A death here, a death there…(part one)

We shift our eyes away  and sidle toward  another subject if we can. But I believe most of us are curious about our inevitable demise, (of course we are curious about our own, but who can we ask?)  and it is particularly enlightening to observe how other cultures deal with IT, when the time comes. Our customs, naturally,  say a lot about us.

L-153 tweak for blog

“Rusty Gate”  oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches

My mother passed away recently, and my father followed her by only a few months. We lost my husband’s parents, my brother-in-law, a couple of friends, all  in the past few years.   So I have had occasion to experience the contrasts in how we treat our dead, those mysterious  and terrifying leftovers of the people we once loved.

My mother was efficient in her passing, not one to needlessly draw out her time in the spotlight.  After all, she wasn’t discussing politics.  We called the “funeral home,”  that most uncomfortable term,  and a soulful duo appeared, he tall and she short, demure and helpful ravens in swooping black coats.  Disguised in a black zippered bag, she was rolled away, negotiating the doorways on her last exit from her home.     Since my mother’s specific request was not to have any viewings, a practice she considered crass and an  indulgence of base human curiosities, we never saw her again.   Our dealings with the funeral folks were short and sweet, just a subdued shuffle around the casket car lot, the exchange of documents and signing of checks, and off she went on her final flight to her  resting place in Oklahoma.  She  told me that the term “at rest” would soon mean much more to us as we put on years.  She was tired.    As to the preparations carried out in the facility, the less known the better.  I think we all understand that the ultimate, “prepared” version of our deceased relatives is nothing if not husk-like.   When my father followed her, the mechanics were the same, although his hospital death  allowed for even less family participation, making the “undertakings”  even more obscure.  He would have appreciated the pun.

Here in Basilicata things are different.   There is no “funeral home.”  Among the first  to know will be the local printers shop, who will prepare the black and white  manifesti*  which will go up around town before the deceased begins his or her preparations for departure.   Provisions for the body’s burial are entirely the responsibility of the closest relatives, and  home is where the funeral starts.   Those preparations usually involve  washing and dressing, maybe shaving, combing the hair and placing the hands upon some treasured item.  There is no embalming.   The household where the deceased lived prepares for visitors by placing the body in a central position, usually on the dining room table, and chairs are circled around the periphery of the room  in anticipation of a day of visitations by friends and relatives.  We arrive, are greeted, a hug or  a nod, a few words, and we find a chair and sit down.   Sometimes a daughter, a brother will be carrying on a long conversation with the deceased, softly  murmuring, chuckling, or more rarely, tearfully grasping at  clothing or swaying from side to side.     There is hushed conversation between visitors, mostly remembrances of episodes in the life of the  departed, but sometimes wholly unrelated to the matter at hand.  “Remember when he fell out of that tree stealing figs?”   “What did you buy to cook for lunch today?”  “Did you hear about Pinuccio who is still in jail?”    Each visitor is free to stay as long as he needs to, or wants to, or, in my case, as long as I can stand it.  It is distressing for a “sanitized” American to participate somehow.   I admire the customs immensely, but intellectually.  I am uncomfortable.  Until recently, there were  places where a family could hire one or more women, the “prefiche,” who would carry on  lamentations for a fee.  These “chiangenn”**  have often made their appearance  in  literature, understandably: they are  equally fascinating and horrifying.

In a small municipality, the funeral procession is on foot from the home to the camposanto.***    Visitors to Italy may note that the most attractive area of a little town is often the cemetery, clipped and polished and centrally-planned.   Family chapels are complete, and the larger areas of communal use are tastefully decorated  with flowers on saints days and birthdays.    What a contrast to the rusty  rebar and cement which  festoon the town’s buildings, adding subtle anguish to  our streets, unpainted stucco revealing that a dwelling for the living  is of secondary importance after all.    Larger cities often have towering cement cell blocks of tombs, accessible from indoors, the crusty concrete bleeding white lime deposits, fading  pictures of loved ones.  Anemic electric candles flicker in the gloom.   These are not peaceful places for contemplation, and I am reminded of our “self storage” lockers for our overflows of junk…  “Self-storage” indeed!

We are used to saying our final goodbyes and leaving our loved ones to their final rest, in peace.   Things are different in Italy, but more on that in part two.

*posters

**  lamenters, (in local dialect)

***cemetery

The Rush of Time

Mamma ha fatto la pasta al forno!*

All hail the leftover!   Especially that huge pan of Pasta Al Forno lurking in the fridge.   An anecdote which exemplifies its temptations:           Four friends, youngsters on a road trip, depart Bernalda with a lovingly-prepared (Grazie Mamma!)  mega-pan, ( at least eighteen inches diameter) container of pasta al forno for lunch.  They leave at at five in the morning, and after ten minutes the  foil was already being peeled off.  Hunks were being scooped out by hand  by the time they had reached the main road,  and by Ferrandina all that was left was a greasy pan.

L-294

                                                    Casetta A.N.A.S.,  Matera                                                       Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, 2013

Its summer,  its hot, and who wants to cook?   But you have to eat, and the best way to get around spending regular hours in the kitchen is to create a dish that will carry a family through a number of meals.     Here is a summertime standby which, though it is a little time-consuming to create, will feed folks for a few days at home or at the beach.   It is good cold or heated, and it only gets better with time!   This is my recipe, tweaked over many summers.

Ingredients for about six hungry people:

4-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped, (not diced)

Thinly-sliced hot Calabrian salame, or equivalent:  the best is a genuine sopressata piccante.  If you can’t find it, then get the reddest and hottest dry salame you can find.   You will need about a half pound.  Slice each thin slice into half-inch strips.

One can of drained pitted black olives, nothing fancy, just the good-old California kind.

Fresh mozzarella, at least  three cups chopped and tightly-packed.  Lacking the real thing, use some chopped American “mozzarella” which is actually more like Scamorza, as it is low-moisture.    Use the whole pound block, why not?

One cup plus one cup of freshly grated Grana Padano, or Parmigiano,

A freshly-made tomato sauce, about three cups.   This can be made using ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, cooked in a half cup of  extra virgin olive oil over a lively flame, until broken down.  Add about 4 cloves of chopped garlic to the simmering tomatoes.  Add about a teaspoon of salt, and no,  I repeat, NO,   spices!   ( Here I am making the ancient sign against evil pointing my index and little finger  at the ground.)   Why would you take a perfectly good tomato sauce and add some dusty old shelf-scrapings to it?

One 500 gram (call it a pound)  bag of rigatoni pasta, or other medium pasta, cooked al dente in generously-salted water, and drained.  Don’t skimp on the salt!  (See previous post about pasta.)   Rinse and leave in cool water to  keep it from sticking.

Get yourself a great bowl and dump the mozzarella, salame, eggs, olives, and sauce  together with the drained cool pasta.   Mix in one cup of the grated Grana Padano cheese.   Make sure the sauce isn’t boiling hot or it will cause the mozzarella to melt and become stringy and incorrigible.  Mix everything well, and pour into whatever baking dish is large enough to hold the mixture.  Make sure to oil the pan (or pans) well before hand, or everything will stick.    Cover the top with the remaining Grana Padano.

Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake at about 350 degrees  until it is bubbling and begins to brown on top.  Place the pan where the bottom will not burn, in the oven center usually.   About an hour should do it.   ( Be careful not to allow the aluminum foil to touch the tomato sauce, or you will be adding some unwanted elements to your diet when the acid melts the foil!)

Cool a little, or not, or reheat in the microwave tomorrow,  and serve.

Enjoy!

* Mamma made pasta casserole!

O-11

Summer sweet and sour     Oil, 6 x 6 inches

Il Cantastoria (part one)

My husband, who was born just four months before me, grew up in a different century.

Bernalda, or Vernall’  in dialect, in the  late 1960s.   The post-war economic boom is roaring in the north of Italy, and while  this small Lucanian town is seeing the arrival of new technologies,  new products and ideas,  its main participation in the “boom” consists of packing family members off to work in the factories of Torino and Milano, Bergamo  and Verona.  In previous generations families gave up their most intrepid to the Americas.   So while a  trickle of  letters containing  wages earned up north has begun to change the outlook slightly, traditions still  persist, resolutely, and the town is unaware of the changes to come.

The Amazing Flying Millers, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2012

The streets of the town are unpaved, with the notable exception of the main Corso, newly asphalted and a focal point of town pride.  Most secondary streets are covered with embedded round river stones, or gravel, or a muddy mix of these.  Most people get around on foot, for after all the town is not large, with a population of about ten thousand.    An occasional small car can be seen, and bicycles, or  small  carts drawn by a mule or a horse.

My future husband, as a boy,  may have  the pleasure of  drinking something cold,  not from the refrigerator, but thanks to ice which has been purchased  fresh daily for the “ice box.”  ( My own father, in the late twenties,  followed the ice wagon and carried a chunk of ice home in a cloth bag, and so did my husband.)     His mother utilizes  a tin wash bucket filled with rags, and cuddles some bottles and jars around the ice.  There will be  cool wine with lunch, slices of watermelon, or fresh milk to drink for breakfast the next day.  Refrigerators will come later, in the seventies.

Milk arrives on wheels as well.  A bicyclist will pass each day with a couple of tin jugs balanced across the handlebars, and housewives hurry down with glass jars to buy a few ladles of fresh milk to replenish their supply.  No pasteurisation here, and the milk is often still warm when it arrives, as you can be sure the cows are not very far away.

Farmers breaking in a new field, builders excavating for the foundations of a house, will invariably find antiquities.  These are everywhere, and the cause of much consternation, as the authorities “must be informed” and work is immediately halted indefinitely.  Practicality advises one to keep it to oneself.   There are children in Bernalda, today’s adults, who pass their time after school at target practice, lining up small votive cups and vases to be knocked to pieces with slingshots.   Cups and vases from 2500 years ago!

People still live with their precious animals, and some still literally “live with” their mule in the second room, the one which houses the huge bed where often an entire family sleeps.  Chickens will come and go, and cats.  (Even today houses in the older sections of towns have a tiny, low door which served to allow the hens in or out of their nesting area.  I laugh when I think of  urban hipsters in US cities, discovering the pleasure of keeping a few chickens for eggs, and think how these “trendsetters” are  only now beginning to catch up!  Will they soon be keeping their chickens under the bed as well?)   These houses will be restructured in later decades, and the mule in the bedroom will disappear, although many will still keep a mule or horse in a converted stall, a few doors away.  Later still the “stalls”  (ex-family dwellings)  will be used for the family automobile, and organizations will be formed to “save” mules and donkeys typical of the region, once plentiful.

Near my husband’s house, in the town center, one homeowner is the proud keeper of serial pigs.  And as such, every so often he needs to make room for the new “pet.”  (That good sausage and prosciutto doesn’t just magically appear, after all.)  The spectacle of a murder victim screaming and then being dismembered is a recurring neighborhood trauma which the children won’t soon forget.  Salzizz!*

“Chorus Line” oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, 2002

Most families have washing machines.  But soap is not often purchased at the store.  Another passing truck offers a bartered exchange;   used household oil, such as from frying, or old oil no longer suitable for consumption.  He gives these customers the bars of soap he makes with this oil.  Of course not everyone has old oil to offer, and he makes a good living this way from selling his homemade soap.  (You can still buy soap here which has the same appearance as the old bars, although of course it is industrially-produced.  Many women swear by it.)

Every so often, a visitor will appear in town driving a small truck sporting a collapsible set of panels.  The vehicle chooses a strategic point where  a crowd can gather, and set up shop.  The panels, usually four or six, are mounted on top of the truck so that everyone can see them.  They appear  almost as giant tarot cards, colorful and filled with dynamic figures in various exaggerated poses.  This is  the “cantastoria.”**  When a suitable number of folks have gathered, he starts  to tell a story in song.  Indicating the pertinent panel, he weaves an intricate tale involving (inevitably) love and hope, tragedy and  betrayal.  Cuckoldry and murder are ever-popular subjects, and the helper working the crowd  will  find his basket filling faster in accordance with the passionality of the tale.    All of this sung loudly over about half an hour, acapella.  It is a distillation of  Opera down to its essential elements.  Kids and adults anticipate  the arrival of the cantastoria, and when he arrives it is always a treat.

(end of part one)

“Time Line” oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2009

*salzizz‘,  meaning literally salsicca, or sausage, “known as “sal-cheech” in dialect.  When pronounced “Sal-zeets!”  it can also be used as a snide greeting.  It can be substituted for the acceptable “Salve!” and is invariably muttered under one’s breath.  It is obviously a reference to the  body part it resembles.

** Literally, the “Story-Singer.”

Pasta e ceci

Pasta e ceci, or past-uh-cheech-u-ruh as it is known here, is probably our favorite pasta dish.   But it is not everyone’s, and there might be a bit of a taste  “learning curve”  for many.  Cooked  chick peas have a complicated flavor, and while they absorb some of this from their cooking liquid, they maintain that leguminous “soil”  taste which you either love or hate.  We love it.

I always appreciate a good hummus , and falafel is also really good,  but as they say here in the south, “La morte sua”*  is in the form of  this recipe which we all love.

—–Ingredients for four:

1/2  cup of minced celery, carrot, and onion

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

two cans cooked chickpeas

one medium ripe tomato

two garlic cloves

about 3/4 pound (not quite a whole package) of dry tagliatelle, or any flat and thin pasta

salt and pepper, Q.B.**

If you are a dedicated cook, someone who plans ahead (bless you!) you can start a day or two early with dry chickpeas and get them soaking.  Change the water often.  It may take from 24 to 36 hours of soaking to get them softened enough for cooking, depending on their age.   But I am a  short-attention-span type, so I buy the canned ones that are already cooked and soft in their own liquid.  Make sure there is no added flavoring.  I think it is detestable that tomato sauces and other canned veggies are often degraded with added flavorings  in the U.S…What, is it too difficult to add roasted garlic or salt yourself?

Start with a soffritto of finely minced celery*** onion and carrot, about a half of a cup, maybe a little more.  Saute these in a third cup of olive oil until softened.  I know that seems like a lot of oil, but remember, the olive oil in Italian cooking is an integral part of the flavor and mouth-feel of the dish, not just a lubricant to keep it from sticking to the pan!   Cook the soffritto gently, until translucent.   Don’t let it burn!

At this point, add one large  chopped and peeled tomato to the pot.  If you want to be a stickler and pick the seeds out then be my guest, but I have never been quite so dedicated to perfection.  Tomatoes are often used in small quantities in Italian cooking, to add acidity as much as flavor.  They are not necessarily the star ingredient of the dish.   A couple of minced garlic cloves, generous pepper, a bay leaf, and the two cans of chickpeas with their water then are added.  Add  two more cans of water.   Get it simmering and taste for saltiness.  It needs to be well-salted because the pasta that will be added will need to absorb plenty of salt.

This is a mixture that will burn, so don’t toddle off to another room and start working on your taxes!    Few things are nastier in a dish than burned legumes.  This “soup” will begin to break down into a nice velvety mix in about half an hour.  At this point I give it a little nudge by whacking it with my “Mini Pimer”  (stick blender)  just enough to break up about half of the chickpeas.

Taste again for salt, and take your flat pasta (tagliatelle or nested noodles made with hard wheat, no egg please, although…****) and break it up with your hands before dumping it directly into the pot.  Now you will have to stand over it and stir, there is no escape, otherwise it will stick and burn.  After about five minutes you can turn off the heat and cover the pot.  Check the liquid level frequently, because the pasta will drink up an incredible amount in no time.   When the pasta has soaked up most of the liquid and when it is “al dente” it is ready to serve.  The consistency should be about the same as gooey mac and cheese.

As always, I admit to  nonconformist behavior at the Italian table:  I love to add grated Grano Padano to this dish.  My husband sneers as he adds (I kid you not) about a cup of freshly-ground pepper to his, so we each have our personal preferences, as any married couple should!   I also like to add a generous dribbling of homemade jalapeno chap-your-ass hot sauce to mine!

Enjoy!!

“Strada sul fiume” pastel, 5×5 inches

*(“Its ideal death,” meaning roughly, ” The best way for it to go.”)

**”Quanto Basta” which means “as much as it takes.”

***I am frustrated that the part of the celery that I need for my recipes is often amputated before it even gets to the market.  As much of this mixture should be made of the leaves of the celery stalk as is humanly possible.

****However we have found that pasta all’ uovo doesn’t ruin the recipe, and actually it is quite good made with egg pasta.  Try it!

Bits of useless information

Cultural differences, aside from creating consternation, can be amusing,  Thank goodness.

A wedding!   People on wedding days seem to be filled with excitement and pleasure, jockeying in their cars, honking loudly up and down the main street, dressed to the nines, smiling and laughing…  Of course!    But did you know that these people prepared themselves mentally for this day thinking, “Oh god, another expensive gift to buy,  another day lost in an excruciating marathon of  eating,  seven hours or more at a huge table with people who are mostly strangers,  milling around aimlessly in the parking lot…How many minutes until we can leave?”   It is the dark side of Italian weddings.  The day the invitation arrives is when the dread begins.

There is a chain of supermarkets which are called “Conad.”

Italians eat healthy, slow  food!  But there are entire stores dedicated to huge bins of  frozen things, where you can buy bargain amounts of  things like frozen pasta and breaded anonymous fish products, industrial crepes, frozen chopped onion, eggrolls, and  kebab filling.

A guarantee for a new hot water heater, loudly proclaimed on a huge orange sticker,  offers service during the warranty period.  It is called the “Pass Gas.”

An instant cappuccino-type coffee drink which used to be available  in most markets in the U.S. was called “Cappio.”   This is the Italian word for a  hangman’s noose.  No wonder it failed!

When you stop for a fill-up, you might find yourself in the cryptic  “Self Area.”  Sometimes you may even end up in the the “Hyper Self Area,”  a mysterious zone which conjures images of  egotistical types milling about, frenetically  gesticulating  while mumbling  their existential motives for using gasoline…

Shopping in a department store  in the U.S. with my husband, at the escalator we discuss where to go next.  People look askance at us hearing the words “die” and “jew” over and over.  “Dai, andiamo giu’!”  (C’mon, let’s go down!”)

Why do people have little dangling red pepper clusters on their rear view mirrors, I wonder…  Do peppers bring good luck?  No, these are supposed to be horns of the bull, red I suppose is a masculine color… and they represent protection from generic evil forces, not membership in a mysterious vegetable sect.

My sister, who doesn’t speak Italian, often laughs at our conversations.   She hears the words “fart”  and “fat” over and over, and wonders what on earth we are talking about!  (“Farti,” to make you something, or make you do something, and “fatto” which is the past tense of the same verb “to make or do.”)

Once a year here in Metaponto,  the folks who consider themselves religious follow a strange ceremony.  They send a saint out to sea and back.   But a standing saint could never balance on a choppy sea, which is the reason, I assume, that they send out half a saint, the upper half, and wave him off, gently bobbing toward the horizon.  After a short time  he returns safely  to shore after a bargain cruise of half an hour.  The seashore is once again a safe and blessed place.

It took years for my relatives to relax around my family here.  They were convinced that we were fighting almost constantly, and would huddle in corners waiting for the storm to subside.  They have since realized that no,  loud vocals and gesticulation are simply what constitutes  normal conversation.

A new addition to the traffic flow:  roundabouts!  Unfortunately, however, the rule is that one always gives way to the car coming from the right, so folks here cannot grasp that in the roundabout they must yield to the car coming on the left.  Beware a roundabout in Italy!

There are dumpsters all over for garbage, as there is no residential garbage collection.  So why, if you have placed your precious garbage in a nice tidy sack, tied and compact,  do people carry it in their car for a few blocks and throw it out the window?  Did it suddenly become an unbearable burden, a concept so overwhelmingly unacceptable, that a few more yards became impossible  to bear?

A famous maker of automatic gates and doors is called “Faak.”  Given that the soft “A” has a phonetic sound similar to the sound in the word “luck,”   this commercial where the gate squeaks the product’s name over and over has given me many solid moments of hilarity.  Say it!

If you live outside of town, your electricity and phone service arrives via lines on wooden poles.  Your service will be  regularly interrupted however, due to two causes:  1) The roving groups of Romanian opportunists have taken all the copper wire again during the night or 2) some farmer has burned his wheat stubble, and also the bottom halves of the poles.  It is a common sight, a line sagging to the ground with a foot or two of wooden pole hanging at intervals from it, like a necklace of blackened toothpicks.

“Wheat Field on Fire”  oil on canvas

Keep an eye on teenage parties.  There is always beer, and there often are plenty of hard alcoholic products.  That is simply how it is done here.  You can fight but you can’t win.

Everybody loves gelato!  It is good.  My husband makes gelato in his beach establishment.   And it is excellent.  But I know that the “fresh” ingredients of the stuff come in big white bags and industrial steel canisters.  The milk does arrive fresh daily, however.

Why do women, so exceptionally stylish and  composed, the height of world-famous fashion sense in the winter, dress like hinterland  prostitutes in the summer?

It is not a good place to be a snake, any kind of snake.  Snake equals bad.  Hide!

You will have to study hard and pass the exams to get yourself a gun.  It will have to be kept in a locked, dedicated safe in your home.  Once bought it can be kept with no problems, as long as you don’t use it.  But if you buy any bullets, each one will have to be accounted for, and the authorities will come down hard on you if they discover that one of them is missing.

“Bernalda,” an unfortunate name.  Every time we have business dealings with other parts of Italy we have to explain:  “No, not BernaRda, BernaLda, with an “L.”   You can almost hear the smirk over the phone line.  You see, “Bernarda” is the slang name for the female genitalia.

“Benevolent Dysfunction,”   mixed media on paper

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.

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