November in Umbria: Sweets, Saints and …Cemeteries
Yesterday when I visited Peppa, she was sitting on a bench outside of chicken coop, chopping walnuts open with a hammer. “Buonissime!”, she said happily as she munched the nutmeats. Her walnuts are tasty this year and will be perfect in the pasta dolce she’ll make for November 1st, All Saints’ Day and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, two important feast days here in Italy. Here in Umbria, at the end of October the farmwomen start chopping the walnuts they have gathered in preparation for the traditional early November Umbrian sweet, la pasta dolce. On the vigil of November 1st, they roll out homemade tagliatelle (also known as fettuccine , ie, “little ribbons”) and after cooking the tagliatelle in boiling water, they toss them with bread crumbs, crushed walnuts, cocoa, sugar, grated peel of two lemons, cinnamon and the red liquer, Alchermes (a sweet liquer with a spicy tang).
This “sweet pasta” is rooted in a poor rural tradition: sweets were made mostly from what the farm people could grow on their land. Every farmhouse had their own flour, eggs (for the pasta) and walnuts and the farmwomen sold eggs and wild mushrooms in town during the fall months for the money needed to buy the lemons, cocoa, cinnamon, sugar and Alchermes. Recipes vary, house-to-house: Peppa first mixes the just-drained tagliatelle with a bit of water mixed with lemon juice, before mixing in the other ingredients. Her son, Giancarlo, swears that his Mamma’s pasta dolce is the best of the entire Assisi mountain area. Maybe. But you have to have a taste for pasta dolce. I’ll try a spoonful. My Sicilian husband Pino won’t even go that far: after all, he is from the land of cannoli and the countless other pastry wonders inherited from the Bourbon French rulers of Sicily.
Peppa is putting coins aside now for a few chrysanthemum plants she’ll soon buy for her visits to all her morti (deceased) – in the cemeteries of Assisi and surrounding villages. On November 1st and on the 2nd, the Italians head to the cemeteries loaded with huge bunches of mums and chrysanthemums for their relatives. Visits can take all day, depending on how many cemeteries one has to visit (visits are made even to the tombs of very distant relatives). If you are in Italy in early November, don’t miss a visit to the local cimitero, filled with Italians placing chrysanthemum plants of rust, deep yellows, creamy whites and burnished oranges on above-ground tombs. Many of the tombs are architectural wonders; all bear photos of the deceased.
And if you ever invited to an Italian home for dinner, don’t repeat the blunder I made for my first dinner at an Italian home (as a student in Rome, junior-year abroad in 1968): that evening, I arrived at my new Italian friend’s Rome home proudly (most pleased with myself for having learnt Italian customs, ie, bring a lovely hostess gift) bearing a huge chrysanthemum plant (..having blown my student budget on the purchase). My friend’s mother opened their apartment door with a wide smile which vanished when she saw me and the chrysanthemums: she screamed, “Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”, rapidly launching the gesture to keep away the evil eye and then gingerly took the huge plant from me and placed it outside their door. My Roman friend was peeping over her mother’s shoulder, giggling and enjoying the scene (she later explained that bringing the chyrsanthemums into their house would have signified bringing a death wish inside!). La Signora turned to her daughter whispering, “Take the flowers to Nonna” (Nonna - Grandmother – was in the Rome cemetery).