Bingo with lentils and lashings of fennel
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
Archie and Rissie and I have just spent our first Italian Christmas in Oratino in Molise. Oratino is just over 200 kilometres south-east of Rome as the crow flies. It is a tiny little picturesque town near Campobasso that is known for its panoramic views. Its location is atop a limestone cliff, it is about 795 metres above sea level and it is often referred to as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. It is also known for the many famous sculptors, painters and gilders who have left their mark on this town that dates to the 13th century.
Every year Oratino pays homage to the year that has been with the La Faglia ceremony. La Faglia is an ancient torch lighting ceremony using a torch built from reeds that takes the young people of the village seven months to build. It is carried by a group of 40 – 50 volunteers who are inspired by their leader who aggressively bangs the column to alert the volunteers to begin, to pause and to lower their load. He allows the procession to stop about every 15 metres. When they stop, the volunteers drink, eat, sing and make merry until they do it all over again for the next 15 metres. The column eventually ends up at the church of Santa Maria Assunta where it is raised to a vertical position and set alight. All of this took about 4 hours, and by the end, I could not feel my feet, but I was mesmerised all the same.
There is so much to associate with our Christmas in Oratino, but for me, I will always remember Oratino as the place where we played bingo with lentils and where I had lashings of fennel. There are 22 regions in Italy and each of them is unique. Each region has its own dialect, food, customs, traditions and attitudes. Tombola is a sort of bingo that originated in the region of Campania, home to Naples and it is now a regular part of Christmas festivities in Italy. On our table, we played for money and the tombola cards were aged from use.
For markers, a packet of lentils was passed around the table, though I did notice that someone tore up pieces of mandarin skin. The lentils made me smile. You do not need sophisticated technology for a shared festive table. And like everything in Italy, there is always a link to food. We played multiple games of tombola and I won one game. The warm-hearted souls who welcomed us into their home called out the numbers in Italian and English.
The bread down south is different. No more schiacciata
for me. Rather, there were big round hard loaves that were cut into slices for the many tables we shared or used for sandwiches on our outings. The sandwiches were filled with slices of salami and cheese. The bread became hard and chewy, and I have no idea how long it had been sitting in the bread bin of our Oratino kitchen. But when it was placed on the table, I loved dousing it with olive oil until it became soft and delectable. Our incredible hosts Margherita and Giannantonio made sure there were vegan choices for me at every meal, though to be honest I would have been happy with that chewy bread soaked in a local olive oil.
When we first arrived in Italy this Christmas, we were preparing lunch, and I offered to help. Alessio asked me to cut some fennel. It was serious business and I was shown how it should be properly cut. It turns out in Tuscany that the fennel is cut leaving the long stalks and a little of the frond. The base is barely cut, then the bulb is cut into six pieces. I repeat six pieces. I love how the fennel is left on the table for adults and kids alike to munch on like some sort of vegetable treat. If you are that way inclined, which I am, you can douse it in olive oil and add a touch of salt.
When I got to Oratino, I was delighted when Margherita asked me to cut some fennel. I began to cut it the Tuscan way but turns out fennel is not cut that way in Molise. This time, the bottom and stalks needed to be completely removed without even a hint of the frond. Then it was to be cut into multiple pieces so it could be vigorously washed. It turns out that even the way you cut fennel is different depending on the region you are in. In Molise, the fennel was fresh from a relative’s garden and it was heavy with dirt. But once it was washed the way Margherita liked it, it was crunchy, fresh and crisp. It was then put into multiple bags so when people were having their slabs of bread with salami and cheese, I was munching on the freshest fennel in the world.
The food I eat with my Italians is divine in its simplicity. Yet it is a source of endless discussion. Dishes don’t need to be made with an endless list of ingredients, and I am constantly reminded of how if your ingredients are fresh, and in season, you don’t need much to make a feast. I love the fact that most fruit and vegetables are devoid of stickers and wax. The mandarins I got this morning, still have their stems and leaves on them and they are like little bursts of sunshine in my mouth.
Downstairs in Fabrizia and Maurizio’s home, they have an orange tree. Against the tree is a ladder where the kids are encouraged to climb and pick fresh oranges. Fresh oranges for breakfast, oh my. In Molise, fennel came from a brother-in-law’s garden. The table wine came from their small vineyard that I could see from my window. It was served in reusable glass bottles with old-fashioned caps. As a parting gift, Margherita’s sister-in-law gave us a gift of grapes that had been left-over from the wine harvest soaked in a sweet syrup. It seems that everything is used, and nothing is wasted.
All items on the table had a story, an origin and a home. We had a bread pasta one night that was truly divine. It was a dish that originated from long ago in Molise and was a way to use the left-over stale bread. The white part of the bread was turned into breadcrumbs, cooked in olive oil until golden brown and mixed with thinly sliced olives and capers and then served with pasta fresh from the pot. Some of the Italians at the table had not tried it before, because they were not from that region. It is a dish I really want to try to recreate, but I get anxious about recreating dishes as I am not sure if you can cook memories that your mouth can feel.
It was a lovely, magical Christmas that I will hold in my head and heart forever. It was also wonderful to return home to Uzzano in Tuscany. Our simple apartment welcomed us and this morning we wandered down through the olive groves to Pescia as Archie was insisting on fresh schiacciata. We got our normal slab of schiacciata, two pizzettas for the kids and a piece of schiacciata for me. My piece was fresh out of the oven and was covered in thinly sliced caramelised onions. That first taste of salt and olive oil on my tongue is something that will always make me smile. It amazes me that something so simple can taste so effortlessly like home.