Pandemic Passover: Remembering Italy, Civitella, and Piano Grande
The ‘Rona rages, and Passover and Holy Week bloom with the Judas tree out back. We’ve given up groups for Lent, and we can’t have them back yet. I’m reading my student’s blogs for #VoteThatJawn to tell her young cohort how climate change, like COVID-19, will deepen global injustice. She’s made me picture parched villages above Mexico City where government water trucks come or don’t come every week, Puerto Rico after Maria, Haiti, still after earthquake and hurricane, not to mention the crushing debt of nine million francs that France required after the revolution, India’s changing monsoons, African droughts.
My mind works on these images, like when you write a novel and have to evoke things as they were, so that the reader can feel the loss when calamity comes. And what keeps returning to my memory are the Apennine mountains, and the high plateau called Piano Grande, in now-devastated Italy.
I went as one of the perks of the extravagant artist residency with the Civitella Foundation: six weeks in a 15th-century castle in Umbria. The staff took us in a van, two hours there and back. I worked in the back row on my new laptop with battery life, tip-top, like a young immune system. My fellow residents teased me for failing to relax. Too bad. I’ve got a deadline, I said. Back off.
Who knew it would take me ten years to write the same book three different ways?
We drove first on the highway, but then turned onto winding mountains roads. We passed Cascia, the town of St. Rita, the Saint of Impossible Causes. A research project a few years ago in that town revealed that the green mountain valley around Cascia was an ancient center of agriculture that included spelt, a grain that resists most diseases and therefore needs no pesticides — and saffron. Travelers and traders going through the mountains would stop there specially to buy and trade it. Saffron was written into their town governing documents: that’s how important it was to their commerce. So, a few years ago, farmer in Cascia began growing it again. They now make a cheese that is flavored with it.
We stopped at 11 am in the little town of Norcia, known for its butcher shops and pork products. Wild boar live in abundance in the mountainous terrain surrounding. Also wolves, bears, hawks: the big charismatics of the on-land animal world. On the road to Norcia was an Italian version of a barbeque bus with a great big old pig on a spit, roasted and ready to be served — right in the side-serving window of the bus: a whole big-behind hog. Porchetta they call it. Our director, Sandy, said in his easy, American humor: yup, that’s Norcia: all ham all the time.
In fact, I remembered the words norciera and norcini as common words in the old Italian Market here in Philadelphia on 9th Street. Norcia is also the birthplace of St. Benedict, who had much to do with getting the monastic idea going in Christendom circa 500 A.D. A church has been, and because of earthquakes, rebuilt several times over the foundations of the house where he was born. Although in terms of Italian churches, this one is modest and modern (1800s) it feels wonderful. Down in the crypt next to the ruins of his house, I put a Euro in the box and lit a candle and felt connected to the whole world.
Next door the shop boasted salami, sausages, bacon, hams. OMG, the smell!
Ham recipe: trim, rub with garlic, salt, spices.
Wait eight days.
Wash with wine and rub again with salt mix.
Wait another two weeks.
Plaster with mixture of lard, salt and flour.
Wait two years.
Then we drove toward Piano Grande, a famous high plain formed from geological mysteries having to do with limestone and plate techtonics. Nearby was the waterfall where Benedict washed lepers. Up and up, driving toward the bluest sky, we passed the 1,800-meter mark, nearly two miles high, leaving deciduous forest and wildflowers for a sparser white beech and scrub grass terrain. Shepherds come in the summer to raise flocks of sheep and cows. From one mountain to the next, the herds look like mounds of white or brown, almost like rocks that cry out and move very slowly. The shepherds’ summer digs are ancient: stone squares, piled together with larger stone squares for the animals, hanging off the slopes.
Composer Xiaosong, who came from a mountainous region in China hollered “wha-hoo!” out the van window. He hung his head out for a long musical echo, loving it in the extreme.
“This mountain is very, very big. Oh, this is beautiful!”
And then we came to the top. Laid out before us was the widest, highest open meadow, more than we can ask for or imagine: Piano Grande. Once a high lake, it’s now a cloud lake in the morning, and in the afternoon, a windswept expanse of windflowers in pink, white, blue, and yellow. Breathtakingly open, held by the hands of surrounding mountains, partly farmed with famous yellow and red lentils, organically grown because the insects cannot find their way up the pass, the Piano Grande feels magic, as if we’d stepped into a parallel reality.
We picnicked there in the high grass on checkered cloths: fresh, crusty pane, baked into a ring the size of a Christmas wreath; a mature Ricotta cheese that looked like a deli chicken breast and sliced with a texture like a feta with all the moisture sucked out, dry, dry, white and so mild that it almost couldn’t have been from a cow. There was a jar of black truffle sauce, strong and beautiful, like a cross between mushrooms and smoky near-flesh; tomatoes; boiled eggs; mushrooms in oil; wine; bottled water; fruit.
And pork. My Lord, the pork: thin-sliced, salty prosciutto; hard red-brown salamis in a string like on Lady and the Tramp, so porcine and full of oil that this foreigner could only nibble it; a fat, cured pork sausage with cooked kielbasa texture and mild flavor; fresh Italian sausage whose casing Civitella’s biz manager Giancarlo opened and spread onto bread to eat raw.
“We people from Florence are a little wild!” he said, offering me a bite.
I looked at it and found myself as appalled as my Iowa farm-country in-laws had once been when I offered them raw oysters.
“Oh, no thank you,” I demurred, thinking of what my mother would say. Where swine is concerned, and raw swine into the bargain, this Black person from Philadelphia was a little tame.
Were there any of my favorite olives? I can’t remember. Must have been getting close to a taste black-out, like the poor lady who passed out in her car when she’d eaten Reese’s cups until the wrappers reached her ankles. I think it was the black truffle sauce that put me over; never touched it since.
But then, we drank cool, clear water and walked on the meadow where the wind seemed to blow us a hint of the Great Amen of the universe.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.