A hot summer day in southern Italy

The summer has a rich audio track;   locusts, lawnmowers, sprinklers, combine harvesters, and birds, always birds.   The most profound silences coincide with the heat of midday, and the vibrating 100 degree heat commands a siesta, indoors. I salute the invention of electric fans: with or without air conditioning, there can be few things more sensual than air moving over slightly damp skin.  The hottest hours of the day are dedicated to reading, mulling over possibilities, or restful sleep.

Outside, the sun is punishing, and the air has a darkness to it that speaks of lack of humidity and cloudlessness.  But it is cool in the shade, and if there is a breeze even cooler.  A strategically-placed hammock, hanging under tall leafy trees, beckons.    The biting flies will not attack you if you are in the shade, which is good to know.

How many locusts are there?  It is almost  like being home in Texas, and the noise is a constant electronic high-pitched buzz.  It is so loud that I can hardly hear it anymore.

The tomatoes this year were started too early, and they suffered the effects of a new irrigation system which dripped instead of showering the plants.  Tomatoes in sandy soil do not appreciate the lack of water on hot days such as these.  They are having a second life now, and they are never free of their muddy soil, getting as much moisture as they can take.   Their new fleshy green leaves tell me all I need to know.

There is a frog in the swimming pool again.  Swimming with frogs is fun; if you move slowly,  they think of you as a large meaty  island and will swim up and climb on.  They are handled and transferred to the fishpond, and punctually can be found again the next morning in the pool.

My feet are filthy, as usual.  In the mud, out of the mud, summer is a time in which I can’t afford to be foot-proud.  It will take most of the Fall to get rid of the calluses.  If you shake my hand you will know I can handle a hoe.   Well, my work ethic makes a woman proud of her calluses and blackened feet.  Life is too short.

At least six sprinklers are going all the time, and I am dedicated to placing them  so that no corner is missed.  Hat, shirt, sunscreen, out the door.  Back inside, sweaty, hat and shirt off, next job!  Repeat every two hours each and every day.   Our yard and garden are an oasis of green and dampness, and it is heavenly.   Water is cheap—the agricultural irrigation water, that is—so it flows freely.

I step outside and smell smoke, which is a scary thing indeed.  The breeze brings a rain of small blackened fragments of grasses and husks; there is a fire somewhere near.   If our  fosso should catch fire, after these many months of no rain, it will turn to ash in a hurry.   The sheepherders, when they have heavy undergrowth to deal with, will not hesitate to set a fire to burn it down.  I dread the local Festa of the patron saint, which means fireworks and half the outskirts of town burnt black.  How did this happen, they ask, incredulous?  Each year it is the same.   The Winter months are for healing these scars, and forgetting for the year to come.

The dogs are dedicated to hunting lizards.  They never give up until the tail has been removed from its owner, and then they immediately lose interest.  About half of our million-or-so lizards are in various phases of regrowth.  Where do they get the strength, and how many times can they miraculously conjure up another tail?

Outside the kitchen window, at eye level, there is a huge pigeon in her nest.  When she leaves we see her two chicks, the ugliest of ugly ducklings, waiting for her to return with food.  Each year we have more of these “colombacci,” and I hope they make it through the hunting season to return next year.

The big dogs have sequestered themselves either in the cool garage, or in muddy self-dug holes in the gardens.  As the summer progresses these “dog nests” become deeper, and in the autumn we will need to add a couple of wheelbarrows of soil.

“Starshine”  pencil and gold pigment on paper

It is finally dark, at 9 PM, a blessed relief, and dinner can be considered as 11 PM approaches.  The work day is long!   There is  cacophony  from the fishpond.  Big frogs, small frogs, all singing to each other in the hopes of coming in first in the genetic sweepstakes.  There will be gelatinous masses of eggs everywhere in a few weeks.   A snake, the natrix-natrix ubiquitous in this area, swims slowly around the water’s edge.  She and her progeny will keep the number of frogs under control.

Stepping outside, there is a pitter-patter of frantic feet up and down the walls.  The geckos are everywhere, keeping us mosquito-free.    The insulating panels on the walls make the noise of their running quite loud.  I don’t mind  the coccodrilli, as they are working for the common good.

The pool is besieged by numbers of small bats, dipping into the surface and dive-bombing our heads.  They, too, are consuming mosquitoes, which is their singular gift to us sweet and fleshy types.

Walking around the yard at night, a flashlight is mandatory.  Frogs are out and about, snakes too.  I know where to go to find a nice fat hedgehog during the day, but at night it is on the prowl and could be anywhere.   We try to avoid each other after dark.

We have a cuckoo! A t dusk, it sounds at five-second intervals, continuing through the falling dusk.    There are nightingales down in the woods of the fosso, and they are furious in their dedication to song until the early hours of the morning.  Whoever said that defending one’s territory has to be unpleasant?

There are more noises at night than there are during the day.  Mysterious calls from the woods,  crashing in the underbrush, and the dogs barking as a consequence.  Motorcycles and cars speeding down the road far away, and occasionally the thrumming beat from an outdoor discotheque.   Kids drag home at four AM, and most of them are not drunk or drug-addled…but some are.  The town is an anthill until 2 AM, with even small children prowling the streets on bicycles until this hour.   In the summer, one has to live the nighttime hours to compensate for the lazy afternoons.

Tonight Italy has just won the semi-finals of the European Cup.  There is a cacophony of truck and car horns, firecrackers and screaming coming from town that is nothing short of incredible!  My sons are in the fray;  I can only imagine that they are thoroughly enjoying themselves!

Look up!    The sky is dark, but you can clearly see the Milky Way, a glowing band cutting the night sky into two equal parts.  I have never spent even five minutes looking into it without seeing something moving.  Satellites early, shooting stars late, was that a UFO?  We all look forward to mid-August when the meteor showers get going in earnest.  I spent the last sleepless night before my younger son was born in a chair outside, watching the sky, enjoying the peace before the ordeal to come.  I will always remember that night, and the falling stars which seemed to portend good things.  We might have named him Lorenzo.*

“Da Mietere”  oil on canvas

*”La Notte di San Lorenzo”,   the Night of San Lorenzo, a meteor shower around the 10 to 12 of August, yearly.

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A favorite pepper recipe

This is a recipe that is very easy to make, and everyone likes it hot or cold.  If you have lots of peppers from your garden it will serve you well.  You might want to double the recipe if you have more than three or four to feed.

Four large red, or red and yellow, bell peppers.  Red is best, and never green!

One can of oil-packed tuna, such as  Genova brand.  It is the closest to Italian tuna, flavorful and packed in olive oil. ( Never NEVER use water-packed tuna for this!  I can’t say enough derogatory things about water-packed tuna.  Yuck.)

Anchovy paste,  fresh bread crumbs,  garlic cloves,  salt-cured capers, grana padano, and black pepper.

Wash and slice the peppers into two-inch strips lengthwise.  Heat some olive oil in a large pan and saute the strips over medium heat until softened and a little browned in places, as this adds flavor.  Salt them generously.  Move the strips as they are ready  to a flat oven dish and arrange to cover the bottom of the pan, and include the oil from the pan.

Make about two cups of bread crumbs from stale bread.  Please don’t use store-bought crumbs, they are way too dry and don’t really work here.  A food processor can make crumbs from even fresh bread, and if you want to add other bready things like crackers or crostini to the mix, then feel free.  To my mind, tweaking is the soul of good cooking!

Add a cup of grated grana padano to the crumbs.  Mix in two minced garlic cloves and a couple of teaspoons of anchovy paste.   I often mix this with the tuna first to assure that it is evenly distributed.

Add the can of tuna. ( Undrained, I know, but this is how it is done. This is a high-flavor recipe so one can compensate by consuming less volume!)

Here is a problem:  You need to find salt-cured capers.  I am guessing that in these times of boutique shopping it won’t be impossible, especially if you have an Italian market nearby.  I found some on Amazon.   I have never made this recipe with pickled capers, and I would advise that if you can’t find salt-cured ones just leave them out entirely.  The taste of pickled capers is just wrong.  Compensate by adding more anchovy paste!

Rinse about a tablespoonful of capers and chop them finely, adding them to the mix.

Add a very generous grating of fresh pepper.    Mix these ingredients together well and spread  over the peppers in the pan.   Remember these are not “stuffed” peppers, and the layer of breadcrumbs should not be very thick.  It is a condiment  for the peppers.

Bake in medium oven, uncovered, for as long as it takes to slightly brown the top and heat them through, about twenty minutes.

At room temperature, served with crusty bread and fruit, this is the perfect summer dish.  Enjoy!

“Temporale a Pisticci”  oil on canvas

Tutti frutti

It might be a common wish to have a fruit tree orchard, a grove of earthly pleasures on warm afternoons, a taster’s paradise of juices and perfume…the dream is attractive. A few years ago I had the pleasure to translate for a few hours for Francis Ford Coppola, (and he didn’t need me, he did quite well with his remembered dialect) walking around the grounds of his future hotel here in Bernalda. As he strolled the gardens, he expressed his desire to graze on fruit as he walked about, plucking from the collection of fruit trees he hoped to cultivate there. I hated to tell him that the high walls and shady pine trees already there would effectively prohibit that plan from realization. Fruit trees need sun, and wind, and bees, and a life which is not confined by high urban walls. ” Casale alle 7:30″, pastel on paper

One of my favorite imaginary places is a cloister, home to an indolent harem, fountains amid fruit trees, dappled shady areas and not a single thing that has to be done immediately. The reality of trying to have fruit trees is different, however. I planted a lot of fruit trees over the years, and some are still with us while others have become fireplace fodder, providing heat much more successfully than they provided fruit.

When I was growing up in Texas my mother, being a good farm girl who survived the Great Depression, told us about the importance of fruit in her early life.  She grew up in an era when having an orange for Christmas was anticipated for months. She tells us about how, off to college and working to pay her tuition,  her greatest treat was to have a gift box of apples under her bed. She would try to limit herself to one a day, but rarely was able to keep her  resolve. As a parsimonious adult, she often bought the bargain fruit, the littler ones, the ones in a big bag for a fixed price. I can remember wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to eat an orange, with its sour taste and leathery sections and seeds, an exercise in how to spit out hard stringy pieces of fruit into a napkin. Grapes were tasteless, pears were often woody with a hint of mold, and apples had been rolling around in the bin long enough to have lost their turgidity,  their stems mummified. Bananas were just disappointing, purchased yellow and eaten brown. I may be exaggerating, but this is how I remember fruit as a child.

So the local Italian fruit, bought in season, or picked in person from trees and vines, was a revelation to me. It has been a lesson in time-appropriate consumption;   buying things as they become available, and counting on the fact that if they are available they are probably at their peak of quality. Our trees have been cantankerous about producing, luring us into euphoria the first year of production, showering us with buckets of flavorful fruit at the outset, only to hold back each successive year until only one or two lonely and bird-sampled and ant-infested pieces were offered. We gave up on peaches quickly; way too hard to get them to produce, and they often needed chemical treatments just to survive onslaughts of fungus, mold and insects. And birds. Better to buy them, and get only the good ones. My granny always said, “Use the best first, and that way you always have the best!” And sometimes, only sometimes, the best fruit is at the store.

Figs! Never have I been so impressed by the generosity of a tree, a tree which requires no fertilizer, hardly any water, and only a cursory trimming by any wannabe arborist every two years or so. You can cut off the growing end of a branch, stick it horizontally in the soil with only the tip bent up and out, and in a couple of years you will have a tree. If I had another lifetime to learn, I would concentrate on my grafting skills, maniacally creating multi-varieties onto the hardy root system of a single tree. Grafting is similar to pulling off a sting operation; the tree and the foreign twigs must be fooled into overlooking their differences and creating a single living creature from the parts. We think we have triumphed, but who can tell what the trees know?

Apricots grow well here, and they fit in well with our “no-treatments” ideology… (meaning “too much trouble”). You haven’t really tasted an apricot until you have nibbled it directly from the tree on a hot June day. It doesn’t get cold enough for cherries right here, although over the hill the trees produce prolifically. Plums grow and produce care-free, as do persimmons and loquats and all things citrus. The oranges which hang on our trees until May are the sweetest and most mouth-friendly I have ever encountered. Nothing else comes close. Many times I will stay on the tractor an extra hour because oranges are at face level as I work around the trees, and who could resist? The steering wheel is often sticky.

Maybe when you think of Italy, prickly pear cactus might not come to mind. But there are entire hillsides covered with mounds of them, a “fluffy” version with meaty paddles which are full of juice, hardly a sticker to be found. In the autumn the plants are covered with huge red fruits which, having grown up in the Texas hill country, astound me by their friendliness. They are nothing akin to the hard little tongue-grenades that cows eat in Texas. But I will make an admission: We buy Sicilian prickly pear fruit by the case at the supermarket, and rarely go out to gather them ourselves. The fruits (ficchi d’india) which come from Sicily are superior even to our own. They are about the size of bartlett pears, day-glo magenta to blackest purple. There is a word in dialect which has always intrigued me, nun-dru-zzu-le’-she, which describes the effect of eating many of these together with lots of grapes. Apparently the seeds of both fruits fit together in such a way that all intestinal motility will grind to a halt. I would say that if the language has created a specific word for the condition, then the warnings ought to be respected!

Grapes are in a category all their own. You need considerable expertise to have vines, and so far multiple distractions haven’t allowed me to delve into wine-making. But I remember back when our group from the University of Texas was doing survey work, walking the territory five abreast, eyes to the ground looking for sites, filling our bags with fragments of the past. A terracotta shard, collections of stones, darkened earth all testify to the rich history of this area. It was a daily Easter egg hunt with bonuses:  fruit!  We couldn’t wait to walk the areas covered by grape vines, trudging along under them in the dappled shade and stuffing ourselves with grapes picked from huge hanging agglomerations of the most astoundingly ambrosial grapes any of us had ever tasted. Again, I cannot begin to describe the flavor and how it eclipses any kind of grape, anywhere. “Uva Italia,” long may you reign. I apologize to the farmers who unknowingly contributed, even if it was only .00001 percent of the total harvest. They should know they made an indirect contribution in the name of science!                                                                                          “Another Summer Salad”  oil on board