A pheasant hurried across the gravel road out of the path of our car. There are wild boar in these woods, too, our hostess told us, and lots of deer. The road curved sharply one way and then another for a long time. Finally, we reached the gate of their house.
Her two little boys played on the stone piazza, formerly the barnyard. A black and white cat napped under a bush nearby. We sat at a table under the trees in the garden and looked out at the patchwork of olive groves and vineyards that cover the near Chianti hills, at the blue hills that range beyond them. We were joined by the matriarch of the family, who lives alone now in the old stone farmhouse next to her son and his young family. The talk was of children and grandchildren, sister and brothers. We saw photographs of the beloved grandfather, for whom the younger of the two boys is named, and visited his study, virtually untouched since his death. The boys had stuffed dragons, who attacked the guests frequently.
Lunch was in the younger family's house, which had once been the barn. A platter of crostini -- two kinds, crostini toscani con pate di fegatoand crostini con crema di tartuffo -- and a salad were the first course, and would have been plenty all by itself. But then an immense bowl of curly pasta in a tangy pink sauce appeared, and fresh pears and two local cheeses after that. Q and I exchanged a look of silent agreement: there would be no evening meal. My protestation of being full to the point of physical pain as I turned down a second helping was met with a look of genuine sorrow from our host, who was also the chef, but he seemed not to hold a grudge.
Coffee, for those of us who could manage it, was back in the garden. The boys made mud pies. The older one sang songs from school -- the Italian version of "Where Is Thumbkin? is so like the English one that even I could sing along. Q wore a Batman cape and headgear for a little while, and the little brother took off all his clothes. They had a puzzle map of America, and we located our respective states.
We could have sat there all afternoon. I would have liked to see the sunlight slant and the shadows lengthen in that lovely garden. But it was time to take the bus back. We left the boys with their father in the little wading pool at the bottom of the stone path down the hill.
So far away from home. And yet families are so much the same, wherever you go: the children impatient with adults, who always just want to sit and talk, and happy to find an adult who will imagine with them. The young parents and the old ones, the living and the dead, joined by a golden thread of love that nothing can ever break, not death itself.
The bus wound through little towns and farms on its way back to Florence. This is countryside that has been cultivated for thousands of years -- nature bears the imprint of human habitation and agriculture wherever you look in Italy, but that imprint is a graceful one: only rarely does it mar what God put here in the first place.
I thought of home as we rode, of our bulldozed mountaintops, our sprawling McMansions, of our disappearing family farms, and I wonder if it is too late for us. We have so much space in America, so much of everything, and here there is so little -- how is it that they have been able to make the land and its beauty last for millenia here, while we have all but destroyed ours in only three hundred years? Why have we thrown away so much that was so precious?
And why do people roll their eyes and look exasperated whenever someone asks a question like that?
CROSTINI DI FEGATO ALLA TOSCANA (chicken liver patè on toast)
per 10 persons:
g.20 garlic (three garlic cloves)
g.800 chicken liver
g.40 fillets of anchovies
g.100 extra vergin olive oil
In a pan, sauté the finely cut onions in olive oil until soft, add the chopped garlic and the liver ready cleaned and washed.
Cook on high flame,
Add the wine and when almost evaporated, add the capers, anchovies and butter. With a cutter, chop finely to form a paste. Keep warm and add salt to taste.
Toast the sliced bread. Top with the mixture and place on a serving dish.
Garnish with a parsley leaf and a caper, serve very hot. Our host added a tiny triangle of lemon on top, which we just ate along with everything else on the toast, and it was superb.