An Italian Diary of Feasts And Festivals

Lucie Shelbourne reports from the Umbrian hills, and shares some Italian feast-day customs….

New Year’s Eve

My husband Richard and I went to a sophisticated New Year’s Eve party last night in the Umbrian hills over looking Assisi, frequented by people with knowledge and experience. There is a light mix of Italians and English. The setting for the feast looks amazing with a long refectory table in a stone-walled dining room. Very monasterial, giving a sense of a secret sect. Huge thick candles spread a veiled light across the room, creating a sinuous effect in the shadows. I begin to wonder if our hostess is going to serve up the traditional New Year’s Eve dish of Zampone – stuffed pig trotter, which I have to admit, I have never been persuaded to eat. I’m sure, however, that lentils will appear in some form or other as they bring prosperity if eaten on New Year’s Eve in Italy, an old Roman tradition.

Lentils

The time flies and suddenly, our host pushes back his chair and rises to his feet, holding his glass up, saying “Auguri” to everyone, another old Roman tradition. It is Midnight – Mezza notte! We are all hurried outside to watch the display of fireworks. On the freezing terrace, overlooking the valley, a cacophony of whizzing, banging, popping and squealing explodes all around us. A large section of the Upper Tiber Valley below us is alight and so is the sky above us. A glass of Prosecco is put into my hand and a man I have not spoken to grabs me, kissing me ardently on each cheek with a ‘Buon Anno‘ greeting. Richard catches my eye over this man’s shoulder. He pulls me over and we gaze up at the exploding rosettes of brilliant pink and green, dwarfing us as we take in this unbelievable scene. I sip my drink – it is utterly delicious, especially as I’ve hardly drunk anything but sparkling mineral water, having pulled the short straw before we came out.

Wine Glasses With Pasta

My above-the-knee Luisa Spagnoli gold sequined skirt is not designed for freezing night-time gardens, and we tumble back into the warmth of the house with its bubble of conversation. Everyone jumps as a loud smash comes from the kitchen. “No accident,” a sultry woman standing next to me tells me: the noise of breaking china drives away the bad omens tainting the coming year. “No negative auras please!” Then she pulls her hands up to cover her mouth, saying “Oh, Signore!” and then laughs as out of the kitchen runs a young man, naked apart from a minute pair of scarlet coloured briefs! He makes a dash for the far corner of the room amidst squeals of appreciation from the female guests and one male guest at close quarters! His contemporaries crowd round him guffawing. It is an after dinner ritual in Italy that red undergarments are exchanged. Red represents fertility. The red intimates have to be thrown out the next day in order for the ritual to take full effect. The English contingent appear confused and embarrassed, shocked even. At least it has taken everyone’s attention away from Italian politics!

It’s soon time to go and we leave with promises to all meet again soon. As we drive off down the long avenue of cypresses, an enormous owl swoops down under the velvety Italian night sky, caught in our headlights like an apparition with a glistening white wingspan the size of an angel. “Talking of omens!” I turn and say to Richard, but he is humming a tune to himself in happy oblivion, so I drive on into the dawn of 2013 thinking about my cosy bed waiting for me at home. We’ll have scrambled egg with white truffles grated on top for breakfast. Now that is something to look forward to!

Blossom Tree

Lent and Easter

I smell the almond blossom before I spy it; it always catches me by surprise. The cool February air is warmed up by the honeyed scent emanating from the delicate shell pink blossoms. It lifts the heart. Across the valley, only one other almond tree can be seen in bloom. I am amazed at how many bees buzzing there are round our tree. Where have they suddenly appeared from?!

Chestnuts

The honey lady up the valley is called Maria, and if I go and visit her with the intention of buying a pot of her honey, she will simply not allow me to pay for it. She usually has a good supply of chestnuts as well, gathered from her chestnut groves higher up in the hills. These Umbrian chestnuts are magnificent specimens, as round and shiny as a mare’s hind quarters. After Maria and her family have picked them during October and November, they put them in a bath made from bales of hay formed in a circle with a black liner draped over it. People travel up from the town to buy them from her. I plan to make a soup using some of Maria’s famous chestnuts castagne. This is one of my favourite things!

As I drive back down from the honey lady’s cottage high up in the hills above our house, I suddenly hear the familiar sound of the Cici-Cocha, our local area’s contribution to the Carnevale, the festive season which occurs immediately before Lent, lasting about six weeks leading up to Easter. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia have been absorbed into the Italian Carnival. An accordion pumps out wonderful old country tunes as the merry band of local people travel along on a tractor-trailer, visiting all the old farms round the valley. Once there, they are offered an array of things to eat, including cake and vin santo. It is an ancient custom. They carry a huge handmade basket of willow in which the Padrone is meant to place some eggs.

Carnivale

When the Carnival is over, Lent begins and no good Catholic is meant to indulge until Easter morning! “The winter months in Umbria can be rather bleak,” said Antonello, our only Italian friend in London. “It’s best to be there from spring to Autumn only,” he told me. I could not help remembering his advice, as I stagger in with a pile of wood, kicking the door shut. But I’m so excited as I’m off to an outlet near Florence to buy some clothes! I also want to get a new Furla hand bag (last year’s, but half price so who’s complaining?) because we have been asked to a smart party in May in Capri.

Shopping Mall

The outlet I favour is just like a mini version of Portmeirion, featured in The Prisoner and home of ‘Orange Alert!’ Orange isn’t the colour to wear any longer in Italy, so I’m not opting for anything so vivid. There are noticeably less ‘orange alerts’ coming towards one down the corso. There is a sale on in February and when you arrive, it’s a polite bun fight but well worth it. Not usually appreciated by husbands and boyfriends, I hasten to add, but Richard particularly likes Ralph Lauren. On this occasion though, I’m going with my eldest daughter India, who first introduced me to retail therapy. There are all the Italian designers here, including Prada, for 70% off at this once-a-year February sale. Beautiful Italian kid gloves, exquisite woolens, Intimissimmi underwear….it goes on and on.

Castagnioli

Richard is outside working as usual. He commented once that whilst living in London, he’d spent a total of thirteen years outside in its gardens! It is true. His February tasks have been spreading organic mulch on flower beds and top dressing the lawns of gardens he is in the middle of creating, and the hard pruning of various fruit trees and large evergreens, which he loves. I follow in the wake of all the branches that need clearing up. We come back inside and heartily eat the chestnut soup and fried bread, whilst my youngest daughter, Tatiana, volunteers information about the Valentine card she has received and who it’s from. Richard is indignant at the thought of his daughter being wooed by the butcher’s son!

Bruschetta

It is late March and Easter is upon us. Bruschetta, pizza della Pasqua, tortelini in brodo, roast lamb, roast potatoes with rosemary, fresh broad beans, Colomba and of course, the best Perugian chocolate eggs! I usually serve a Vino Moscato with the traditional Colomba cake at the end of the meal. If I can find it, I buy some corrallina salami, a speciality of Umbria, smoked with juniper berries then aged for four months. It would be a treat for Richard who has been a saint not eating such things because of his cholesterol. Don’t forget though, you have to be a martyr to be married to a saint!

To enjoy a stay in Umbria, go to www.labuia.com for further details. For more information about Richard’s gardens, go to www.shelbournegardens.com.