Il Calendario di Sale
Onions and salt to predict the weather in the New Year? Over our years on the land, I’ve learned how farm women can take off il malocchio, how St. Anthony’s image in a stall will keep the animals healthy, how a cross made of woven reeds can protect the crops in the field and that you never shake out a tablecloth nor throw out the crumbs swept off the floor after the Ave Maria (ie, after 6 pm) – and now I’ve learned how to predict the coming year’s weather with onions and salt.
In early January, what a feast with Paolo and Giuseppa at their Deruta farmhouse (the only foods on their table NOT raised by them are the sugar, coffee and salt). After sips of the cedrino liqueur Giuseppina makes from her citronella plant (limoncello has a tough competitor here), Paolo went out to the cellar where they age their prosciutti.
He came back balancing gingerly a long wooden board with twelve wedges of onion sprinkled with rock salt, all in a line down the board. Pointing to them one at a time, Giuseppa designated each slice as a month of the year: “gennaio, febbraio, marzo, aprile, marzo…”, she chanted solemnly.
Paolo, il capo famiglia, had peeled the outer level of a couple large white onions on Christmas Eve and then sliced them into twelve half-moon-shaped wedges, lining up the sections on the board, then dropping a teaspoon of rock salt onto each wedge. Out in the cellar where crates of potatoes, cabbages, fennels, and squash fill the floor space and bunches of garlics, onions hang over the just-salted prosciutti, he set the board, making sure the head of the board faced east towards the rising sun.
On the morning of December 25th, he and Giuseppa headed to the cellar to check the slices. Some onion wedges were dry, some were moist with water. A dry onion presaged a dry month in 2012, a wet onion slice heralded a rainy month. On the 25th, the count of the months is reversed and “gennaio” starts from the first onion at the other end of the board. Giuseppa took out the calendar and penciled in “asciutto” (dry), “bagnato” (“wet”) or even molto bagnato (water pooling in the onion wedge) on each month of their farmhouse kitchen calendar.
She and Paolo would check their calendario della cipolla in the cellar every day til January 6th, i.e., for all the twelve days of Christmas. The prediction of the 25th would be reaffirmed daily (“it always is”, Paolo assured) and then the onion wedges could be discarded.
“When we were poor and no one had televisions with weather reports,” Giuseppa explained, “this was how we contadini kept a calendar.” The prediction of wet months, drier ones would be instrumental to any farm family in deciding when best to sow, when to prune vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees, when to harvest the wheat, oats, barley, corn and the grapes and the olives. The onion always served as a perfect barometer.
Does it work? “Certo!” Paolo beamed, explaining that he learned il calendario del sale from his grandmother “and she learned from her nonna.”.
I told my farm neighbors here near Assisi about the “Caldendario della Cipolla” of the Deruta rural culture the other day. (Deruta is 25 km. from us). They had never heard of it and laughed, I asked them, “but you all believe in the evil eye, don’t you?”
“Aha, …e vuoi paragonare il malocchio con la cipolla?!” (“……and you want to compare the evil eye with a wet onion?!”)
Afterthought: Often, today’s caledars are scribbled with reminders of doctor appointments, anniversaries, tax payment days, school registrations, deadlines. Giuseppa and Paolo’s calendar has just three notes: asciutto, bagnato, molto bagnato. Perhaps a reminder to each of us to simplify in the New Year…….?
Read about – and see! – the joy Giuseppa brings
Read about another memorable Giuseppa farm visit
Read more about rural friends
Read more on Giuseppa
Read about “delectable Deruta” and feasting with Giuseppa
Read about rural cuisine and rural warmth near Deruta