Chapter 8 – Vignette
Funghi, family and fables
A former Associate Producer of the Channel Ten Late News, TV reporter, and radio journalist for 2GB and 2UW (now Hits FM), Lisa Clifford moved to Italy in 1997 to marry her Florentine husband after an 18-year courtship. Her years spent going back and forth from Florence to Sydney were chronicled in her memoir The Promise (2004). Throughout her journalistic career in Sydney, Clifford continued to travel to Italy, while filing stories and interviews for the ABC Radio’s The Europeans; for 2UE, and the Voice of America News Service. Now a permanent resident of many years, she contributes articles on Italian lifestyle to The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, Gourmet Traveller and many other magazines published in South Korea, South Africa and Japan. Clifford’s third non-fiction book, Death in the Mountains, the true story of the murder of her Italian husband’s great-grandfather, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2008.
My mother-in-law’s voice chattered out the window and down the stone stairs as I made my way up to see her in her kitchen. I knew she would be talking about her porcini even before I could decipher her floating words. It was at the beginning of the porcini mushroom season in early September, and the time of the year when most Tuscan farmers fall into a ‘mushroom madness’ state of mind. The strongly flavoured yellow-brown mushrooms start to pop up throughout the woods after the rains at the end of summer and my mother-in-law is usually among the first to succumb to the seasonal funghi frenzy. That year le voci – the rumours – about the mushrooms had begun in earnest much earlier than usual; the forest was apparently crammed with porcini, as there had been sprinkles of rain throughout the sunny summer. Once the word was out that autumn promised a bumper crop it didn’t take long for the cars from Florence, Pontassieve and Arezzo to snake up the mountainside and surrender their passengers onto the Casentino hills. Many of the little dirt pathways that run into the woods had cars parked nearby along the road’s shoulder, so that looking through the trees you could see the bended backs of the mushroom gatherers. Further proof of the porcini proliferation came during my drive up to the mountains. During my habitual coffee break a woman stood before my favourite cafe whispering excitedly into her cell phone that she’d ‘found a wooden crate full!’ She looked so happy that I felt like I’d caught a little of the funghi fun myself.
It’s a funny thing, this mushroom madness that grips the Italians with such fervour. For the pensioners of Casentino it’s like a fever that overcomes them until it’s all they can talk about. A genuine and committed porcini pursuer, and there is none more so than my mother-in-law, will spend years looking for a good patch of forest floor where the mushrooms grow well. Once they’ve located their patch (my mother-in-law has several, she really is among the best), which can be anywhere within the Casentino National Park’s 36,000 hectares, they’ll return to it faithfully year after year. The porcini pursuer will never reveal where exactly their precious patch is. They will surreptitiously try to find out where your preferred patch is, but they’ll never tell you about theirs. Even the normally sacred family unit does not apply to sharing porcini patch secrets. Such is their passion that the Casentino private landowners are known to shoo people off their properties during the mushroom season, whereas during the hunting season they’ll let any number of gun-toting, camouflage-clad men onto their land to shoot pheasants to their heart’s desire.
This obsession becomes completely understandable when one sits down to eat a plate of steaming tagliatelle with fresh porcini that have been cooked in their own juices with a dash of olive oil and a clove of garlic. They have a unique, creamy slipperiness to their texture and a flavour from heaven. Nonna will always freeze the bulk of her stash and produce them months later when you’ve forgotten that they existed. She’ll often smother a plate of polenta with lashings of porcini on a cold winter’s day.
‘Don’t tell Zia where we found them, alright? Oh, she’s so naughty, I can’t believe she found all those mushrooms and told me she didn’t find any. I’m so furious.’ This is as much as I could make out as I turned the key that’s always left in the front door and let myself in with a loud ‘Buon giorno, c’è nessuno?’ – ‘Good day, is anyone home?’
‘Vieni Lisa’ – ‘come in Lisa’, she called, not moving from her usual post at the wood-fired stove. ‘We found five kilos of porcini mushrooms’, she gushed and angled her cheeks for a kiss, all at once.
‘I am frying them up for lunch. Giancarlo Righini found eight kilos, can you believe it? Zia told me she hadn’t found even one mushroom, then I walked past her back door and do you know what I saw? A whole basket full of mushrooms. My own sister!’ And off she went on a porcini tangent while I pulled up a chair at the kitchen table knowing there was no stopping her now.
The older my mother-in-law becomes, the more she talks. I was sure she never talked so constantly when we first met 25 years ago. Now, at 75 years old, she never seems to draw breath. On that particular visit I noticed it was a constant stream of prattle.
‘I’ll just put that there, out of the way, off the very hot plate because the sauce is bubbling too much. Now I’ll turn the water on because we’ll need to boil the pasta.’ Her every move was narrated and every sentence was punctuated midway with a ‘because’. That led her to her next sentence, which often finished with a because.
‘I’ll just have a glass of water because… ’ she trailed off.
‘Because you’re thirsty?’ I inquired.
‘Yes, that’s it. Because I haven’t drunk anything all morning.’ And so it went.
My mother-in-law is very good-natured when it comes to being teased about her love of a good chiacchierata – chat. She attributes this, laughingly, to having five sisters. She also says that talking is part of her family’s background because all six girls had very little schooling. Nonna (which means grandma, and after years of hearing my children call her that, my mother-in-law is now officially called Nonna) was raised on a small, isolated farm at the bottom of a steep, three-kilometre dirt road that runs off the main Casentino thoroughfare. Her family’s farm was owned by the Catholic Church, as were many of the farms in the district. From the time Nonna was four years old she tended the sheep, pigs, chickens, orchard and vegetable garden. Nonna and her sisters only attended school until Grade 2, when it was deemed they were needed on the farm too much to be spared. So Nonna says instead of learning how to communicate through reading and writing, she learnt how to talk.
Now, though, after many years of talking with me, I sometimes feel that she’s disappointed she doesn’t have a real Italian daughter-in-law to talk to. Someone with whom she could have a real chinwag about the benefits of using old or new potatoes for her Florentine topini, or gnocchi. I was a 17-year-old traveller when I fell in love with her only son; hardly mature enough to share tips and recipes when preparing the traditional Sunday lunch of lasagne and roast chicken. Following an 18-year courtship, a marriage and two children, my Italian mother-in-law and I know each other very well and I am certain that it saddens her that after all our talking I have not instilled any Italian traditions into our little family. Especially now that it’s been revealed that the finer points of Italian culture elude her grandchildren on occasion.
My children, being half Australian, are well versed on the differences between a wallaby, a kangaroo and a joey. They also know how to recognise a hammerhead, a grey nurse and a white pointer shark. But, as discovered at a recent party, when my four-year-old son became hysterical and ran away from La Befana – the ugly old woman (basically a double for a witch) who brings Italian children sweets on 6 January – they are not clear on Italian fables. While he screamed in terror and bolted one way, all the other Italian children surged toward La Befana with joyous smiles on their faces. Nonna watched the scene in horror and realised that her grandson had never been fully and properly informed about the craggy hag that delivers candy at Epiphany. Obviously his education in Italian culture had been sorely neglected. But, as an Australian, I simply forget all about the Italian stuff and remember all the Aussie stuff.
Still, just as I am not your classic Italian daughter-in-law, nor is our Nonna your typical Italian grandma. She is blonde, blue eyed and honey skinned. She has also been married twice, a move that took great courage in a society where remarriage is at best discouraged (you’ll lose your dead husband’s pension), at worst deeply frowned upon (how could she be so shallow?). Widowed shortly before the birth of her first grandchild, Nonna fell in love with a Casentino farmer soon after the birth of her second grandchild. Within three years of my father-in-law’s death, Nonna had remarried, and relocated from her home in Florence to her new husband’s home only 10 kilometres from the farm where she was born. She’s been accused of abandoning her sisters and even her grandchildren. Nonna weathers the criticism by ignoring it... and by fluttering and twittering around her new husband like a brightly coloured lovebird.
As for my lack of tutelage of her grandchildren, I make up for it by always listening to her talk. More and more Nonna tells stories about her family’s past, a subject I find truly fascinating. Whether it’s her own grandmother’s oft-repeated sayings or a dish created from an ancient family recipe, her family’s history and their memories never fail to draw me in. Perhaps she knows this and guesses that I’ll pass her tales on to her grandchildren.
Such as at lunch the previous weekend at Zia’s (the name means aunty, as she is Nonna’s sister and best friend – well, she was before she hid the porcini), when Zia explained how all Italian pigs answer to the name of Nino. Call any pig Nino and it’ll come running, says Zia. Nonna and Zia were talking (funny about that) about how their mother came home one day to find Nino the pig on the terrace outside the kitchen door. Nino wouldn’t let their mother into the house, and she became so frightened all she could do was stand on the stairs all afternoon calling Nino. The impasse finally ended when Nino jumped off the three-metre-high terrace onto the ground and died. Various parts of Nino were salted or boiled or roasted that winter, staving off the seasonal Casentino cold weather hunger. Good old Nino, they say now.
That day at Zia’s the talk rolled around to ‘the old days’, since the older Nonna and her sisters become, the more their conversation seems to turn towards their youth. Anything can prompt a memory, and somehow there is always a story on hand. One of the children dropped some food on the floor and tried to hide it by kicking it under the table. This made Nonna recollect how years ago all the men spat on the floor. Even in their own homes, they would hoick up their spit and aim it somewhere near their shoe. Then with the sole of their shoe they’d give the gob a good rub into the wooden floor. My husband can remember thinking as a child that spitting on the floor was a very sophisticated and mature thing to do. Except, after seeing his grandfather do it a hundred times, he tried to do it for the first time and was given uno scapaccione – a swat – across the back of his head.
These days Zia and Nonna laugh and marvel at how times have changed since they were girls. So they should. How many generations can say that they were born in the medieval age and will die in the computer age? When they were growing up, the way of cooking, farming, housing, birthing and life had virtually remained unchanged for the last 500 years. As young girls the sisters stayed within the confines of their farm, knowing only their immediate neighbours. Their joys were Christmas or Easter lunches, religious parades or feasts. The celebrations were held during the day because there was no electricity; returning home at night became treacherous because they couldn’t see down the gravel paths that were their roads. They walked everywhere, or travelled on donkeys or by carts pulled by oxen. An exciting outing was a day at the village market or perhaps a dance four times a year. Every day and all day was work, and everyone did their measure for their size. The four-year-old’s job was to string the garlic or the mushrooms so that they could be hung and dried by the fire. Or to pick the seeds out of the tomatoes so they could be planted at spring for the summer crop. Little jobs for little hands. Every single member of the family contributed to the survival of the group.
There is one story that perfectly describes how the current Italian grandparent has experienced such an enormous shift from the old way to the new. Many years ago Nonna and Zia were in the fields harvesting the wheat when a neighbour came running towards them calling, ‘I must show you this discovery. It’s amazing! Something you’ve never seen before!’ Everyone downed tools to see what the woman had brought. It was a white plastic shopping bag. They sat beside the woman and her bag, listening to how the baker had put her bread inside it. The baker said it was free, and that it would keep her bread and vegetables fresh for a long time. The women passed the plastic shopping bag around, truly fascinated by its feel and potential usefulness. My mother-in-law says of all the changes in her life that bag marked the beginning of the modern times for her. She says nothing has ever been the same since that moment in the fields.
So though Nonna may sometimes yearn for an Italian daughter-in-law, even feel there are moments when she would relate to one better than an Australian daughter-in-law, I know in my heart that there are few Italian women who would treasure her stories the way I do. They are jewels in this age of computers, cell phones and international travel. Her yarns tell us so much about who the Italians were and why they have become who they are.
When it comes to passing on Italian fables to my children, that is so not ever going to happen. Wallabies and white pointers will always be my strength. In the meantime, Nonna giggles and shakes her head in amazement when she sees her stories in my books. Then she says, ‘So, should I use the white or purple onions in the tomato sauce for lunch?’ Some things will never change.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.