Annesitaly, Tour Guide in Assisi, Umbria Italy

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Ode to "Povero" Alessandro
November 2005


This fall, we all gathered together to celebrate an important fresco restoration in a tiny country church here in the Assisi countryside, the Church of Sant'Anna. The 16th century fresco depicts Sant'Anna standing near the Madonna with Child and has long been object of simple local piety: Sant'Anna is Patron of expectant mothers and for centuries, pregnant rural women of our area have stopped at the tiny church to offer Sant'Anna flowers and to light candles to her while whispering a prayer for her assistance at the moment of childbirth. The church is up a hill, quite a walk for those who used to make the pilgrimage on foot. That day, while sipping local vino rosso and nibbling the sweets which the rural women had prepared, I felt again that sense of famiglia which has underscored always our life here on the land. And I thought of "Povero" Alessandro (here in Umbria, "povero" or "poor" precedes the name of anyone who is deceased) on that July day so many years ago.

It was July 26th and I was a few months' pregnant with our Giulia (now 20). I motorbiked down our hill, heading to Assisi, passing the farm of old Alessandro and his family. As was his custom, Alessandro was standing in the farmyard, near the road, surveying any passing traffic (there never was much: maybe a vehicle or two a day) and he waved at me to stop as I went by. Like a papà, he gently reminded me that "oggi é la Festa di Sant'Anna e..." ("today is the Feast of St. Anne and...") - adding a touch of fatherly advice..."non ti scordare di andare su a dirle una parola" (..."don't forget to head up there to put in a word to her"...).

I promised that I certainly would go up to the Church of Sant'Anna.

For one reason or another, I didn't.

The next day as I scooted past on my motorbike, Alessandro again waved me down. He put out his hand and handed me a Sant'Anna prayer card. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he had doubts that I would go to Sant'Anna to ask her help at childbirth - so he had walked up there for me.

•••••


Rino Stalks the Truffles
November 18, 2005 (cold and sunny) - Assisi

On crisp cold days like this, I often think of Rino and wonder if somewhere he is out stalking that "black gold", truffles.

On a chilly sunny day about 20 years ago, I was out under our oak trees on an old coat, scooping up acorns for our pigs (a typcial November task - still today in rural cultures - generally designated to the women). With fewer farm chores to do in November, acorn-gathering fills the days. Pig slaughterings take place on the coldest days of the year (to assure better meat preservation) and prior to the slaughter, fattening the pig with acorns guarantees the best prosciutto and capocollo.... On clear sunny days in November, my neighbor Chiarina and I would often gather acorns together, enjoying the bold sun and cold air and each other's company.

On this particular day, I was picking alone, lost in my thought, when suddenly I was startled by a raspy "Buon giorno". I looked up to see a scrawny grizzled man, face partially shaded by a frayed borsalino hat, wearing old pants held up by a piece of rope rather than a belt and a patched worn jacket. In one hand, he held a gnarled walking stick and in the other, the leads of two spaniel-type dogs who were tugging him eagerly, snouts to the ground. This was my first meeting with Rino, who had trekked with his dogs about 10 kms over the hills from his little village in search of "black gold": truffles. I had never seen one til meeting Rino that day. After introducing himself, he gingerly pulled a balled-up handkerchief out of his pocket, carefully unwrapping this precious parcel: inside was a black truffle, roughly the size of a plum. It reminded me (in appearance) of a small, black, very rotten potato. But, ah...! the perfume as Rino held the truffle up to my nose. Of loam, of rich forest undergrowth, of the good earth. Rino proudly bundled up his truffle and then asked me if he could go with his dogs into our woods, telling me that our land was good truffle terrain.

Rino disappeared for about an hour and I went back to the acorns. Now and then I heard the eager yaps of his dogs and the swishing sound of dead leaves as they made their way up and down our hillside woods.

And then Rino scrambled up out of the woods and onto the road. The dogs' tongues were hanging out and this time, Rino tugged THEM. Rino unearthed his grimy handkerchief, now bulging. Inside were four truffles. To my astonishment, he presented one to me with a mille grazie. Rino told me to scrub the truffle gently, slice it finely and add to heated olive oil, then toss into fettuccine. (I had made pasta that morning and Pino and I will long remember dinner that night.)

Before Rino set off that day, we shared a glass of our vino rosso (rural hospitality here - and perhaps the world round? - implies the sharing of food/drink to any visitor), while Rino reminisced about childhood truffle treks with his father and learning from him, how to train his own truffle pups. In the same tradition, Rino's son has learned from him. I heard from a neighbor recently that now and then, Rino's son passes our way with his truffle dogs, though I have never met him.

Rino used to to come our way, now and then, always leaving me a truffle with his mille grazie. It's been many years since I have seen him. I am not even sure he is still alive. But I always think of him in truffle season.

(Please see FESTAtours for more about truffles.)

Other Memoirs of Rural Life articles.