Published on Sat 19 Jun That they are neighbours at all is what sets the plot rolling, for each had been assured by the slimy fixer who sold them their remote houses high in the foothills of the Apuan Alps that the adjacent property was only occupied for one month a year. Both have come in search of total peace and quiet, Gerald to write and mope, and Marta - a classically trained musician from a generic former SovBloc republic with a family to kill yourself for - to compose the soundtrack for a film. Neighbours are always a problem, but in expatriate isolation they can also provide much-needed solace, which makes the situation even more problematic when they turn out to have different ideas about how life should be lived. The plot is highly ingenious, completely wacky, and largely irrelevant.
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If you will insist on arriving at Pisa airport in the summer you will probably have to fight your way out of the terminal building past incoming sun-reddened Brits, snappish with clinking luggage. Ignoring them and once safely outside, you can retrieve your car in leisurely fashion from the long-term park and hit the northbound motorway following the "Genova" signs.
Within a mere twenty minutes you are off again at the Viareggio exit. You are heading safely inland through the little town of Camaiore.
Abruptly the road starts to climb into the Apuan Alps: great crags and slopes thick with chestnut forest and peaks the colour of weathered marble-which is mostly what they are. After some tortuous hairpins you will come to the village of Casoli, whose apparent surliness is probably owing to its having watched outlying portions of itself disappear into the valley below every few years in winter landslides.
Carry on through and up. More forest, broken at the hairpins by spectacular views. Restored stone houses with Alpine fripperies tacked on shutters with heart-shaped holes and Bavarian-registered BMWs parked outside. Keep going: the world is still sucking at your heels but you are leaving it behind. Up and up, until even the warbling blue Lazzi buses are deterred and turn round in a specially asphalted area.
Not far beyond is what looks like a cart track. Follow this for a hundred metres and you will come upon an area known as Le Rocce and the house I have rashly bought. Even more rashly, I am trying to make it habitable while at the same time attempting to earn a living by writing a commissioned book too ludicrous for further mention.
The view, though, is amazing. As we British are so fond of saying, the three most important things about a house are Position, Position and Position. For some reason Americans call it "location". Apart from a portion of stone roof barely visible through the trees some way off, there is solitude in every direction. Well, I am; so I set about preparing a little something suited to what will be the grand panorama from the terrace once the prehistoric privy overhanging the gulf has been removed.
Great swathes of mountainside. Between them, lots of blue air with circling buzzards and a distant view of Viareggio and the sea. So what shall it be? Something at once marine and disdainful, I fancy, to show how much we care for local frutti di mare and how little for rented beach umbrellas and ice creams.
Here we are, then: Mussels in Chocolate You flinch? These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart. Anyway, how can there possibly be degrees of virginity? Olive oil snobs are even worse than wine snobs. Heat this until small bubbles appear before it begins to seethe. Toss in a good handful of fresh rosemary. Meanwhile, dunk each mussel in soy sauce and roll it in the bitter chocolate. Unlike the oil, the chocolate must be of the best possible quality. You will learn nothing from it.
Put the mussels in the deep-fryer basket and plunge them into the oil. Exactly one minute and fifty seconds later lift them out, drain them on kitchen paper and shake them into a bowl of pale porcelain to set off their rich mahogany colour. Listen to how agreeably they rustle! Most people are surprised by their sound, which is not unlike that of dead leaves in a gutter. This is because of the interesting action of soy sauce on chocolate at high temperatures.
Gaze out over your domain and reflect on the Arrivals queue at Stansted airport where even now the mulish Crispin is taking it out on his sister by treading down the backs of her trainers. The day has dawned bright in every sense and I am making good progress up a ladder painting the kitchen-the most important room in the house-in contrasting shades of mushroom and eau de Nil.
It also takes a complete absence of salt-of-the-earth peasants and their immemorial aesthetic input. It is all rather heartening and as I work I break cheerfully into song. I have been told by friendly cognoscenti that I have a pleasant light tenor, and I am just giving a Rossini aria a good run for its money when suddenly a voice shouts up from near my ankles: "Excuse, please.
I am Marta. Is open your door, see, and I am come. This is ominous, but I descend with an exemplary display of patience. The stocky lady is apologetic and claims to be my neighbour, feels strongly we should be acquainted, has come bearing an ice-breaking bottle of Fernet Branca. My heart sinks during these explanations and still further as I find myself sitting at the table sniffing cautiously at the Fernet, a drink whose charm is discreeter even than that of the bourgeoisie, being black and bitter.
Seeing no way out I admit to being Gerald Samper while refraining from adding "One of the Shropshire Sampers", which, while true, would obviously be wasted on her. Months ago my specious little agent, Signor Benedetti, told me it belonged to a house lived in only for a month each year by "a mouse-quiet foreigner". What can I say now about this person who, during most of a long, hot summer and for much of the ensuing long, hot autumn, becomes the principal bane of my life, or primo pesto, as I expect they say in Chiantishire?
In this role Marta faces formidable competition from Italian bureaucrats and enforcers of building regulations, but she outclasses them easily. I gather she comes from somewhere in that confused area between the Pripet Marshes and the Caucasus. My ignorance of geography, I ought to point out, knows no bounds and hence no frontiers.
Marta looks profoundly shocked. She thumps the table. Her bangles jangle. She fixes me with large dark eyes which, I now notice, have fragments of glittery material adhering to their upper lids. We of Voynovia are Christians when Slavs and Russians still barbars much more even than today. I tell you history. Many five hundred years In a kind of rueful dull rage I curse myself for weakness.
Who but an over-mannerly British gent would allow himself to be interrupted in the middle of painting a ceiling in order to be harangued in his own kitchen by a perfect stranger speaking abominable English?
Weak, weak, weak. Well, this time the worm is going to turn. I am regrettably going to have to take a very firm hand with Marta, if only she will stop talking. Fragments of her speech snag my attention, like carrier-bags floating down the River Vistula. Apparently Voynovia is one of those enclaves that was on the fringes of the Holy Roman Empire and ruled for centuries by Margraves or Electors or something, clinging to its ethnic identity through thick and thin: thick being represented by the Soviet era and thin by the post-Soviet era.
I wish to acquaint her with knouts. I want to learn. I want to learn you all of Voynovia, the fooding number one of all. Voynovian fooding best in all Europa, best in all of world. I am surely not especially good-looking, although discerning people naturally recognize that a certain refinement of manner and mind can more than compensate for a trivial lack of Adonis-like qualities.
I am thinking of the treat I have promised myself-a dish of poached salmon with wild cherry sauce which I modestly claim is not the least successful of my little inspirations.
And why not, might I ask? I could easily have one. At any moment during the past hour a wholesome creature like Felicity Kendal in The Good Life could have wandered down the stairs, spattered with distemper, to counter the Fernet with a bottle of homemade nettle wine. It is entirely presumptuous of Marta to make such an airy assumption. I wearily pick up the paintbrush which has stiffened into a birch-twig besom.
As I climb back up the ladder I notice that quite half the contents of the bottle she brought have gone. Rather disgusting, the way she tucked into her own present. I resume painting. It is hot up here and the ceiling seems to sway a little. I do not at all feel like singing now.
The truth is, this neighbourly intrusion has had an upsetting effect on me and I really feel I shall have to go and lie down. I fully intended to give the recipe for my salmon-in-cherries dish here because like any true creative artist I am eager for a little sliver of immortality. But alas the moment has passed and immortality will have to be postponed.
Next morning I awake in a spirit of mischief, more than a little goaded by the thought of having let myself in for dinner with the ghastly Marta while under the influence of Fernet Branca. Sometimes in the company of others I find a disagreeable spirit of competitiveness kicks in and each person is shamed into spending rather more than he would have wished.
This is a historically established syndrome, of course. One Magus going to Bethlehem would probably have sprung for a box of After Eights. Three Magi on the same trip found themselves laden with gold, frankincense and myrrh and bitterly contemplating their overdrafts.
So to the mischief. What shall it be? Rossini-come to my aid! And he does, bless him. Only a few bars into "Vedi la data indicata" I remember he was himself an excellent cook who invented several original dishes Tournedos Rossini being only one and had a predilection for ice cream. Ice cream, eh?
I further reason that Marta requires something punitive to remind her not to make a habit of these neighbourly invitations. So what better than Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream Ingredients Put the garlic and the sugar into a blender and empty over them the remains of a bottle of Fernet Branca with paint splashes on its label.
If you will insist on arriving at Pisa airport in the summer you will probably have to fight your way out of the terminal building past incoming sun-reddened Brits, snappish with clinking luggage. Ignoring them and once safely outside, you can retrieve your car in leisurely fashion from the long-term park and hit the northbound motorway following the "Genova" signs. Within a mere twenty minutes you are off again at the Viareggio exit. You are heading safely inland through the little town of Camaiore.
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Cooking with Fernet Branca