Chapter 9 – Winter Activities

By mid-December it was pig-killing time; the final fattening had exhausted the supply of acorns. One or two neighbours came to help, and it was a jolly day for everyone except the pig. With a great deal of squeal and struggle this unfortunate animal was dragged to a trestle and held head downwards on a sloping board.   Its throat was cut, and as it bled to death the blood was caught in a large dish. The carcass was then washed and shaved, strung up by its hind legs, and Riccardo disembowelled it and skilfully split it down the middle. By this time the padrone had arrived to see that the division was a fair one, for one half was to be his. Riccardo was proud to have divided it accurately: when weighed the halves were within a kilogram or so of each other.

In the meanwhile, the women were dealing with the innards, emptying and cleaning the intestines to make casings for salami and sausages. The blood, with salt added, had now congealed, and this was cooked and sliced to be served forthwith on chunks of bread to all the company.      Three pigs were to be killed, but there was an interval of a week or so between each to allow for all the work of processing. Lard had to be rendered, and salami sausages and ham needed careful preparation for them to last for the next twelve months. The ham was cured as ‘prosciuto’ in the same manner as Parma ham, not smoked or cooked in any way, but with salt constantly rubbed into the surface until it was absorbed.

There was a shortage of salt: this was a government monopoly and expensive even when available. One day we went off with Vivenzio, taking a pair of oxen and the water-cart, to a place some miles away, where, in the bed of a stream – it must have been the Salino, a tributary of the Tenna – a shallow well had been sunk. There were other families there and we took our turn to fill the water cart with what turned out to be brine, and brought it back home. The largest of the iron cauldrons was set up in the yard and the brine was boiled dry. At each boiling a satisfactory quantity of illegal salt was produced.

Another example of a long tradition of self-sufficiency and improvisation was the making of soap. The fat used in this must have come from the inedible parts of the pig, but I cannot now remember where the soda came from. At the time, I took this to be something forced on them by war-time shortages, but I found as recently as 1987 that Elvira, now the matriarch of a prosperous family in a new house with every modern convenience, had just made a batch of soap. ‘It is better,’ she said. I am not sure whether they still use wood-ash as a bleaching agent when washing linen.

It was I think, towards the end of December when it was considered safe for Hoop and I to be taken to Sunday mass at Gualdo. We had to be suitably attired for this, and I wore a new pair of trousers which were a present from the padrone’s wife.   The track up to the provincial road was very muddy, and the ladies in our party walked up in clogs, carrying their shoes to keep them clean. Nannina carried hers on her head. On reaching the road, they concealed the clogs behind a bush for the return journey, and put on the shoes. We kept a low profile in the town, but it must have been very obvious that we were not locals, and my glasses were conspicuous as very few rural Italians wore them. We made a token attendance at church standing at the back with Vivenzio for part of the service.  It was an interesting morning for us, but on returning home, there was an unspoken feeling that it really had been rather foolhardy.  We did not suggest going again, nor was it suggested to us.

In conversation, the topic of our religion – or what was regarded as our lack of it – was quite often raised. The question always asked on meeting someone for the first time had been: were we Protestant or Christian? – the assumption being that Protestantism hardly counted as Christianity. There were two differences of which everyone seemed aware; the first that we ‘did not believe in the Madonna’, and a second that priests were allowed to marry. They were fascinated by the latter, but opinions about it varied; most, especially the women, considered it rather shocking. A more cynical view was expressed by Amilcare: that it was a good idea as it would prevent the priests from seducing the ladies of the parish. He claimed that they were unfair competitors to a young man like himself. He did not say this when his mother or sister were present.

When Christmas came, it turned out to be a less interesting feast than we had expected, but then many of our ‘traditional’ English celebrations, and Santa Claus himself, are nineteenth century imports from Germany.  Certainly there was a good meal, and Nazarena had made some of her ‘pizza’ but it seemed no more important than many other feast days. There were no decorations, or exchanges of gifts, although there was something for little Flavia at Epiphany, which after all is the proper time for it. The present was given to him by Nannina, disguised as an old woman and using a voice even more croaky than usual. This traditional old dame -‘la befana’ – was something new to us.

Since the beginning of Winter, we had been warned to expect heavy snow, but December went by without any sign of this. Then, late on New Year’s Eve, it began. There was little wind, and no drifting, but by the morning it was about three feet deep everywhere. During the morning it stopped, and it became a bright sunny day, blindingly beautiful, but we were of course quite cut off, even from the neighbouring houses. Later in the day, Amilcare could be seen forcing his way along the footpath from the Di Luca. He arrived soaking wet, but in high spirits, without any reason for the visit except as an expression of exuberance. However, even though there was to be no more than a sprinkling of extra snow, it was a week before it was possible to get up the track to the provincial road. All the roads in the district were blocked, even the National road both to the North and the South of Sarnano, where, being closer to the mountains, the snowfall had been even heavier.

ch 9 Piccachi in the snowThere was a great deal to be done to clear around the house and yard. First, Guerino and Federico went up on the roof and pushed off all the snow; then a way was cut to the stacks of hay and straw, to the muck heap, to the well and the wood pile, and a path cleared for the oxen up the track to the water trough. All this shovelling resulted in mounds up to six feet high being built up in the less used parts of the farmyard, the dwindling remains of which were to last until April.     During the next week or so I was able to amuse myself – and the family – by making life-sized snow sculptures, including one purporting to be Vivenzio. His enormous moustache was a technical difficulty but was managed somehow, and when finally his hat was borrowed and put on top, the likeness was generally approved.

One activity which traditionally depended on the snow was the distilling of mistra, a potent aniseed-flavoured spirit rather like Pernod. This year it was decided to make more than usual, as the neighbouring Felicetto family had a barrel of wine which was beginning to go musty and would become undrinkable. The two families decided to collaborate and to distil it all. This was an illegal enterprise, and when the roads were snowbound was the normal, more secure, time for it. The components of the still were brought out of hiding and assembled, the snow again becoming an accessory to the process, as it was packed around the copper coil of the condenser to cool it.

A nip of mistra was very warming on a cold winter’s morning. Even today, Riccardo, now an old man with much of his digestive system either removed or by-passed, has a generous helping in his coffee at breakfast every morning, winter or summer.

Chapter 9 Supplement – November 1990

As well as discussions on religion, there was also talk about the politics of the war. Mostly the Cardarelli were very confused about the issues, as well they might be with Italians by now supporting both sides. Certainly they were against Germany and Mussolini, but Vivenzio in particular found it very strange that this meant being an ally of the Russians whom he had learnt from both Church and State were to be regarded as the ultimate evil

Freddy made a snowman too, but in the form of a British soldier and this was, he says, thought to be somewhat foolish and was quickly destroyed. I made very few attempts at drawing, even though Vivenzio had bought me pencils and paper in Gualdo and I did make one rather feeble drawing of him. The necessary drive to do it seemed lacking, somehow.

Sadly, Riccardo died the year after the last paragraph above was written, in 1990, aged 80.

Link to Chapter 10