Monday, December 10, 2007

Umbria in Winter

In the hot Umbrian summer, I sit on my front porch in like an Alabama backwoods granny and survey the scene. The background noise-- from chickens, ducks, pigeons, dogs, cats, sheep --has been thoughtfully provided by my neighbors, true Italian contadini, real farmers.

I soak in the ambiance that comes from the clucks and barks and meows and coos without having to feed, water or clean up. St. Francis of Assisi, my predecessor here in the green heart of Italy, might not be proud of me for this lazy approach, but I do enjoy it.

From my vantage point I can see three medieval villages perched on distant hillsides. Olive trees march up and down the rolling hills and in summer big reapers harvest wheat in the lower valleys. The jasmine and the roses add their scent to that of manure, and the sunflowers burst with color, signaling the warm times.

Fall, which, according to the rules, is still with us until December 21, was full of crystal blue skies, heavily pregnant olive trees, and ruby-leaved grapevines sprawling across the landscape. There were wine tastings and truffle hunts and afternoons at the frantoio, drinking wine and eating bruschetta dripping with new oil while we waited our turn at the press.

And now? The nine friends who came to pick olives have gone home, small bottles of green treasure in their suitcases. Though we've been here since 1997, this is our first year with so many more trees; to us, the neophytes, the harvest was magnificent, though our experienced neighbors complained of too little fruit. My kitchen shelves are lined with flacons of mossy green olive oil and bags of pungent porcini mushrooms; there are still a couple of truffles in the frig, left-evers (as Piero calls them) from the hunt two weeks ago. Tonight I will cook up some zuppa, with farro and the porcini, to stick to our ribs on a winter night.

Outside, though the day started with sun, the clouds have lowered, almost within touching distance of our hill. The sheep from down the road escaped their pasture again and I had to get up from the lunch table to shoo them away from nibbling my potted plants. They hurried down the hill on little stick legs, their shaggy coats swaying. Otherwise, we haven't strayed far today from the kitchen fireplace.

Why are we here in winter, when the skies blacken before five and the wind whistles around the corners of the house? We could be Christmas shopping in Piazza Navona in Rome or sitting on a wharf on Mobile Bay, dipping our toes in the water, but we've chosen this. Maybe because only one car came down our road today or because we can see little white flowers incongruously blooming under the olive trees or because there is fresh snow on the Appenines. Maybe tomorrow we'll bundle up and go see the Christmas lights in the village.
copyright 2007 Sharri Whiting

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