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Demythologizing Tuscany

Jeremy Bernstein

When I was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., in the early 1940s, I was required to attend Sunday school. I suppose that I was meant to be spiritually improved. Actually the Old Testament bible stories we were taught seemed pretty silly to me. If God was all that he was cracked up to be, how could he possibly have any interest in someone’s being swallowed by a whale?My best friend at the time, Richard Epstein, who later became a distinguished microbiologist, felt the same way and we had a hard time containing ourselves. I think we were the despair of our teacher, Miss Gup, who ultimately married the physicist Robert Marshak. Marshak ended his career as president of the City University of New York.I also have a vivid memory of another member of our class, “Sleepy” Feinbloom. Sleepy’s real name was Harold. I have no idea of how he came to be called Sleepy, although I do recall that he had a somewhat somnolent appearance. In any event, Sleepy’s father Abe and Abe’s brother Bill founded a company in 1919 that made knitwear, underwear and socks primarily. In the early 1930s they acquired a large overstock of men’s long underwear. They then had an epiphany.By sewing numbers and other patches on the underwear, they could modify them so that they resembled athletic uniforms. I do not know what sport they had in mind, but in 1934 they persuaded the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., to buy them.

By the time I knew Harold, Champion Knitwear, which is what the company was called, was supplying uniforms to most of the professional and college teams in the United States. Because of the company’s relationship with these athletes, Harold’s father was able to provide, for example, baseball players to speak at some of our temple functions. The local baseball team was the Rochester Red Wings, a St. Louis Cardinal’s farm team, so we got to meet some of the great Cardinal players when they were still kids.I had forgotten all of this until a couple of years ago. I was on a bicycle trip in Italy that ended in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. I had about run out of clean clothes and looked for a shop where I could buy an inexpensive pullover. Much to my surprise, there was one that had Champion Knitwear products in the window. I bought my Champion sweatshirt and thought of Harold.Now I am back in Orvieto, this time at the start of a bike trip that will take me to the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Tuscany. I have decided to look for the same shop. It is still there and so are the Champion products. Indeed, the owner told me that his father was the one who first sold them.The story might stop here, except that something unbelievable has happened. Tonight, before dinner, our group had an introductory glass of wine. We each told where we were from and two of the riders said they were from Rochester. Not only had they heard of Champion Knitwear, but both of them, now retired, had been very high-ranking officials in the company. I, of course, wanted to know what had happened to the company and to Harold and his family.

As I imagined, both Harold’s father and his brother had died. The company had gone public. Harold owned a third of the shares. In 1989, Sara Lee bought the company for $350 million and Harold had become very rich. The purchase, however, was a disaster. Sara Lee moved what was left of Champion Knitwear out of Rochester and abandoned the athletic uniform business altogether. The Champion products one now saw were franchises manufactured in places like Guatemala. As for Harold, he had grown a full beard and had become one of the leading philanthropists in Rochester. For example, the principal timpanist in the Rochester Philharmonic holds the Harold and Joan Feinbloom Chair at the Eastman School of Music.Only in America.AgriturismoSome years ago the Italian government had an excellent idea. Many Italian farmers, producers of wine, olive oil and the like, were suffering economically. At the same time it had become very expensive for families of modest means to take vacations. Thus was born the agriturismo. The idea was that these rural establishments could be converted into lodgings that might not be too expensive. To distinguish them from ordinary bed-and-breakfasts, they were required to provide some fixed percentage of any comestibles they served from their own production.

While it took a little time for the idea to catch on, there are now hundreds all over Italy. They are favorites of many bicycle-touring companies because of their locations on back roads where one can bike with less concern about automobile and truck traffic. I have stayed in several over the years. I would summarize my experience – and I will give examples shortly – with a variation on the poet Randall Jarrell’s definition of a short story. He said that a short story is a piece of prose of indeterminate length with something wrong with it. If you substitute “agriturismo” for “short story,” “place of public accommodation” for “piece of prose,” and “size” for “length,” then you have the drift.The first agritourismo I stayed in was on Sardinia. As I biked up to it, it struck me that it was in the middle of the small town in which it was located. There was no indication of a farm or vineyard. There seems to be no rule that the agriturismo has to be on a farm – only that it is supplied by a farm belonging to the management. The structure itself consisted of stone buildings that surrounded a rather unkempt courtyard. When we rode in we were greeted by a woman who looked as if she had escaped from a Fellini movie. She was short, had arms like a sumo wrestler and moles on her face from which black hairs protruded that matched the color of her visible mustache. It rapidly became clear that this harridan ran the place and that, furthermore, she could not accommodate the entire group. Some were shunted off to a nearby building that was still under construction so that nothing worked. The rest of us were to be packed several to a room in the stone buildings. I was to share quarters with three other people of various sexes on what appeared to be cots. At this point I put my foot down. I had paid a not-insubstantial single supplement so that I could have my own room. Either I was going to have one or I was moving to a hotel I had spotted down the road. This was conveyed to the signora who glared at me with manifest loathing. She must have realized that I was very serious and that if I complained to the authorities, she could lose her sinecure.I was led to a room. It was clearly the room of a child who had died. There were pictures of her surrounded by icons. There were large dolls that looked like mummies placed on chairs. I was sleeping in a shrine. The bathroom was shared with the family and when I went to take a shower the soap in the tray had black hairs on it that looked alarmingly familiar. We were able to escape from this nightmare during the day when we went on our rides, but there was the ritual of the evening meal when the whole group gathered at a long table. The signora fed us out of a vat. She had a ladle of sufficient heft to fell an ox. If you stopped eating for a microsecond she was on you like a rottweiler with her ladle saying “manga, manga.” We suffered this for a couple of days. There was so much complaint that the biking company refunded some of our money.

The other end of the spectrum is the agriturismo where we stayed on our present trip – the Antica Fattoria La Parrina. It seems to have been written up in Condé Nast Traveler. The rooms, of which there are 12, along with four apartments, go in season for more than $200 a day. Each room has a name as opposed to a number. Mine was called Falegname – literally “carpenter,” although in this context it is probably better translated as cabinet or furniture maker. There was fine wood furniture everywhere. This is not too surprising, since the structure is a baronial mansion dating in its present form from the 19th century. It is now owned by the Marchesa Spinoli, the widow of a prominent Italian politician. We were taken on a tour of the marchesa’s garden. She herself, a blonde woman, could be seen through the picture window of her living room in deep discourse with some important-looking men. While I was contemplating this scene I was bitten by a mosquito. This, too, was not very surprising.The region where the fattoria is located is the Maremma. During the Etruscan and Roman times it was kept from being inundated by the Tyrrhenian Sea by a series of subterranean canals, which, at the end of the Roman Empire, were allowed to collapse. The lowlands became malarial swamps, which were reclaimed only in the 20th century, especially after the Maremma Land Reform agency began spending large sums of money beginning in 1951. Mosquitos are still a problem and each room in the fattoria is supplied with a can of repellent. As far as I know, the one that bit me was not malarial.The marchesa has made a virtue of necessity. There are no telephones or radios in any of the rooms and only a communal television set. It is difficult to imagine how a house that is nearly two centuries old could be retrofitted for these appliances. Visitors are assured that their tranquility is therefore undisturbed. If one is concerned about getting up on time, there are alarm clocks to borrow. Each room has its own bathroom and its own bathing arrangements. Some have bathtubs in which one can only sit with one’s feet dangling; some have only showers. This turned out – at least one night – to be academic since there was no water at all. This happened to coincide with our return from the most difficult day of bike riding on the trip. It also coincided with a cheese-tasting that featured cheeses made on the fattoria. The smell of a good pecorino covers a multitude of sins. The fattoria also makes it own wines, which I thought were excellent. There is a store where you can buy all these products.This agriturismo is a beautiful antique place in which nothing seems to work quite right. We spent three nights there, and I was somewhat relieved when the next stop was a modern hotel on the top of a hill in which everything worked.

Olive OilI have reached a stage of my life where there are certain things I now refuse to do. For example, I will see no more Julia Roberts films. Her Saluki-like smile maketh me to barf. In this category I included visits to mills in which olive oil is made. If you have seen one, you have seen them all – or perhaps oil. But on this trip I have made an exception. There were two reasons. In the first place, it seemed to be the only way to get lunch. I did not see any obvious towns on our bike route, and the mill was offering lunch. In the second place, there was the Italian olive oil scandal. In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard of it, I will explain.It turns out that most of the olive oil you buy in your local store that says “Made in Italy” does not consist primarily of Italian olives. Indeed, the only requirement is that at least 30 percent of the olives are Italian. The Italians just do not grow enough olives to satisfy the demand. The rest of the olives come from all over the Mediterranean – Greece, Spain, Libya and the like. Olive trees are notoriously slow to mature – they live for hundreds and even thousands of years – so going around and planting them is not an immediate solution to the problem. Before I tell you why this matters I will tell you a joke about an Italian winemaker on his death bed. His sons are gathered around to hear the secret of winemaking from their father. The last thing their expiring father says is, “You can also make it from grapes.” So when it comes to olives, why do you care?Here we enter the mystique of extra-virgin olive oil.

Italian olive-oil manufacturers – the ones you meet at these mills – compare the way they treat olives to the way they presume they are treated elsewhere. In Italy the olives are harvested in the fall, essentially by hand. One method is to use small baskets at the end of long sticks. The olives that are to be pressed for olive oil are green olives harvested at just the right state of maturity. Black olives come from the same tree but are allowed to ripen longer.It is claimed – I have no way of verifying this – that in other olive-producing counties cruder methods are used, such as shaking the tree. The olives are picked off the ground after they have been contaminated with God knows what. They are then shipped chocka-block over half a continent to Italy, arriving in a state beyond good and evil. To rid these unfortunate alien olives of their presumed contaminants, the pressed olive liquid is heat-treated. This, it is said, destroys much of the health-giving benefits of the oil. Our olives are cold-pressed since they are, so they claim, free of contaminants. When you buy a bottle of olive oil you should, one is told, look on the label to make sure that it comes from olives that have been cold-pressed. But this is not what makes olive oil extra virgin.This has been explained to us by a member of the Andreini family, whose mill we are visiting. Young Andreini says what counts is the “percentage of acidity.” If the percentage is 1 percent or less, then the olive oil is “extra virgin.” If it is between 1 and 3 percent, it is “virgin.” Anything more and it is just olive oil. We nod our heads wisely. It is only afterward that I realize that this definition makes no sense at all.There are acids and there are acids. Something that has, say, 1 percent of hydrochloric acid is not something you would like to put on bread. There must be implicit a reference to some specific acid or acids. Some research has turned up the following: Olive oil contains a number of fatty acids. To name a few there are linoleic, palmitic, stearic and myristic. But the dominant acid content – more than 70 percent on average – is oleic, C8H17CH=CH(CH2)7COOH. (You learn all sorts of things on a bike trip.) This is the acid that is tested for.

Extra-virgin olive oil must have less than 1 gram of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil. Exactly how this test is performed, and by whom, I do not know. In addition there are olive-oil tasters who certify that particular batches of oil taste right. A lot depends on the mixture of olives that are used. The Andreini family uses only the olives they grow themselves – no aliens here.All of this has raised two additional puzzles. In the first place, why should one care how much oleic acid there is? In truth, I do not know, especially since several Web sites tout the benefits of the oleic acid in olive oil towards reducing cholesterol. I am told that oleic acid gives olive oil a lower boiling point, making it more difficult to use in cooking. I leave this to the experts. But given that having less oleic acid is somehow better, how can the Andreini’s be sure that all they have to do is to cold-press and centrifuge their olives – no heat treatment – to realize the necessary acidity? Young Andreini says it is because they know their olives. As we Italians say, “Se non è vero è ben trovato” or “Even if it’s false, it’s nicely invented.” Before we can have lunch we have to suffer an almost intolerable documentary on olive oil. There is an English voice narrating it. He sounds very much like Alec Guiness. I distract myself by trying to imagine a point in Alec Guiness’ career when he would have narrated a documentary on olive oil. Then we are each given a small cup of extra-virgin oil to taste. It is surprisingly acrid. In fact I do not like the taste at all. I think my olive-oil palate has been ruined by too many dinners in Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village where virgins of any kind are extremely difficult to find. L’Isola del Giglio

There are two explanations for the formation of the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. There is the scientific explanation. Centuries ago there was a volcanic explosion and the seven islands are the caldera that was left over. The explanation I like better involves the goddess Venus. She had a pearl necklace that broke and seven pearls landed in the Tyrrhenian Sea and became the islands. I like this better because it explains why there are just seven islands. An exploding volcano could have produced a plethora. I have learned this from a local guide hired for the day. She is a young woman with olive eyes and slightly skewed teeth. She radiates goodness and cheer. It is somewhat unnerving. At one point I ask her, “Am I happy?” to which she replies that she is very happy. I ask why, and she says that she is going to get married in two months. She is a fount of information.The Isola del Giglio – the Island of the Goat (“giglio” is “lily” in Italian, but this name is thought to be derived from the Greek “aigilion,” or “goat”) – is the second largest island in the archipelago. The first is Elba – able was I ere I saw Elba. That Elba which I saw on another bike trip. It has a population of 30,000 or so and the coast is quite bikeable. The interior – like all these islands – is a very steep hill that I, for one, would not bike on. Giglio has a population of about 1,500 and no bikeable terrain. This is our day off.To get to the island we take a ferry from Santo Stefano. It is Saturday and the boat is packed. You can hardly find a place to sit down. I begin to understand the reports of these ferryboat accidents in places like Bangladesh in which hundreds drown. The trip takes about an hour. The question that engages me is how does an island like this get its water. The answer supplied by our guide surprises me. As small as it is, Giglio has its own power plant. This takes it off the Italian grid. The Italians get a lot of their electricity from France, so when the French grid recently collapsed much of Italy was blacked out. Not Giglio. They use their electricity to purify water.At the island we are met by a couple of taxis that take us to the top of the island where there is a notable fortress-castle. Our guide seems quite pleased by the fortifications. She seems to relish the idea of dropping rocks on the invaders and then sticking any of the survivors with large spikes. She is especially pleased about a group of women who, in repelling some invasion when their husbands were unaccountably absent, dropped boiling water on the besiegers. When asked why they didn’t use olive oil, she said that it was too expensive. I proposed that we get a vat of extra-virgin oil and heat it up to, say, the temperature of molten steel, and drop it on some of the tourists to see how well it would work. She gave me an odd look.

Gelati My current favorite gelato flavor is “straccitella,” which is what we used to call in Rochester “rocky road” – chunks of chocolate randomly distributed in a base of vanilla ice cream. While my memory of our local rocky road is imperfect, it cannot have been as good as the Italian variety. Nothing is as good as the Italian variety. One explanation I have heard is that the Italians use more eggs. Probably the olive-oil diet compensates for the extra cholesterol. It is possible that the fact that I have these gelati at the end of a long bicycle ride makes a difference.Indeed, I have chosen an optional ride to the tiny hill town of Pereta. My bike tour is called Tuscany By The Sea, which means that most of the riding has been relatively flat – relative to what you usually find in Tuscany. This optional ride is all uphill. The road is not too steep and is well-engineered. The problem is that I do not have any landmarks. There are no road signs. I pass some sort of substantial-looking house which has elevated on a concrete stand what seems to be a real airplane. It swings around in the wind with its propellors turning.Then the road starts downhill. This worries me. I have no desire to ride back up some other hill. An automobile stops. It is a German tourist couple. They have a map and I have a map. We agree that we are on the same road but we have no idea where it is. I spot some women sunbathing on the porch of a villa above me. They say it is only a couple of kilometers to Pereta. Indeed, coming around a bend, there is Pereta, clinging limpetlike to a cliff. It reeks of history. I don’t care. I have found a trattoria with gelati. I am in a state of bliss.


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