Easter in Italy
5th May 2017
It”s 29 degrees, but from the crowd’s sartorial choices of puffa jackets, expensive Versace leather coats and high turtle necks, you may be forgiven for thinking it was early January. To be fair, the shade provided by the high football stand does bring the temperature down to, oh let’s say 27 degrees with the breeze nipping in off the Messina straits. It still doesn’t warrant the sub arctic Captain Scott level of dress code however.
I am sat with my cousin Giuseppe watching his sons play for the local Serie D kids football team. It’s not like English Sunday league where 20 kids in baggy shirts wade through estuaries of mud and trampled grass all trying to get the same ball. Instead, this is 20 bronzed kids in perfectly cut football strips playing silky smooth one touch cool as you like total football. There is one goal in 90 minutes and it was worked like something an adult Cruyff would be proud of.
The sun tears through a hole in the stadium roof; it’s Southern Italy after all, this stadium was probably built by either the Fascists, Communists or Mafia and likely is made from Grissini dough. The temperature soars, everyone starts complaining in a fan chant-like harmony
“Mamma Mia, troppo caldo!!!”
The coats stay on though, it’s Easter after all which, in Southern Italy, is like the depths of midwinter, irrelevant of the temperature.
Easter is bigger than Christmas down there with essentially 4 days of solid eating and drinking, leading my mum and I to jet down to the old country.
My mum’s family are from a little town on the toe of the boot. It’s the last train stop in Italy and feels like the end of the world. It’s not your green midsummer-murder hills of Umbria, and aside from the annual gruff grunts of holidaying Hulligans, you wont hear the twang of home-counties English like in Tuscany. If you want yachts instead of contraband running speed boats, sagging bulk container ships and worn car ferries, try the Cinque Terra. Down here is flavour country amigo, real blue collar Italy.
I feel so close to this corner of the world, namely because it’s as if it was built by me in a drunken stupor. There is probably one stretch of level pavement and road. Houses crumble and rot in the baking heat, built from concrete with the strength of a soggy Ryvita. Cats, millions of cats, roam the streets.
The beach is a graveyard for nautical detritus, washed up on the golden sand which my grandpa charged over when he helped liberate his home town in ‘43. Bottles, cans, containers from around the world seem to make their way here, more than actual tourists.
You see people first thing in the morning, briefly across lunch and then just after dinner when they parade themselves along the beach. Aside from that, it’s like a scene from a Western with folk rocking on their porches giving you the evil eye. It’s one of those places you can walk by a pile of rubbish and see a coke can from 1992 with the Barcelona Olympics promotion and feel nostalgic. It’ll still be there next year.
My first port of call is the local Spar. In southern Italy these are like the bastions of good times. I race around the store with my mum in tow. Amalfi lemons, Tropea onions, new crop of Fave Beans, pears, strawberries, bulbous Sicilian aubergines fly into the faded red basket. The olive oil shelf is a whole aisle which requires a solid ten minutes of careful study, before charging off to buy Cacciocavallo from Sila, local country wine with no label, salami, olives, tins of tuna in oil. If it’s edible it goes in – hallelujah!
You don’t really need to buy anything down here though. The ramshackle, lawless yet generous nature of the town means that food is easily found for free.
On my morning runs along the sea path, I take regular pitstops at Nespoli, orange and lemon trees where my predatory appetite for free, slightly over ripe fruit can get the better of me. In ice cream parlors, the smallest amount of feigned interest at the multi-colored tabernacle of gelato results invariably in a free small cup. Multiply this by four – five Ice cream shops and monetary exchange becomes redundant. Then there is the family table…
They are all cooks in their own way. If they don’t actually cook, hell, if they have never even picked up a spatula, they are still an expert with more clout in the their kitchen than a 3 star Michelin rear vice admiral mega chef.
Zio Cosimo, a man recovering from open heart surgery but still not shy of homemade wine and the odd twenty of Marlboro Red, is the most lauded chef in the block, to the point that he gets drafted between most of the apartments like a freelance Gastronaut. His parmigianas are wonderfully thin and surprisingly light, which is a miracle as they are built on fried aubergine, chopped boiled egg and just about every cheese southern Italy produces. His post-church Sunday morning Pastachina, with its layers of hollow zitoni pasta, is remarkably delicate with an interior as intricate as weaved honeycomb, daubed together by more local cheese and slightly sweet, sulfurous tomato. It’s almost worth attending the two hour Easter mass for.
If you have Italian relatives then you will know that if you go and visit them, you have about a two mile cordon sanitaire around you that keeps you completely in their clutches. You want to go to the shop – a Fiat Panda rocks up to take you on the one minute journey down the road. Need to get a train, forget about it, you stay with us! This year we broke free and managed to have a whistlestop tour to some friends in Catania (Sicily).
Giovanni and Stefania used to have a restaurant back in my folks’ town up North, and they had invited us for lunch in the grounds of their sprawling wedding event centre. Giovanni is a top chef and had basically raided what seemed like the entire contents of the Mediterranean to feed us. Cuttlefish with fried green onions, raw sea urchins, Gallinella with fennel, more parmigiana, fried octopus risotto all eaten under the blue firmament of the Sicilian sky amongst the mandarin trees.
Despite the rubbish, casual nods to organised crime, dilapidated houses and seasonally over dressed locals, this place has always felt like home. My Mum always said my Grandpa was a different man here, more excitable, alive and slightly frenetic. It has the opposite effect on me. It makes me wonderfully drowsy, calm and with a give a damn attitude to life. My grandpa left for a better life and more economic opportunities, I could easily see myself returning for different reasons…Free fruit and ice cream, top level junior football and regular doses of fried aubergine, and who knows, wearing a thick leather jacket in tropical heat might grow on me.