Our spirits were somewhat lifted by various visits by family from the UK. First Paul’s sister arrived, bearing presents and supplies from “Olde Blighty”. Annie was keen to lend a hand, and we didn’t hesitate in getting her stuck in, indeed the extra pair of hands proved to be most useful.
We began to explore and familiarise ourselves with the boundaries and various tracts of our newly acquired terrain. The land was terraced with numerous ancient dry stone walls and was littered with rocky outcrops and huge curiously shaped limestone boulders which, over centuries, had been eroded and sculpted by ancient water courses.
We had been informed that our grove comprised approximately six hundred olive trees, so Paul and his sister began to map out some of the terraces. As we surveyed the grounds we also discovered that there were numerous varieties of fruit and nut trees such as: orange, lemon, apple, pear, fig, cherry, walnut almond chestnut, prune, apricot, loganberry, “mele cotogne” (quince), “nespole” and “cachi” (persimmon /Sharon fruit). There were also numerous vines which had clearly been neglected for many years.
The area around the house was liberally littered with old rusty bed frames, tangled rusty metal posts, wires and chains, old dented oil barrels, miscellaneous discarded containers and hoses. Also strewn about the site were haphazard piles of old ceramic tiles, roof tiles, broken building blocks and bricks, stone slabs, cracked pieces of marble, all of which we conserved in case they might prove to be useful at a later date. We also gathered some of scattered rocks with the view to constructing some stone walls.
Annie was a real darling, as she treated Paul to an early birthday present, by purchasing a petrol driven generator to help power the caravan until we could get the main electricity supply connected. The chuntering beast was ideal for powering certain tools and would also prove to be a valuable back-up in the case of electrical interruption during thunderstorms.
A few weeks later our next set of visitors arrived in the form of Paul’s father and his travelling companion, Esmé. They stayed at a comfortable little B&B, just a stone’s throw from our rented villa.
We decided to lay on a “Thank You Festa” in a way of expressing our gratitude to some of the kind-hearted Italian friends who had helped and supported us in our endeavours over the past few months.
Esmé, who had lived for several years in France, gave us a cookery lesson in how to prepare and cook mussels. Firstly we went down to the afternoon Fish Market in Gaeta, where one can choose from a superb array of fish and seafood that has just arrived, almost straight off the boats. On arriving back home Esmé began by soaking the fresh mussels overnight in a brine solution to which was added a sprinkling of oatmeal, in order to clean the shell fish, purging them of any sand and grit. The mussels had to be rinsed several times, but not allowed to sit in tap water for any length of time as this would cause them to die. The next day she thoroughly scrubbed the mussel shells to remove any barnacles and carefully scrapped away the tough beards with a knife. Any mussels found to have broken shells were immediately discarded. Esmé then poured a couple of cups of white wine into a large saucepan, to which the mussels were added. The liquid was then brought quickly to the boil in the covered pan, until steam began to emerge from under the lid. The heat was then reduced and the mussels allowed to simmer for about 5 minutes until one by one they began to open. During the cooking Esmé shook the pan vigorously to ensure that the mussels cooked evenly. As they opened Esmé removed them one at a time, whilst leaving the others to steam for another few minutes, and any that failed to open after this time were rejected.
Then holding the mussel shells one by one in a tea towel she opened them fully by inserting a knife and rotating it in a twisting action. She scraped out the cooked shell fish, which she then placed in one half of the open mussel shells that were placed on a prepared baking tray. To some dry breadcrumbs were added some chopped garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and some olive oil. This mixture was then sprinkled over the cooked mussels, which were then drizzled with a little more extra oil. These were then baked in the oven for about 10 minutes until golden brown. They were utterly scrumptious, and went down a treat with our guests. Peppe, Guido’s son, aged just 19, cooked a delectable seafood pasta, consisting of fresh prawns, clams and baby squid. This was followed by meat and fish “alla griglia”, and for dessert we served fresh fruit salad and profiteroles. We all ate “al fresco” out on the terrace and the guests seemed to take pleasure in our little soirée.
Our next visitor was to be our son’s girlfriend who arrived for a week’s holiday, so we took the opportunity to be “tourists” for a few days and explore the surrounding area. We drove inland, through the Aurunci and Ausoni Mountains, and onward through rich, verdant pastures to reach the hill-top village of Pastena, in the province of Frosinone. Here we took refuge from the blistering sun by visiting a system of caves, which had only been discovered in 1927, which are considered to be some of the most interesting natural grottos in Italy. We were transfixed by the spectacular rock formations, underground lakes, cascades, water courses, stalactites and stalagmites. I could never quite remember which were which – until I learned the rhyme – I think it goes …“Mights grow up, and tights fall down”!!! We also walked through a chamber, an abode of a huge colony of bats, some of which swooped down and fluttered unnervingly around our ears.
The tour also included a visit to the Museo dell Civilità Contadina e Dell Ulivo, situated in the walled town of Pastena itself. This museum of rural life is housed in a palazzo which was once the home and ancient olive mill or “frantoio” of the Trani family. Among the interesting exhibits are the original old mill stone, press and an assortment of tools and implements associated with agriculture, animal husbandry, basket making, weaving of linen, and the production of wine and cheese. Also there are examples of traditional clothes and costumes, local crafts and musical instruments.
I was particularly interested in the exhibits of the “zambogna”, and “ciaramella”, which were forms of bag-pipe, typically played by the local shepherds of the“Ciociaria” region. This music and its associated songs were traditionally heard at such times as harvest celebrations and Christmastime.
“Ciociaria”, the area from which my grandparents originated,derived its name from the unusual type of ancient footwear, “cioce”, that was traditionally worn by its people – a form of strapped leather sandals with curious looking curled toes.