23 February 2018


Italian beverages in small-town NSW

Rome taxi drivers. They’re generally fairly unlikeable, like the one who took us to Termini station today. Laminated sheets of A5 stuck to the dashboard and the back of the front passenger seat welcomed fares who sat meekly and let him do what he wanted – persone gentili, well behaved people. That was the first, very short, sentence.

Then there was a long rant about how people who saw fit to try to teach him the ‘correct’ route, people who dare to answer back, people spoiling for a fight, people – in short – who made his life a misery could just exit the vehicle. You could tell he was on a short fuse.

From the hotel where we spent last night, he set off in the direction diametrically opposed to the station, which was our destination. We were so busy trying to find ways of stashing our sodden raingear without drenching our legs that I didn’t notice at first. There might well have been a simple explanation: the whole traffic system around the heavily militarised Colosseum area has been changed. L enquired, in a very friendly way I thought, why he had opted for that particular route.

A me? A me?” he thundered, glaring at us bug-eyed in the rear-view mirror. “Sta dicendo a me che strada fare?!You’re telling me which way to go?!

For a moment I thought we might be forcibly ejected. He muttered and grumbled and we sunk into the back seat, trying not to giggle. I wondered what kind of carnage a driver in the grip of an apoplectic fit might cause in chaotic Rome traffic. He was clearly not used to having his decisions queried.

The one who took me to the hotel the previous evening, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically pleasant, and interested to hear that I lived in Umbria because that’s where he was from. Except, it transpired, he wasn’t because he came from the Marche. But near enough. Kind of.

Of course the chat turned to food. Because this is Italy and it always does. He started listing all his favourite umbro-marchigiani meaty things. The city was log-jammed in the rain, and he had plenty of time to be horribly exhaustive. At a certain point, though, I guess it must have occurred to him that I wasn’t joining in. I was forced to admit that I don’t eat meat.


– So what do you put with your vegetables? You must have a steak every now and then?
– No.
Silence. I think he was beginning to worry that he had some psychopath, or maybe alien, in his cab. He was going to have to humour me. Previously, I’d told him that we’d lived in Rome for 25 years. So he tried again, with Roman food.

– But, like, at least you can eat pajata….?

Of all meat dishes, pajata is one that makes even the most callous carnivore balk. It’s the intestines of very young, unweaned veal, with the mother’s milk still inside. It’s boiled up in thick tomato sauce so that the milk curdles nauseatingly.

I try to explain to him patiently that that is possibly the most disgusting meat dish ever invented but he’s having none of it.

– But it’s just milk! Come on, it’s perfect if you don’t eat meat!

I let it slide.

Rome was awash, a sodden dystopia of broken umbrellas and crappy plastic bag-bins flapping everywhere. They’re a novelty. The bulking baronial-castle-fire-basket ones which actually – when you got used to them – looked rather fine and fitting but which caused such an outcry when they were introduced for the 2000 Holy Year have disappeared, presumably for security reasons. I would wager that they cost a fortune which had the happy side-effect of limiting their number.


Bernini & bag-bins

The new ones, on the other hand, are a disk of concrete with a metal stick coming out of them, ending in a thick plastic circle to which a big plastic bag is attached. They lean at drunken angles on the rocky pavements and flap inelegantly. No attempt at separating for recycling. And – I’ll wager because they’re relatively cheap – they are everywhere, blighting the city. I think I’d prefer rubbish on the ground, quite frankly because they are little more than rubbish raised slightly above it. In piazza Navona, I counted up to 30 of the things, all around that magnificent oval with those magnificent statues at its centre and those magnificent palazzi all around. Thirty-plus forlorn flapping bag-bins. It was disgusting. What is the hapless Rome city council thinking of?


Annoyingly inactive sweet potatoes

I’m trying to strike my own sweet potatoes. According to every single thing I’ve read about it, striking sweet potatoes is like falling off a log. Really? Mostly, so far, I’ve struck some very fine mould cultures and some very smelly water. Are they in too cold a spot? I shouldn’t think so because they had days of lovely sunshine before the current damp misery (punctuated with some snow here and there) set in. I’m going to persevere, though I don’t know for how long.

I’m also going to give ginger another go. Someone (who?) told me that they grow tons of it, every year, around here. I think it might – like on my previous attempts – come unstuck in my sticky claggy clay soil, but there’s no harm in trying.

I think I won’t do potatoes this year. They’re very unsatisfying. They take up a whole lot of space and stay there for too long and then tend to go yucky in the pantry before we get around to eating them.

I am – I decided as I did my usual spring-time prowl through the Organic Catalogue – going to grow silly frondy things: odd oriental salady bits, outlandish kales. If nothing else, they’ll jolly up the vegetable garden.

End-February is the time when I generally start putting seeds in trays and my greenhouse begins filling up. But there’s so much snow on the forecast for the next five days or so, and such un-springy cold (-9°? We don’t get -9°!) that I’m absolutely going to wait.


The Pittwater harbour house where I grew up

It seems such a long time ago that we were sweltering in Sri Lanka, then me in Australia. I look back in shame at my endless moaning about the excessive heat last summer: never again will I talk badly of the summer. (I will of course, but hey.) My sore back should have seized up irremediably over long plane journeys but instead it vanished the moment we stepped out into summer. My shoulder, still aching from a bike tumble two years ago, was suddenly ‘cured’.

I even emerged unscathed from the kind of road trip – from the Snowy Mountains, all along the NSW coast up to Sydney and beyond – which should have finished me off. But I was warm, and it was wonderful, and it didn’t.

Now here I am, back in the cold, and my aches have rushed back in. I’m not made for cold. I can’t wait until this whoosh of air from the Siberian Arctic disperses and I can start thinking springy thoughts.



About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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