Tag: Collevalenza

Remembrance of things Proust




By Francesco Bianchini



I want to add my voice to the universal, full-throated chorus of readers of Marcel Proust on the 150th anniversary of his birth. Those who have read the entirety of his most famous novel, and also those who have only tried, know that it is not easy. Not so much for the burden of the undertaking, but also – and above all – for the syzygy required between each reader and Proust himself. Unique and magical is the moment when our sensibility is in tune with the author. 

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

I was barely twenty when my mother gave me the French Gallimard paperback edition in eight volumes – all rather plump – hoping to entice me to read it. I admired them, lined up on my bookshelf; I took them one at a time, considered the ugly drawings from the 1970s that illustrated the covers, thumbed through, and sniffed the pages. As if for a huge mansion, I pushed open the front door to get a feel for it by judging from the vestibule. The opening sentence intrigued me: For a long time, I used to go to bed early. But after that, I got lost in all the objects and people the narrator drowsily conjured in his sleep. Several times I put the first volume – Du côté de chez Swann – in my suitcase with the idea that travel rather than stasis would encourage the project. I took it with me to Bermuda. Those pages, glued tightly to the vicious spine, became filled with the pink sand grains of that island’s beautiful beaches.

Swann’s Way through Ajat

 To satisfy my fetishistic relationship with the book, I paid the price of buying the Pléiade edition, in red morocco leather – three volumes printed on fine India paper – and I got rid of the paperbacks. More years went by. By now I’d gotten into the habit with Dan of reading something aloud every night. We enjoyed some classics of English literature that way. Proust came to mind because a mutual American friend had tackled him in a reading group. I then procured a twelve-volume, postwar edition in the translation by Scott Moncrieff – a contemporary of Proust – and with the evocative English title, borrowed from a Shakespeare sonnet, Remembrance of Things Past

In the spring of 2012, in the kitchen of our farmhouse in Dordogne, sometimes on the porch overlooking our forest of oak and chestnut trees, we began our reading that continued with slowness (due to my long absences during the fall and spring semesters) throughout 2013 and 2014 – the latter years as we moved from apartment to apartment in our Sarlat house as renovations proceeded up to the summer of 2017. It took us five full years – five years of reading aloud before dinner – to reach Proust’s summit. It is true that, as we climbed higher, the thinner the air became, the more our view expanded to infinity. We became intoxicated by our perception of the height, paralyzed by vertigo at the sight of the bodies of other climbers lying prone on the slopes. We were enraptured by certain passages; we were often indignant by Marcel’s hypocrisy; we were amused by his malice. At dinner, the characters followed us in animated discussions as if they were neighbors.

Tea with Proust

Like Marcel, I too have always been under the spell of a name, capable as it is to capture the essence of a place. Geographic appellations work in two ways: either they crystalize their character for us, or we can form a complex impression of a place by assimilating its name alone. In other words, which comes first? Which one bestows to the other its magic?

During my childhood, two places competed for my little world: the Umbrian village of Collevalenza – much of which was occupied by my family home – and Rome, where I was born, and where my family had its roots. In between the two, before the completion of the superhighway, a long and tortuous route twisted along river gorges and climbed countless hills, often making me sick. Returning to Collevalenza hinted at the aches and pains of the journey to reach that single hilltop, the colle, whereas reaching Rome – built on no less than seven, as I was always told – seemed relatively easy. My incredulity that such a short name as ‘Roma’ could contain such an immense city was great. At that early age, I loved my birthplace with unconditional love, and I thought I was the first to have discovered it; and that, when reading its name backward, it proclaims ‘Amor’.

My Combray – Collevalenza

My family moved from Collevalenza to a country estate called La Cervara. No other toponym has had so much evocative power for me, with its last broad vowels suggesting certain pastoral grandeur. The word cervo – deer – a noble animal that was never seen in the environs, added a touch of exquisite exoticism. It was like admiring a seventeenth-century Italian engraving, where the vista was gracefully framed by oak trees whose leaves were rendered by repetitive finger-like pencil strokes. La Cervara, our family home for almost twenty years was, however, rarely referred to as such: we didn’t go ‘home’ as much as come and go from La Cervara. That subtle difference made me indisputably sensitive to my fascination with onomastics.

Even before landing in Fossemagne, Dordogne, I was prepared for a bad surprise. The ‘big ditch’ that its late Latin root brings to mind, and the sense of stalemate that the series of consonants imply, materialized before our eyes on our first visit to the village – with its double row of houses clad in colorless resignation. To remedy that impression, we added the adjective ‘haute’ to the name of the property we had just purchased. Yet, even though it was on the heights of Fossemagne, at a fair distance from the village, La Placette Haute still possessed a diminutive ring to it, inexorably rhyming with words like midinette or salopette. During our stay, I must confess that this was a sore point for both of us. By virtue of the fact that part of our land fell under the jurisdiction of the neighboring hamlet of Ajat – a gem of a village gathered around its chateau – Dan adopted that as his address. As for me, what I would have given to make mine that of Auriac-du-Périgord, only fifteen minutes away, a name as delightfully sonorous as a cavity carved by prehistoric waters in sandstone.

Where the reading began: La Placette Haute

Later, as we were searching for a new property, we chewed on its name first. The manor house of Montchoisi was a tantalizing option for a while. Not only did it look like a decorous country home amidst mature trees, but the place name contained the idea of elevation and exclusivity, calling to mind scenes of rustic bacchanalia à la Watteau. Another property caught our attention in the haughty town of Hautefort, most regrettably sitting along the Allée de Bastard. The de Bastard family, that had ruled the village and its phenomenal castle for centuries must have made up for the unsavoriness of their name with the allure of landed prestige. But for us, it was an all too uncomfortable allusion to the Umbrian town of Bastardo that Dan and I dubbed ‘the town that dare not speak its name’. Of all the places where we ended up settling, Sarlat-la-Canéda has undoubtedly the most appetizing moniker. Whatever cooks in your mouth when you utter its name is redolent with traditional Périgourdin potatoes sautéed in duck fat.

Proust’s greatest gift to his readers – we know – is the key to lost time. His lost time is ours: Combray is our childhood; grandmother, aunt, mother and father, Gilberte, Albertine, the Verdurins, are there to remind us of our affections, our points of reference, our karmic knots. But I didn’t understand it right away. At the end of the reading, I rather thought that the characters would frequent the living room of my mind forever; that the breath of that unrepeatable era would continue to waft through my head. 

Then came September 2019 and my friend Silvia Buitoni invited me to participate in her Internet group under the banner of the most Proustian of elements: the madeleine. I let myself get involved. But there again, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me that one madeleine would conjure another – a bit like what happened to Marcel himself – and that over the course of the year and a half that kept the whole world at home in lockdown, I would send Silvia as many as ninety ‘madeleines’. Several times – reasoning about the past in Aristotelian terms – I thought I’d run out of material. But memory, like creativity, does not follow a linear path, but unravels in cycles, or rather spirals. And on these spirals, like galaxies of time, memories shine indelibly.


Old Photo of a Family

Pangs of Childhood – and Remembrance of Kitchens Past




By Francesco Bianchini


Collevalenza, with my childhood home stretching across the entire bottom of the picture

In my childhood home, a lot of space was devoted to storing food. Milk, cheese, sausage, eggs, vegetables, oil, and wine came from our farm below the house. From the scullery, there were a series of rooms, each with a specific function, and each distinguished by its smell: nauseating to me, pecorino, caciotta, and ricotta cheese, lying on long wooden boards; the acrid and sweetish aroma of must and wine; the appetizing perfume of salami, sausage, capocollo and hams that hung in festoons from the beams. There were also cupboards of preserves, pickles, and jams, and little rooms with ancient terracotta oil vats.

Nothing was kept under lock and key, a Garden of Eden where temptations were part of the divine plan. I never had a sweet tooth, unlike my brother Fabrizio who perfected the art of emptying a box of chocolates by making an invisible incision in the cellophane. It is certain that my mother, who kept boxes of sweets stacked in her linen closet, was stunned when she opened them. A burglary worthy of Arsène Lupin, the fictional gentleman thief of our favorite TV series. 

Sausage stealer, front left, chocolate candy thief on Mama’s lap, and my angelic brother Filippo

On some Fridays, a day of abstinence from meat, even worse during Lent – the sacred Ramadan of Catholics – I was taken by an afternoon languor for a dry sausage. I didn’t need a snake to be tempted by those coiled garlands that I sometimes merely visited to inhale the smell. Not enough to maintain my righteous intentions! With a knife, I cut the connecting thread and detached a sausage from the twisted gut that held the chain together. The good ventilation of the charcuterie room ensured perfect drying. The skin came off effortlessly and floated in the air, leaving the pinkish-brown sausage naked and ready to be bitten. At times, what with the risk of being caught, I didn’t even have time to peel it.

They’ll never miss one…

In the absence of guests, breakfast in our house was a hurried affair. By the time we arrived at the kitchen table, Augusta had already boiled the fresh milk that arrived early each morning from the farm, ferried in the aluminum containers that are seen nowadays in flea markets, and Rodolfo had set the marble table with mismatched cups, bread, butter, and jam. If we were daydreaming or had come down late, the Ovaltine would have congealed on the surface of the scalded milk. We called that “veil” in disgust and fished it out with a fork, or demanded that Rodolfo start all over again. 

During school terms, my mother invented health protocols: a spoonful of cod liver oil, for example, administered before breakfast was met with a multitude of antics on our part to make the process as exasperating as possible. Our elementary school was only a few hundred yards from home, which we reached by passing the bar and grocery store where my classmates stocked up for recess. But I was never given money, moreover, my mother had an intense aversion to snacking. When the school bell rang at ten thirty, there would be a great deal of unwrapping and sandwiches would appear, overflowing with mortadella, finocchiona, prosciutto, or a warm schiacciata – a typical Tuscan bread, baked in an oven with olive oil and salt, onion and rosemary, or tomato. I would find myself looking into a corner with my mouth watering, except for the times when Rodolfo – predisposed to indulgence and happy to subvert the educational rigors of my parents – would sneak something into my school satchel.

The poor starving boy in his 1st-grade uniform

We write about the food of the heart and soul, about memories and people, but rarely about the place where food is prepared. I’m not referring to the precious gastronomic boudoirs of our times – immaculate, super-technological, fancy, or retro – but to the workshops of old, the purely utilitarian rooms where guests didn’t stick their noses, and which exert a poignant fascination on me. Eons passed and the equipment evolved, but without the pressing need to get rid of the old. The stufa economica, relegated to a corner, continued to provide warmth especially in times of energy-saving. Cooking had moved on from gas stoves – whose cast-iron burners, operated by large bakelite knobs, hissed when lit – to slimmer and safer models, perhaps with a ventilated oven. The refrigerator had also been modernized; next to the travertine or white ceramic sink a dishwasher had found its place, and on a shelf or sideboard the microwave made a discreet appearance. Fashions followed one another, but due to providential indifference or lack of means, the old terracotta floor, sometimes chipped and sagging; the early twentieth-century cement tiles or the 1920s terrazzo had been preserved and polished with devotion. The kitchen was also the point where everything in the house bounced, settled, and fermented. Kitchens still are, but not in the same way. In middle-class homes, there was a filter between the kitchen and the rest of the house, like those used for distilling alcohol: the cook and the household staff. Everything that happened was digested as if the house possessed two separate stomachs.

Only children were allowed to move from one sphere to another and absorb its different moods. I ate in the kitchen for years before being admitted to the dining room with which it communicated through a service hatch. The vast room had two windows, one overlooking the garden and the other the village street; two large marble tables, one of which was in the center of the room, two sideboards against the walls, a fireplace, and a stone sink. From there a door led down a steep staircase to two dimly lit rooms festooned with cobwebs that served as a cellar. Another went up to the servants’ room, where once Gilda, Rodolfo’s mother, was seized with such a fit of laughter that a rivulet of pee dripped down the stairs. She squirmed like a big supine insect, unable to turn around, the white flesh of her thighs pressed into thick black stockings. Another maid, who didn’t last long and ended up becoming a cloistered nun, dismayed everyone by her habit of drying damp dishcloths in the oven and ironing with one hand while reading the story of some mystic with the other.

The kitchen of my memory

The kitchen of my memories is not always a serene and hospitable place. The threat of the ‘guards’, whom Rodolfo invoked to bring me to my senses, was, for a child of four or five, akin to the arrival of big men, hooded and wrapped in black cloaks, like the sinister figures who arrested poor Pinocchio. Or the end-of-year eel twisted on itself in a box that I took for a frightening black snake. I vividly recall that kitchen disfigured by the excitement on the morning the radio announced the invasion by Soviet tanks of Prague. Augusta, who had absorbed the general nervousness, let the milk overflow, spill, and drip from the stovetop. Against her phlegmatic nature, she exploded into a sequence of expletives barely softened by the presence of us children. But on certain evenings, when – to put my courage to the test – I offered to go into the garden, plunged in semi-darkness, to pick wild arugula for the dinner salad, the yellow rectangle of the window, lit by the old hanging lamp, guided and reassured me.


Memories of a childhood in Umbria

Augusta’s Kitchen

By Francesco Bianchini

If Catherine de’Medici introduced the etiquette, customs, and flavors of civilized Tuscany to the French court, it is curious that–despite the fact that my grandmother Margherita was from Piedmont and my mother originally from Burgundy–neither of them succeeded in changing the habits of our local cooks. That’s the way we’ve always done it, they would say, cutting short any discussion.

An areal view of the village of Collevalenza, central to my Umbrian childhood. In the foreground the castellated walls and the garden, my ancestral home.

Augusta, the cook during my family’s happiest years, was stubbornly opposed to any change or embellishment. It was from her that I learned something about cooking. To wit, how to prepare two mainstays of many of our regional dishes: soffritto and sugo finto. In the former, crushed garlic and chopped onion are lightly sautéd in olive oil, with chili flakes, carrots, and celery. It all starts there. Sugo finto is so called because it has neither meat nor fish; nothing more than peeled and diced San Marzano tomatoes added to the soffritto. When finished, a handful of chopped fresh parsley is sprinkled on top. 

A close-up of the eastern wing of the castle

The kitchen at Collevalenza

Coming home from school, I’d walk through the kitchen where Augusta’s sugo would be simmering so gently that it never splashed onto the stovetop; a thick and orangey sauce speckled with tiny dots of carrot and celery. Distracting Augusta with some pretext or other, I’d quickly dunk a slab of bread into the pan and sneak away. Sometimes she wouldn’t notice the knavery, so involved was she in her other arts, such as cutting rolls of her incomparably thin and translucent dough with regular, precise strokes. Augusta had an unusual knife with a curved blade under the handle on which her knuckles rested. She would slice the roll of pasta on the cutting board, sweeping the resulting strings aside with quick, rhythmic movements, pausing from time to time to untangle them lest they stick together. Her name for this pasta was picchiarelli even if most Umbrians called it strangozzi or strozzapreti, a term alluding to the local belief that clerics never miss a good meal; maybe they die of indigestion, but never from hunger.

The Sugo Thief

Augusta’s gnocchi were neither too soft nor too hard, neither too small nor too large, and their ridged surfaces hosted her tomato and porcini mushroom sauce admirably. One of my first attempts to reproduce her gnocchi was, without exaggeration, a disaster; a blow to my self-esteem.  I was visiting a friend in his New York apartment and our dinner guest that evening was a famous American food editor. The sauce of fresh San Marzano tomatoes and porcini mushrooms (difficult to find even at Manhattan’s gourmet grocers), had simmered in the afternoon and was resting, concentrated and fragrant, waiting for a final shot of fire. I peeled the potatoes, drawing them directly out of the boiling water, and scalding my fingers–because that was Augusta’s recommended method. (There always seemed a touch of masochism in her lust for perfection; perhaps to discourage rivals.) At the moment of kneading the mashed potatoes and flour, however, the irreparable occurred. It was the fault of an egg, actually two, that in a moment of panic – because the mixture seemed too dry – I had added to the dough. Too late to undo the damage, I realized that the gnocchi were turning into rubbery projectiles. (Had they fallen to the kitchen floor, they would have ricocheted all the way to the dining room.)

Preparing the gnocchi (from https://mammaboom.com/en/gnocchi-di-patate/)

When Augusta reached retirement age, she left us, and thus began a fatal decline in the quality of household cooking, perceptible in the debasement of the famous sauces, increasingly watery and tasteless. I was still a boy when she retired, but I remember perfectly the dishes I’d grown accustomed to enjoying (which I never ate after her departure): sliced roast beef with its accompanying brown gravy; potatoes mashed into a fluffy cloud wafting a slight caramel odor; potatoes sliced as thin as coins, also meat and cheese croquettes, deep-fried, but with such dexterity that they were tender and covered with filigree crusts. Augusta’s croquettes were rather square in shape, which is why they were always called “pillows”.

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