18 June 2015

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We were in a local restaurant – Il Pozzetto in Moiano – the other night and didn’t eat badly at all considering that the proper cook, Luca, had disappeared to the beach for a week, leaving his parents in the kitchen. We were with a friend who’s having a big birthday party at the weekend, and who asked Luca’s father if they could do her 50 pizzas for the event.

“No way,” he said, “we’re closed this weekend.”

Now, apart from the fact that early summer weekends are the time when restaurants around here are packed with people out in the country for a break from city life, it’s also high season for weddings and communions and all those kinds of things that Il Pozzetto – an unprepossessing barn of a place which easily feeds huge tables of noisy celebraters for remarkably little money – is known for far and wide. So why oh why would they decide to close?

“Too many people would turn up,” he explained.

Too many people?

“Yes, far too many people. We can’t cope with those numbers. So we’re just going to shut.”

You can kind of see the logic, but it’s difficult not to think of it as slightly weird. And as typically Umbrian. I mean, of course they don’t want to send people away annoyed at having had to wait longer than usual for their meals, or at having eaten less well than they usually do due to frazzled kitchen staff. But you could take on extra people for those two days – staff who have left but who could be lured back with the promise of a bonus – or you could do bookings-only and limit the numbers. But no, that would be far too complicated.

So best to shut the place down. Thus saving yourself from the drag of having to placate people, or work hugely hard for (a very lucrative) 48 hours, or spend a little more money to ensure that you can cope. And even if you really piss off the people who turn up, perhaps from far away, to find the place inexplicably closed who cares: you’re not there to hear their complaints. So everything’s fine.

I can’t help harbouring a sneaky liking this attitude. Anywhere else, the dollar signs would be whizzing about in restaurateurs’ eyes at the thought of the summer weekend onslaught. Around here, work is just something that keeps a roof over your head and food in your stomach: it’s not mercenary or venal. So why put yourself out? There are times when you eat divinely (not, as a rule, at Il Pozzetto, though there hangs another tale…) in drear places where the lighting is fit only for a morgue, and you wonder why they don’t morph into something spectacular. But here’s the answer: the kind of effort needed for that really isn’t considered worth the sweat when you’re doing just fine as you are. And heavens, just think: if you made the effort, you’d have to keep those appearances up. How exhausting! No, stick with the neons and the paper table covers and the execrable décor: it’s so much less hassle.

I called this attitude typically Umbrian but in fact, you can find it in most very rural Italian places. I always used to wonder why, when Mafia kingpins at the apex of mega drug-and-extortion empires are caught, they are always living in some concrete bunker in a neglected farmyard with a camp bed, a chemical toilet and goats wandering in to share the one luxury: a vast flat-screen TV. The boss is driven away, sirens blaring, wearing track suit bottoms held up with baler twine, a greasy-looking checked shirt and the ineluctable battered flatcap.

Why were these people not designer-dressed in multi-million-dollar villas in some Caribbean paradise? I suspect the things are linked.

The contadino mentality clings to territory and to things as they have always been. So you’ve made a killing (haha) branching out into heroin and AK47s? Why should you complicate life by moving to the Caribbean and leaving your goats behind? You have everything you need in your farmhouse bunker. That’s your natural habitat and you’re staying put.

**********

L left us at the restaurant table for a while because he had a crucial appointment at the Moiano football pitch at 9pm. What he thought he was going to find there was some young buck assigned to take his €30 and give him the tacky lycra shirt he has to wear as a newly signed-up member of the local cycling club.

Instead, in the neon-lit changing rooms he found three old men sitting on one side of a long table, waiting to interrogate him. They asked him about his bike passion and his riding record and all kinds of things, clearly excited (in an undemonstrative Umbrian way) by the fact that they were dealing – presumably for the first time – with a foreigner.

He passed the test, got his lycra and was handed his membership card which had been heat-sealed in plastic so badly that he was unrecognisable in his photo and had to come home and remedy the situation with the electric sandwich maker (a trick that worked, surprisingly). I think he feels a whole new epoch has begun.

**********

The peas and broad beans are almost over; they weren’t too good this year, perhaps because I planted them in beds where they didn’t get quite enough sun. We’re eating green beans and spinach and new potatoes and industrial quantities of raspberries. We’ve picked tart wild cherries and made jam. There are tomatoes on the plants, though they’re not ripe yet.

And there are mulberries – soooo many mulberries on the two trees which are now touching tips on either side of the drive just outside the gate. I was beginning to think that I had been sold sterile trees despite my request for proper fruit-bearing ones. The fruit in past years had always dropped off before it passed the tiny, hard, green stage. Now I find (research I could have done before of course) that it’s quite common for trees not to fruit for eight or nine years after planting. When did I plant mine? Probably eight years ago, I’d say.

I have ambitious plans for pies and jams, though so far all I’ve done is pull berries off the lower branches and eat them ad nauseam. Mulberries are low-pectin fruit, so I’m going to experiment with making my own pectin with currants. This year I have netted the currants to stop the birds eating the lot. At some point (when?) I’ll boil them up and make sure I have enough syrup to set a whole lot of mulberry jam. I do love adding new fruits to my jam collection.

**********

But what I’ve been dedicating most time to (along with working on my project on the coast near Tarquinia) is our new-look patio outside the kitchen.

It’s a wonderful spot out there, for looking over our wide wooded empty valley, and watching birds of prey wheel and seasons change. When I first arranged the levels outside, I was determined not to create a great big ‘swish country house’ patio, and keep it to a bare farmhouse minimum. And this is fine, as long as we don’t have too many people to dinner. But the table seats up to 12, and when there are that many, they are pretty well obliged to sit and not budge because there’s absolutely no room for moving about.

So I have extended it outwards – not hugely, but enough so that it feels like a room rather than a corridor. And if the blacksmith ever gets around to it, we will also have a pergola out there to eat under. I’m going for clean contemporary rather than gnarled rustic… in for a penny etc. I suspect that by the time it’s all installed, it will still be quite tight out there (and the precipitous drop from the edge of the patio to the level below will be a trifle off-putting until the plants grow and soften it all) but at least it should feel less cramped.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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