Almost two years ago, my friends Steve and Sandy had an idea: Let’s rent a place in Italy for a week, enjoy the local food and wine, rest, relax and escape the world.
Since then, there have been cancer scares and treatments as well as personal upheavals that turned the worlds of various members of the group upside down. I, for one, started graduate school, found a rewarding new job, co-authored a book that’s due out in a couple of months and survived major surgery. Yet there were times when I questioned whether the trip would occur.
And yet, here we are, six of us, in the tiny town of Torre Aflina, Italy, sharing a house that overlooks the castle towers of the town’s name, a castle that was destroyed and yet, if my paltry Italian serves me correctly, was reconstructed in the 19th century. (We also have proudly displayed the “Go Spurs Go” sign that Sandy brought. You probably won’t find another one of those in the region.)
A bell from the nearby duomo has just struck the half-hour. It was a singular peal, and yet at certain times of day, the sound of the local bells rings right through you in a joyous clatter.
I can’t tell you much of what treasures the town offers by way of food. We arrived here on a Saturday in our various ways. All had come to this town, in the state of Lazio by way of Florence but in very different methods. My own was an adventure I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I missed my friends at the car rental, so I hopped a train to nearby Orvieto, but I couldn’t get in touch with anyone about transportation for the last leg of the trip. The phones weren’t working. So. I was dragging a heavy suitcase across more than a mile of cobblestone streets trying to find an Internet café, or caffé, to use the Italian word.
I was eventually brought to the house in a scene that somehow reminded me of the film “Enchanted April.” The women in that movie need an escape from the harshness of London winter and the dreariness of their lives, but when they arrive in Italy, everything seems to be worse. It’s rainy and ugly and they can barely do anything but collapse in their rooms. The next morning, however, a shutter opens upon a healthy, restorative dose of sunlight, and they can forget what happened before.
I felt the same as I stood in the afternoon sunlight. It washed away every last care from the trip as if getting here had been a breeze. And there was a breeze, too. Summertime has not hit this town yet. In fact, it is very much in the midst of spring, with peonies, jasmine, roses and geraniums in bloom everywhere about the garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuces and green beans are planted in perfect rows. Herbs of all varieties are scattered here and there: basil, several types of sage, several varieties of thyme, oregano, parsley, lovage, marjoram and chives in full bloom.
It helped that we had arranged for someone to come in and cook for us on our first night here. Saturday was the day of celebrating the Republic of Italy, which is akin to our Independence Day, except there are no fireworks, just eating, drinking and relaxing. It also meant a limited time to shop.
The chef started us off with eggplant fritters with Grana Padano ice cream, followed by ravioli stuffed with fresh herbs and topped with a butter sauce. I could have lived on that alone. The main course was duck with a spinach timbale on the side and what the chef called spicy onions. They weren’t spicy hot; they were cooked in a wonderful combination of star anise and cinnamon with honey and orange juice. Dessert was a chocolate cupola, or mousse, with a raspberry sauce.
As hungry as we all were, we managed to accumulate plenty of leftovers, which held us well on our first day of fending for ourselves. Various members of the group had picked up a few items on Saturday, including fruit, salami, cheeses and pasta. So, we pieced them together with the leftovers for another fine dinner.
Patti made a salad of shaved fennel and orange slices topped with the leftover onions and a drizzle of olive oil. Cecil used the leftover breads with an olive oil-based dipping sauce. The duck went into a ragout with rigatoni, and a butter-cheese sauce, made with the rest of the Grana Padano ice cream, went on the leftover ravioli.
A couple of bottles of wine from the nearby town and from the cellar made everyone happy.
Tomorrow, the markets will be open, so we can head into town to find out what’s in season and then we can figure out what we’ll be living on the rest of the week. And living is what we having in mind while we’re here.