Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Hermit's Feast

This is a paper I wrote for one of my classes: I haven't updated in forever- or ever, so I figured I would put this on....hope you like it.

The drive seemed to go on forever, but the fog was as thick and white as cream; it even managed to white out road signs along our way. All I knew was that I was in a taxi bound for the mountains outside of Parma for lunch and wine at a friend of Luca's. His former professor of mathematics to be exact.
Luca is a taxi driver in Parma whom I barely know through bits of my bad Italian and his broken English. I managed to communicate that I was a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. From here he launched into a reverent description of his friend; a legendary intellectual, conversationalist, and most importantly a cook. He happened to be going to this friends mountain home the next day for lunch and would I like to come? Of course I found this offer to be golden- an invitation into the home of an esteemed cook. I'm in. See you tomorrow at eleven.
Luca's hulking friend Bruno is also a cabbie and I was surprised to see him occupying the front passenger seat when they pulled up outside my apartment in- what else- a taxi. I hop in the back seat next to two bottles of wine, a salumi, and a smoked calciocavallo cheese which I am instructed not to eat because it is for later. Just outside of Parma the fog awaited us and we didn't escape it until we climbed above it onto the mountain. We emerged into a different world from the one we left- it was snow covered, the trees were tall and pine, and the silence of the snowy road completed the otherness of our new location. We finally stop in possibly the smallest town in Italy where the math professor would have to come down and pick us up in his four-wheel-drive since the taxi wouldn't fare well higher on the mountain. It took about ten minutes for the vehicle to climb down, during which Luca and Bruno smoked four cigarettes each and chatted with great velocity in Italian. It starts to creep into my mind that I will have difficulty following conversation. The four-wheel-drive appears. It is about twenty years old, shedding upholstery, and reeking of wet dog and old cigarettes. The car's owner, Artimedes speaks no English either, so my feeling that my sense of hearing would be useless today became a hard fact. However my sense of taste would be enough.
We climb further into nowhere for fifteen minutes and Artimedes' dog appears- the sentry of the hermitage. The huge white guard almost blocks the view of the house sitting serenely in the snow with a chimney benignly puffing smoke into the crisp air. We attempt to exchange pleasantries as the wine is opened, the salumi sliced, and the water set to boil, but language is difficult and I just smile a lot. To be generous, the kitchen is Spartan. It clearly is the home of a straight man living alone for a long time. The necessities are all there, with no d├ęcor and little attention to tidiness. Artimedes reaches into his tiny freezer and grabs an unlabeled, indistinct jar half filled with a brownish-black grainy paste. Within ten minutes there is a steaming plate of linguine with black olive pesto sitting in front of me. As is typical in Italy, I'm encouraged to eat immediately and not wait for the others to be served. “It's hot now so eat while it's at its best.” This is a cultural phenomenon I wish the rest of the world would accept. I take a bite and it is phenomenal. The pasta is al dente to the point of being uncooked, but its firmness played off the squishy minced olives in a partnership my mouth admired. While my teeth worked the strong linguine noodles, my tongue had time to swirl and savor the delicate black-ripe olives in oil. He salted the water, but not the sauce, since the olives took care of that. The ingredients were as few as the accoutrements to the man's home, and that allowed each to shine. If a taste bud can sense the care with which a dish is prepared, mine knew immediately that Artimedes loved his olives. The pesto was prepared last fall when the olives were at their best, and the olive oil came from the same farm as the olives- a farm that a friend owns in Tuscany. It took about a half hour of conversation and references to my dizionario for me to understand this small fact- but I became much more interested in this loner on a mountain after the first bite.
A diminuitive man of about fifty years, Artimedes is a chain smoking life-long bachelor whose love of food seems to be in the blood of many people I've met in Italy. He is a man with thinning hair but admirable charisma, which is easy to see in any language. The way he held court with the two young taxi drivers reminds me of a sage in a cave taking occasional visitors to bask in his enlightenment. We sat in uncomfortable ladder-backed chairs around an indistinct Formica table for hours. Nine hours. And we enjoyed it. After the pasta was the contorni of olives marinated with peppers or onions, bread, oil and more wine. Then the cheese; the calciocavallo Luca brought, and a peccorino Artimedes had purchased for the occasion. And then, after a Tuscan cigar, came the dolce.
Artimedes prepared for us what is to this day among the best desserts I have had in Italy. It was a simple torta of apple and raisins. This is not something I would usually care for, but his crust was not the paste-like substance that often passes for crust in Italian bakeries. It was sweet, crumbly and buttery and wasn't heavy on the stomach. It also had a reasonable amount of fruit and accompanying caramelized juice to remind you that it is, in fact, the star of the dessert. The raisins had been soaked in an unidentifiable low-alcohol liquor and so were revived to juiciness. The apples were substantial in texture balancing on the precipice between undercooked and mush. The juice which respected the boundary of the crust was thick and just sweet enough. Artimedes was proud as we all went in for seconds. He brought out last year's Nocino, a dark brown home-made liquor made from nuts. I didn't understand which nuts, but after a couple cordials and a caffe corretto with grappa I found the Nocino's chewy sediment a little charming at the base of a glass coated in the syrupy residue. Also newly charming were the two cab drivers who suddenly felt they could sing Frank Sinatra and re-enact action scenes from the movies. When Bruno did a startling realistic death scene after being shot by an invisible bullet in the chest, I didn't flinch. My trepidation from the morning hours had vanished. I glanced at Artimedes through a cloud of smoke from his latest Tuscan cigar and ran to the side of Bruno in his death throes acting as the bereaved widow-to-be.

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