Bolsena’s Many Treasures
Bolsena’s many treasures keep luring us back to this Latium lakeside town: the imposing fifteenth century gray tufo rock castle of the Monaldeschi (powerful Orvieto family) towering over the medieval town and the deep peaceful lake below, filling up a volcanic crater, are primary draws. The clean waters of Lake Bolsena refresh on hot days and yield pike, perch, black bass and whitefish to enhance the tasty pasta dishes of the trattorie along the shores and in the village.
June offers an added attraction: blue, fuchsia, pink hydrangea plants, boasting blossoms big as balloons, line the Viale del Lago, shady avenue linking the castle-village of Bolsena to Lake Bolsena Hydrangea plants of every color wrap around the fountain in the piazzetta at the end of the Viale del Lago and huge terracotta pots of hydrangea embellish the fronts of simple bars, gelateria stands and trattorie along the lake. In mid-June, world-famous hyrdrangea experts speak at conferences at the Festa delle Ortensie and the town becomes an open flower market, showing off every type of hydrangea plant – and not only. Restaurants feast the event with special menus, historic residences open their doors to visitors and artisans fill the piazzas with their wares.
Della Robbia masterpieces emulating Bolsena’s patron saint, Santa Cristina, draw the visitor into Bolsena’s main church, named after her. For the Feast of Corpus Domini (sixty days after Easter), stunning flower petal tapestries will stretch from the Basilica di Santa Cristina to the other end of town, laying out a welcome to the Consecrated Host carried over the carpets in procession that afternoon. Throughout early June, elderly women sat under shady trees, de-petaling flowers in preparation.
A precious (and curious) relic is also carried in procession, leaving the Basilica di Santa Cristina only on Corpus Domini: a rock said to be imprinted with Santa Cristina’s footsteps (she came up floating when the Romans threw her into the lake with the rock tied around her neck in the 4th century). “But,” the local priest comments pragmatically to visitors, “she was a young girl and the foot size is about a 10!”
The miraculous rock is certainly a Bolsenese treasure – and so was Zia Caterina. For nearly seventy years, she turned out the best in lakeside cooking at the restaurant of the Stella family, Trattoria Picchietto, my first stop on a recent Bolsena jaunt. Good to see the family and eat again in the trattoria garden – but I was sad to hear that there was no Zia Caterina in the kitchen. Alas, she died this winter at the age of eighty-two, after spending most of her life both raising the children of the Stella family (though she wasn’t really a “zia” at all) and working in their restaurant kitchen along with Lidia, mother of present owner, Mario. She helped raise Mario and his three siblings, splitting her time between what was then the osteria (a simple inn), started by “Picchietto”, Mario’s grandfather, and the Stella home. Mario told me she warmed the bottles of the four children who called her “Mamma” over a candle flame.
At the osteria, she served up wholesome goodness for laborers and fisherman at the osteria: tripe, soups and bread. Afterwards, clients played cards and even bocce in what is now the trattoria courtyard. “Cucina e Vino” on the sign out front stated the fare simply. After the kitchen was cleaned up, Zia Caterina carried sacks of leftovers on her head to the stall outside the Bolsena walls where the family’s two pigs were kept. When fattened up, they’d be turned into prosciutto for the osteria. She and the young (in those days) Mario would then head to the family wine cellar to load into a wheelbarrow demijohns of wine for the osteria. In the 1970’s, Mario took over the osteria from his parents, transforming it into a trattoria: “enough of the long card games, bocce, loud voices and parolacce (“bad language”)!”, he told me. His wife Anna joined his mother and Zia Caterina in the trattoria kitchen. Daughter Monica soon came along, too.
Anna and Monica, do all the cooking on their own now in the trattoria kitchen. Zia Caterina is only there in the photo on the wall.
Postscript on Zia Caterina: She was la stella (star) della famiglia Stella, although she was “Zia” only in name. She walked into town one day when she was about fourteen, leaving behind a poor farm family. The Stella family took her in and she become part of the family.
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