Tuesday, 26 May 2009

An uncommon passion

Silvano has a passion for food. This may seem like a strange thing to say in a nation of gastronomes, but his is an uncommon passion - medieval food. He likes to make it, serve it to people, and tell them about it. In a region with the best-preserved medieval architecture and heritage in Italy, he's the perfect - and rather rare - culinary complement to its historians and cultural doyens (who themselves are plentiful and yet somewhat "latent".)

He's taken his penchant a step further too by housing his restaurant in a renovated castle, tucked away in a small borgo (hamlet) of steep cobbled alleys that contort themselves around and through the structure, creating new discoveries around each twisted corner. If you didn't know where the restaurant was, it would be quite a challenge to find it. But then that's the thing about Il Picciolo di Rame - you don't stumble upon it, it's a deliberate act, you go there because that's where you're going.

Twelve courses based on ancient recipes are introduced with the meticulous detail of the historian and the deep respect of a man of the country, starting off with the most simple of concepts - bruschetta drizzled with olive oil. That's it, no other topping. But this is not just your ordinary olive oil (which I'm sure marchigiani would assert does not exist here) - it's a carefully selected type of olive grown in a very specific area. Three, four, eight-hundred year old recipes follow - a medieval matrimonial dish, wild fennel, a single giant hand-made raviolo, a small type of lentil from the high-altitude Piano Grande with 15 different herbs, goat with wild herbs ...

Silvano said we were finished eating ... and then promptly brought out dessert. You walk out sated, intrigued, thankful, but not overfull, thanks to the modest portions.

And as with any Italian encounter, you just never know what might happen. First, I discovered that his grandfather was born in a house I can see from my own. Then he brought out a wine from a little-known vinicola some distance away (but still in Le Marche), whose owner - a count - I'd interviewed a few months ago, and which is probably the only regional winery to make kosher wine (and export it to New York). (Silvano didn't know this.) The goat he served spawned discussions of goat's milk, a hard-to-find item much sought-after by my wife, and so I walked out with a bottle of fresh goat's milk, with a promise of more if we would just stop by his house when we needed it ...

As with most special eating experiences, it's not just about the food - it's about the whole process: the love, the care, the interest ... and the prospect of making a new friend. It's a symbol of Italy. In Le Marche, you're never far from such experiences - you just need to know where to go ...

Friday, 15 May 2009

Spring in the Sibillini

May is perhaps the best month up in the Sibillini mountains - brisk breezes team up with the spring warmth to require a well-packed backpack, with sweaters and sunhats often in use within half an hour of each other. Snow still clings to the peaks and makes getting to the upper reaches impossible on some roads. The newness of the season also means that only the dedicated - like us - are up there, so on most occasions you have the place to yourself.

And then there are the wildflowers. It's one of the primary calls of going up there (along with the best air in Italy and the feeling of freedom). I can't tell you what they're called, and I can't remember which ones bloom when, I just know I'm an ardent follower. It's a changing scene too - in a matter of weeks the characters and colours of the wildflower world will be changing, and again a couple of weeks after that. These constant shifts of the floral display are always a matter of wonder and admiration, and I'll never tire of it.

This past weekend we went up to our favourite spot, walked up to "our" ridge that looks east, north, and west for miles, with the Sibillini ridges stretching in blue waves to the south. We followed our usual habit of ambling up and slumbering silently in the sun, cool breeze requiring a pullover, and then drifting aimlessly over the earthy domes with ever-changing views over Le Marche and into Umbria and Lazio. It's magificent.

This time I spotted a grove of evergreens a little way down the ridge and so we stopped on our way down. Another world - a pine forest, not a dominant feature around here. Lush carpet of cool grass, an invititation into a verdant hideaway, and yet another perspective in a landscape of multiple personalities.

That's the thing about these mountains - there's always something new to explore, always a little corner that we haven't discovered before. It'll never get old.

Below are some pictures from the day. I should perhaps know better than to post pictures of flowers, but how can I wax so lyrical without giving an idea of what I'm talking about. (Click on the picture to launch a full-size version.)

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Sibyl, Pontius, and Le Marche's fabled splendour

"Perhaps the same harshness of these mountains, scoured by the whistling wind, devoured by precipitous torrents, and drilled by peculiar karst phenomena, has contributed not a little to furthering a series of witch legends and making this place celebrated in the 14th and 15th centuries throughout all Europe for magical fairytales and necromantic initiations."

Giuseppe Santarelli knew these mountains well, these central Apennines that bear a prophetess' name. The Sibillini range on Le Marche's western edge may be crowned by Monte Vettore, its highest point at 2,476m/8,123ft, but it's Monte Sibilla that's the keeper of its secrets. Up here on the airy ridges you're never far from the legends that pervade this area, none more so than Sibilla's cave, an enchanted grotto of paradise and promiscuity, serpents and servitude.

Julius with Monte Sibilla hidden by his cap, and Monte Vettore in the distance on the right

Some would have it that the Apennine Sibyl (Sibilla) is she of Cuma from Virgil's Aeneid, transmigrating here from the Phlegraean fields near Naples to escape the retributions of a burgeoning and disapproving Christianity. But local legend claims otherwise - she is born of the Apennines, a beguiling blend of soothsayer and enchantress, luring knights and adventurers into her lair until the end of time.

We spend a lot of time up there, but we've never found the cave, although Julius claims otherwise (see picture). While being somewhat "atmospheric" and "suggestive", his grotto somehow didn't bear the marks of legend - of devil's bridges and razor's edges that widen with each successive step, sparkling sculpted dragons whose eyes illuminate all around, crashing metal doors that threaten to crush intruders, or "gilded alcoves and iridescent furniture."

Julius' Grotta della Sibilla

Antoine de la Salle tells of a German adventurer - some say it was Wagner's Tannhauser - who braved the doors, the dragons, and the violent winds to find a paradise of "gay and carefree youth" fluent in all the languages of the world, where stunning maidens treated them to a life of inexhaustible lust and pleasure, where "old age was banned and pain did not have the right of citizenship." But the signs of the devil were ever evident as every Friday at midnight their consorts transformed into the most terrifying serpents, staying that way until midnight Saturday, when they retransformed themselves into the creatures of delight that kept the knight there without coercion.

When he finally pulled himself away on the 330th day - after which he would not have been able to leave - his conscience bade him express his remorse to the pope and beg for pardon. When the pope refused, the devastated knight returned to the cave, never to be seen again.

While we haven't been able to find the cave, legendary signs abound. Like the shattered shards of shale around Monte Vettore, for example, a product of the goatlike feet of the cave's fate (fairies) as they scrambled back to the grotto. Periodically the fate would descend from their haven to teach the village girls spinning and weaving, and dance the saltarello with the young men. If they didn't make it back to the cave before sunrise, they transformed into mere mortals. And if you were a fata, who (gasp) would want that?

Monte Vettore's "shattered shards of shale", Monte Sibilla ridge in the background

The other main mythical site in the Sibillini, Lago di Pilato (Pilate Lake), is somewhat easier to find than the cave - it nestles in a mountain bowl just below Monte Vettore, and is a popular summer hiking destination. It's here that Pontius Pilate is reputed to be buried, deep in the frigid waters of the twin lakes "in the form of two lenses, like the glasses of a rattlesnake." While many other places in Europe claim to be his final resting place, locals claim that before being executed, Pilate asked Emperor Tiberius for his corpse to be put into a cart drawn by buffaloes, "and left to the power of fate." Somehow fate guided the buffaloes huffing and puffing up to the Sibillini. Another account claims that the waters of the lake turned blood red at the precise moment of Jesus' crucifiction, and that on the surrounding slopes leaves suddenly sprouted resembling two joined hands, each pierced with a nail. (The fact that a rare freshwater shrimp turns the lake's waters red at spawning time is neither here nor there.)

Lago di Pilato
(Copyright GiulioC@Flickr.com)
The lake was also a gathering place for necromancers - nearby Norcia in Umbria was a known centre of witchcraft. Here they would summons their demons, asking for favour in executing evil deeds, in exchange for thier souls. Intruders on such rites were summarily dispatched in rather unappealing ways. But of course that's all just legend ...

... and one doesn't need the legends to enjoy this most spectacular of Le Marche's natural wonders. However, it certainly adds a little colour, and gives its already mystical air yet another dimension. After all, as Giuseppe Santarelli suggests with a classical Italian lyricism: "... inside the cocoon of the ancient legend is the diligent silkworm of eternal knwoledge and the light butterfly of immortal poetry."