Saturday, November 1, 2014

I come to a pleasant realization while snacking on snails

May 2, 2014
It was during a lunch of snails that I realized Lucy and I were close to accomplishing our goals in Italy. I had earlier related to Suzye how I had once encountered Ivo as we walked by his field. His hands had been full of live snails, but—always outgoing—Ivo still stopped to talk to me, sharing his plans to eat the snails later and giving details about how he would prepare them and what other foods he would be having for dinner. As he spoke, some of the snails slid out of his hands, and he had to stop to pick them up while readjusting his grasp on the others.

I sample fried snails for the first time, with Suzye and Linda.

A few days ago, we were showing Linda and Suzye an old house in San Salvatore that was for sale, and Suzye noted a mob of snails milling around on the shady stones of the back wall. Recalling my Ivo encounter and snail’s tale, she found a discarded tin pail and plucked up a dozen of the mollusks, saying she wanted to look up some recipes and sample her first taste of escargot. However, in reading online recipes, it turned out that making escargot is not a simple process. Preparing the snails takes several days using a procedure that involves flushing out their systems and feeding them herbs or corn meal before putting them in salt to remove the slime. We didn’t have time for all this, so Suzye decided to give them to Ivo instead.

We had recently met Ivo’s brother Celestino and his family. In previous years, we had only met Celestino’s wife, Antonella. But about a month before Suzye found the snails, I had seen Ivo out in his field and stopped to show him my research that explained how he and I were related as fourth cousins. As we spoke, a young man working across the field walked over to meet us. Ivo introduced him as Matteo Seghieri, one of Celestino’s two sons. A few days later, we were invited into Matteo’s house, where we had espresso and biscotti with Celestino, Antonella and Matteo.

Linda with Ivo and his homemade wine.
While looking for Ivo to give him the snails, we saw his car parked by his field, but he wasn’t in the field or his farm sheds. But by now, we had realized that if Ivo’s car was parked by his field and he wasn’t around, it’s because he was visiting his brother’s family in the Casone di Marcucci, which is right next to his field. Sure enough, he was there, and Lucy, Linda, Suzye and I had more espresso, this time with Ivo, Celestino and Antonella. Lucy and I served as translators, and Ivo expounded on one of his favorite topics, which is food from the cucina povera—the poor kitchen—which he explained uses traditional ingredients that can be found in the wild. Before we left, he had given us two bottles of wine—one red and one sweet and white—and some cantuccini, a type of biscotti that he made from his own special recipe. Even better, he promised that next Saturday, we would come back with the snails, cooked in two different meals.

We waited around at the Casolare dei Fiori during lunchtime on Saturday, and when he didn’t show up, we realized he probably expected us to go back to Celestino’s house. Sure enough, he was there with the snail dishes, and we took them home to savor together. One meal was snails fried in batter, but Ivo had also deep-fried pieces of zucchini and broccoli, so only one bite of every three was actually a snail. Linda, Suzye and I downed this course in about five minutes, while Lucy, who has a more sensitive stomach, passed on these delicacies. The other recipe was lumache in umido, stewed snails, which we decided to save for a later meal.

And what was my impression of the snail meals? I loved the fried zucchini and broccoli. As for the fried snails, I tried not to think of what I was eating, which was difficult. The snails themselves had little taste; the predominant flavor was that of the batter and oil, which I liked. But the snails were definitely chewy, kind of like biting into a soft chunk of fat in a steak. Because of the different texture, I couldn’t help but recognize when I was eating a snail as opposed to a vegetable, and I think that spoiled the experience. Perhaps if I had grown up eating them prepared this way, I would have no problem, but I can’t say it is something that I will go out of my way to eat again. As for the snail stew, we never got around to sampling it. We told each other that we had just been too busy, and then we had waited too long and it wasn’t fresh any more, but I think that if we had liked the fried snails more, we would have made time to eat the stew as well. Sorry, Ivo, that we wasted your time making it. Luckily, he doesn’t read English, so maybe he won’t find out. We told him we really enjoyed the snails, which is true in the sense that we greatly enjoyed the experience of finding them, talking to him and eating them for the first time.

The outcome of this experience is that I came to several important realizations. Because I had been learning Italian gradually over the past four visits, I hadn’t noticed my improvement. I could see that even though I still didn’t consider myself anywhere near fluency, I could now communicate well enough to be invited over for espresso. I had once been at about the same level of language ability as Linda and Suzye, but now I can translate for them. I had wanted to make friends and find relatives in Italy and discover how we were related, and now I knew very many, and I considered some of them friends as well.

I also wanted to understand and appreciate my Italian grandparents, who had grown up in this exquisite country but chose to leave their homes so their children and grandchildren could have better lives. I never met my nonna and hardly knew my nonno, but I had come here to explore the culture that had made them what they were. That culture has changed dramatically from what it was when they left Italy 100 years ago, because now my cousins are policemen, chemists, lawyers, professors, business owners, dentists, hair dressers and employees at stores and factories. Those raised on the farming life of my grandparents are either long gone or retired and on pensions.

But it dawned on me as I munched on the snails that there is one relative who still lives the life of a contadino, a humble farmer like my ancestors before they immigrated in the early 1900s. Ivo has been raised to embrace the old ways, and if I want to know the kind of lives great grandfathers Pietro Spadoni and Torello Seghieri may have led, I need look no further: Ivo is the very embodiment. He forages for wild herbs, vegetables, mushrooms and snails. He raises and slaughters his own rabbits, chickens and ducks and makes wine from his vineyards. His fields supply him with fruits and vegetables and grain for his animals. Anything he can’t provide with his own hands he finds at local open air markets, and he loves to work outdoors and talk about his food and recipes.

I have come to San Salvatore for four winters now, a total of ten months. Lucy and I can speak passable Italian. We have a few friends and many acquaintances, and people recognize that we are part of the community. I have found more relatives than I know what to do with, and I have traced my ancestral roots back nearly 1000 years to this very street. We have decided that we don’t want to move to Italy full time; we love our lives, our family, our home in the United States. But San Salvatore called out to me almost imperceptibly through the first fifty-five years of my life, and I finally answered the voice inside of me. This place is also our home.

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