Friday, July 28, 2017

Murder in Matera

Inspiration comes from many sources. The inspiration for tonight’s dinner came from a book I finished this morning, 'Murder in Matera' by Helene Stapinski. It’s not fiction, but it does contain the elements of a mystery: the book is a story about a murder in rural Basilicata in the late 1800s. The author grew up with family stories about Vita, her great-great grandmother, who had supposedly killed someone in a provincial southern Italian town and then had run away to the US.

We’re a country of immigrants and we all grew up with family stories, many of them filled with sadness and hardship, of why our great-grandparents emigrated to a new country. Few of us have ancestors who left their homelands because they were wealthy or ensconced in comfort. On the contrary. Our ancestors ran from military service; left home and family because no matter how much they worked, the wealth flowed to landowners who exploited the poor to squeeze out the last bit of money and life; or simply lost their homes to war.

Most of us don’t go back to our ancestral homes to find out what really happened. Stapinski was haunted by the stories her mother and grandmother had passed down to her. And like all families, her mother’s tales also included the exploits of a number of unsavory characters. Stapinski worried that these wayward relatives and the ‘original sin’ of her great-great grandmother had tainted Stapinki’s children. Would they too commit crimes because they had ‘criminal’ genes?

Stapinski’s first trip to her great-great grandmother’s home town in Basilicata resolved none of her questions. She could find no one who remembered stories similar to her own and had no success when she tried to locate official records. She returned home only with frustration and questions.

Ten years later she returned to Italy, and this time was prepared to tackle local archives and records. She enlisted the help of several people who understood the history of Basilicata and were able to help her research old records. She found more records than she had ever believed possible and was able to piece together Vita’s story, her early years growing up in a poor family, her marriage in Basilicata, and her eventual emigration to Jersey City, New Jersey. A story emerges of a strong, determined woman, a woman who persisted, despite the disease, poverty, and hopelessness of her homeland.

Pasta con fagiolini
I finished the book this morning, but I was not ready to pull myself away from Basilicata. The book, which also included descriptions of a meal or two, left me remembering the flavors that are so much a part of the southern Italian landscape. 

Toward the end of the book, Stapinski mentioned a local recipe for pasta con fagiolini (pasta with beans). I googled it and found a perfect summer recipe: green beans sautéed with onions and simmered in tomatoes, then tossed with whole-grain spaghetti. So, that’s what I made tonight.

Papaya salad
Green beans were abundant in the market this morning, as were San Marzano tomatoes. I also found a chunk of pecorino, a tangy sheep’s cheese. I tossed in a bit of fennel pollen, too—which I don’t think is inappropriate because wild fennel grows abundantly throughout southern Italy. I topped the pasta with grated pecorino. I added a papaya-cucumber salad to round out the meal, an addition that Vita would have found impossibly exotic, and most likely would not have approved. But despite such 'embroideries' on my part, as I ate, I still felt immersed in Basilicata’s history, in Vita’s life, and in 'Murder in Matera' for a bit longer.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Throughout the Werdenfelser Land in September, the subtle seasonal changes that begin in mid-August become more pronounced. Dried leaves drift from trees and the sun makes shorter, less frequent appearances. The klingel-klangel of sheep, goat and cow bells announces the animals, sleek and plump from grazing through the summer on a diet of grasses and flowers on mountain meadows. They trot through town, on their way to  smaller pastures where they will graze for the next month or so until cold weather finally forces them into barns for the winter. This is the season for the Almabtrieb in southern Bavaria. 

The sheep returned to Garmisch early this past Sunday and by 10 a.m., they had been herded into temporary pens in the center of town for the Schafpraemierung--a sheep show and judging.  As I walked through the pedestrian zone, I could hear the bleating and baa-ing of the sheep as they puzzled over their temporary quarters and complained about the impending shearing, also on the day’s schedule. 

When I walked into the square, the priest was saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the safe return. After he finished, he walked by the pens, blessing the animals with sprinkles of Holy Water. Then the day’s main event, the sheep show, with its judging and awards, started and the beer tent opened.

Lamb and sheep bells

Although the sheep were the main attraction, several artisans demonstrated crafts associated with raising sheep. One man from Sudtirol, the northernmost part of Italy just south of the Austrian border, sold hand-crafted bells for sheep and goats--these sturdy bells are meant to be hung around the animals’ necks so the shepherd can find lost members of the flock even in foggy weather. The bells vary in size, from small ones intended for new-borns to a substantial size for the bocks.

Even more impressive than the bells, he had also crafted sheep-sized collars (they also fit goats) as well as much larger collars for cattle. Farmers ‘dress' their animals for a festive entrance into town in these neck pieces, which are decorated with  intricate carvings and metal designs, as well as incised motifs. In addition, the animals often wear bouquets or garlands of Alpine flowers--they’re truly the fashionistas of the animal world.

Franz Greber, an organic farmer who raises endan-
gered breeds of sheep, demon-strated making felt, a heavy, water-repellent material used locally to make hats and slippers. 

First, he laid a sheet of carded wool flat on a table. On top, he placed a hat-shaped pattern and folded over all the edges of the wool to completely encase the pattern. Greber splashed the fluffed wool with hot water and sprinkled on a few drops of a natural soap. “You must work the wet wool  gently with the fingertips until the wool compacts,” he explained in his Bavarian-accented German. “The fibers must be evenly distributed around the pattern, which is now sealed inside the wool." 

He handed the now triangular-shaped cloth to his helper, a young neighbor, who pressed the wool repeatedly with a rolling pin over a washboard, to further flatten and compact it. 

After the rolling, Greber took over again, continuing to press and smooth the wool flat on a table, still adding dribbles of soap and water. Then, he, too, used a rolling pin to make the fibers contract into the proper shape. Eventually, when the wool was sufficiently dense, he used scissors to snip what will be the brim of the hat open and removed the form. 

Finally, he shaped the nascent hat over a wooden form until eventually the finished hat emerged.  The end product, the natural color of Greber's rare local braune Bergschafen sheep, is guaranteed to protect a shepherd’s head from the winds and cold that blow from the high mountain pastures into the valley.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Mountains Glow

The mountains change constantly, and I glance out the window frequently throughout the day to see if I am missing anything. The best time to look is just before the sun sets--when the sun’s rays reflect above the horizon to create a red glow on the mountains--Alpenglühen.

These photos were taken just before sunset, so it isn’t truly Alpenglühen, but it still looks dramatic!