Chapter 6 – Livestock and Cookery

Quite early on, Hoop had taken upon himself some of the responsibility of looking after the oxen, getting up earlier than me to muck them out, groom and feed them. He really enjoyed this job, whistling softly under his breath as he cleaned and brushed their coats. They were fed part straw and part hay, and this had to be chopped and mixed together to prevent only the hay being eaten. That oxen were able to thrive on this diet was their great advantage over horses, and they were the only working animals to be seen in the district, or indeed in most of Italy. In medieval England too, oxen must have been the predominant working animal until a more prosperous economy enabled horses to replace them.

Hoop in the Stable

Hoop in the Stable

In the Cardarelli stable there were four pairs of oxen, plus a calf who was later to be matched up with one that was purchased. Three of the pairs were of a white short-horned breed that was very common in the district, and these were very docile beasts. There was also a pair of what was said to be of a ‘mountain’ strain, which we never saw elsewhere, and these were powerful looking, darkly coloured, with very long horns and short tempers. They had something of a grudge against people in general, but in particular against Federico, who in turn responded to any insubordination by kicking them vigorously in the belly. Their nastiest trick was to try to squash anyone who unwisely got between them and the stable wall, but even when they were not being deliberately unpleasant their long horns needed watching, as the tiniest movement of the head could become an unexpectedly large movement at the end of a horn.

The oxen never grazed in the fields, but lived in their stalls and were taken out only to work or to be watered. In the stall they were held by a chain around the neck. To be taken out, a device rather like a pair of calipers was put in the nostrils with a lead attached, which was then looped through a cord which was permanently fixed to the horns. They carne out always as a pair, with the predominant one, the leader, in front; any attempt to get the other one out first led to hopeless muddle and confusion. When yoked together, which had to be done in the yard as the stable door was too narrow for them to be abreast, the leader was always on the right. There were two carts, the newer one being smartly painted in blue and orange, with panels of decoration in a style not unlike that of English canal barges, but including a portrait of St Antonio – I think it was – on the front. There were also two sledges for use over rough ground, and a forty gallon drum mounted on wheels as a water carrier. Although the oxen were powerful beasts, two pairs in tandem were needed to bring a heavy load of firewood up the steep track from near the river.

Looking after the sheep was women’s business; they had to be milked before being taken out to pasture, and as the winter carne on they went out less and less, relying more completely on hay for their food. Nazarena herself made the sheep-milk cheeses, one small flat cylinder nearly every day. Some of this pecorino cheese was eaten fresh, but most of it was kept to harden, some of it for months, and when grated was an important addition to any dish of pasta or polenta, and it was also sprinkled on the soups. Hanging up in the store were some dried lambs’ stomachs, scrapings from the linings of which were needed to curdle the milk and start the cheese.

There was a water-mill a few miles up-stream on the Tenna, to which a sack of wheat was carted when necessary, to return as flour later in the day. Nazarena made the bread, usually about every two weeks. This involved her getting up even earlier than usual, to give the bread time to prove.

The Bread Oven

The Bread Oven

The brick-built oven was in a separate out-building and, while the loaves were rising, Vivenzio was burning bundles of faggots inside it. A nice judgement was needed to ensure that the oven was the right temperature; the burned ashes were then raked out and the floor of the oven wiped with a rag on the end of a pole. The loaves were then carried down from the kitchen on a large board, still covered by the cloth under which they had been proving, and were loaded into the oven by means of a long­handled wooden shovel. The door was put in place and was sealed around the edges with a trowel-load of mud. Again, some experience was needed to know exactly when to unseal the door and remove the loaves. It would be nice to report how delicious this country bread was but, alas, it was really rather mediocre, largely because it had to last a long time and was doughy when new and, after a couple of weeks, was very dry. Sometimes Nazarena, as a treat, made one or two special raisin loaves, which she called pizza – quite unlike the savoury pizza of Neapolitan origin, now international – and this was indeed quite nice when eaten fresh and warm.

Pasta was freshly made as required and was delicious, particularly in its Sunday or feast-day form as past’asciuta – ‘dry pasta’, i.e. not in a soup – served as tagliatelli in a big steaming dish with a sauce of tomato puree and with grated cheese. The making of the pasta was usually delegated to one of the younger women: the flour paste – it included eggs – was skilfully rolled and re-rolled until it was paper­thin and covered almost the whole table. It could then be cut into narrow strips ready for cooking, perhaps on the same day but certainly not later than the following one. A large cauldron, with a surprising quantity of water, was suspended on a chain over the fire – the amount of water was important to prevent the pasta sticking to itself. While this 1vas coming to the boil, the sauce was cooking in a pan over a trivet on the front part of the hearth. Constant manipulation of the fire was needed; glowing ashes were raked under the trivet, logs under the main fire re-arranged and renewed. Sometimes strategic puffs through an iron blowpipe were required. When the water had come to a full boil, some salt was added and the pasta put in. By now the family had begun to assemble; Riccardo had been down to the cellar to draw wine, and Vivenzio was on hand to be offered a strand of tagliatelle, to taste and approve, before all was scooped from the cauldron with a wicker-work strainer into a big dish, with added layers of sauce and grated cheese. What one thinks of as that typical Italian ingredient, olive oil, had not been used – the fat content of the sauce was from lard. Olive oil was a luxury which had to be purchased; the district was too high for it to be grown locally.

Polenta was made from maize flour, and was regarded as somewhat low-grade, wheat being the only proper cereal for humans; maize was for the animals. Basic polenta was served in a rather primitive way: the table was covered with a large board, like that used for rolling out pasta. The pot of polenta – it was like a thick yellow porridge – was poured out on to it, where it spread out into a large shapeless blot, nearly covering the board. A sauce of tomato puree, and some grated cheese, was spread out on top, and the family sat down around the table, each one using his fork on the nearest part of the periphery and working inwards for all to meet in the middle.

There was a more up-market version of polenta in which the porridge -slightly thicker – was poured out on to the centre of the board to form a shape rather like an inverted wash-basin. By slicing a length of thread under it and cutting upwards, this was divided into segments. Each segment was then in turn held flatly on the palm of the hand and, with the thread now held tautly between the other hand and clenched teeth, could be cut horizontally into thin slices. Successive layers of these slices, alternating with sauce, were then put into the serving dish, topped with more sauce and grated cheese. The result looked, and to some extent tasted, ljke pasta, but the texture was softer and lacked the prized ‘al dente’ quality.

Then there were gnocchi, another substitute for pasta and made from mashed potato rolled into small ovoid dumplings. These again, were served with sauce and cheese. The potato, so much a staple in England, was not highly regarded, like maize it was associated with animal food. After all, both of these can have arrived in Europe only during the sixteenth century, so would have been unknown even to renaissance Italy. However, that must also have applied to the tomato – how did they manage without what now seems to be a mainstay of Italian cuisine?

I suppose we must have been pre-occupied with food as a result of our time in prison camp; certainly we took great interest in all the preparation, and often speculated as to what might be on the menu the for the next day. Mostly the fare was frugal, although there was always plenty of bread, with soups of ‘quadrucci’ -tiny squares of pasta – and with much of the protein coming from the many varieties of peas and beans, with meat rarely more often than once a week. When Sunday or a feast day came, they made the most of it and so did we. Most common was fowl or rabbit; there was virtually no butcher’s meat, except for a memorable occasion when the family had a part share in the illicit slaughter of a calf.

There was always wine on the table with the main meal, but no-one drank very much, and the women often nothing at all. Everyone drank from the same single glass and, having emptied it, the correct thing was to pass it on to your neighbour and then pour out for him; he in turn, passed it on. Apart from meal­times, if there were unexpected visitors, either neighbours, wandering allied POWs, or even displaced Yugoslavs, as long as they did not look too disreputable or suspicious, wine would be offered, and often bread and even ham or cheese too.

Chapter 6 Supplement – November 1990

‘Beetles for breakfast,’ was our term for a frequent morning meal of plain boiled dried beans, the reference being to a proportion of them having the corpse of a tiny beetle within. The ordinary sort of polenta we called ‘stake your claim’, as each member of the family marked out a section for themselves on the communal board. Our pasta was always in the ribbon form of tagliatelli; the Di Luca however had a macaroni machine which could extrude the pasta as a hollow tube.

There were several cats in the household which were fed the odd crust or other remnant of a meal but must have supplemented their diet by what could be caught in and around the farmyard. No doubt there were mice in the stacks or in the stable but I never saw one in the house.

Link to chapter 7

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