Adventures with Velia – The Chronicles of the Wooden Chair by Anne Bacigalupo Driscoll
June 22, 2006
We arrive at Burlington, Vermont International Airport and meet Giorgio and Teresa. Giorgio has made arrangements for Dan to park our car in a gated lot near the airport where it will be safe during our absence. We all stop for a drink before our flight, to celebrate our trip to Italy. Andiamo!!
June 23, 2006
When we arrive in Roma, I’m relieved that Rosa and Gregorio got to the car rental before us. It took forever to get the van, which was too small!!….only 7 passengers. We are 6 passengers but we have a mountain of luggage. Giorgio begged the company to take out a seat so all our luggage would fit. Eventually his winning ways worked and a seat was removed. We load up and head out of the airport. The directions are confusing as we try to figure out where to go. We get lost once, but eventually we find our way.
Giorgio had a mobile phone and we called Velia from the airport and later on the highway. It is so good to hear her voice. We can hardly contain our excitement at finally being together again. She met us at the Orvieto exit at a restaurant named “Food Village”! We all pour out of the van, introducing ourselves to her. My husband Dan and I haven’t seen Velia in two years. When I finally get around the van and she sees me, we hug and squeeze each other. I ask Velia where her car is (so we can follow her) and she tells me that she doesn’t drive. So, now we squeeze Velia into the van. That poor Fiat was stuffed!
Off we go to bring Rosa and Gregorio to Podere San Antonio. What an incredible Bed and Breakfast with a view that must be experienced. It sits on top of a mountain surrounded by vineyards. The hot Italian sun is beating down on us, but we don’t care. Finally we are here!
We have a glass of wine with Stefano and his mother Assunta, the owners of Podere San Antonio. They don’t speak English but we are all family by the time we leave.
At Velia’s we meet her Nonna who is 81 years old and her Zio Giuseppe, who brings us his wine to drink. Keep in mind, we haven’t had sleep for 20 hours. We relax for a little while and then Velia begins dinner preparation by showing us how to make little cakes. She has Rosa do the work. She begins by putting a block of butter on the wooden cutting board. Then she starts adding flour, lemon zest, sugar, vanilla bean, and a yeast cake as Rosa kneads the dough. It smells so good. Rosa keeps kneading as Velia adds a little of this and a little of that.
After the cakes are prepared, Velia puts a lot of olive oil in a pan, slices some garlic, and puts sliced porcini mushrooms in, which she tells us grew by her house. Her family freezes them and uses them throughout the year. She teaches us to never use a knife to cut basil because it will turn black. “You tear the leaves and they remain vibrant green.” She pours the sauce over the pasta and just before serving it, she adds dry ricotta to the pasta. The final touch is freshly grated parmeggiano.
Gianluca, Velia’s boyfriend, sets the table for us. We have beautiful glasses for wine and water. We begin with cantaloupe, that is so orange and fresh, served with thinly sliced proscuitto. Next Velia serves the pasta. It is so tasty and delicious…it just melts in your mouth. For dessert, we have the little cakes that Rosa made with Velia. Some are filled with Nutella and others with raspberry jam that Nonna made. When Velia made the cakes she cut round discs from the rolled dough, put a dollop of filling in the middle, and then folded up the dough making a little shape like a bishop’s hat. We finish the meal with grappa and 70% chocolate.
Before dinner, Nonna is watering the flowers. She goes into a little room to fill the cans. I follow her in and see what looks like a large press of some kind in a tub. I ask her about it, “Vino?” She tells me in Italian what happens first (“primo”) and shows me an apparatus with rollers. Then she tells me about the press. I’m happy I understand some of the words she speaks. At last, we are all exhausted’ and drop into bed for a welcomed night’s sleep.
June 24, 2006
I wake up around 4:00 am to the sound of a rooster crowing outside our window. Oh please! Let me sleep! During the afternoon I discover there are chickens and roosters in a little tin shack. There’s an olive tree beside the shack and two kittens play with the branches that hang low to the ground.
After breakfast we go to Orvieto and see the beautiful duomo. The outside is covered in colorful mosaics including gold pieces that shine in the sun.
We walk around with Velia who advises us not to buy ceramics because she knows the best place. We found a shop with tapestry runners and kitchen towels, pot holders etc. Rosa and I bought a runner for ourselves and one for our sister Elena.
For lunch, Velia took us to a restaurant we never would have found. We shared some appetizers and entrees. (It was so hot, but we asked for an outside table anyway). Velia suggests Baffo: sautéed proscuitto with raisins, balsamic vinegar and sage. We also try anchovies sautéed in fresh tomatoes, onions and olive oil. Then we try pasta in a pesto cream sauce with yellow pepper sauce on top. The cooked peppers were placed in a blender and pureed. Gregorio loved the pepper sauce!!
In the afternoon, we swam in the pool at Rosa’s. Stefano put the stairs in the side and I was able to get in and out. The MS damage in my legs and feet is too much for climbing. As we were enjoying the hot sun and the cool water, Giorgio said to Stefano, “Vino”. He jumped up and brought both red and chilled white wine. Even though he doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian, you could feel a close relationship developing.
That night Velia created the same sauce with yellow peppers. First she sautéed peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil. She added a few sausage links and let it cook. Next she took out the sausage and put the rest in the blender with fresh basil. Meanwhile, Rosa cut up romaine lettuce and onion. She spread it out in a dish. Velia sautéed turkey scaloppini, dusted with a little flour, in olive oil. For a final touch she added balsamic vinegar to the pan. This was placed on top of the lettuce.
We decided to eat outside. Gianluca was in charge and set the table. Zio Guiseppe brought us a big bottle of red wine that tasted like a Beaujolais. I noted that it was not as sweet as last night’s wine. When we sat down, Velia brought out bread that looked like a tortilla. It was cut in triangles. We put a sausage on the bread and poured the pepper sauce on top. As the sun was setting, a cooling breeze began to flow. We ate, talked and laughed. Velia told us about how she net Gianluca at a discothèque. The moment she saw him her “heart fluttered”. Nonna came downstairs. She brought Teresa and me into a little shop where she showed us her wicker work. As she talked, I understood her telling us, “Tomorrow, I work up in the village.” She showed us the “nera” dark wicker and the “bianco” or bleached wicker.
June 25, 2006
On Sunday we go to Orvieto but many shops are closed. We buy some ceramics and stop at a bar for a drink. It is so hot that Dan and I decide to have a Peroni. Dan remembers his days in Naples when he was in the Navy and the sailors drank Peroni beer. Back at home in Monterubiaglio we prepare for our visit to the Falesco Winery and the wine tasting event. When we arrive, we get a personal tour of the building. Daniele Montanelli the Export Manager, speaks extensively about each part. Velia translates for us. In the tech part of the plant, we go into a small room that has computers monitoring each wine container. Dan points out IBM on the computers. Velia tells Daniele that Dan works there and you would think he was an executive or something!!
When we finish the tour there is time before the wine tasting, so we follow Gianluca and Velia to the local village. We walk up to the bar where all the locals are outside visiting. There are old men and old women sitting, but not together! Gregorio found a phone booth and called home to make sure WBZ TV was still intact without him. Up on top of the town center, at the bar, two men move so we can all sit together. Velia orders little bites for us to eat. I have a light and refreshing Proseco to drink.
Back at the winery, people have arrived. We are seated near to the main table. Gianluca is our sommelier. He explains each bottle of wine to us. We start with the less expensive white wines and go to the more expensive reds. At one point, Gianluca smells the wine of a newly opened bottle that was just poured. He orders us to not drink it. He calls over Daniele and announces, “Cork!” This means the taste of the cork has gotten into the wine and it is not fit to drink. You could have fooled us because we thought it tasted fine!! Daniele took away the bottle, we emptied our glasses into the container in the middle of the table, and a new bottle was presented.
First Course - 3 Little pizzas: a.) fresh cherry tomatoes that are so sweet; b.) white with olive oil and rosemary; c.) plain fresh tomato sauce. I like the wine served with this course the best of the whites: Poggio Dei Gelsi
Second Course: We had prosciutto, salami sliced thin, cheeses, and grilled eggplant. The eggplant was delicious and I went back for seconds. I didn’t like the white wine as much with this course: Ferentano.
Third Course: Pergatelle (tubular spaghetti) in tomato sauce is served….excellent! We also have grilled zucchini, stuffed zucchini blossoms and frittata. We have another white wine I like better. We’ve started the reds now, too. At this point we’re feeling great and the evening air was fabulous.
For dessert we had tarts with jam and a tasty after dinner wine. Cigars are passed around and Velia is really getting funny. Gianluca tests me on my Italian. He asks me how to say one friend (una amica) and three friends (tre amici) I passed!! Dan says my Italian gets better the more wine I drink!
June 26, 2006
You must remember back to the beginning of my journal when we had the dilemma at the airport with the van. A seat was taken out so we could fit all our luggage in the van. Now we face another dilemma when, each day, we go visiting with Velia. We need a seat for her. So, Giorgio asks her if her Nonna has a chair we could put in the back of the van. It turns out that Nonna cut the legs on a wooden chair because she is short and when she makes the baskets, she is more comfortable with the legs cut. We take the “Wooden Chair” and thus begin the chronicles of the wooden chair. Rosa, Teresa and Velia take turns sitting in the wooden chair. It is not very comfortable on long rides and poor Rosa suffered the day we went to Assisi. But I digress…
The next morning Nonna shows Teresa and me how she makes the baskets. Her nimble fingers seem to fly. She uses the base she made the first day we were in Monterubiaglio and quickly builds the sides. Dan is amazed at how effortlessly she makes the handle.
We return to Orvieto, buy a few things and then take a tour of the underground caves. It is refreshingly cool down there. We learn there are 1800 caves that have been discovered and probably 2000 in total. The last part of the second cave is steep and narrow going up. Velia is claustrophobic and not sure if she can do the climb. I tell her I will go back with her because I’m not sure it I can do the climb. Velia wants to be brave and tells me I can do it and that it is much better after the first rough part. Off we go, andiamo!
On the way to Rosa’s villa we stop at a co-op to buy food for lunch and dinner. At the villa we make a feast of cherry tomatoes, cheese, olives, bread, wild boar, cherries and grapes. Then we spend the afternoon swimming and tanning in the hot Umbrian sun.
At 5:00 pm Stefano starts the fire for the pizza. It will take a couple of hours for the oven to come up to temperature. Assunta opens a window facing the pool so the men can watch Italy vs. Australia in the soccer tournament. Italy wins!! We all cheer together and are happy for Stefano who was glued to the TV. Assunta calls for me to watch her make the bread dough. The first batch is done by the time I get there, so I help with the second one. She makes a well in the middle of the dough, while on the stove she heats milk, water, olive oil and yeast. She pours the liquid into the well and works the dough. She tells me in Italian to add more flour. I dump some flour onto the board but the dough is still wet, so she says, “Tutti” (all). So, I add almost the whole bag which turns out to be too much and the dough gets hard. Now Assunta adds more milk and olive oil to the dough and she kneads and kneads. Giorgio goes to get Velia around 6:30 because she and Assunta are going to make the pizza together.
When Velia arrives she spreads the dough lovingly in the pan. She massages it and says it is like touching a woman. She makes anchovy and olive pizza, sausage and truffle pizza, and white pizza with fresh rosemary. Finally she pops them into the brick oven which has reached the perfect temperature.
Gianluca arrives just as we sit down to eat. There is great rejoicing that he is with us. At this point it is at least 9:00 pm!! For dessert, Velia has made a big tray of Tiramisu that was so delicious. Complimenti!! Assunta has brought out white and red wines that we quickly consume. We are exhausted when we finally say Buona Notte.
I must tell about what happened just before we sat down to eat. Stefano let Giorgio drive the bulldozer, which he was thrilled to do. While we watched him and took pictures, Rosa discovered fig and almond trees at the edge of two rows of grape vines. Dan has me ask Stefano how old the vines are, “Quanto anno?”. He replies, “Tre anno” (3 years) for the ones we’re standing by and points out in the field to ones that are 30 years old.
June 26, 2006
We head out to Deruta on a mission to buy ceramics. We stop at two places that weren’t that good but I did buy a square and a rectangle tile that are handpainted. I want Daniele to make them into trivets. Then Rosa and Teresa hit “the motherload”! They find the perfect shop. The owner takes us on a tour of the factory where we see the workers hand painting the designs on the clay. We all buy some ceramic pieces that we have shipped together to Giorgio’s place of work. Sharing the cost of shipping saves money for us all.
We eventually get to Assisi. It is very hot and we park at one end of town. We walk up the street and stop at a little café for a gelato and a drink. Velia brought the rest of the leftover pizza and we enjoy each bite. Then we continue walking toward a church. Velia tells us that there are many churches in Assisi. They won’t let Rosa in the church called Santa Clara because she has too much skin showing. So, she buys a large scarf, big enough to be a wrap. The guard at the door gives her a smaller scarf for on top. She now looks like a gypsy!! The church is cool and we walk around looking at the beautiful stained glass windows, frescoes, marble etc. We see Santa Clara’s tomb where her body is on display. Velia explains that they put a mask over her face so we don’t see the bones. Then we return to the car and drive to the main duomo.
Inside the San Francesco duomo we follow Velia around as she explains the clothing of St. Francis that is on display. His friends’ artifacts are there, too. We see his tomb down below the main floor. There are many wings of the duomo. We start downstairs in one, then walk to a higher level for the main church. We see the damage from the recent earthquake. . .walls that had beautiful frescoes are now plain.
We stop and pray for a few minutes which is very emotional for me. We light a candle and Daniele tells me he is very happy that we came to Assisi. He says his mother wanted to go to Assisi and would be pleased to know that Dan made the trip. The view from the church is spectacular. It sits high on top of the hillside overlooking the valley. The town itself, like so many Umbrian and Tuscan towns, is feudal. They were all built high for protection from invaders.
On the way home, we decide to go to Spoleto for dinner. After parking the car, we go up and up and finally find a restaurant. Even though it is still very hot, we choose to sit outside under the canopy. We are the only ones there because, by Italian standards, 7:30 pm is early. The restaurant turns out to be an excellent choice.
The waiter begins by giving everyone a glass of Proseco, complimenti. It reminds me of when Velia sent Dan and me to “Ritrovo” for dinner in Positano. We also were presented with sparkling glasses of Proseco as we were seated. I start with a carpaccio of wild boar, arugula and little bufala mozzarella – outstanding! Velia orders a dish that has a sort of pate and terrine thing sitting on top of a lemon sauce. She insisted we try some and it was very tasty.
For dinner, Dan and I had pasta with a ragu of tomato and rabbit. We are all pleased with out choices. Even though our bellies are full, we can’t refuse dessert. I had grapefruit sorbet with fresh fruit on top. Delicioso!
We head back to Monterubiaglio very late at night. During our drive, Velia keeps us laughing to the point of tears, as she tells one story after another. She talks about the winter time when it is cold and she wears many layers of clothing to bed. One night Gianluca looked at her and said, “I’m sleeping with Befana.” Befana is the ugly old lady who brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve. She continues, saying it is like unwrapping a gift and by the time he gets all her clothes off, he falls asleep! We roared with laughter (probably because all the women in the van could relate to wearing socks, sweaters etc to bed at home). But Rosa is not laughing because she is sitting on the “wooden chair” which is hurting her butt after more than an hour from Spoleto to Orvieto.
Velia had just finished making fun of the carabinieri. “They are so funny! They can’t speak English and they can’t speak Italian.” Wouldn’t you know it, just as we were about to turn for Rosa’s place, two carabinieri pull us over. Giorgio is driving and wants to be respectful, so he lowers the window and says, “Buongiorno!” (good morning) It’s midnight and Velia doesn’t want them to think he’s drunk, so she quickly says, “Buona Sera!” The cop asks for Giorgio’s license and the car registration to the car. Dan is sitting beside Giorgio with a huge map of Umbria on his lap. He quickly starts balling it up as he tries to get to the glove compartment. But the map is so big it takes a while before he gets the registration. We were all nervous and a little drunk and it didn’t help when Velia said to the cop that he might want to see the “wooden chair”. Rosa panicked and told Velia to be quiet. Teresa and I were having a hard time trying not to laugh. Finally Giorgio handed him his license and the registration. He looked at the papers, looked confused, shook his head, and gave them back to Giorgio. We turn around and head up the hill to Podere San Antonio laughing the whole way.
June 28, 2006
In the middle of Monterubiaglio there is an old building that is home to an olive oil factory. Velia’s friend, the owner, is waiting for us to experience an “oil tasting”. We go inside and see a long table where we have a seat. There are bottles of both red and white wine ready to be opened. There are two paper bags with fresh loaves of bread waiting to be cut and toasted. He presents the toasted bread and instructs us to pour a little of the golden oil across the top of the bread and then sprinkle with salt. He opens the vino and the feast begins! His little son, Leonardo, is there and enjoys his own bread with olive oil. Following the tasting, we purchase bottles and cans to bring home with us. He gives us a tour of the factory, explains the process and Velia translates for us. The olives won’t be ready until October or November so the factory is quiet now.
Our next stop is the clay factory where they are making a tile for Velia’s Cooking School. We go in and see half naked men working the clay. It is around mezzogiorno (noon) and already extremely hot outside. But that is nothing compared to the unbearable heat inside the factory. Velia tells us the men are not Italian, no Italians would do this work, she says. They are Polish, Russian, Eastern Europeans who earn 1,000 Euros per month. They send money home to their families. From there we go to a little town and have gelato at a shop that Velia went to all the time when she was a little girl. In this town there is a large castle that is a private home. We can’t go inside, but we walk around outside and take some pictures.
Then we go to the “dying town”. This place was incredible. First we drove through the new town, which was lower on the mountain. The old town is perched on a sort of precipice. The ground down the sides looks like the Grand Canyon with its weathered layers of rock. A large earthquake destroyed the outer edges of the town and the homes fell hundreds of feet to the valley below. You can’t drive to the dying town, you must park below and walk up a suspended walkway to get into the town. It is extremely hot but I want to make it to the top. So I start walking and stop when my feet can’t stand it anymore and I rest for a moment on my little seat. Eventually we all make it to the top. The ancient buildings are empty except for a few that house the 20 people who live there. The others tour a Bed and Breakfast and then we go on exploring. All of the stone buildings are extremely old and castle like. As we walk, we see gorgeous flowers blooming making this dead town alive.
We find a little ristorante with an open fireplace. The owner, a young woman, grills bread, vegetables, and sausages for us for lunch. Some of us have sweet tomatoes with olive oil and fresh basil; so simple but so tasty on a hot summer’s day. When we finish, she gives us a tour of the wine cellar which like going to a dungeon. My legs have had it so I don’t go all the way down. From where we stand we can see some of the wine barrels and a leg of proscuitto hanging, ready to be sliced.
Dan and I walk around a little more and then head back to the portal at the entrance to the town where it is cool and shady. The others walk deeper into the town.
We get back to Velia’s at 5:30, pick up food for the evening and I stay to help Velia prepare dinner. The rest go to the pool at Rosa’s to cool off. I take a little nap and then I pull a chair near to Velia’s workspace. She has peeled and cut eggplant, dusted a few pieces in flour and started to fry them. I jump in and flour the eggplant so she can focus on the frying. Velia layers the eggplant with smoked provolone and fresh tomatoes that are seeded, cut in small pieces and tossed with olive oil and herbs. She tears fresh basil to spread across the pan and grates parmesan cheese – that’s it!
Next she begins work on the frittata made with fried zucchini and covered with eggs, milk and salt. Gianluca brings her zucchini flowers which I help prepare to be fried. I take out the pistol from each blossom. Gianluca and Velia’s friend dip them in a batter made with eggs, milk, and flour. Then they fry them to golden perfection. While this is happening, Velia makes the pepper sauce that Gregorio loves.
The rest of our gang arrives at 9:00 pm. Velia has just made the dough for the ravioli but hasn’t put it through the pasta machine yet. Daniele steadies the machine as she works the dough. The filling is ricotta and a little bit of cooked sausage, which she pipes onto the dough. When the ravioli is finished, Velia moves onto the next dish. She cuts sausages in half lengthwise, places them on a baking sheet and bakes them in the oven. After they’re done, I put a piece of smoked provolone to melt on top of each piece. Per dolci, Nonna has made a sponge cake soaked with a red liquor, layered with pudding and other goodies I can’t remember. It was delicioso!
Velia’s family arrives, and when we sit down to eat outside, there are 20 of us! We drink and party into the night. Pepino, Velia’s friend has come for dinner and he has brought his guitar. We sing and enjoy another lovely Italian evening.
June 29, 2006
I wake up with my legs and feet telling me that they cannot do any more walking. I decide to stay home while the others go to Orvieto for one last shopping trip. In the afternoon, Dan gets me at 2:00 pm and we spend the afternoon by the pool. Assunta joins us at one point with wine and water. She gets such a kick out of Giorgio. She’s learned to say, “Let’s go” which sounds more like, “Lez go!”.
We meet Velia at her apartment in Orvieto at 7:00 pm. Gianluca joins us and we have dinner at a wonderful restaurant across the street from their apartment. This turns out to be another evening filled with gastronomic delights!! Velia orders a sampling of all of the antipasti. We have:
q Raddichio salad – shredded in a vinegar dressing with raisins and parmesan cheese. Daniele really likes it.
q Pizza with onion
q Pears filled with cheese and walnuts (my favorite)
q Crostini with artichoke and tuna
q Melon with parma ham
q Pizza with peppers and mozzarella cheese (Gregorio’s favorite)
We have a nice white wine that is the specialty of the house. Giorgio buys a bottle of it. My stomach feels a little queasy so I drink more aqua frizzante than wine. For the main course I have priests’ hats. They are like a ravioli but in the shape of a priest’s hat and stuffed with a cheese filling. They are very rich and I can only eat a few after all the appetizers. We forget that Giorgio wanted sausage. So just when we are almost finished with our main courses, out comes the sausage with grilled pork chops, grilled eggplant and zucchini. We all groan when we see it because our stomachs are full. But somehow, everybody tries more anyway. I wish we could take home the leftovers, but we are leaving early the next morning and we can’t.
We tell Velia, no dessert but she orders Vin Santo and a sweet cake. The wine is good and I pour some on the cake, too. Rosa, Daniele and I remember the first time we ever had Vin Santo in 1999. Our friend Mauro Annese introduced us to “the priest’s wine” in Impruneta, Toscana. We dipped cantucci (cookies like biscotti) into the wine. We toast each other and thank each other and I start to cry. I can’t bear the thought of leaving Velia. Teresa starts crying, too. Velia jumps, hugs me and tells me not to cry. We say our goodbyes to Gianluca and head back to Monterubiaglio. After we drop off Rosa e Gregorio, Velia keeps us in stitches telling us the story of the diarrhea day. …that story is for another time!
The next morning our adventure in Umbria with Velia and the wooden chair is over. We cry and cry as Dan drives us away from Velia, Nonna and Zio Guiseppe. We promise to return and I know we will, but it won’t be soon enough for me!