Vigevano. The Renaissance in Lombardy

I’ve been working on this post for more than a year. Like many other posts written about Lombardy, this one got left in my draft pile. We spent one day in Vigevano, but as most of our time was taken up touring the fabulous Castello Sforzesco, along with a very good lunch, I feel I was cheated. When I return to Vigevano, I’ll stay in centro in a little apartamento overlooking the most beautiful Piazza in Italy, if not the world, the Piazza Ducale. Dream on.

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

Easy Summer Zucchini Pies

It’s on again. Mid January in Melbourne brings soaring temperatures, and for those fortunate souls on holiday, lazy days inside watching the Australian Open tennis (one ball game I can tolerate) or reading a pile of novels. AND, of course, zucchini! When the pile of green zeppelin starts to stare me down, I force myself off the couch and into the kitchen, looking for more novel ways to cook this bountiful vegetable.  Small zucchini pies, or Kolokythopitakia, are a tasty useful alternative to the more common place Spanakopita ( Spinach and Fetta pie). The recipe is also a good way to use around 7 zucchini. Light and nutritious, they go well with salads. I stashed two in the freezer for next week’s heat wave. My recipe uses kefalograviera cheese, a nice change from fetta, and one I recommend you try in this recipe. You can use the remaining kefalograviera to make saganaki.

Kolokythopitakia. Zucchini summer pies, warm potato salad, grilled peppers.

Kolokythopitakia (Small Zucchini pies). This recipe makes four small pies of around 12 cm/ 5 inch diameter.

  • 700 g zucchini
  • 8 sheets filo ( fillo/phyllo) pastry ( I always seem to have this quantity left over in the fridge after making a big family pie)
  • 1 cup grated kefalograviera cheese
  • 1 cup mixed fresh herbs, finely chopped ( eg dill, mint, parsley)
  • 6 spring onions, finely sliced including most of the green
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • salt, pepper
  • butter or olive oil for brushing the filo leaves
  • sesame seeds

Method.

Preheat oven to 180c

  1. Grate the zucchini with a box grater or the largest hole of a food processor grating disc. Place in a colander, lightly salt and toss through. Cover the mixture with a small plate, weight with something heavy, then place in the sink or over a bowl to drain. After 30 minutes or so, squeeze out as much liquid as possible and add the zucchini to a large mixing bowl.
  2. Grate the kefalograviera on a large grater. Add it to the zucchini along with the chopped herbs, the chopped spring onion, and eggs. Mix well.
  3. Lay the 8 sheets of filo pastry on the bench and halve them. You want 16 pieces in all which will be shaped about 27 cm X 21 cms, almost a square shape. Stack them up and cover with a damp tea towel, especially if the day is hot and dry as they become brittle and tear easily.
  4. The pies need four filo sheets each and will be used for the base and the top. Using small pie tins with removable bases, radius 12 cm and height 3 cm, paint the insides with melted butter or oil. Lay one filo pastry sheet into the tin, centering the sheet so that the extra pastry hangs evenly around the outside. Paint this sheet with butter or oil then continue with 3 more sheets, making sure that you place the sheets in such a way so that the overhang lands in a different corner with each sheet.
  5. Repeat with remaining tins.
  6. Fill each pastry lined pie tin with the filling. Then bring the hanging pastry leaves over the pie filling, one corner at a time and paint each pastry sheet with melted butter or oil as you go. When complete, sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes at 180c. Leave for a few minutes before turning out.
  8. Serve with salads.
Profile of a zucchini pie
Summer pies

A few of my previous zucchini posts:

 

 

Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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Melbourne for Kids. The Old Melbourne Gaol.

This story was written six months ago, and for some reason, sat idly in my draft folder. Although these activities took place last winter, the same or similar code breaking scavenger hunts take place every school holiday period in The Old Melbourne Gaol. The current summer holiday activity for kids, A Word from Ned , is similar to the  activity described in the winter programme below.

 It’s school holiday time in Melbourne, bitterly cold outside and the gang of three has arrived for a week. Keeping three youngsters aged 8, 9 and 11 busy AND away from their glowing devices is a challenge. I was warned by their parents that I would probably fail in my attempt to limit their iPad time to 30 minutes per day. ‘Good luck with that’, they laughed. An activity programme was called for, one written in consultation with Oliver, who wrote the timetable and costed the events. We decided to check out the Old Melbourne Gaol, a great spot for some morbid entertainment. During the school holidays, all young visitors receive an activity booklet, Escape the Gaol, which keeps them busy, frantically looking for clues on each floor of the gaol, in order to receive an official stamp and finally ‘escape’. Younger children may need a hand with some of the trickier questions and riddles: the constant walking up and down narrow metal staircases provides some physical exercise for the accompanying adults.

Inside the corridors of Old Melbourne Gaol.

After a mad search for clues on the floors and walls of cells, the children learnt to co-operate with each other and share their answers, a fine learning goal and one I encouraged. The activity took over an hour to complete. Many gruesome spectacles can then be enjoyed on each floor, especially the hanging rope area and trap door drop, the copies of death masks on display throughout many cells, and the Ned Kelly paraphernalia and other stories of woe. ‘Such is Life‘ to quote Ned’s last words.

Hanging platform, Old Melbourne Gaol
Hanging Scaffold

I had a particular interest in visiting the older part of the gaol, originally called the Eastern Gaol. My great- great- grandmother, Catherine, was locked up in this dungeonesque place for a brief time in 1857. She had been found wandering the streets of Melbourne and locked up for vagrancy and madness. I am still trying to piece together her story. As her seven children were eventually admitted to the Melbourne poor house for orphans, the Eastern gaol became her last refuge and place of demise. After a short stay, she managed to find the store containing a bottle of poisonous cleaning fluid and drank the contents. Her consequent death guaranteed an instant escape from gaol, and what must have been a tragic life.

Almost steam punk.

The Old Melbourne Gaol was erected in stages between 1851 and 1864 by the Public Works Department of the Colony of Victoria, the design is attributed to Henry Ginn, Chief Architect of the Department. The oldest remaining section ,the Second Cell Block (1851-1853), consists of a long block with three tiers of cells terminating in the central hall (1860), the site of the hanging scaffold. This is the site you will visit. Included in the total tour cost is a visit to the City Watch house, a more modern building next door, where actors dressed as police yell and intimidate you before you land in a darkened cell with your other fellow inmates. This building, although not as evocative as the older building, is well worth a visit for the 1960s lock up experience. The graffiti on the walls speak of sadness, racism, and poverty.

Graffiti etched walls of City Watch House
The Watch House has been left perfectly intact since it was vacated.

This is a great day out for kids over 8: they eagerly donned replicas of Ned’s armour and after the tour, we chatted about the Ned Kelly Legend, came home on the train and sang this song.

Daisy in Ned Kelly helmet.

Other free activities nearby include a visit to the State Library, an historical landmark and a grand building from the Melbourne Boom era. Kids are keen to climb the stairs to the top level and to see a busy library, full of readers and others playing board games. At present there’s a display of wonderful old manuscripts and books on Level 3.

View from above. Melbourne State Library.

The shot tower inside Melbourne Central is opposite the State library, which rounded out our short historical tour of colonial Melbourne.

Shot tower, Melbourne Central.

We travelled by tram and train to the city. Many kids who live in the outer suburbs spend most of their time being driven about in cars: public transport is a novelty in itself. The cost of $70 for a family of 5 for the tour of the gaol was quite reasonable. I can highly recommend this tour to Melbourne residents as well as tourists looking for something a little different in the centre of the city.

Trams are a novelty for many suburban kids.
Melbourne city views
Melbourne, always changing.
Melbourne central

On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

In My Kitchen, January 2019

Happy New Year, dear friends and readers. We toasted the New Year with Bellini made from fresh peach juice and Prosecco. This cocktail tasted so healthy I could happily drink it for breakfast. Salute.

Peaches and three plums.

January is a busy month in my kitchen as the summer crops pour in through the back door. After 9 years in our current abode, most of our fruit trees are now in their prime. To date, I have picked 10 kilo of white peaches. Another few kilo remain while the Mariposa plums are beginning to flush. The zucchini are in full swing- I never tire of a good zucchini soup. Last night’s pizza included a topping of grilled zucchini ribbons and other assorted treasure.

Uncooked pizza. Grilled zucchini, red onion, a handful of shrimp, olive, anchovy, herbs
Same pizza, out of oven. Netflix and pizza night again?

Yesterday’s lunch, La Mouclade, is my favourite way to eat mussels. Melbourne has several mussel farms- one on Port Arlington and the other in Mt Martha. Mt Martha mussels grow in deep clean water and are an organic and sustainable seafood.

La Mouclade

Before Christmas I made heaps of cakes, breads and simple bowl meals. I intended to write brief posts on each of these but didn’t have time. The problem is, I love taking photos of food but rarely note down precise ingredients.

Rhubarb and almond cake.
Greek medley bowl
Paccheri with wild mushroom sauce
Favourite Chinese fish meal. Does it have a name? I lost the book.
Paccheri Napolitana
Paccheri close-up
Was meant to be included in my pasta della settimana series.

Some new Weck jars, found in Aldi, are perfect for making levain for sourdough. I baked like a banshee during December. A new favourite  is the cranberry and walnut bread, especially when toasted for breakfast. Fortunately I froze about 8 loaves of different varieties, giving me a little bread making breathing space this month.

This is the month when things move outside. Daisy liked this Pizza Bianca and was impressed with the taste of capers.

Lunch in the garden with Daisy. Pizza Bianca ( potato, mozza, capers, olives)

Thanks Sherry, at Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this series. Once again, may I say that it’s a great way to focus on all that happens in the kitchen, the engine room of the home. May the domestic gods and goddesses shine on you all this month.

Bird is the Word

We enjoy our bird visitors but lately the word has spread around the bird kingdom that Mr T is handing out free sunflower seeds. At times it’s like being stuck in Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds. The King Parrots are always welcome: some are more interested in a chat than a feed. One cute fellow likes to sit on the ledge of our side door, waiting to say hello each morning in bird language. Other Kings watch through the kitchen windows as we wash the dishes. They are inquisitive, gregarious and always surprising. The kings also like to greet us in the garden or car park by flying past our head within a centimetre. No sound, just the rush of wing air, a gentle bird kiss and nothing like a magpie swoop. This precision flying and affection always impresses me.

The King greets me each morning. Hello, you’re here again birdie num nums.

Lately, a tribe of small Rainbow Lorikeets has moved in. Their colours are loud and startling, their beaks more pronounced. They don’t hang around for a chat: they come for a feed then do a bit of showing off in our Melia Azederach trees, looking a lot like Christmas baubles. They are the psychedelic hippies of the bush. ( see header photo)

Princess Rachael with King
Corellas.

We also have plenty of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. Big, loud and bossy, they are not so welcome. Lately, their gentler cousins, the Corellas, have moved in. The pink and grey Galahs sometimes pop in, when they’re not getting high on grass seeds. I love the word Galah- it’s an old fashioned Australian label referring to idiotic behaviour that is not too offensive. I’d like to see this quaint word make a comeback . My new year’s resolution is to use it more often, especially around children.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Water bowls for visitors

If a majestic Wedge Tailed Eagle appears above, all the birds flee at once. They can sense danger and go into hiding.  Other bird visitors to the garden include various small honeyeaters, Meliphagidae, and the Grey Shrike Thrush, the songbird of the bush. Out in the wild bush paddocks we see Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos while a lone White Faced Heron often lands on the dam.

I never thought I would enjoy chatting to birds so much, and wonder if this is a sign of imminent madness. The following bird song is a fitting conclusion to 2018. The inane lyrics can be sung when thinking of your least favorite political leader. Buon Anno dear friends and readers. May the New Year bring you more birds and good cheer.

 

One week in Pavia. Part 1, Ponte Coperto

Over the summer holidays, I plan to polish off a few of my unfinished posts from 2018. Some of these concern Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Instead of finalising these posts months ago, I’ve found myself crawling back down that rabbit hole of historical research, one of the great side benefits of travel.

In hindsight, we should have stayed longer in Pavia: a week was not long enough to explore the historical centre of town as well as the nearby villages and surrounding countryside. Pavia is a university town, and like many others, we found the student population added vibrancy and life to the city. The city is small enough to explore on foot, with castles, towers and churches from the Longobardian era through to the late medieval Visconti and the Renaissance Sforza periods. The Lombardian countryside, especially the wine growing district of the Oltrepo, provided glorious hill-top views of vineyards and wineries, with nearby small village trattorie. The nearby villages of the Lomellina area, known for their famous rice fields dating back to the 13th century, border the Ticino and Po rivers and are a short drive from Pavia. Dotted along the way are yet more red bricked, austere Visconti castles and solid brick Romanesque churches, as well as inviting rural pasticcerie, each one famous for a particular biscotto. Other side trips included travelling along the Via Francigena, the ancient camino that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome. Another day was spent in Vigevano, the most beautiful Renaissance town in Italy, challenging Urbino (in the Marche region) for that title. The little water-mill, the Mulino di Mora Bassa, contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to beautiful replicas of Leonardo’s machines, for those who are interested in the technical genius of Leonardo and his contribution to agricultural and hydraulic equipment.

Ponte Coperto,  Pavia

The Ponte Coperto ( covered bridge) dominates the entrance to Pavia, spanning the Ticino river. The river divides the city in two- Centro Storico on one side, the historical centre of Pavia, and the more suburban Borgo on the other. Borgo was once inhabited by fishermen and washerwomen but is now gentrified and charming, and provides some convenient Airbnb apartments as well as parking.

The Borgo district, now gentrified.

Il Ponte Coperto has had a few incarnations throughout history. It was built in Roman times and then rebuilt during in 1354 during the Visconti era. This medieval bridge was bombed by the Allied forces ( American/British) during WW2 and replaced between 1949 to 1951. The bombing occurred on three occasions, making it impassable during the 1940s. The new bridge was meant to be a replica of the old medieval bridge, but with some modern necessities. Indeed the modern bridge appears quite ancient and ‘authentic’ on the surface. Many of the original features have been included, such as a chapel, arches and a covered roof. The footings of the two earlier bridges can still be seen in the river near the current bridge.

Old Covered Bridge, Pavia, built in 1370s, damaged by allied bombing in 1944.  Source, G. Chiolini.  G 
The old Covered bridge after the Allied bombing in 1944. courtesy G. Chiolini

Of course there’s a story about the rebuilding of the Ponte Coperto: things are never straight forward in Italy when it comes to restoration and bureaucracy, even more so when dealing with a 600 year old bridge, known and loved for its strength and medieval beauty. Several experts estimated that the damage caused to the bridge by the Allied bombing was not so severe as to prevent a complete restoration, “as it was and where it was”. A lively debate took place around Pavia, involving engineers, historians and architects, the city council and in the general population, between the supporters of the old bridge and its “executioners”. Over a period of three years, the debate continued to rage until the old bridge was finally demolished in 1948, and replaced by the current copy. The current bridge was built 30 metres downstream from the old bridge, and is perpendicular to the river, unlike the old bridge which was shorter and wider and on a diagonal. The new bridge is taller, the new arches are thinner, and are constructed in reinforced concrete and veneered in red brick, a building material utilised in many medieval buildings throughout Pavia. The two portals are completely different. Even today, some consider this bridge a caricature of its former self. But of course, in the eyes of the casual visitor, the bridge looks like it fits in well and even appears to be an ‘old’ bridge. The same questions will always arise about the pros and cons of Restoration versus Renovation or Remodelling. There’s always a Disneyland aspect when attempting to copy an ancient building. At dusk, when the foggy mist of November hovers over the Ticino, then glides through the bridge after dark, making the air wet and cold and eerie, the bridge feels ancient. There are moments when you feel those medieval spirits crossing over the Ticino on their way to midnight mass in centro, with whispered stories of goats, Archangel Michael and a pact made with the devil.

Remains of the Old Covered Bridge

A few links relating to questions in this post.

https://www.liutprand.it/articoliPavia.asp?id=67

http://www.pavialcentro.it/en/monumenti/dal-ponte-coperto-san-giorgio-montefalcone-leggende/ponte-coperto

The Best Day of the Year. Some Random Thoughts.

Phew, I’m glad that’s all over for another year. Without a doubt, the best day of the year is Boxing Day. It’s a significant turning point in the Australian calendar, marking the start of summer holidays in earnest, a time to indulge in guilt free relaxation, simple foods, barbecues, books and trips to the beach. As much as I tried to avoid the Christmas mayhem this year, the gift giving merry-go-round, and the over indulgence in rich food, I admit I did succumb. I guess I’m too well-trained: Christmas, with all its trappings, is ingrained in my DNA. It’s a romanticised and mythologised Christmas that bears no resemblance to the modern-day version. Next year, I might run away.

Peach time, always ready on Boxing Day.

In my retrospective analysis of that over- rated day, one bonus was that I avoided visiting large department stores. Most gifts were purchased online ( from some of those large stores) which were delivered to my front door. The extra shipping cost was far less than the return drive to the nearest bastion of commerce, not to mention the enormous saving to my sanity. No Christmas carols, no maddening queues, no parking angst. I also found a few gifts in a nearby village, two novels for my bookworm granddaughter, purchased in a newly established, tiny children’s bookshop. This shop needs supporting.  I also found a hand made shoulder and neck heatbead pack from the local osteopath. The same village has a Japanese gift shop with an array of tempting goods, jewellery and clothing, a little gold mine of inspiring gifts for the hard to please at any time of the year.  And my gift from Mr T were two young black Silky chickens from a livestock poultry cart at the local farmers’ market. I plan to support more small local stores in the new year. 

Although Boxing Day is a secular holiday, it most likely has roots in St Stephen’s day. It’s derivation is worth noting in this modern day of  online delivery service. In 19th century Britain, Christmas boxes ( gifts or money donations)  were left out for post- men, errand boys and servants on the 26th December.

“In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older British tradition: since they would have to wait on  their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.”

During the Middle Ages, alms boxes were left at the door of churches to distribute to the poor. This, in turn, may have evolved from the late Roman/early Christian era, when metal boxes were placed outside churches and used to collect special offerings for the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls December 26, or  Boxing day. 

Life’s peachy

I’m now wondering whether we should leave tips for those van drivers who bring our shopping to the front door. I remember a time when we would leave a gift of beer for our garbos, ( rubbish collectors). Recently a wine delivery courier arrived in a rental van, a charming and very chatty Sikh. His father came to assist in the weekend deliveries but didn’t speak English. The younger turbaned chap explained that his father had been visiting for a year, but the cost of an extension to his temporary visa amounted to well over $100,000. Our new  postal carriers work harder than ever in this day of online shopping.

And like those masters of yore, I too have a surfeit of food when it comes to Christmas leftovers. Yet in this age of plenty, my palate yearns for simpler delights- a freshly plucked peach from our laden tree, a simple zucchini and basil soup, or a spoonful of leftover creme caramel flan, a simple thing made from our fresh hens’ eggs, a little sugar and milk.

Some cheeky visitors retain their Christmas colours all year round. Very rude when they take a fancy to the mixed nuts on the table.

I’ve been thinking about Western over indulgence lately, all that plastic, the indulgent gift giving, the accumulation of junk, the groaning table of food. We need to return to simpler practices. Will a shift in the economic tide bring with it an appreciation of basic things- a hand-made gift or a longed for book? Has the internet era killed the joy of Christmas in the young? What happened to toys? In the age of electronic device, do children still run and play? Do I need my sleep measured by an app?

I hope your Christmas went well, dear friends and readers. Was it merry or quiet? Are you glad it’s over? Do you love Boxing day too?

 

How Does Your Garlic Grow

Have you ever noticed the cost of organic garlic? Australian organic garlic retails for around $30 or more a kilo ( €20/US$22). Other non organic garlic is a little less, while in the latter half of the year, the only garlic available commercially comes via Mexico and Argentina, which looks better than the snow-white mesh bags of Chinese bleached ‘garlic’. I would rather go garlic free than eat these nasty lumps of poison. If you love garlic, choose the best. Source seasonal garlic from a farmers’ market. Flavour and economy are two of the main reasons why I grow my own, but I have to admit, I love harvesting garlic and watching the early colours change from deep crimson and purple to pale white striped mauve after they dry. Beautiful bunches of garlic always remind me of French country markets, alchemy, rustic food and good health. Long live garlic.

Early picked garlic, late October, not fully formed. Use like a spring onion, including the stem.

Growing garlic is time-consuming, which might explain why one head of organic garlic costs around $1.50. I’ll outline the steps here, in laywoman’s terms, for those who may be interested in growing a few. For those without a small patch of earth to dig around in, just enjoy this season’s garlic pics.

Early November. These  garlic bulbs are beginning to show ridges under their outer purple casings. Still a bit small.

When to Plant

I usually start planting out cloves during Autumn, from late April to the end of May and do this in stages, thus staggering the final harvest dates. The old adage which advises that garlic must be planted by the shortest day, winter solstice, works as a rough guide, but I am finding that most of these old guides no longer work for me. If you leave your garlic till June 21st, expect a poor crop or none at all. The temperature of the earth is perfect for garlic in the last month of Autumn, providing just enough warmth to get green shoots going before winter. Given that garlic takes around 6-7 months to mature, it makes more sense to harvest them in late November, rather than during the busy December month. Last year I lost one bed of garlic planted in mid June and I can only put this down to the drop in ground temperature and soggy soil. The little cloves rotted and vanished. Of course the timing of planting will vary from region to region. I live in a cool temperate zone. Tap into local knowledge to find the best time to plant in your own area.

Planting Out

Choose your best looking cloves when planting. Keep some fine specimens from your previous harvest and plant these. If you choose little cloves, you will most likely produce little bulbs. The asexual reproduction of garlic means that what you plant is what you harvest, so choose your cloves wisely. It is said that garlic reproduced in this way will eventually lose its vigour, and that one should revert to seed at some point, a process that takes years. I am yet to notice any loss of vigour in the plants at our current farm. Your soil needs to be fertile and friable. Hard clay isn’t suitable as the little bulbs need to expand easily. Push the flatter end of the cloves into the soil: the top or pointy end should be just below the surface. Plant cloves about 10 cm apart, in rows about 40 cm apart. It’s a good idea to mulch lightly over the soil once the green shoots appear. Organic sugar cane mulch works well. Given that your garlic will be in the ground for at least 6 months, you don’t want them having to compete with weeds for moisture and nutrition. If Winter and early Spring is dry, you’ll need to water the crop. Most of my crop was smaller than average this year. This was due to very low rainfall from late Winter to Spring when we were away and unable to water. Smaller bulbs still taste good but are tedious to peel. These little underground gems need watering just like any other plant. Towards harvest time, hold off watering.

Garlic bulbils

Harvesting

Harvesting occurs when the stalks begin to dry out and seed pods form at the top. I usually dig out a few in early November and start eating the immature specimens, the stalk included. By digging them up occasionally, you’ll be able to gauge their development. If you leave them too long, the cloves begin to separate  and open like a flower: while still tasty, these don’t store as well as tightly closed garlic bulbs.

Garlic hangs to dry, pretty bulbils continue to form. Bulbils are not seed but can be used in the same way as cloves. They will take two to three years to mature into big bulbs.

After pulling the garlic, clean the bulbs as soon as possible. I use a damp cloth to remove dirt and baked on mud. It’s important to clean them before bunching and hanging as later cleaning is far more tedious and you don’t want to introduce any dampness to a perfectly dried garlic. Hang the garlic under an airy verandah, well protected from rain and harsh northern sun. They may take a few weeks to thoroughly dry and harden. Well cured garlic will store longer.

Ready to plait or store.

Storing

After drying, the fun begins. Rub away the outer skins and along the stem to reveal the clove shapes. Most of the dark purple papery skin disappears, revealing soft mauve and white underneath. You might like to plait a few if you have grown soft necked garlic. Most of my garlic stems are too hard to bend into plaits so I make a few nice bunches to display in the kitchen. The rest get cut and stored in a dark spot, usually in a close weaved covered basket, or a container that can breathe, or in a hessian sack inside a terracotta pot.

One bunch on display in the kitchen. Because they are hanging in full light, they’ll probably need using before next April. Well stored garlic should last much longer.

I’ve featured photos of bulbils in my header photo and throughout the post. Bulbils form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a garlic bulb. Although it is sometimes called a ‘garlic flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb, bulbils propagate garlic vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant. This year we found a mysterious bed full of excellent garlic that I definitely did not plant. I vaguely recall throwing around a few handfuls of bulbils around two years ago. During summer, they produced stems that looked more like chives. They grew under the shade of a rampant pumpkin vine. These chive like bunches developed, untouched, over two years, and turned into my star garlic for the year.

A few notes.

The medicinal properties of garlic are well-known. A short paper on the history of garlic used medicinally can be found in the link below.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249897/

But then the Italian contadini always knew this, as these old proverbs corroborate:

  • L’aglio è la farmacia dei contadini. Garlic is the peasant farmer’s pharmacy.
  • L’aglio è la spezieria dei contadini.  The same as above. A ‘spezieria’ was a workshop – laboratory in ancient times where medicines were prepared by an apothecary. The monasteries were famous for their spezierie.Bulbils broken into little gem like cloves.