I was feeling quite smug about my decision to leave my tomato seedlings indoors on Wednesday night when temperatures sank to an April record low of -4°C… only to discover that disaster has struck on my wisteria pergola. Formerly promising flowerlets are now drooping like the tails of so many freshly drowned kittens. Not that I’ve ever seen a freshly drowned kitten I should add. But the two things cause me more or less equal amounts of despair.
Our rain-less two months have given way to miserable, relentless drizzle that barely registers on my super-dooper new weather station, even though the machine measures tiny fractions of millimetres. So far this evening, for example, we’re up to 0.79mm despite the fact that moisture has been thick in the air since early this morning. It’s horrible.
It was serendipitous, then, that we made another of our work-escapes just before the weather changed, motoring over towards Tuscany’s Maremma coast, to Saturnia.
Saturnia played a big part in our early days in Italy: in the mid-1980s we’d drive up from Rome to the hot springs out in the countryside and immerse ourselves in the cascades before eating in a nearby restaurant which had a separate dining room for post-dip diners reeking of sulphur, then drive home again. In those days there were grottoes on the upper stretch of the steaming stream which functioned as natural saunas; they’ve fallen away now. And there was nothing in the way of organisation: you parked in the field, generally alongside a couple of bedraggled VW campers with weed-smoking occupants. Now there are carparks and bars and souvenir shops, though this week they were all closed under lockdown rules of course.
That wasn’t where we were headed anyway. Our destination was the Terme di Saturnia. The hotel’s PR was keen to host the kind of journalist who would almost certainly use any experience gleaned now in some future article. They were determined, she explained, to position themselves properly for when the tourism sector roared back to life.
The strange thing is, though, hotels like the Terme di Saturnia which are officially designated as medical facilities have, if anything, benefitted from the pandemic: with the competition hamstrung by travel bans (inter-regional travel is still not permitted in Italy; hotels remain, for the most part, shuttered), they’ve been doing just fine throughout. Get your doctor to prescribe essential sulphurous steam treatments; even simpler, write yourself a certificate stating that your organism can’t do without hot water baths and constant massages. And hey presto: you can brazen it out if stopped by the police en route, argue your trip is for medical reasons, and hole up in this five-star get-away completely legitimately, lockdown or no lockdown.
And people have. It was a little glimpse into a world where liquidity puts you outside the rules that the rest of us are bound by. There were guests who’d stayed there for weeks or even months, we were told – parents distance working, kids attending online school classes from their suites between dips in the hot pool. Well fed and pampered in this five-star nest (which at first I found cold but which grew on me over our two-day stay, mostly because of kindly, very professional staff) you can see why some people might be tempted.
It made me very uncomfortable however. It wasn’t so much my natural aversion to a sense of entitlement (we didn’t have contact with any guests to gauge this) as a feeling that we were likely among people who felt themselves justified in finding a work-around for Covid restrictions which are, in the long-run, designed to keep everyone as safe as possible – both the haves and the have-nots. Were these the kind of people we wanted to spend time among? (Is this self-righteous of me?)
Frankly, though: being in closed spaces (I’m thinking of the really rather good restaurant here) with unmasked strangers is weird and threatening enough; being in that situation with lockdown-dodgers is even more unnerving. Yes, we had a lovely break. But yes, we were very happy to return home… despite the mixed emotions of flourishing tomato seedlings and forlorn wisteria.
In my last post I wrote about losing important pieces of the local community. Another one has gone since, though not – as far as I know – because of Covid. Bruno Coppetta opened his restaurant well over 50 years ago and it has been a CdP mainstay ever since, now run by his son and daughter-in-law, Maurizio and Gianna. In recent years Bruno had been relegated to chief slicer of the great big haunch of ham that was wheeled around between tables. Then he gently faded out altogether, too doddery for the bustle of a packed trattoria.
But my musings over these last few days haven’t been so much about Bruno as Gigi whom I dwelled on last time. And not even directly about him.
I had a phone call from a friend in the US with an apartment in CdP right opposite where Gigi lived with his sister. My friend was worried about this sister, who is tiny and frail and only seemed to cook for her brother. Sending flowers or chocolate would be a little too token. Could meals be delivered to her, so she would be tempted to eat?
In an odd coincidence, the call came shortly after I’d listened to a BBC radio programme about the rise of food delivery apps which are, in my opinion, emblematic of so much that is wrong with modern society: huge conglomerations which ’employ’ people on atrocious terms, exploiting them and paying them a pittance but still incapable of making money, encouraging the spread of mind-boggling amounts of polluting packaging, dehumanising food and removing all the sociability that should spring from it, enveloping eating in a huge cloud of soulless loneliness… and yet despite all this, deemed an excellent investment when floated on the stock exchange. What kind of self-delusion is this? What on earth is wrong with us?
By way of contrast, what did we do? I filled my absent friend in on which CdP eateries are doing takeaway through the lockdown (several, though not including Coppetta). We discussed who might best handle a sensitive case of this nature and which type of food might interest someone of such a tiny appetite. Then she called the Bistrot del Duca and explained the situation and decided on a menu to be delivered over the following few days to Gigi’s sister.
When the Bistrot’s owner-manager-cook Christian phoned to inform the old lady, she was incredulous. “You mean, I have to eat every day?” she said. I suspect that having a kindly young man turn up on her doorstep with food he has prepared just for her (and transported up the road himself in compostable packaging) will do her far more good than the food itself. In this neck of the woods, eating is still companionship, delivery has a soul and there’s a straight, tangible, personal line from producer to consumer.
A propos of absolutely nothing, I was fascinated by this data which appeared on my Twitter feed (@gardensinitaly – or was it @veniceexpert or @pievesuites? I do confuse myself with my split personality.) Scroll down to the bottom of this report, and take a look at Table 1. Agriculture accounted for 40% of all jobs in Italy in 1955 and 32.8% in 1960. Today, that figure stands at 3.6% three percent. And then I wonder (and I often do) why so much of the territory around here has rewilded itself so efficiently. There’s simply no one looking out for it.
And another passing thought, summoned up by a stray photo: the Segheria Ferri woodyard down by the railway tracks in Fabro Scalo is a place that I love. It’s so woody. The scent of freshly cut logs is divine. Those short planks there are bits of chestnut, for repairing the collapsing steps linking the terraces on our land. They don’t come from the huge trunk sharing a trolley with them: that’s poplar wood which would rot away in no time outdoors. But the whole yard is stacked high with trunks of every description. It’s wonderfully raw.