As sure as night follows day, a long weekend in Italy will be followed by a strike of some kind
A recent long weekend in May (what the Italian's call a "ponte") was no different.
Rumours of impending industrial action at my son's school began to circulate the night before.
Nothing is official. Details are sketchy. Rumours abound.
As I take the garbage out, a neighbour mentions the dreaded words.
The rumour is that the school's catering staff will be on strike tomorrow. Strikes by ancillary staff are the most common and the most disruptive. Notification of such strikes usually advise that full services cannot be guaranteed and that some disruption to your child's education may occur.
When teaching strikes are announced, often at the last minute, the kids must turn up at the school gate at wait to see if their teacher is involved. It's only on the morning of the strike itself that you discover whether your child will be able to go to school or not that day. This of course makes forward planning all but impossible and, for those parents who work, without an extensive network of relatives, babysitters and grandparents, to fall back on, it is a logistical nightmare.
By the time I've dumped the rubbish and got back upstairs, the news of tomorrow's strike has reached my wife. Her phone has been beeping incessantly with rumour and counter-rumour from the mum's WhatsApp group. Strike tomorrow. School closed. Strike tomorrow. School open. Teachers are involved. Teachers aren't involved. Bring a packed lunch. Don't bring a packed lunch. Wait and see.
To add to the general sense of confusion, Wednesday morning dawns and the heavens have opened. For the first time in weeks it's raining. This isn't the cold, hard, wet rain that comes at you from every angle in Scotland. No, this is what we you might call a light drizzle. That said, it's enough to cause panic on the streets, as the local kids are shipped 200 yards by car and are each unnecessarily equipped with a large umbrella.
At the school gates, it's a scene of utter chaos and confusion.
Kids grapple with their golf umbrellas, parents manoeuvre their excited offspring towards the narrow gate that somehow 300 children must simultaneously pass through. A priest leads a group of 15 or 20 kids who, following their communion the previous day, have attended a celebratory early morning mass at the church. The teachers are completely ill-equipped to introduce any order to proceedings. One plucky 10 year takes matters into his own hands, and begins to yell at the top of lungs. "Prima A" he shouts, the first class to enter. "Prima B" he yells. Umbrellas tangle in hair. Dogs bark. Children are screaming. The priest seems to mutter a prayer under his breath. I watch with an air of bewildered attachment from the other side of the road. I need a coffee!
To disperse the chaotic traffic away from the school itself when children are arriving and leaving, the road in front of the school is usually closed to all traffic and no vehicles are permitted with a 200 metre perimeter. But, today is Wednesday - market day so the alternate route is blocked by the market. This means that buses, which would normally be diverted away from the school, instead pass right in front of the school gates. But the road is completely blocked by parents, priests, kids, dogs and umbrellas. There's absolutely no way the bus can pass. But somehow it does. Bemused commuters peer out the steamed-up windows at the scenes of chaos and confusion. The driver, I notice with incredulity, despite the utter confusion as he navigates the chaotic street, is chatting idly on his mobile phone. I often wait for up to 30 minutes for a bus to pass in the morning. This morning in the space of 10 minutes three buses somehow navigate this chaotic scene of chaos.
While some parents attempt bravely (or foolhardily) to usher their children towards the gates, getting caught up in the unruly scrum, others, myself included, observe proceedings from a distance. It's typical, one harassed mother remarks, a strike always follows a long weekend.
In the end, the kids are all allowed pass through the school gates, the parents soon disperse and the road reopens to the brisk morning traffic. Before I know it, I'm alone, gazing across the road at the school gates. It's time for that coffee.
There is a popular saying in Italian: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi“. In other words, Christmas is a time for the family, but you can spend Easter with whoever you like. In reality, for most Italians Easter is generally spent with the family. But unlike in the UK, where the schools take a two-week break, here the most you can normally hope for is a long weekend (or 'Ponte' as the Italians like to call it).
That wasn't the case this year, as Easter fell late and ran into the annual 25 April Liberation Day holiday. The authorities, in their infinite wisdom, extended the spring break from Giovedì Santo (Maundy Thursday) up to and including Liberation Day. An unprecedented spring week off!
For us it was the perfect opportunity to get on the road and head for the mountains of the Garfagnana, to spend Easter in Tuscany,
With the formalities and indulgences of Easter dispensed with, Italians generally spend Pasquetta (Easter Monday) in the countryside with friends enjoying a typical barbecue or picnic.
As a regular visitor to Garfagnana, I've long been planning an excursion with Wild Trails, a local tour company that organises hiking trips and adventures in the hills, valleys and mountains of the region. Pasquetta seemed like the ideal opportunity to finally do so.
In truth, the Pasquetta detox tour that we signed up for wasn't so much an adventure as a leisurely amble around the forests, gentle hills and remote villages of the Val di Lima.
But, with an engaging guide and a simple picnic (I can't believe I forgot the wine), it was a pleasant way to spend Easter Monday and offered a tantalising glimpse of what this remote and unspoilt region has to offer.
Next time we might be a little more adventurous. And I'll remember to pack the wine!
In Italy, the family remains a central pillar of society. Small, independent family-owned businesses continue to prosper, and nowhere is this more so than in the wine sector.
Although the Italian wine and the Scotch whisky industry are of comparable value (approx €5 billion and £6 billion respectively), the patterns of ownership couldn't be more different. Despite what the marketing men may tell you, few Scotch whisky distilleries can claim anything remotely close to family ownership. In fact, only a quarter of Scotch whisky production is owned by Scottish companies and approximately 55% of all whiskies sold worldwide are produced by just two companies, Diageo and Chivas Brothers.
In Italy, even production giants like Veneto-based Zonin, which produces 40 million bottles a year, and the Santa Margherita wine group, the producer behind the Pinto Grigio phenomenon, are family-owned, passing from one generation to the next. In fact, the Italian wine industry, as I discovered time and time again at #vinitaly2019, is still very much a family affair.
Here are some notes on just a few of the family-owned wine producers I met this year.
The Vinum, Il Rosso (bio), Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, D.O.C
The Vinum is a family-owned and run winery that pairs high quality production values with respect for the environment. Using sustainable farming techniques and the latest winemaking technology, the company has vineyards in three of Italy's most renowned wine-making regions - Tuscany, Abruzzo and Piemonte. The organic "Il Rosso" comes from the Nocciano vineyards in the province of Pescara in the region of Abruzzo. Harvested by hand at the end of the September, the best grapes are selected and fermented for 10-15 days before ageing for 6 months in stainless steel tanks, then spend a further 3 months in the bottle.
An intense and lively ruby red, with hints of cherry, cinnamon, liquorice and raspberry, Il Rosso is well-balanced with soft tannins typical of the denomination. Perfect with an Easter Sunday rack of lamb.
Cantina Dolcevera di Marco Benedetti di Villa (VR), Amarone della Valpolicella 2015
Closer to home for this Amarone, the work of exciting young wine producer Marco Benedetti. His vineyards, which he took over at the age of just 25, are located in the town of Villa di Negrar, not far from Verona, in the heart of the famous Valpolicella region. Wine production is in Marco's DNA, and he inherited his passion for wine-making from his father.
The Amarone DolceVera 2015 is made from 50% Corvina, 25% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella grape and 10% from other grape varieties. All of them are native vines cultivated in the town of Villa di Negrar, at an altitude between 260 and 280 metres. The best grapes are harvested in late September and early October. They are then dried on straw mats for about 3 months, during which they lose about 40% of their weight. The grapes are then crushed and de-stemmed, the fermentation takes place in steel tanks at a controlled temperature of 24°C and the maceration on the skins lasts approximately 30 days. The Amarone is then refined in barrels of 7,5 ht and then transferred into larger barrels of French and Slavonian oak for a period of 36 months in a small cellar built near the main vineyard at Villa di Negrar.
The wine is an intense ruby red with glints of violet. Complex and varied on the nose, with hints of cherry, spices, vanilla, coffee and pepper in the palate. A refreshing minty finish, warm, intense and persistent. At 16%, this is a velvety smooth, full-bodied classy Amarone.
Cantina Chiara Condello di Predappio (FC) Romagna Sangiovese Predappio Riserva - Le Lucciole
Chiara Condello is another exciting young wine-producer who inherited her family's passion for wine-making (her father, Francesco Condello, owns the Condè winery). Chiara, graduated in Economics from the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan before completing a Masters in International Management. She began working at Condé in the summer of 2012 where she was involved in every aspect of the family business.
Chiara's own vineyard is located in the heart of the Predappio hills, the notorious birthplace of Benito Mussolini, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Her vineyard embraces organic principles of viticulture and favours traditional hands-on production techniques.
Le Lucciole, which means The Fireflies, is produced using 100% Sangiovese grapes which are harvested by hand and then aged in Slavonian oak. A dark almost impenetrable red, on the nose, Le Lucciole is rich, intense and earthy, with notes of ripe fruit. An explosion of rich fruit in the mouth,, well-bodied and strong. Perfect to wash down a classic steak dinner.
As these three wines demonstrate, wine production in Italy is still very much a family affair.
As vineyards pass from one generation to the next, each reinvigorates the industry with fresh ideas, energy and passion, creating a sector that is vibrant and innovative, but profoundly respectful of the traditions and practices of the past.
Nestled between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, Basilicata is a mountainous region, rich in nature, art, history and culture. Thanks in no small part to the designation of Matera as the European Capital of Culture 2019, Basilicata is now emerging as an increasingly popular holiday destination. In fact, the New York Times ranked Basilicata third in its list of "52 Places to Go in 2018", describing it as "Italy’s best-kept secret".
The ancient cave dwellings in Matera's historical quarter, the famous Sassi, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. In recent years, the biblical landscape and and unique unspoiled architecture of Matera has made it a popular choice for Hollywood film crews. The Passion of the Christ, The Young Messiah and the Ben-Hur remake were all film in the historic town.
Monte Vulture, the extinct prehistoric volcano and the hilly territory that surrounds it produces some of the best wines in southern Italy. While the historic villages of Barile, Venosa, Melfi and Ripacandida date back to days of ancient Greece, it is the volcanic soil and varied climate that gives the wine of Basilicata its distinctive character and quality.
Aglianico is perhaps the best known wine of Basilicata. The Aglianico del Vulture "Superiore" was designated DOCG ("Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita") in 2010, one of just 74 Italian wines to have achieved this prestigious status.
There are three other important wines from Basilicata region which bear the DOC ("Denominazione di origine controllata") designation. These are the Terre dell'Alta Val d'Agri, available in red, red reserve and Rosè varieties, the Matera, which takes its name from the ancient cave town, and the Grottino di Roccanova, named after the caves where the wine is traditionally aged.
At Vinitaly 2019, I was fortunate enough to sample a variety of wines from this intriguing region.
Arcidiaconata 2014, Aglianico del Vulture (DOC), Azienda Agricola Radino
The Radino family was already a well established olive oil producer when they turned their attention to wine in the 1970s. Surrounded by genista, almond and olive trees, the vines on the terraced slopes of Mount Vulture are now about 40 years old. The grapes are harvested by hand at the end of October and the resulting wine is then maturated in small oak barrels for at least 18 months.
Bright ruby red in colour, with hints of ripe red fruit, spices and liquorice, Arcidiaconata is pleasant and fresh, with a slightly tannic aftertaste. It's a typical Aglianico del Vulture - robust, smooth and well-balanced. Would go nicely with salami and mature cheese.
The Radino family also runs a truly unique hotel, il Palazzotto Residence and Winery, carved into the rocks of the historic Sassi di Matera
Iosaphat 2015, Matera Dop Primitivo, Società Agricola Ditaranto srl
The Ditaranto winery is located in the Bradano valley, overlooking the Ancient Greek colony of Metaponto and the Gulf of Taranto beyond.
Iosaphat is a Matera Dop Primitivo. When I saw the label, I mistook the abbots scythe for a massive pipe! I was soon corrected. Matured in French oak for 12 months, it is a ruby red colour, with just a glimmer of violet. Dry, full and well-balanced, almost velvety. Perfect with your Sunday roast.
Calaturi 2013, Aglianico del Vulture (DOCG), Tenuta i Gelsi
Another strong, powerful Aglianico, this time from Tenuta I Gelsi, a winery that was established in 2003 by Pasquale Bafunno and Ruggiero Potito. The vineyards extend for approximately 10 hectares, mainly in Rionero in the northern interior of the region, at a height ranging from 400 to 600 metres. The wine is matured in Slavonian oak for 24 months followed by a further 24 months in the bottle.
A beautiful bright ruby red colour, with distinct purplish shades. On the nose, red cherry, balsamic vinegar and a hint of vanilla. Smooth, light tannins and a long, harmonious finish. Perfect with cheese or to wash down some red meat.
Every Italian, it seems, has an anecdote about the uncivilised culinary habits of foreigners, usually at the expense of the English or the Germans. Foreigners, so the tale goes, will put pasta in a pot of cold water and then bring the water to the boil (while, of course, every Italian knows that you must wait until the water has boiled before adding the pasta). I've heard variations of this anecdote on at least half a dozen occasions. Italians seem to take comfort from the belief that northern Europeans are uncouth when it comes to culinary habits and behaviour.
Like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in this one and the British, it must be said, have certain culinary habits which, when viewed through the prism of Italian logic, are somewhat baffling. Brits, you realise, when you return home, snack constantly. Meal times are fluid. Basically you can eat what you want, when you want, where you want. One of my regular dinners back home was a jacket potato with pizza and pasta. Yes, that's pizza AND pasta AND potato! On the same plate! More often than not, washed down with a large mug of milky tea. Now I cringe when a guest orders a latte with their lasagne or has a side salad with their pizza. I have become, I'm sorry to say, an Italian food snob.
Italians will often tell you that Italian food is the best in the world. When I politely suggest that it might lack a bit of variety, they are incredulous, pointing out that every region has its own local cuisine. Yes, I counter, but it's still just pasta. And here's the thing. For Italians, pasta from Veneto, lets say Bigoli con l'anatra, is not the same as pasta from Emilio Romana (like Strozzapreti al ragù). While I would categorise them both as pasta dishes, for Italians they are as different as chalk and cheese. They could eat pasta 5 days a week, but if it's a different shape, it's not the same thing!
So, is the Italian sense of superiority when it comes to food well-founded? Yes, it is good. Very good. Invariably fresh, wholesome and satisfying. But, how can I say this without causing great offence? Italian food can sometimes be quite bland.
There, I've said it.
Now I'll be shunned wherever I go. I'll spend eternity in the raging fires of Dante's Inferno.
But it's true. Italian food often lacks that spark of flavour provided by external influences. I once asked a class of 20 Italian adults how many of them had tasted a curry. Only one had! And he didn't particularly like it! For me growing up, the local curry house was a regular family treat. We were exposed not only to the rich flavours and language of the Gulistan, our local curry house, but also, and I think this is crucial, to the warmth and charm of Asian hospitality. To a palate accustomed from an early age to korma, biryani and jalfrezi, the very localness of Italian food can sometimes make it appear flavourless. In the UK, ethnic influences have trickled down into every aspect of our native cuisine. In the UK, pub and cafés menus all have a richness and diversity that simply doesn't exist in Italy.
In Italy, bars and cafes often lack the imagination to provide anything but the most simple panini. It is difficult to imagine a bar in Manchester or London serving up a slightly stale looking bread with perhaps just a couple of slices of salami or a simple toasty with just cheese and ham on it. No salsa, no dressing, no grains, no spice. No flavour. Nothing. But that's how Italian's like it. Plain and simple. Try offering a coronation chicken sandwich to an Italian, see what kind of response you get!
When I first moved to Verona, I once made the mistake of ordering a mixed grill. Apart from the sheer volume of meat, it's absolute plainness left me cold. And don't get me started on bolito. If ever there is a bland way to cook meat, it is to boil it in water for hours on end. Yet somehow this is considered to be delicacy here in Verona. Give me a vindaloo any day!