La Settimana Bianca

It’s all down hill from here.

“I’m not doing the course,” said my daughter, Giorgia, as we pulled out of the driveway, headed to the Dolomites for our annual ski vacation, known in Italia as the “La settimana bianca,” or the white week.

We were four families vacationing together in Folgarida. After cursing my way through a 45-minute line for the lift passes–“Why the hell don’t they sell them on line?” I blurted out at one point to the crowd. “They do!” came a random answer–we took the gondola up to the ski station, where I bought a brioche, wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it in Giorgia’s inside pocket, in lieu of the leisurely breakfast on the panoramic terrace I had promised her. At 9:15a we were finally in line for the chair lift up to the ski school meeting point, where parents were dragging and shoving their kids through the crowd calling out, “We’ve got a 9 o’clock class!” By then Giorgia, through tears, was alternately begging to “Ski with Mamma, just for today” and lashing out at me for being “The worst mom in the world.” We got off the lift and headed down to the meeting point, Giorgia snowplowing behind me, yelling and crying, across the path of an instructor who smiled in our direction. “Ah,” he called out, “first day of the season.” Once we parents had left our children with their maestri, we skied straight into the nearest café and huddled by the fire over our second and third coffees, waiting for the mountain to thaw.

village of ArgentieresI learned to ski at 25, when I was just married and living in Munich, 45 minutes from the Alps.  My then husband was German, and had skied as soon as he could walk. His mother had tried to put him in a ski course at age two or three, but he would hang back and then ski off on his own when no one was looking. So his parents kept him with them, hiking up from the cabin they rented and skiing down from wherever they got to, ski lifts being luxuries they never even considered.

My husband took me to Kitzbühl, one snowy, windy morning in 1995. I had told him, honestly, that I had first skied at 16, but not told him, somewhat less honestly, that I had last skied at 16 as well. I rented skis, and we got into the cable car. The way he tells it, I grew greener as we rose through the air. Outside at the top, I could not see my hand in front of my face thanks to the fog and snowfall. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “It’s all down hill.” Somehow, I made it down, and over the years we were married I followed his smooth turns down some of the loveliest mountains in the world, in Germany and Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy.

Before we had children, we took to renting an apartment with three or four other couples, in Lech, in a modest, well-kept chalet called Haus Angelika, where the owner brought us a basket of fresh rolls for breakfast. The Germans (everyone in our group except me) liked to be at the ski lifts when they opened at eight a.m. From the first run of the day, our friend Stefan skied in front leading the line of us, up and down, turning, over the moguls, deep in the rare powder there was, down those wonderful wooded trails so common in Austria, up to the fireplace-heated huts for a sausage sandwich and a radler at lunchtime and back out into whatever weather there was to ski until it was dark. Those days, I thought of nothing but going along, feeling the mountain under me, absorbing it, pushing back against it, breathing the stinging cold or damp sun, never covering the same trail in a week, twenty days a year until I was six-months pregnant. There was real après-ski, too: glühwein and more radlers at the lamp-heated outdoor bars at the bottom of the slopes, dancing and shouting to the Tyrolian schläger, then walking home to our apartment, to a pot of spaghetti, wine and more dancing.

We occasionally skied elsewhere: in Cortina, where sport seemed beside the point, whereas wooly boots and the latest Montcler were de rigueuer for lounging in the sun, and where I learned there is no minimum age for a fur coat; in France, joining friends in “Cham,” as the Brits call it, for invariably great snow on the Mont Blanc, ski school that lasts all day (unlike in Italy where parents want to oversee the midday meal), and expensive, soggy pommes frites for lunch; in Switzerland, where no matter which week you go, a third of the cantons have spring break so the lifts are clogged and the best fondue places packed.

view of Alps from top of Chamonix gondolaAnd I skied again in Austria, with a different, Italian husband, a second daughter and an Italian granny who cooked and babysat and straightened up that same apartment I had shared all those years before. In the intervening seasons, Lech had grown more expensive and more popular, a double-edged sword, it was explained to me by a friend, one of the German group I had skied with there, who had married a Lech mountaineer and dairy farmer and now lived there year round. She had two daughters, three and five, who refreshingly had yet to don skis. There was now a mountain-styled Humvee to take us to the restaurant in the forest that before had been served only by cog railway or horse and sleigh, and chalets for twenty-thousand dollars a night. Haus Angelika remained—clean and bright as ever—only we played cards and sang the children to sleep instead of dancing into the night.

In Folgarida this past winter, I sent my older daughter, Charlotte, to ski with the guys, while we moms took our time on the slope, stopping to chat or admire the view every few hundred meters. Two minutes into skiing, my cell phone rang: Charlotte had already lost them. “Too slow, Mom, I’ll see you all at lunch.” At the rendez-vous to pick up the younger children from their courses, I caught Giorgia shushing down toward me, jacket flapping open, although it was 20 below zero. “I forgot to close it after I took out my snack,” she explained, and went on to say a boy we knew was in her same course. “A cry-baby,” she offered, “and a slowpoke too.”

Last March, I skied for a weekend without the kids, in Val Gardena. It was strange to be so free, used as I was to scanning the slopes for them. There were no drop-off or pick-up times to respect, no one to hand out chocolate to on the lifts, no extra sweaters to carry in the afternoon, no one who complained of the cold, or wanted to ski an extra run after I was all but exhausted. It was a perfect weekend: fine snow, plenty of sun and a friend who knew the mountain, such that we skied without stopping all day long, like we had in Lech all those years ago. I found myself thinking of Folgarida, though, and of the last afternoon of the trip, when I had skied, for a while at least, with my older daughter. On the last run of the day, she took off, light on her skis, and slipped down over the crest of the slope. Though she hardly seemed to be moving, she was gone in a flash.

Cozying Up

Instead of down-and-out, in Tuscany, it’s down-and-in.

If you want to break the ice with Tuscans, there is one sure way to do it: complain. About Italy, preferably. About institutions, as often as possible. About the weather—always. As long as you are getting ripped off, treated unfairly, used or abused, the Tuscans will open their hearts to you. If, on the other hand, you are happy to pick up the tab, if you exercise control over any aspect of your life, or God forbid, you are carefree or American, you will be lonely here.

Case in point: There’s a café in Siena that serves “Tuscan tapas,” artisanal cocktails and an interesting selection of wines, where I like to stop with guests or meet friends a couple of times a month. A good friend of mine is a childhood friend of the owners’. They catered my daughter’s 18th birthday dinner dance (cash, got it?). Their cook and I are Facebook friends! Dammit, I should have an in.

The two owners, though, are cooler-than-thou. Both relatively tall and thin, one is trendily bald and the other has a trendy, graying ponytail. They wear baggy jeans and designer tee-shirts, and they vape. They remind me of a certain group of boys in my high-school class: laid back to the exclusion of speech and movement.

yellow bags of trashBut the other night, I cracked the whole façade, and wound up, to my surprise and at least momentary delight, having an entire conversation with Ponytail himself. We started talking trash—literally: we lamented that there was no household trash collection and that we’re forced to lug our garbage bags to the inevitably distant and inconvenient roadside bins; that we overpay for the sporadic emptying of those bins; that the province’s efforts at trash separation and recycling are doomed. I complained about my 2014 trash bill, which had managed to track me down despite my not having registered my new address anywhere. The invoice offered a 20% discount, for, um, paying, which we agreed was a sure sign no one did. Ponytail regaled me with stories of midnight visits to his village’s dumpsters with unsorted trash: he couldn’t be bothered to wait on line at the central depot to pick up the color-coded trash bags that have now become de rigueur.

Then, while we were on the general topic of incompetence and bad ideas, I lit into Fiat, admittedly not as unilaterally unpopular a target as the local government, but a solvent multi-national and therefore a clear force for evil in the world. My gripe: the law that forbids newly licensed drivers from taking the wheel of any vehicle more powerful than 75kW for their first year on the road. My claim: the law was made at the expense of consumers simply to encourage the sale of Fiats. What an entrée this was!

“But a small car can be had so cheaply! Just look on line,” Ponytail offered.

“I did, but I need to buy from a dealer, and it has to be in Siena,” I explained. “So I can trade in my current car, and so, when something goes wrong with the new, used one, I can easily take it back and proverbially throw it in their face.”

“Why not go private?” he asked.

“I’m a woman.”

“So?” he said.

“I’m American,” I added.

“So?” he repeated.

“Do you see me haggling with Mario Muscles in my shrillest Americano-Italiano to get my money back when the car breaks down a hundred meters out of his driveway?”

“Maybe you’re better off with a dealer.” Exactly.

I pointed out what a shame it was to sell my (essentially worthless but safe and reliable) ten-year-old Golf, with its unfortunate 110kW, to buy a smaller, more expensive car that my daughter will drive for only the next eight months. (She goes to the US in the summer and to college next fall, by which time she’ll have had her license for over a year anyway.)

“Only eight months?” Ponytail exclaimed. “Non ti conviene.” It’s not worth it, he said. “Just let her drive the Golf. What are the chances anyway of getting stopped?” Our exchange led to a typical Italian conclusion (ignore the rules), a typical Italian perk (a discount on the drinks) and an atypical Tuscan farewell: Ponytail smiled! (The cook once smiled at me but was evidently reprimanded because now he consistently smirks.)

The thing about all this complaining is that the Tuscans are some of the most satisfied people I know. Here, no one seems very ambitious: they do the (very secure, low-paying) jobs they have, they hang out with their families and stay loyal to their friends, and they revel in the daily routine. All over Tuscany, at 1:00pm bowls of spaghetti are eaten, after which the euphemistic siestas are taken, and all’s right with the world.

Sweet Dreams

A winemaker’s dream come true…almost.

This fall, for the first time in 11 years, I was not going to make wine, and so I stopped caring about the weather. Let it rain. Let it freeze. Let the sun come out and sizzle the grapes on the vine. I wasn’t worried about which parcel to harvest. I wasn’t getting up at dawn to walk the rows tasting grapes. My back wasn’t sore from lifting crates, and I wasn’t working late into the night at the selection table. Thank God.

Then I walked into my neighbor’s cellar pungent with the aromas of yeast and CO2, the echoes of tank ladders and loose hoses clanking, the smell of marc, the wine-stained tiles. I almost burst into tears.

As luck would have it, that night at a dinner party, I sat across from a friend, Piero, with a farm in Chianti, who asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to buy a few tons of grapes.

“Why are you selling?” I asked.

“My brother and I don’t know how to make wine,” he said, “let alone sell it. We’re planning to take out the vineyard but we want to sell the last crop.”

I knew the village where he farmed but wanted to know more about the vineyard: “How high?” I asked him.

“400 meters.” That was all it took to fall in love.

Two days later, I went to see the object of my desire: a few acres on a steep, south-facing slope, with—where soil should have lain—layers of splintering galestro, the schist-like rock that is found in the appellation’s best vineyards.

It was a warm, sunny, late September afternoon. I walked the rows of vines planted by Piero’s grandfather in 1970. The vine training method looked like rows of bad haircuts; the grapes tasted diluted. Piero showed me the cramped cellar with its old, cement tanks. I tasted the 2015 and 2014 wines untouched since their fermentations: the musts had been over-worked, but a hint of something noble came through. Typical of the smitten, I was already dismissing potential problems and latching onto hope: the hope that from this vineyard I could make wines as elegant and mouthwatering as the Burgundies I nursed and studied in the evening.

Out of a self-protective negotiating habit, I hid my enthusiasm and told Piero I’d let him know. I knew if I went ahead, the next few weeks would be utter chaos: harvesting from dawn to dusk, a daily visit to the cellar to check the fermentations, taste each tank, pump over the wines if needed. I’d have to find barrels at short notice. I wanted to photograph and film and write down each step of the process. How would I manage my day job? The kids? Maybe it was saner to walk away.

I held out twelve hours before calling Piero to gush about the quality of the site, the charm of the little cellar, the beauty of the current vintage, and to describe how together we were going to revolutionize Italian wine making–show up the Italian enologist “mafia,” open people’s eyes. I explained how the oenophiles would flock to see his vineyard. I ran through the costs for him and the potential earnings (at least three times the yield from selling the grapes, if we split the profits). I called around to find people to harvest the next day, and after lunch, I went back to Piero’s to help him wash the de-stemmer and set-up. I was donning my Wellies, when Piero’s mother, a small, prim old woman came onto the terrace above the cellar and peered down at us.

“Piero!” she hollered.

“Eh,” he muttered, looking up.

“Buonasera, Signora,” I offered. She did not acknowledge my presence.

“Your brother makes a commitment,” she continued to bellow, “And you shit on it!”

“Huh?” Piero said.

I had never heard the particular expression she used, let alone from an 80-year old woman!

Piero’s brother had gone to the Consorzio del Chianti Classico the week before to check on the price he could get by selling the grapes. According to Piero’s mother, he had signed a contract to do so, although normally no such contract is needed and, even if signed, it was probably not binding. He could always have said the boars had eaten the grapes.

But I knew it was too late. My dream would die there.

A few days later, again at a dinner with Piero, he mused on how different people’s values can be. What’s important to his mother and brother (50 years old, never left home, works for a local winery rather than on his own farm), is not to disrupt the day, the routine, the way things are. To resist change, at all cost. And to prevent others from bringing about change as well.

Now that the harvest is over (Piero’s brother didn’t lend a hand), it seems it may be possible to come to an agreement for next year’s harvest. I could officially lease the vineyard and cellar, or Piero and his girlfriend and I could form a company to buy the grapes. I could prune the vines this winter the way I want to, green harvest in July to reduce yields and concentrate the grapes, organize the vendemmia and order my barrels in advance. I’m wary of Piero’s mother–What will it take to win her over? Plus, I’m still just a tiny bit sad. 2016 was a gorgeous vintage and, as any winemaker knows, there’s no one like Mother Nature for making great wine.

Dog Days

How to make the social A-list, with help from your pets.

two white dogs at the gateMy boyfriend didn’t want a dog. We got one, and now the boyfriend lives in New York. My ex-husband advised against getting a second dog. We got a second dog, too, and he’s still my ex-husband. My daughters, on the other hand, wanted a dog more than anything in the world, and after two years of house breaking, leash training, dog whispering, and dog chewing-of-MacBook-power-cables-and-Italian-designer-shoes, we are one big, happy family.

Except not so happy that the dogs never try to run away. If I accidentally leave the gate open, their preferred course of escape is directly down the 800-yard driveway, out from behind a blind curve and across the road to the neighbors’ lawn where their ducks hang out. The first time they did this, I ran after them, planning the contrite apology, the purchase of new ducks (the frying up of the freshly-killed ones, too), the months of tension with the neighbors, only to arrive there and find my two 80-pound dogs sniffing hesitantly after a commanding-looking duck, while the neighbor clutched at his chest.

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Growing Green

Tomatoes yes, melons no: Tuscan gardening traditions prove hard to defy.

It’s planting season in Tuscany, the time of year I think of my role-model and rival in all things green: Mario, my former father-in-law.

When I came to Tuscany in January 2001, Mario had just retired, and he and my-mother-in-law still lived in Siena. He would come out to our house in the country for the day, though, and I would cook him lunch, a primo and a secondo, which he ate in the upstairs kitchen while I stared at him across the table and tried to make out what he said in those first weeks of submersion in Italian. “Don’t bother,” my husband said. “He garbles. No one understands a word.”

Sixteen at the outbreak of war, Mario never had to fight, because his father had been wounded in the First World War. His parents were farmers, so Mario and his brother Marcello kept on eating chickens and eggs and vegetables throughout the war, while in town food was scarce, only really waking up to the conflict when a bomb dropped through their roof, down through the floor of their bedroom into the kitchen, rolled out the door and across the lawn and came to a stop at the edge of the woods, unexploded. The four of them, and soon the neighbors, stood in a circle around it, staring skeptically and wondering what to do. Finally, Mario and Marcello picked it up and carried it into the woods.*

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Il Sugo

Traditional Tuscan meat sauce

The other day I was asked how I would make meat sauce—what restaurants call ragù, and what is known in Tuscany simply as “sugo.”

Like most Tuscan recipes, the list of ingredients is limited and intuitive, and the process is foolproof, if not necessarily short. And like many Tuscan recipes, it starts with a “battutina”—a mix of chopped parsley, onion, celery, garlic, carrot and “rigatino,” the Tuscan word for pancetta or unsmoked bacon. Otherwise known as the “odori,” these bulbs, roots and fat, along with sage, rosemary and occasionally fennel, are practically the only herbs and spices used in Tuscan cooking, apart from generous doses of salt and pepper. One lets the battutina “imbiondire” (“go blond”), or as we would say, brown in the pan, in olive oil, of course, before adding the ground meat–half beef, half pork–and letting that go blond too. Then one adds the tomato and, pay attention here, a tube of tomato paste–the secret to a rich and savory sauce.  Now for the long part: it should simmer for around four hours and needs a little broth (chicken) whenever it gets too dry.

“Pastasciutta,” a word Italians use interchangeably with the word pasta itself, comes from southern Italy, and filled pastas like tortellini from Emilia Romagna, so there is no typical pasta shape that the Tuscans serve with meat sauce. Any and all will do. For an important occasion, or to spoil your family, serve it on tagliatelle (egg pasta is considered elegant), mixing the noodles and the sauce thoroughly in the pasta pot, with a lump of melting butter to bring out the taste of the meat. As a Florentine friend of mine, long a US resident, reminded me, the Italians “use little actual sauce—and it tastes so much better.” And for heaven’s sake do not offer cheese: Tuscans never gild the lily.

The smell of a pot of sugo simmering on the stove wafts out of village windows braided red onionany weekday morning. Mamma or more likely Nonna is working up a batch, which she will divide into small aluminum containers (no, we do not have Ziploc yet) to freeze. In the winter, if she is unfortunate enough to have a husband who hunts, she will have spent three days soaking a gristly cut of boar in vinegar, and a few hours after that boiling off its “selvaggio” or “wild” taste in pan after pan of water, before starting to make from it…sauce.

Now, what to serve for secondo