Nino turned up beside me at the bar.  “Hey Nino, why so sad?”  “My beach has gone missing.”  He took his wine and shrugged.  “Everything’s gone and I’ve had to spend the whole day tidying up.” 

“You’re beach is missing?”

“Yea, It’s probably off to Morocco as we speak.”

“It’s been stolen?”

“No, I wish it had. It happens nearly every year now.”

“But it was there during the summer, what happened?”

“Goes on holiday when it feels like it.” He moaned.

“I don’t understand.  What do you mean, goes on holiday?”

“When the weather’s like these last few days, the sea comes and takes it away.”

“Surely it’s just covered with water for the moment, it’ll be there again in the good weather.”

“No It actually shifts off  round the country or across to Africa, carried away on the current.  Just hope another arrives in its place in the spring.  Maybe some good sand from Naples, who knows.  It could just as easily be some rubbish from France.”

This is true.  The beaches sweep off to another coast for a while, only to be replaced by a stranger who’s carried in on the drift to settle for the summer months between the rocks and breakers south of Reggio.  The idea of holiday beaches going on beach holidays really tickles me.  The only problem is that they generally takes the local umbrellas and Lido furniture with them.  Packed and ready to go.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be there when it arrives at its new location.  There you are, sitting with your pipe on the dunes looking out to sea and contemplating life when, from across the horizon, a new beach floats slowly in with its ready-made rows of tables and chairs.  Hope the cocktail sticks aren’t too damp, anyone got an olive handy?

Well, worst case, we can have a nice glass of Toto’s wine.  “Here’s to St. Martino.”

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Other Lives

A Sunday Stroll

It’s Sunday at the beginning of November and I’ve had to put on something with long sleeves for the first time in over five months.  What’s the world coming to?  It’s 9.00am and I’m sitting under the gazebo at Piper café in Reggio catching up with work, preparing my lessons for the next week.  I’ve escaped!  The work on the house (stage 1) is nearly finished but after having been woken at 7.00am every morning to the sound of drills and hammers, life at home has been a bit frenetic.  A little solitude on a Sunday in Reggio is a welcome tonic.  With my espresso by my side I sit back for a moment and take in the day.   When I’d walked into the café Salvatore had greeted me like a long-lost friend.  “Where have you been?” he cried, giving me a warm hug.  “Hey Carlo, salutations! Good to see you.” Said the regazzi (boys and girls) behind the bar.  “Sorry Salvatore, I spent the summer in Pellaro and didn’t really come into Reggio much.  School’s back though, so here I am again.”   I take my coffee and sit down to watch the city wake up.  The tall palms along the sea-front sway easily in the soft breeze, to the sound of an accordion and tambourine playing Tarantella folk music.  The Cajun squeeze drifts up from the promenade along with the sweet smell of chestnuts roasting on a brazier as the first scattering of families push-chair their brood along the Lungomare, stopping for ice creams at Cesare’s or Sotto Zero.  Sicily looks bright under the clear sky, reflected in the flat, blue calm of the sea, broken only by a small fishing boat heading past a school of  tiny white-sailed dinghies having their weekly sailing lesson. Across the cobbled street the green first-floor shutters of Restaurant Il Ducale open and the manager starts sweeping the balcony, cigarette dangling from his mouth as he prepares for lunch.  It’s upstairs neighbour ‘Etoile’ follows suit on the terrace above.  We’ve never tried these impressive looking eateries as yet,  their linen cloths and napkins on two floors of balconies and terraces look over the straits and have the air of  exclusivity that might be a little on the costly side.  Downtown Reggio in November, 22.5 degrees.

School, as I say, is back in full swing and the same question comes up from every new student who doesn’t know me.  “Why on earth did you leave the excitement of London for this place?”  They ask incredulously.  According to a recent article in a national evening newspaper Calabria has the best environment in which to raise children.  More are able to spend time outdoors, unguarded and free to roam than anywhere in Italy.  It is safe, removed and still largely family focussed which appears to imbibe a natural respect not a disciplinarian one.  The first paragraph of this post may not be answer enough for an eager teenager but for the people we’ve mixed with over the last week it seems to strike a similar chord. 

On Tuesday evening about 10.00pm, after a long day for both of us, we were just tidying up the dishes when the phone rang.  “Angela, happy birthday!” Maria cried.  I’d resigned myself to a long conversation to which I would not be privy and was heading into the garden with my glass of our new wine (It shouldn’t really be tasted till San Martino on the 11th  but heck, what’s a week) when Maria put the phone down and announced that we were going out.  “What, now?  I was just thinking we have to finish that translation job before bed.  I thought you were too.”  “It’s only for 20 minutes Amore, Angela’s about to cut her birthday cake and she’s asked us round.  Come on, just for a few minutes, please.” She pleaded, handing me the car keys.  It was only down the road in Pellaro, a flat above the bank, so 20 minutes was fairly reasonable I thought.  I still haven’t learned – It takes 20 minutes just to say hello and half an hour to say goodbye.  I was introduced to a number of new faces by Angela’s daughter Valeria before she sat back down again, and smirked.  I have always had a sneaking suspicion that when Valeria smiles this way  I’m going to come up against something unusual.  The challenge was on, would my Italian hold up?

Piper Cafe's on the right

It did well, the best so far in fact.  I even found myself cracking good enough jokes to bring a few tears which, for me, was a real breakthrough…on many levels.  I actually began to have fun with my new language and these good friends, I was making the step beyond ‘polite’ at last.  It was easy to talk with Paolo, Lino and ‘Chinese’, an ex bass player and a drummer from Milan as we all had music and age in common.  The four of us argued over the merits of Prince (who Paolo had just seen in Rome) compared to Frank Zappa who Lino thought was kilometres better.  I played my ‘Avvocato del Diavolo’ role and encouraged the debate as much as I could… loving both artistes as I do. 

Chiara, however, was a totally different reach into the unknown.  Dark-haired and looking very bohemian in her high black polo-neck and 60’s make up, she soon revealed her secret.   “I’m Scottish too.” She confided.  “My dream is to die in my own true country.”

“Really, whereabouts are you from?  Were you very young when you came here?” I asked innocently.  “Yes, I was Mary Queen of Scots!”  Half my wine reached my throat through my nose.  “Yes, most people are surprised by this.” She said, patting my back sympathetically as I tried to recover.  She believes in re-incarnation, passionately.  It’s a bit strange having a chat with your dead queen I confess, the mother of the unification of the crowns and one that had lost her head once before.  I decided to take her seriously, just in case.  “What a coincidence.”  I found myself saying.  “I used to live just round the corner from your last big battle in Glasgow.  I believe you also had an Italian lover, his murder must have been a bit of a shock.  Your husband’s as well come to that.“  

“Oh, before that I was Nefertiti of course.” She added.    “Do you think that Egypt has changed much then?”  Believe me, I was trying to take this seriously, I mean what would you ask yourself, if you assumed it might be true?  Two queens in one night was pushing my limits, I was running out of things to say and looked round hopefully.  Valeria grinned and looked quickly away but no one else batted an eye.  Chiara is part of their circle and they happily accept her unusual lives.  For the time being she’s having a rest as a ‘normal’ single mum. 

Sicily from Lungomare

It must have been after midnight when the cake we came to see cut finally appeared, one candle and a strange tubular decoration near the middle.  The lights went out and the song was sung as the candle and then the strange tube were lit.  Far from coming close to blow out the candle, Angela retreated to the back of the kitchen.  My puzzlement lasted but a second when, in a blaze of colour and flying sparks that reached the ceiling, the tube exploded.   Fireworks on chocolate icing.  For some reason the conversation got round to whisky, probably because it was time to leave the wine and celebrate with something stronger.  The wine had actually been a nice surprise for everyone.  It had been uncovered during a clear-out of Angela’s cellar, some bottles of her own wine that had lain forgotten for years and which had taken on the richness of an old port.  However, Angela now produced a bottle of  12-year-old Cutty.  Well the whisky was twelve years old but the unopened bottle was apparently over thirty…..a pity whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle.  A forty-five year old spirit would have been an exceptional end to an extraordinary evening.  As it was, it was smooth and warm and I felt quite honoured that I should be present for its first tasting…and the second and the third……..  We left the car and staggered home in the early morning.

So why am I here again?  Probably the same reason as the children of Calabria and the Harley-Davidson club that’s just pulled up outside the café.   Another life on a beautiful day.