Thursday, September 27, 2012


There is something sort of comforting about living according to the seasons, something natural and reassuring in eating what comes from the fields next door rather than across the ocean.  There are times, of course, when it would be nice to be able to eat out of season.  I have missed asparagus (available for only a few weeks in the spring).  I have had way too much of peppers, zucchini and eggplant.  But overall, eating locally and seasonally here in Cervinara has proven to be a healthy and happy way of life.
We know when the seasons change here by what is on our plates.  When we arrived at the end of May, we were able to enjoy the strawberries and cherries that were bursting with juice.  I remember picking strawberries in Connecticut as a child.  Those sweet red gems would stain our hands and lips as we ate as many as we picked.  What a treat to have homemade strawberry shortcake for supper as a reward for our hard work!  I fear that children in Connecticut now have no idea what a real strawberry tastes like; those hard, dry berries from California will never measure up.  I would rather have the real thing for a few weeks than the genetically modified version that we get now.  Well, the strawberries here are like those of my youth; imperfectly shaped, but full of juicy sweetness. 
Come summer, the peaches come into season.  For us, a peach is a peach.  For the folks here, every peach is different and worthy of its own recipes.  There are red peaches, white peaches, and percocche to dunk in a glass of red wine.  There are fuzzless peaches and tiny early peaches that are sweet and satisfy that need for peach flavor before the big ones are available. Then there are the melons.  Oh the melons!  Long watermelon, round watermelon, cantaloupes, yellow wrinkled melons (these have been superb this year), melons that are hung to dry to be consumed at Christmas.  The melons are amazing!
For veggies, we are never lacking.  Green beans in early summer, and then later in the fall the second crop comes in.  In between, they can't be found.  Summer squashes, peppers, and eggplant abound through the hot months of July and August.  Mid-way through September, we start to have broccolini, those bitter greens that go so well with orecchiete and sausage.  Orange squash, similar in color and flavor to our butternuts, but shaped more like a pumpkin show up on the fruit trucks.  Fall is the time for those rich, comfort foods that everyone craves.
But the true sign of the change of seasons, and of the local produce we love, are the mushrooms.  When it rains in September, the mushrooms begin to sprout.  Folks trudge up and down the mountains, wearing Wellies and flannel shirts, carrying baskets for their prizes and special sticks to pry these treats from their hiding places, all in search of the wild mushrooms.  I've never been brave enough to try to identify the good ones from the poisonous ones, so we rely on the generosity of our friends to satisfy our cravings. 
Yesterday, Giovanni Raviele, a distant cousin, came by with a big plate of these treasures.  There were "tuorli" (egg yolks) that look just like a hard boiled egg.  These are best sliced very thin and marinated in lots of fresh lemon juice.  There were porcinis, that are best sauteed up with some garlic and onion.  And there were other kinds, of unknown name but of stupendous flavor, that I have chopped up and frozen so that we will be able to enjoy these treats a bit longer.
Today I made a mushroom risotto that was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.  Just a bit of onion, a cup or so of the mushrooms, a hot pepper and some broth was all we needed to make a creamy, yummy risotto that really hit the spot. 
I know that in Connecticut we can never really live according to the seasons.  When I go back to my Stop & Shop, I'll be buying asparagus all winter and will enjoy it too.  But living here in Cervinara has given me a sense of how our forbears used to live, how they carefully preserved whatever came from their land and how every season was special.  I appreciate now how the authenticity and origin of our food really do matter.  Buon appetito!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

911, Italian Style

There are so many wonderful things about living in Italy, far too many to mention.  There's the food, the weather, the new friendships, the opportunities for travel and the quirky little things that lurk around every corner.  But, there are some downsides too.
Last week I wrote about my distress with the litter and graffiti that plague much of southern Italy.  It's an eyesore, but in general not life threatening.  I don't think I can say the same about Italy's emergency response system!
In many ways, Italy takes better care of its people than does the United States; it provides good health care at little to no cost, the law requires that a pharmacy be open 24/7 somewhere in every town, there is a "guardia medica" in every town for drop in visits after office hours and on weekends.  The guardia medica office is staffed by local physicians who take turns being there on call.  So, even in a small town like Cervinara, there are lots of options for health care and for emergency services.There are however, serious weaknesses in the emergency response process, and I would like to share a recent event that, while funny, showed up some of the holes in the Italian system of responding to emergency situations.
My sister Mary and her husband Bill were visiting us at the end of June and, on our way home from the market we decided to stop at the cemetery to visit the Salvatore Raviele family chapel.  It's part of our weekly routine to stop in on our way back up the hill to sweep things out and to light a candle for my in-laws and relatives.  On this fateful day, I unlocked the chapel door and left the keys in the keyhole, as is my normal habit.  The four of us entered the chapel.  The door opens in, and it was rather crowded in the small space, so we closed the door.  It latched.  It locked.  We were trapped.
Normally, this wouldn't pose too much of a problem because there are always people around the cemetery, cleaning the graves of their loved ones.  But it was lunch time and everyone was home preparing the big noon meal.  Our cries of "Aiuto!" went unheard.  It was time for more drastic measures.  The day was very hot and the temperature inside the chapel was heading up over 100 degrees.  My husband took out his phone and dialed 118. 
There is not a universal 911 number for all emergencies in Italy.  There is a special number for each need: highway accidents, fire, police, water emergencies, etc.  Since Cervinara is in the province of Avellino, it was that city's emergency squad who answered our call.  "We are trapped in a chapel in Cervinara.  Can you please send someone to get us out?"  We assumed they would contact Cervinara's police department to send a rescue squad....but no!  That's not how it works here.  We were told we would be rescued by the Avellino fire department that is located over an hour away!  And they hung up.
We waited a bit, it got hotter and hotter, and we called back.  "Can't you call Cervinara and have them send someone?  We are getting overheated and are feeling unwell."  No....that's not how it's done, we are told again.  At this point my husband's Italian temper got the better of him and he threatened to sue the town, the region, the province, the country and Jesus Christ himself if someone wasn't here to let us out soon.  No response.
Finally, we asked for the phone number of Cervinara's town hall.  At first they were reluctant to even give us that information, but after some more persuasive words from dear hubby, they relented.  This time I got on the phone.  In my slightly accented Italian, with a voice quivering with false tears, I pleaded my case with the Cervinara phone operator.  "Oh signora, don't be afraid!  Someone will be there soon! Please stay calm!"  It was funny because they were so concerned that I was afraid of being locked in the cemetery, when in reality it was just the heat and frustration that were getting to us all. 
True to their word, within ten minutes a young man was at our chapel letting us out.  All it took was an hour, half a dozen phone calls, some serious threats and a semi-hysterical American to get the job done!  Shortly after we were out, Avellino called again to check on our status.  Told that we had been freed, they radioed their rescue squad to return to their base, they asked me if my husband had calmed down, and then were happy to be rid of us!
I know that ours wasn't a life-threatening situation, although it could have been if we had been forced to stay inside that oven-like chapel for much longer.  We all had a good laugh over our adventure and we now no longer leave the keys in the door.  But I sometimes wonder how  this byzantine bureaucracy survives.  There has got to be a better way!