Civitella 6 Piano Grande

Part four of my blog series, recalling the great luxury of my experience at Civitella Ranieri where I wrote two major sections of If Sons, Then Heirs.


On Friday, I went on the Civitella-sponsored trip to the Italian National Park at the edge of Umbria.  We drove two hours there and back.  I worked on the laptop in the car, to groans and teasing.  Too bad. I’ve got a deadline, I said.  Back off.

Who knew I’d write the same book three times over ten years?

We drove first on the highway, but then on winding mountains roads.  We passed Cascia, the town of St. Rita, the Saint of Impossible Causes.  A research project a few years ago in that town revealed that the green mountain valley around Cascia was an ancient center of agriculture that included spelt, a grain that resists most diseases and therefore needs no pesticides—and saffron.  Travelers and traders going through the mountains would stop there specially to buy and trade it.  Saffron was written into their town governing documents: that’s how important it was to their commerce.  So, a few years ago, farmer in Cascia began growing it again. They now make a cheese that is flavored with it that I’d love to try.

We stopped at 11 am for an hour in the little town of Norcia, known for its butcher shops and pork products.  Wild boar live in abundance in the mountainous terrain surrounding. Also wolves, bears, hawks: the big charismatics of the animal world.  On the road to Norcia was an Italian version of a barbeque bus with a great big old pig on a spit, roasted and ready to be served—right in the side-serving window of the bus: a whole big-behind hog. Porchetta they call it.  Our director, Sandy, said in his easy, American humor: yup, that’s Norcia: all ham all the time.  In fact, norciera and norcini are common words for butcher shops here at in the States.  It’s also the birthplace of St. Benedict, the religious man who had much to do with getting the monastic idea going in Christendom circa 500 A.D.  A church is built (and because of earthquakes has been rebuilt a few times) over the foundations of the house where he was born.  Although in terms of Italian churches, this one is modest and modern (1800s) it feels quite wonderful.  Down in the crypt next to the ruins of his house, I put a Euro in the box and lit a candle. I felt connected to the whole world.

Next door the shop boasted salami, sausages, bacon, hams.  Ham recipe:  trim, rub with garlic, salt, spices. Wait eight days.  Wash with wine, Rub again with salt mix.  Wait another two weeks. Plaster with mixture of lard, salt and flour. Wait two years. Or more.

Then we drove toward Piano Grande, a famous high plain formed from some geological mysteries having to do with what happens to limestone when plate techtonics get moving.  Nearby was a waterfall where Benedict washed lepers. Up and up, driving toward the bluest sky, we passed the 1,800 kilometer mark, leaving deciduous forest and wildflowers for a sparser white beech and scrub grass terrain where shepherds come in the summer to raise flocks of sheep and cows.  From one mountain to the next, the herds look like mounds of white or brown, almost like rock outcroppings that move very slowly.  The shepherds’ summer digs are as ancient as anything I’ve seen: stone squares, piled together with larger stone squares for the animals, hanging off the side of the rough landscape.

Composer Xiaosong, who is from a mountainous region in China hollered “wha-hoo!” out the car window, hanging his head out for an echo, loving it in the extreme.  “This mountain is very, very big.  Oh, this is beautiful!”

It was.  And then, we came to the top of one, and laid out before us was the widest, highest open meadow I’ve seen: piano grande. Once a high lake, it’s now a cloud lake in the morning, and in the afternoon, a windswept expanse of windflowers in pink, white, blue, and yellow. Breathtakingly open, held by the hands of surrounding mountains, partly farmed with famous yellow and red lentils, organically grown because the insects cannot find their way up the pass, the piano grande feels magic, as if we’ve stepped into a big fairy tale world or a parallel reality.

We picnicked there in the high grass on checkered cloths:  fresh, crusty pane baked into a ring the size of a Christmas wreath; thin-sliced prosciutto, possible to eat only in nibbles; hard red-brown salamis in a string like on Lady and the Tramp, so strong, so porky and full of oil that this foreigner couldn’t eat more than a bit; a fat, cured pork sausage with a cooked kielbasa texture and mild flavor; fresh Italian sausage whose casing Civitello’s biz manager Giancarlo opened and spread onto bread to eat raw (“We people from Florence are a little wild!” –not, where raw pork is concerned,  we Negroes from Philadelphia: tame, tame, tame); a mature Ricotta cheese that looked like a deli chicken breast and sliced with a texture like a Feta with all the moisture sucked out, dry, dry, white and so mild that it almost couldn’t have been from a cow.  There was a jar of black truffle sauce, strong and beautiful, like a cross between mushrooms and smoky near-flesh; tomatoes; boiled eggs; mushrooms in oil; wine; bottled water; fruit.  Were there olives?  I can’t remember.  Must have been getting close to a taste black-out, like that lady who passed out in her car when she’d eaten Reesie cups whose wrappers reached her ankles.  I think it was the black truffle sauce that put me over.  Then walking on the meadow where the wind seemed to blow us a hint of the Great Amen of the universe.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

I wrote on the way home in the back of the van.  So what.  This was writer’s camp.


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