The hills around here are full of ruinous houses, sometimes complete hamlets have been left to rot, organic beauties, slowly changing with decay. Remote and isolated, choked with brambles they stand at the end of rutted tracks, their vacant windows gaping. They may be wrecked and wretched but to me each one seems like an opportunity.
To celebrate my birthday earlier this week, marito took me out for lunch not, as you might expect, to some ‘fancypants’ expensive restaurant but on a picnic jaunt high up in the Umbrian hills. The sky was clear, hard enamel blue and the sun low and hot, a runaway Summer’s day.
One of my favourite things to do is drive the rough white roads, with no particular destination in mind, looking for things. Maybe another Madonna or an unexpected view but, as we drive, I am always aware that just over the hill or around the corner might be the thing that thrills me most, an abandoned house.
Usually, my curiosity is restricted to a brief glimpse and a craning neck but it was my day and I got to choose the picnic spot. This time I was going in.
Crouching amongst ragged grasses was a small stone house. I felt the baked dryness of the door and the old wood split and broke away as I forced it open to reveal a single square room.
Weeds billowed in through broken shutters and hazy dust clouds hung suspended in slants of sunlight. Rubble covered a floor of crude terracotta tiles that were laid directly to the earth, in the centre was an up turned wormy table blanched to the colour of ash and along one wall a row of empty bottles.
Old sacks, parts of a broken iron bed, some kind of sieve and a long handled spade were all that remained of someone else’s life. In the heady silence of the afternoon I felt it would be easy to inhabit that room. To clear away the rubble, right the table and mend the bed, to spend an evening drinking rough red wine with the ghosts, as bats swooped in and out of the open rafters and cold moonlight crept into the corners.
Luckily marito is not so romantic. ‘What do you think’? I asked, as he blundered in with the dog. I won’t repeat his answer in its entirety but the phrase ‘totally insane’ featured prominently.
Best thing I ate today:
Calming, comforting carbonara; basically a pasta sauce made with eggs, cream and parmesan. Soothing and somewhat soporific, it’s a delicious supper dish now that there’s a faint chill in the evening air. You can make endless variations on this theme by adding handfuls of this or that. Just make sure that you don’t overwhelm the creamy sauce. Some of my favourite additions are: small chunks of crispy pancetta, or crumbled Italian salsiccie and a few green peas, or maybe a scant handful of pre-cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Here it is in a simple form with just the added heat of peperoncino.
Kinda carbonara con peperoncino
Pasta – Penne is good, approx 300gm
4 large organic egg yolks
2 large handfuls of freshly grated parmesan cheese
100ml thick cream
2 small peperoncini, chopped
2 gloves of garlic chopped
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 small handful of finely chopped flatleaf parsley
Cook the pasta until 'al dente' and, while its cooking, make the sauce. Put the egg yolks and cream into a bowl and mix together with half the parmesan. Season with salt and pepper.
Then in a heavy based frying pan gently sauté the garlic and peperoncino for about 5 minutes and take care not to colour the garlic. As soon as the pasta is done drain it and put it back into the, still hot, pasta pan, then mix in the garlic and peperoncino followed by the sauce. Toss it all together until the sauce is glossy and silky looking, you may need to heat the pan up a little bit more but be careful not to scramble the eggs. Add the rest of the parmesan and the parsley and give it another stir. Heap it into a bowl and serve.
In Italy they sell a lovely mix of peperoncino, garlic and herbs called, 'Erbe piccante per spaghetti' in little packets at the supermarket. They don't cost much and last for months...
Where to get it;
You've probably already got it all in the fridge, waiting.