Monday, January 16, 2012

Vicopisano, day four

Rain was predicted, and rain it did. We can’t go around complaining about the weather considering we have seen very little rain and a great deal of sunshine. It is, we believe, one of the warmest (if not the warmest) winter Western Europe has ever seen. So with rain, we decided to do other things. It was treat Friday, and so it was time to cook our treat Friday. Mostly we buy treat Friday, but today we were going to cook it.
Niccolo had decided long ago, as far back as Christmas, that he wanted to cook doughnuts with custard cream for the centre. We didn’t get around to it in Carcassonne; I can’t now recall why; possibly a surfeit of food already. However, this time, there was not a surfeit; it was treat Friday and we had the time as the rain tumbled.
OK, fine. We went to our host’s shop to get on the internet (email and whatnot) and to research recipes for doughnuts and custard cream. Anything that involves eggs and heat that is not fried eggs makes me nervous; so I was already feeling a little panic. And then there is the problem of buying ingredients in a country in which you only just speak the language and anything technical is a long way out of your range. Onward and upward though.
We returned to PAM (the great shopping centre in the skyish) and took our list. There were of course detours from the list (chocolate, for example, to melt for the doughnuts, glamorous breakfast cereal – that’s a mystery – pretty little bottle of Campari and soda and so on) but in general we were on a mission. The thing was, I couldn’t find anything that looked like cornflour. I knew that cornflour would be important for thickening, and I couldn’t come up with an alternative. Suddenly, Niccolo found a packet of doughnuts called (perhaps appropriately) Krapfen. He agreed to make the doughnuts from this prefab box, plus the custard cream from another prefab box. We guessed at the additional ingredients needs and were proved right when we found them in the supermarket (yeast in Italian … anyone?).
Outside of PAM, we discovered that the weather was lifting. There was the stirring of possible plans. Back at home, we cooked lunch and prepared the doughnuts (which required long resting and rising times). As we did this, Paris and I conducted a game of Gin Rummy in which I comprehensively beat him. We did not score (which probably accounts for my run of very good luck).
The sun began to shine through the windows of the kitchen. There were adventures to be had outside. So we left the doughnuts to rise beside the heater and headed out.
We decided to head for Volterra. Our host introduced this town to us as the place where some instalment of Twilight was filmed. Myles and I shrugged (knowing nothing about the films or the books; somehow this one has passed me by), and Paris actively shuddered. But it was getting late in the afternoon and it was relatively close, so we figured; why not? Vampires can be fun.
Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life. You’d think I’d have some knowledge of geography and towns beyond either straight ignorance or Hollywood. But in this case; no. But here is the other thing about this sheltered life. No expectations. I drove happily to Volterra with the family thinking and expecting nothing of this town. It was really only something to do on an afternoon in which the sun began to punctuate the clouds.
We drove through very pretty countryside, and then, after a time, we began to climb. Suddenly, we were high in the sky; looking down on a very organised landscape; vines and recently plough fields, and nicely managed forests. And above us, loomed a town.
We parked. And into the old town we walked. It is steep and completely self contained, with all the houses and buildings huddled together and tall. There are little alleyways under arched gates, and everything paved in stone. As the sun declined, and the town got dark, it was all a bit magical. At the top of the town is a very large piazza with a palazzo on one side, and a church on the other. All the colours were dark variations on the colours in Tuscany; orange, green, purple, brown (and black and white). Here is was a gloomy version, but not depressing or ugly, just stern. Funnily enough, this is a town known for alabaster – luminous whiteness among the dark. There were Twilight posters everywhere (so that was true) but who cared? Some kind of Hollywood version of this quite real Medieval darkness couldn’t be as interesting as the ‘real’ thing. I say ‘real’ here because it is now a tourist town. People live here (there is a very busy car repair shop just to the left of the piazza and there were folks walking their dogs), but it is so geared to tourists like us – food and ice cream and shops with souvenirs and  books that tell you the history of the town. It now lies somewhere between Hollywood and daily reality. But we really liked it. We did none of the things were have been programed to this point to do – the church, the museum, historical sites and so on. We just walked around and looked in windows and admired the darkness. We also discovered a new flavour of ice cream that might be specific to this town called ‘Chic and Shock’. Paris ordered it. It was a little like coffee and biscuits.
We spent the minutes of sunset with our legs hanging over a wall and looking out onto the Tuscan countryside that ripples away from this hilltop town. Well, me and the kids did. Myles can’t quite cope with heights on any level.
It must be amazing to live in a town like this one; to have such a presence in the countryside – to prevail over the fields and yards below you. And to have a history that extends over the shoulders of generation after generation. I think I would like that sensation. But perhaps you wouldn’t be aware of it. Perhaps it is something that would be invisible to you (or transparent) and just a part of how you see the world on any given day.
We journeyed back to our tall house in Vicopisano, sleepy and thoughtful.
The doughnuts awaited us when we opened the door. We had forgotten them.
I heated the oil and dropped them in. Clearly, deep frying is an art and I have no knowledge of it. I managed to cook them brown (not an appetising colour for doughnuts) but have them raw in the middle. So it just required that I break each doughnut apart and cook them again. Paris quite like them, said they tasted like churros. We dipped them in the fake custard cream, and in chocolate Niccolo melted by placing it in a bowl on the heater (alongside the clothes I was baking dry). As we stuffed doughnuts into our mouths, we watched a film on poverty in America on True Movies (our one English channel on the TV). We were in danger of being Marie Antoinette.
We retired to bed relatively early (though I discovered the children watching something on Paris’s computer at midnight later on, and got very angry with them) to read. I’m reading Jane Austen but it is not melding with my mood. I’m starved for something to read. I hadn’t realised how much I rely on my library. Myles is getting through ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’. Paris is reading ‘Atonement’. Zelda reads ‘Dracula’, but only in the morning. It creeps her out at night.
We are inspired to go and see hilltop towns in Tuscany. That is our plan for tomorrow.

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