Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Roman Festival Brightens Umbrian Hillside

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“Why not drop around on Sunday,” Riccardo suggested, “We’ll have a few artichokes.”

The retired Alitalia pilot was our landlord when we arrived in Panicale, a medieval central-Italy castle-town. He and his wife, Mariolina, were friends when we left.

This fortress overlooks Lake Trasemino, the peninsula’s fourth largest lake, to the north, the manicured Tuscan countryside to the west, and the rolling Umbrian hills to the south and east. This body of water still soaks some 25,000 thousand Roman soldiers drowned here by Hannibal more than 2,000 years ago.

Our landlords opted out of big-city living in Rome several years ago and occupied our spacious apartment while they built a picture-book home in a hill-clinging olive grove just below the town’s centuries-old walls.

“I bought this apartment because when I look out that (living room) window, that’s Umbria,” he said.

The Umbria you see is the reddish-yellow brick-and-rock front of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel (one of seven churches in this village) leaning on a restaurant by an archway that frames the main piazza with its 500-year-old fountain and bars, hair salons, stationery and gift shops, and small groups of standing and sitting locals sorting out the various problems of the day.

We knew we were in for something special as we approached the lane sloping into their farmyard. It was like breaking into an opera.

About three dozen people wearing the full array of bright yellows, reds, greens – pick a color – were milling about chittering, chattering, and chanting in that Italian sing song from which arias emerge. The accompaniment was provided by Riccardo’s tractor as it hauled dead olive branches to a pile resembling a titanic tumbleweed.

“You don’t work, you don’t eat,” was Mariolina’s mandate.

Our immediate chore was to gather mint leaves off the plant stems and chop the stocks off the artichokes – shopping-cart-sized mounds of them. Then the mint leaves were minced with garlic and olive oil. The artichoke are given a good slam on the ground to soften them so their hearts centers can be opened up and crammed with the mint-leave-garlic-oil mixture.

Through all this, you had to balance wine with oil-soaked bread, cheese, fresh fava beans, and more wine before the fire is ready.

It was at this point that Mariolina explained these artichoke afternoons are a traditional Roman ritual because the plant originates in the region south of the capital.

The giant pile of shrubbery is burned and the ashes raked into a flat lava-like bed of coals.

Then you have to tuck your artichoke into the coals to cook. You only get to eat the one you cooked.

Again, the operatic metaphor arose as each person displayed a distinctive dance pirouetting around the blistering mound. It takes about 45 minutes for the artichokes to cook in this manner, which gave everyone time to sample more wine with the sausages and pork barbecued on a fire fed with larger chunks of trimmed olive wood.

Then flowed the desserts, all of them home-made.

This operatic event marked the end of our five week stay that included jaunts to the nearby cities and towns that dot our imaginations and the Italian landscape – Assisi, Siena, Orvieto, Cortona, Spello, Perugia, all within an hour’s drive of here – and Rome, Florence, and Pisa, each a couple of hours away.

But we also took a harder look out our window. There it was Panicale. Umbria. Italy.

Written by Cecil Scaglione

November 4, 2021 at 5:00 am

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