In honor of Amatrice

Perhaps you have (as I have) been thinking of central Italy more often the last couple of weeks, following news of the devastating earthquake which destroyed several towns in the mountains between Perugia and L’Aquila on August 24.

Una_via_di_Amatrice

A street in Amatrice, 2012. Photo by Silvio Sorcini, Wikimedia Commons.

Amatrice, a town of about 2,600 residents, was about 75% destroyed. The death toll is nearing 300 in the region, including several other villages with major destruction. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods, nearly every historic church in Amatrice was destroyed. The city’s bell tower survived the quake, and now stands over piles of rubble.

For about sixty years, from Italian unification up to 1927, Amatrice was part of L’Aquila, before being annexed to Lazio. L’Aquila, about 75 km to the south in Abruzzo, suffered its own devastating earthquake seven years ago. Last month L’Aquila’s annual religious festival, the Perdonanza Celestiniana, cancelled all social and cultural activities, all but the religious rites, in solidarity with  Amatrice and surroundings for this year’s disaster .

Bucatini_amatriciana

Bucatini all’Amatriciana–and don’t forget the wine! May I recommend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?  Photo by Rkolarsky/Wikimedia Commons

Italian foodies might honor and remember the town with a dinner of Pasta all’Amatriciana, and I’ve been scouring recipe books and the internet reading about this traditional dish of Amatrice.

The traditional pasta, bucatini, is a long hollow tubular shape, which, frankly, I find a challenge to eat because it isn’t as flexible as typical long spaghetti or linguine. It tends to sproing off the fork and fling bits of sauce, however Marcella Hazen, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, says, “It’s impossible to say ‘all’amatriciana’ without thinking of ‘bucatini.’ The two are as indivisible as Romeo and Juliet.” If you’ve never used bucatini, give it a try, but another long pasta would be an acceptable substitute.

Now, the traditional meat is called guanciale, a bacon made from the jowls of pigs that feast on acorns, according to Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy cookbook. Good luck finding guanciale if you aren’t in Italy. Pancetta is a good substitute and more widely available in the USA, and bacon is an acceptable substitute.

The traditional cheese is pecorino Romano, a very sharp sheep milk cheese which Hazen considers indispensible to amatriciana sauce, though it is too sharp for her taste as a table cheese. It’s readily available, so no need to fall back on the parmesan.

With all that in mind, here’s my proposed recipe, adapted from several sources:

2 tablespoons olive oil, or half oil, half butter

1/2 lb. pancetta, cut in thin strips

1 dried red chili pepper or flakes (amount to taste)

1 medium onion, sliced thin or diced fine

1 lb. tomatoes, chopped (peel them for a smoother sauce)

Salt

1 lb.  bucatini or other long pasta

plenty of grated pecorino Romano cheese

Heat olive oil (and butter, if using) over medium heat, and saute the pancetta for about five minutes. Add chili or flakes to taste, and continue cooking until pancetta browns a little. Add onion and cook until golden. Stir in the tomatoes and cook about fifteen to twenty minutes, until the sauce thickens.

While the sauce cooks, heat a large pot of salted water to boiling, and cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta. Remove the chili pepper from the sauce if you have used a whole one. Then add the pasta to the sauce  in its pan, and toss well.

Serve with plenty of pecorino Romano

 

 

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Black wool stockings, or Winter travel in Italy

We arrived in Sorrento in mid-February to begin two weeks of Italian language school at Sorrento Lingue. We’d packed for a month in a mild winter climate.

Too mild, it turned out.

Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio in the snow.

Our host family’s apartment, with its icy marble floors, was not heated to the level we Americans are accustomed to. My first purchase in Sorrento was a pair of black wool tights, which I wore almost every day, with my other clothes. With additional socks, and a sweater under my warm coat.

It’s one thing to bundle up when you go outside–after all, I grew up in Alaska, and I know what winter cold is like. But it seemed nearly as cold inside as out, and we were bundled up inside and out.

Granted, it was mid-winter. We had several very windy days in Sorrento, and a few with rain. We walked several blocks every day to our class, and on our free afternoons we walked all over the city. We walked a couple of miles each way to see the ruined villa at Capo di Sorrento, and took trips to Pompeii and Positano.

Clouds hanging low over Positano.

Umbrellas were the order of the day in Pompeii.

But I’m afraid in all my planning, in spite of knowing that we were traveling in winter, my brain retained the images of sunny Italy, warm Italy, cappuccino on the terrace Italy.

After two weeks in Sorrento–two weeks in those wool tights–we picked up a rental car and headed to L’Aquila. It’s farther north, yes, and a higher elevation, in the central Apennines. A beautiful, historic city (until April 6, 2009), one I was very eager to visit. Weathermen in military regalia on TV had forecast possible snow, so we insisted on getting chains with the rental car, and sure enough, snow began to fall by mid-afternoon as we climbed into the mountains.

But we Alaskans were not daunted by a little snow, and we carried on. As the snow accumulated to three, then four inches, with no sign of letting up, we pulled to the side of the road under an overpass to put on the chains while there was still some daylight.

The chains did not fit.

The thought of another couple of hours in failing light on curving mountain roads gave us pause. We had a lovely hotel room waiting in L’Aquila, and were eager to be in it. But how long would it take us if the snow continued?

As we pondered this question, the rumble of a large vehicle on the overpass caught our attention. It slowed, and then appeared on the ramp and pulled onto the highway in front of us. A snowplow! As we folded our maps and prepared to pull out behind him, another plow came down the ramp. And another!

Following our caravan of snowplows.

With high hopes that one of them would go to L’Aquila, we pulled out into the thin slush in their wake, and followed them at about 40 mph all the way to our destination. Other cars passed us, but we simply followed. It was our first day of driving in Italy, and a memorable experience!

So for anyone planning a winter visit to Italy, I will say: By all means, go, see the sights, the pasta and wine are just as wonderful in winter, but take your black wool stockings! You are likely to need them.

Poetry: “Italian Reasons”

It’s the fifth Friday, time for a surprise, a different topic, a break from the usual routine. I wrote this poem in 2002. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

 

Italian Reasons

 

InL’Aquila, in a square near the university

The students gather, drink caffe corretto,

And deal endless hands of scopa.

Late at night they stumble home in clusters,

One by one left here and there, until the mountain night claims silence

Briefly, then the morning traffic starts to rumble here and there.

 

Zio Guido’s dark wine leaves me dizzy,

With a morning headache, and I know no more

Than I did about why one brother went toArgentina

And the other toNew York.  Italian reasons,

Like a rain out of season, flowing through the dusty streets

And out of sight between the ancient stones.

 

My uncle shows me how to play the kings and take the sevens. 

Between supper of pizzetta and the strategy of scopa,

He tells me how he brought the sheep

Down the backside of the Maiella in the fall

When he was twelve.

 

That year sticks in his memory,

Because in the end, at the bottom of the mountain,

He found his mother weeping.  The brothers

Who had seen him off in April

Were gone.  Zio Guido shares the truth

As he knew it.  I tell him my father’s truth

As I know it.  They aren’t the same, like two sides

Of a coin, whose value we don’t yet know.

 

In his car we speed through valleys and tunnels

To the near-abandoned village of his youth

As if showing me the very house will prove him right.

Parked outside the crumbling walls, Zio Guido stares hard,

Reliving a scene like a silent movie. “You see?” he asks. 

I see his pain, a pain that masked

The hopes and dreams for which his brothers left him

With their bewildered mother, angry father.

 

Driving home he grips my arm,

And reclaims, in some small measure, the brother of his youth.

A tear runs to his mustache for shelter.  I pat his hairy hand.

My father told me stories of little brother Guido, the shepherd boy. 

He had his reasons.

 

Rain has wet the dusty road toL’Aquila.

The city lights shine in clearer air.

 

by Sandy Frykholm, 2002.

Hermit Monk, Pope, Saint

The man who first drew my heart to the Italian south was a hermit monk. A pope. A saint, even. I read just a few paragraphs in an old Penguin Dictionary of Saints, and I was hooked.

The unlikeliness of his path through life intrigued me then, and still does today. A younger son of  a poor family, Peter found the religious life suited him. He felt the need to separate himself from the world, and spent several long periods living as a hermit in the remote mountains of Abruzzo.

He couldn’t stay alone, because people kept seeking him out for spiritual wisdom, healing, and prayer. Eventually he founded a monastic order, built several monasteries and churches, and became known as a man of spiritual power.

In his early eighties, he retired to a hermitage near Sulmona. Nothing prepared him for the turn his life took next.

In 1294, there had been no pope for two years. Rome was in chaos, and the continued to bicker but came no closer to agreement. Abbot Peter of Morrone wrote to his old friend Cardinal Latino Malabranca, urging a swift election to avoid the wrath of God.
Malabranca nominated Peter—to the shock of his fellow cardinals, who barely knew who Peter was.

The schemers did know that Peter was unschooled in papal politics, therefore someone who might be used for their own ends. And they knew he was quite old, and not likely to live long if he was elected. So they elected him.

The cardinals were meeting in Perugia at the time, and their next order of business was to notify Peter of his elevation to the papal throne. None of them wanted to make the arduous mountain journey, and the delay of several days gave another interested party
an unexpected opportunity.

King Charles of Naples had been waiting five years for papal approval of a treaty that would free three of his sons from imprisonment in Aragon. His spies in Perugia raced south to Melfi with the news, and Charles raced north to Sulmona, arriving before the cardinals’ delegation. Charles prevailed on the new pope to help him, and offered to host him in Naples.

Peter, who took the name Celestine V as his papal title, was pulled from all sides by men wanting favors, by powerful cardinals protecting their own interests, and by King Charles and others hoping to influence him.

The coronation of Pope Celestine V

He was crowned in L’Aquila in August of 1294, to the horror of the cardinals, who felt Rome was the proper place for the coronation. He spent months in Naples as a guest of the king, against the cardinals’ wishes again.

His spiritual wisdom could not make up for his political naivety, however, and by December of 1294 Peter knew he was making a mess of his job. All he wanted was to go back to his hermitage. But there was no provision for the resignation of a pope.

For that, he called on one of the cardinals for legal help: Benedict Gaetani, one of the brightest legal minds of the 13th century.
After years of enmity with King Charles, Gaetani allied with the king to ensure the resignation would be accepted—and that Gaetani himself would be the successor.

Then, Gaetani double-crossed them both, forcing Charles to bring the former pope to Gaetani as a prisoner before Gaetani would complete the political maneuvers necessary to free the king’s sons.

Peter spent the last two years of his life imprisoned in a castle in Fumone, one of the Gaetani family holdings, where he died in 1296. Dante consigned him to hell for the cowardice of his resignation, but others considered him a saint—and he was canonized with the name Saint Peter Celestine in 1313. He is even mentioned in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

I walked the path to his hermitage near Sulmona, and visited the church in L’Aquila where his remains lie in a glass case. I am convinced he was a great spiritual leader, but the church of his day wanted a politician, which he certainly was not. I like to
think of him in his prime, surrounded by people who wanted to learn from him, and who saw him as an example of all the good in Christian life.

Driving to L’Aquila

In early March of 2004, after two weeks of studying Italian in Sorrento, Vern and I rented a car to drive to L’Aquila, high in the central Apennines, researching some of the settings of the novel I was writing. Set in the late 1200s, the novel included the coronation of Pope Celestine V, who was crowned in L’Aquila where he had founded the Santa Maria di Collemaggio monastery. 

The forecast called for snow in the mountains, so we insisted on having some tire chains for our rental car when we picked it up in Sorrento in the morning. The rental agent  reluctantly rounded some up for us. By mid-afternoon , as we climbed into the mountains, we were glad to know we had those chains. 

With lots of snow-driving experience behind us, we weren’t concerned with the first couple of inches of snow, and just kept driving. Finally, though, when the snow was approaching six inches deep, we pulled off under an overpass to put the chains on. 

Guess what? They didn’t fit our tires.

In the dark, with the snow still falling thick around us, we wondered if we would be able to make the last hour or so of the trip. There wasn’t much traffic on the roads, and we didn’t have a cell phone with us to call for help if we needed it.

As we sat in the car talking it over, we heard heavy truck traffic on the overpass, and then down the ramp, headed toward L’Aquila, came a snow plow. Just what we needed!  As we started the car, a second plow followed the first one, pulling out onto the road ahead of us. And then a third! 

We felt like a special escort had been arranged just for us, and though the speed was a little slow, we followed the plows all the way to L’Aquila’s city gates. From there, we had to make our own way through the snowy streets to our hotel.

The following morning, a Sunday, we walked through a foot of fresh snow to the monastery church of Collemaggio, whose pink and white façade I had seen in many photos in the course of my research on Pope Celestine V. The banner photo on this blog was taken that morning.

Earthquakes in L’Aquila

 

Earthquake damage at Santa Maria Paganica Church in L'Aquila, 2009.

When I first visited L’Aquila in 2004, I wandered through the city looking at churches. Though many of them had medieval origins, almost all were now decorated in Baroque style, heavy on the cherubs and gilded trims. Some thoughtful person or committee (and I thank you, whoever you are) had undertaken a signage project in L’Aquila, and almost every church had a sign—sometimes even in English—outlining the history of the church.

The reason for the almost universal Baroque décor became clear as we read, for the third, then fourth, and fifth time, that “after the terrible earthquake of 1703, the church was rebuilt…” during the following ten or twenty years.

 Naturally enough, those churches were rebuilt in the style current in 1703, and not their original style. Aggravating as it was to my medieval mind, nearly every church in town had been remade Baroque.

 The city of L’Aquila was founded by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, and completed in 1254 by his son. I knew many of those churches had medieval origins, and my main reason for visiting was to see the monastery church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. (You can see its beautiful pink and white façade in the banner photo above.)

 Fortunately, Collemaggio was not destroyed in 1703, and its Romanesque layered arches and portals welcomed me as I explored it. I paid my respects to Pope Celestine V, one of the subjects of my research for several years, whose body lies in a glass case there. He is also known as Saint Peter Celestine, or Peter of Morrone, and he founded the church in the 1270s and was crowned pope there in 1294. I did notice that part of the interior of Collemaggio had a Baroque style, and wondered if that was a result of earthquake damage. 

 The 1703 “terremoto” is reputed to have killed 5,000 to 10,000 people and destroyed nearly every building in L’Aquila. In a terrible case of déjà vu, in April of 2009 the mountains under L’Aquila shook the city to rubble again. More than 300 people died, around 1,500 were injured, and 65,000 became homeless due to the destruction.

 Once again, most of Santa Maria di Collemaggio survived. If you search on Google Earth for “Santa Maria di Collemaggio” you’ll see a village of blue emergency tents erected on the wide lawn in front of the church’s pink and white façade.  The dome collapsed, but the rest of the church and monastery stood the test. The remarkably clear satellite photos used by Google Earth for L’Aquila were taken just a few weeks after the earthquake, so you can see other collapsed roofs as you scan around the city. The most telling series of photos I have seen (warning: some graphic content) of the 2009 earthquake damage is at this website:  http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/04/the_laquila_earthquake.html  The photo above comes from this collection.

 In a December 2010 article in The Free Press (Rockland, Maine) columnist Chuck Marecic describes the downtown area of L’Aquila:  “On a recent walk through the city, I saw temporary wooden braces reinforcing the windows, doors, and walls of nearly every building. The town’s Duomo (cathedral) looks fine from the outside, but the inside has collapsed. Chain- link fences separate much of the city from its inhabitants. Here and there reconstruction projects are evident. However, for the most part the city stands mute and abandoned except for the teams of firefighters who continue to inspect the “red zone” to ensure public safety and the scores of visitors who have come to bear witness to the devastation.”

 I cried when I read about L’Aquila, and I’m not sure I’d want to join the ‘disaster tourism’ there, though it may provide some financial stimulus to the community. The city’s past fascinates me, but the future is very cloudy.