Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fried rags and a naked populonia

Monday, February 7
Before we came here, I looked online and found four language schools in Lucca. All of them offered classes for about the same price, and the hours were very similar as well, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., give or take a half hour. Then I looked at the train schedule and found that the first train from San Salvatore to Lucca did not arrive in Lucca until 9:25 a.m., unless we took a train going the opposite direction at 7:16 a.m. and then waited nearly an hour in the Pescia station to take a train arriving at Lucca at 8:30 a.m. I'll pass on that idea. Buses were a possibility, but the bus website proved difficult to navigate, and after a couple of hours of fruitless searching, I decided to write the language schools to see if they ever offered afternoon classes. None did, but all offered private lessons. Then when The Lucca Italian School came back offering us a discount from their stated prices, we accepted. This also allowed us a chance to set the lesson time to match the train schedule, and we decided that having lessons only an hour and half in duration would be more suited to our attention spans.

We head to our first lesson today, riding our biclete usate through the chilly winter morning and past fields of chaff left over from last fall’s harvest. We pass six piles of steaming straw mixed with the harsh odor of chicken manure. A few farmers have started to till their fields for spring planting, but most remain as they were after the harvest. The chaff and manure-coated straw will be tilled in to enrich the soil. The odors here are a mixture of overturned dirt, decaying vegetation and mildly stagnant water. The soil has more clay than my garden at home, and when it rains, the water stays on the surface in some places for many days. The fragrance is both pleasant and foul at the same time, but the knowledge that this combination of dirt, fertilizer and water is going to produce flourishing crops in a few months makes it seem like the fragrance of life.
In Lucca, we meet our teacher, Laura, and talk about ourselves for a bit so she can get an idea of our ability level, and then we review the passato prossimo for the rest of the class. Just as our brains reach the full mark, the class has ended, so the time seems about right.

Instead of heading home, we stay after because the head of the school, Angelo Giannini, is leading a tour of Lucca for all new students at 3:30 p.m. We have three hours to kill, so we find an EsseLunga in Lucca and do our shopping and then sit outside in a playground and eat some lunch while watching three dads and their preschoolers playing on the swings and merry-go-round.

On the tour, we stop at a panificio and then a pizzeria and try some typical Luccese food: cenci di carnevale, torta di verdura, cecina and castagnaccio con ricotta. Cenci we have already been snacking on throughout past week, because it is featured prominently in every panificio during February. It is a Tuscan tradition and is especially popular during the carnevale season. Lucca is only 20 minutes from Viareggio, which has one of the most well known carnevale celebrations in Italy. Cenci is a crunchy and delicious fried bread dusted with sugar. Angelo says that cenchi literally translates as “rags,” so the name comes for the appearance of the folded and fried bread. The torta, also called torta coi becchi, is the typical flat and dry Italian pie with a thin layer of filling. In this case, the filling includes swiss chard and spinach, but it is a dessert rather than part of the meal. It is tasty but not something I would order on my own. The description of cecina is written in English on the blackboard inside Pizza Da Felice: chick pea salted cake. It is made with garbonzo bean flour and olive oil, salt and pepper. It is probably a great health food and at one time provided a lot of protein for the meat-poor contadini, but again it is not something I would choose other than for sentimental reasons. Probably if my nonna had made it, I would want to continue the tradition, but she probably didn’t have ready access to garbonzo bean flour in America. Next to the cenci, my favorite in the sampling is the castagnacci, made with chestnut flour and ricotta. I usually like my dolci soft rather than dry, and the ricotta is probably the ingredient here that appeals to me the most.

Other than the unusual food we sample, the most memorable part of the tour is when we find out that Piazza San Salvatore is known to the locals as Piazza della Populonia, which in the Luccese vernacular translates as piazza of the breast. When we ask why this is so, Angelo points to the statue in the square of a woman who has one breast uncovered.

1 comment:

  1. Did she have a piece of Pepperoni on the other breast?


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