We arrive early in May to good weather,
(fa bel tempo) but the grounds of the villa have not yet seen their annual rebirth into spectacular color. It has been a cold and wet spring and everything is behind in growth. The petunias, which by now should be cascading over the many stone planters on the upper and lower terraces with blossoms of purple and red and white, have yet to even be planted. The cherry trees have past their glorious blossoming, but their fruits are still small and pale and nowhere near ripe. The grapevines on the arbor are only a third the size they have already reached at home in Napa Valley.
The statue of “the lady” on the upper terrace giardino is still safe and watching over the grounds… the lady whose picture found on the internet 8 years ago, beckoned her siren’s song to my best friend for us to cross 5000 miles to come meet her and then, captivated our hearts with such immediate intensity that we were bewitched into conjuring a plan to buy the villa within the first day of our seeing it.
Later in our trip we will surround her with bright colored annuals and a beautiful new yellow rose bush planted in memory of my best friend's step son, but upon our arrival she stands quietly patient... awaiting the coming days of warm sunshine and the rebirth of the gardens that lay below her loving glance.
There is the edifice of the medieval mountain village of Montefranco, providing its singularly magnificent view, rising nearly 500 feet directly west and above us. I never tire of the view of Montefranco. Its chiesa (church) steeple and bell tower rises from the right just as it has for hundreds of years. Looking leftward along the ridge you can see homes of stone, cream and pink and coral painted stucco, and terracotta rooftops reaching ever higher, one seemingly stacked atop the other, as they gently recede backward toward the center of the town.
I am in Umbria, my adopted second home, and I have 5 weeks this visit to live and cook and write.
We take cappuccino each morning on the upper terrace, with a breakfast of pan toasted bread topped with blackberry jam and a thin slice of Umbrian prosciutto; sometimes with, sometimes without, a shaving of regionally made Pecorino cheese or fresh ricotta. My Italian friends to the north must forgive me, but I prefer the less salty and sweeter Umbrian prosciutto to that of the more famous Parma and as well, the softer and nuttier taste of Pecorino (pecora = sheep) to the cow’s milk Parmigiano Reggiano.
Our extended Italian family, not by blood but buy purchase of the villa, come to greet us almost daily. They are kind people. Dino is in his mid 80’s and cared for the villa for the entire 30 years it was owned by his sister and her husband. He came with the house so to speak. These days his son Angelo does much of the hard gardening and work, but Dino still comes by to clip and shape and tend to the many flowering and fruit trees that live here.
Dino walks the grounds with me, as we do every time I come here, pointing out what is forageable-- beyond the easily recognized fruits and herbs-- and reminding me how to say the names of all the pianti (plants) and alberi (trees) in Italian. La mandorla (pronounced man-door-la,) the almond tree, is filled with ripening nuts. He pulls one off the tree and bites into the bright green outer casing, then repeats with another. “Non matura,” they are not ready. How will we know when they are ready? “Quando caduti,” (when they’ve fallen,) he motions toward the grass below.
He reaches up into one of the prugna, of which there are six trees in three varietals laden with fruit, and pulls off one of the ruby colored, quarter sized gems. His face contorts as he bites into it. “Non matura.” He spits out the bitter pulp. These are still far too young and so will not likely make my table during our stay. They are a mid to late summer fruit.
We walk, piano piano (slowly, slowly,) under the ciliegia (cherry tree) and its hundreds of soon to be ripe fruit, toward the herb garden and survey the hardy rosamarina, salvia, mente and marjorama… these perennials can be counted on for my dishes in all seasons except winter. I used them the first night here for a quick herb and tomato pasta.
Dino points toward another plant against the fence of our neighbor’s property… I know it as dandelion, but Dino calls it cicorino and suggests the most tender of its young leaves can be used in salad. I’ve cooked with dandelion greens before and am happy to hear he feel this weed is a plant worthy of respect and recognition.
The enormous fichi (fig) tree along the driveway is filled with what I believe are Adriatic figs… with large, dark green exteriors that open to a bright red interior. Still “non matura,” their centers are but now only a pale green and have another 2 months to go before they can be devoured. Sadly, we will miss them on this adventure.
Dino leaves for home, but not before our ritual goodbye. A long, warm hug of friendship and mutual respect. Like Umbria, I have adopted Dino as a deeply cherished part of my life.