Winning over Italy

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



It has become a ritual.  Every morning.

I stumble down, half-asleep, from our upstairs balcony and step as silently as possible into the kitchen to turn on the stove to make my espresso.  No luck!  My mother-in-law, ears like a hawk, ambushes me.  “What do you want for lunch?”

Lunch!!?  I haven’t even had my coffee, never mind breakfast, and she asks me what I want for lunch!  My head and my stomach won’t start communicating with each other for at least another hour!  Good grief,  It’s Sunday morning and I’m still not sure why I’m up this early.

I should be prepared for this by now.  One day, I’m going to prepare a menu the evening before.  “Mmmm” I’ll pretend.  “let me think.  How about fried “alici” followed by chicken cacciatora with roasted peppers and carrots?…..oh and maybe some tiramisù for dessert.” That’ll soon put a stop to it!  I never do and probably never will.


It’s then I remember why I’m up early.  I have to meet some people for aperitivo (some rather filling arancini, potato croquettes and a glass of prosecco) at Cameron’s Cafè* to discuss a quote for some finishing work we have to do on the house.

“Ciao Charles.  You look tired.”

“Yea we got some complimentary tickets for a club last night, down near the beach, so it was a late night.”  (this has a bearing later if you stay with me here)

We chew the necessary cud before getting down to business, it’s always polite.

“So.” They ask.  “What are you having for lunch?  Marco here is having Lasagne, what about you?”

“Oh, I think we’re having pasta con sugo (spaghetti bolognese) and frittelle of courgette flowers”.  “Buone.”  They approve.  “Courgette flowers are in season now.”

We continue to talk about the best way to cook these for a while before we turn to the project…..

Later, business done and start-date approved, we shake hands and kiss cheeks.  “Buon pranzo” (have a good lunch) we say, as is the custom.  I’m feeling a little full already.

It’s on the way back in the car that I begin to think about this.  How much is a cultural identity defined by our small talk?  In some parts of the world it’s the weather, in others the latest sports results but here in Calabria it is most definitely….food.  Even in Rome!  The only time I’ve ever caught a taxi in Italy was in Rome and within a second or two of climbing into the vehicle the question was…”where are you eating this evening?”  If a taxi driver’s opening gambit isn’t the cultural compass of a nation then I don’t what is.

As I write this post I’ve just woken from a nice siesta.  Not, as some would think because of the hot weather but, as winter siestas bear witness, LUNCH!  The Italians are fiercely proud of their cuisine, quite justifiably in my humble opinion.  But why… is the really interesting question.

Suggest a nice French Chablis and they’ll scoff.  Present aubergines at the table in December and they’ll know they’re not fresh.  Strawberries in July are not something you’d use and even the tomato sauce we use for our pasta in January is prepared, jarred and sealed the previous September, for natural preservation….no additives, well except for the fresh basil.  Supermarket fruit and vegetables are greeted with healthy suspicion.


As standard bearers of real food, the Italians still have numerous private fruit-and-vegetable shops, butchers, and fishmongers on the high street……the supermarket exists but can’t compete, at least not when it comes to freshness…….We don’t even pay more.  Our nearest city is Reggio Calabria and even with a population of over 200,000 there’s only one McDonalds.  Bromley has at least six similar “restaurants” just in one street.  The most wonderful thing however, is the non-homogenised regional menu.  Let me take you in a helicopter and drop you blindfolded into any region in Italy and by food alone you can identify your location.  Where else in an increasingly corporate Europe could you do this!

PS. Remember the nightclub I mentioned?  It’s a sign of getting older when you go late-night clubbing and the only pill you’re likely to pop is one for indigestion!!!  Food again!


*See previous post about Cameron’s Café

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May Day


Tradition had always dictated that we spend Mayday in the mountains with Uncle Nino and the family – the usual thirty-odd waifs and strays that settle along the long table for homemade bread, pizza, pasta and anything else you care to collect from the farm, as summer beckons.  But, this year, regretfully no.  The mountains are unusually cool at the moment and hey, we’ve got wind of the first open-air music fest of the season…at one of the much-nearer and considerably warmer surfing clubs on Punta Pellaro Beach, the aptly-named Free Spirits.

When we arrived in the early afternoon, we approached from the beach-side and the place was already buzzing.  A number of very large tepees were casually placed across the sand, on wooden bases, covered with scatter cushions and Moroccan lamps which only added to the distinct Sahara feel that you often get in the Southern Med.   The  BBQ was already fired-up, spitting and hissing the sweet smell of Italian sausages and red onion while the shelves of the fridges behind the bar were being rapidly emptied of their chilled elixir.  “Grab a couple of beers and I’ll see you by the sound-desk.”  Said Maria, shoving me in the right direction.  Maria was heading towards Teresa Mascianà, the opening act and our main reason for coming.

By the time I’d queued, bought the refreshments and weaved my way back, avoiding the psychedelic surf boards that were passing through the crowd on their route to the sea, the sound check was complete.  Warm greetings from familiar faces around the stage made me feel as if I belonged at last… of the crew.  I settled down on the sand, laid back and sighed.  The sound of “Good Vibrations” meandered through my head.  No need to wonder why!

The crowd grew….and grew.  Some people slipped off only to come back with more.  Word was getting round.  Teresa and The Organ Donors fired up and fairly ripped through their set. This band was on-song.  The mood was having its effect, with the guitarist unchained from his effects board and Enzo, with his red bass looking like a toy against his big frame, moved and generated gleeful energy.  Faultlessly smooth and inspiring, the audience applauded with enthusiasm and appreciation.  It was the audience’s reaction to the following acts however, that really took me by surprise. Image

Teresa had taken over “desk” duties as her experience was going to be sorely tested by a local folk group, “Skunchiuruti” (skoonquirooty) which might translate as “someone illogical” or “ploughs their own furrow.”  Typically these bands of merry men will vary in numbers and in instrument choice as the performance goes on, giving the appearance of total chaos……swapping positions, a clattering of mics, (una due, una due) the tuning and retuning of ancient stringed-things, and the inevitable delays between one song and the next.  The simplicity of this type of music (usually just two chords) means that virtually anyone can join in…. and invariably they do.  After a couple of tentative starts the group got going…….like a train.  Suddenly, we witnessed something that would have been unthinkable even five years ago, a time when most young people would have turned a lofty nose down at this sort of music.  En masse, the audience were up on their feet….. dancing, spinning, reeling like a Scottish Ceilidh on speed……on the beach! Very strange!





Whether it was the sun, the beer or the simple joy of a mid-week holiday I couldn’t say, but there I was, up and spinning with the best of them.  The music was infectious… must have been because dancing on sand is not the easiest thing to do, especially when you’re just recovering from a badly sprained ankle.  All the while, surf boards shuffled back and forth through the mayhem to perform their own pas de deux on the sea.  Multi-coloured wind kites swooped and rallied across the sky blue….airborne dancers round invisible maypoles.


This was guilt-free celebration, and not organised to the nearest Monday, just a day of hope….on the day it should. So, I hope you’ll take a little time to listen to those who made the day the perfect overture to summer 2014.


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Black Rain


I watch from the Autostrada as the explosion of black cloud erupts from the snow-capped peak of Etna.  A single long, dark grey cloud forms and snakes towards us.  This is not weather, not a rain cloud.  This is volcanic dust.  Within a matter of seconds my car has changed from silver to black, the streets have gone from pale concrete to dark graphite.  It’s raining pebbles of ash!

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EcoJazz Sunset


6.00pm Wednesday evening and it’s still an energy-sapping 33°, made worse by the lack of any significant breeze to cool the brow. The heady scent of Brugmansia from the garden below hangs in the air but it’s just too hot to muse, too late to go to the beach and way too early to go out in search of entertainment. What to do?
“Why don’t you pop up and see the jazz concert.” Suggests Maria. “I think it starts about seven. It’s somewhere in the hills above the village.”
“Seven? Are you sure?” Nothing starts here much before 11.00pm, even when it’s advertised for 9.00pm. Continue reading

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All In A Wave

DSC_0240“I see your mum!” Cried Maria excitedly. “Stop the car!”
I hesitated as I checked the rear view mirror and pulled into the side of the kerb…on the brow of the shallow bridge. The swarm of Vespas and scooters hit their horns in unison as they took evasive action and swerved into each others’ paths. “Pazzo, cretino.” They turned back to face me with a Sicilian gesture or two….causing yet more chaos.
“Listen, let us out here and you and Egidio go and find somewhere to park.” She said as she and Maria Carmela got out, waving enthusiastically at the launch that had just arrived at the harbour steps. I peeped the horn a couple of times for good measure as I drove off to relieve the traffic of the blind hazard awaiting it.
We were on the bridge which joins the ancient town of Siracusa (Syracuse) with the even older quarter of Ortigia. Where Archimedes was born, raised and eventually killed – when the Greek city was captured by the Romans. It was a rare opportunity to meet my mother who was on a cruise day-release with her old school friend, Sheena. Siracusa is only a ferry trip and a couple of hours drive from Reggio so it was a great chance to see mum and the fabled city. She might be eighty odd but she has the heart and ambition of a teenage explorer. It was 8.00am.
Edgidio and I went in search of a parking spot and after a few turns found ourselves in a vast empty car park. Result, I thought. We tried the ticket machine a few times before we realised it was out of order. We looked around a little and in the far corner of the car-park we spotted a local by an old grey Apè van beckoning to us. We calculated the walk to be about 200 meters but, as we saw no alternative, we strolled over.
“Machine doesn’t work” he informed us sagely.
“We know that” said Egidio, a little unkindly I thought.
“1 Euro an hour.” He muttered, showing some genuine enough looking parking tickets with 50c stamped on them.
“The machine says 50cents.” I said. “ And so do these.”
“Ah well it depends how much value you put on your time getting a ticket from the tabacchi.” “We’ll risk it.” Snorted Egidio. “Where’s the tabacchi?”
“In the Piazza.”
He turned back to his crates of cherries and garlic with a shrug as we walked off in the direction we’d come. It took us a good 40 minutes before we found the piazza, the tabacchi, bought our tickets, returned to the car and then made our way finally to the point we’d dropped off the girls near the harbour. By now I was fretting that mum and Sheena had been waiting in the hot sun for longer than was wise.
DSC_0246As we approached the bridge I could see Maria and Maria-Carmela sitting on the harbour wall, chatting. “Where’s mum?” I asked, puzzled.
“It wasn’t her.”
“I thought you said you saw her on the launch, you can’t mistake my mum surely.”
“Just wait.” Said Maria, pointing at the launch making a return journey from the cruise ship. “This is the 4th since we’ve arrived.”
As the boat approached I suddenly realised why. All I could see above pier level was a bobbing row of about fifty well-groomed heads of pure white hair. This was Saga holidays, specialist in octogenarian cruises. “We’ve waived at every tender as if it was your mum.” Said Maria chuckling….”they all look the same”
I had to admit, I wouldn’t have known my own mother, never mind Sheena who I hadn’t seen for the best part of thirty years. We looked on as line after line of white perms made their way slowly up the steps from their carrier. I couldn’t help wondering what those first passengers had thought as they’d arrived to the sight of some attractive women waving frantically at them and motorists beeping their horns.
“I say Mable, the natives seem awfully friendly here.”
“Be careful Ralph, I’m pretty sure it’s not your body they’re after!”
“Hey look.” Said Egidio, pointing at a sixty-something woman with brown hair getting off the boat. “There’s hot chicks on this boat too… all the guys are after her.” I had to hold onto his arm to stop falling into the dock with mirth.
Eventually the last launch arrived bearing our expected visitors and after some tearful reunions we made the difficult decision of heading to the piazza, now well-known to Edgidio and me, for some breakfast.DSC_0232
“Weel” Said mum, as we sat down in the beginnings of a very hot day, “We’ve just had a lovely English breakfast on the ship… of sausages, eggs, black pudding, bacon and toast, I think a coffee would be just fine.” The envy welled up inside me. It was the only thing I missed and hadn’t tasted for over a year. “Marmalade cornetto and coffee please…I suppose.”
We slowly awoke to the fact that we were sitting in the heart of a place that has thrived for over 2,500 years without missing a heartbeat. The Temple of Apollo was on the other side of the road. Artisan traders were setting up their stalls for the day, probably as they’d so long ago, and we could see groups of people making their way towards what we’d been told was the old market. If you ever get the chance to come here you’ll be told about the old Magna Grecian theatre and the period plays which you must watch in the open arena….and you must. But, please spend the morning in Ortigia market… cannot imagine how the millennia will roll back. This is where merchants sailed thousands of years ago to trade wine and spices. From Persia, Egypt, the Orient and Ancient Greece they came to buy and sell everything from papyrus to slaves, to exchange the fruits of the slopes for oils and potions. Nothing much seems to have changed. We walked slowly through the narrow street of stalls of the most varied and rich-coloured fare. We stopped to watch how sea urchins are prepared for eating, scampi the size of lobsters tossed in a little oil just for a taste, fruit and vegetables whose skins shone in the morning sun and my own little discovery…..a spice shop that can’t have changed in 2,000 years. It was a library of old jars rising from floor to ceiling, from Jamaica to India. The aroma was intoxicating and the first instinct was…taste…buy….cook…Now! “Bring me some fish, slave. Some herbs, olives and some virgins, sorry virgin oil, ….oh and don’t forget the oysters.” DSC_0233

Maria came back and found me and pulled me back from the past and into the street just as we were asked, politely, to move aside.  A camera crew were backing up the narrow lane filming the white-robed Archimedes himself, wandering through the stalls reading aloud from a yellowish scroll. Strangely it didn’t look or even sound at all out of place. A slow walk through this town takes you through narrow winding lanes, always leading you towards the Duomo and the cafè lined square. Pristine and romantic, this is where you find small local restaurants that make choice so difficult. We stopped to buy some presents for home (Scotland) and found ourselves talking to the cousin of a friend who knew a cousin who served the best food in town….we went and were not disappointed. We sat inside a small trattoria where washing lines hung from the ceiling and we ate hand-made Sicilian pasta blended with seafood and white wine….with the sort of service that makes you feel you’re part of the family. Who’s washing up?
DSC_0236Can you imagine the moment when we had to part, when the cruise ship’s horn sounded? There is a unique bond that comes from ocean-bound farewells, between my mother and me. It’s something I’ve inherited from a sea-faring grandfather I never got to know, from a long line of accidental travellers and adventurers. It’s all in the wave, I’m told.