February 18, 2014

Discreet Charms of Winter

We’re taking two winter trips to Cortona this year. Restoration at Bramasole keeps raging on, and I admit that I keep adding projects, such as a half-moon fountain against a tall stone wall. I bought a stone lion face years ago, and now he’ll reign over the new fountain with a little copper tube from his mouth spilling water. I dwell on this point of possible beauty because the rest of the place is a muddy zone with so many trenches that it looks like ancient warfare.

At least the crane is gone. Progress!  On our January trip, this is how we spent many days:

Valter, the architect (in the middle), is a hands-on, droll, and resourceful person who keeps us calm. He’s there several times a week, paying attention to the minute details.  Sergio, second from right, is the builder. We huddled many mornings in the rain to review the work. What IS Ed laughing about? That ganglia of tubes  mystifies me.  What they’re standing on is the new marciapiedi, made from old stones Sergio found in a crumbling barn. This walkway seals the bottom of the house and will prevent moisture from seeping up the walls. The facade is all restored except for the bottom part. They are waiting on that until the marciapiedi was laid and everything has a chance to dry. With the rain we had while we were there, when might that might happen?  

Mud is a pretty good word, but the Italian word fango sounds more like what you see above.  This looks like a BEFORE picture, but actually, it’s AFTER. As you may recall from previous posts, this is what the front garden looked like before:

In spring, we’ll put down new grass, pull the lemons trees out of the limonaia, plant big pots with spilling geraniums, and hope that it returns to its former beauty.

When we were not knee-deep in mud, we were, of course, eating. Most restaurants are closed during January but the ones that remain open seem especially cosy and jolly. And, ah, the winter food! Polenta with mushrooms and sausage–as in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, and what we loved at the tiny trattoria Fettunta–polenta baked with tallegio in the oven. At Bar Tuscher, where we had many lunches, they make lasagne with a twist. The tender layers of pasta and ragù are served on a little pool of béchamel, rather than the béchamel being incorporated into the ragù layers. I loved this idea because the lasagne seemed lighter and the flavors more nuanced.  At home, we savored the big pork roasts, pasta with wild boar, and the marvelous thick soup, ribollita.  We managed only one party and for that Gilda made zeppole.

Fried bread, but so light. Usually they’re sweet and sprinkled with powered sugar but for the antipasto course, she served these as savories. Some with cheese stirred in, some with anchovies. Recipe? “There is no recipe, you just make them.” Next time, I’ll try to write down how, exactly, they’re done. I looked for recipes on line and didn’t find anything similar. If anyone reading this has a recipe, let me know!

We have not been in Italy in winter in several years. The streets shine in the rain, shop owners cover the windows with newspaper while they spruce up their walls or rearrange, one lone man leans into a doorway out of the rain. He’s gazing out at the empty piazza and I think he could have been there for a thousand Januarys.

Tourists? There’s one, an American from Michigan, and he’s in Bar Tuscher every day. I think he’s learning Italian very fast because, in this season, everyone wants to talk. Last seen, he was holding court with several policemen and they were enjoying an afternoon prosecco. Such are the charms of winter–an intimacy, a privacy with a place, bright faces in the rain, that second bottle of wine you share with a neighboring table where you’ve just met a couple down for the weekend from Torino. An icy wind whips down from the Alps and smells like snow. Spontaneous waterfalls in the woods surprise you on long tramps in rubber boots.  


We spent many evenings by the fire with dinner on trays, and books. I adored Elena Ferrante’s  My Brilliant Friend and the sequel, The Story of a New Name. We roasted chestnuts and opened our neighbor’s nutty vinsanto. I like to step outside late, just to shiver a little and hear the owls calling. What winter has is time. The nights are long and after the rain, the stars are clear and close.