A Mini Epic of my Own to Start Off the New Year
Up until February last year, one of my jobs included greeting small groups of visitors, mostly foreign, at Frascati’s train station, leading them for an hour-long walkabout of the town, sitting them down to a glass of wine with a nibble of Frascati’s famed white pizza (the store that bakes it, Ceralli, with a wood-fired oven, dates back to 1920), and then accompanying them to the Minardi wine estate, a small family-run winery, only a few minutes car drive away.
There followed a traipse through the vineyards with explanations pertaining to volcanic soil, grape varietals, training methods and yield and more bla-bla-bla regarding the vital-statistics of wine making, before finally sitting them down to lunch and serving them wine. Guests could also choose between a pizza making class and a fresh pasta lesson in lieu of the gander about the town.
Most people on holiday are in a good mood (especially those who look forward to wine and drink) and nearly all the people I met over the two years were friendly and polite, whatever their age, whatever their background, and whatever their income. Before being invited by Alfredo Minardi to join his team back in September 2017, I had already run a few tours of my own, so to speak, in the course of my cooking classes. People like to go shopping for food and wine, and frolicking among the stalls of outdoor food markets. I had looked up some background history and found it fascinating but it wasn’t altogether essentially germane to the cooking class per se whereas the Minardi experience had to be specifically about Frascati’s history and its place in the wine world, dating back to ancient Roman times – and even earlier.
Well, I ask you: how do you cover over two thousand years of history in less than one hour and, most important, keep your audience interested? A little daunting, wouldn’t you say?
The trickiest part for me was figuring out whom I was dealing with right from the very start. And so, after a brief introduction about myself as part of the welcome spiel, I would ask them their names, enquire about their relationships, what kind of work they were in, and where they came from, as we made our way up some very steep steps from the station to the town’s promenade overlooking Rome in the distance. Not easy as all those steps made one get out of breath. You can see the two sets of stairs in the black-and-white photo below.
With my unmistakably English accent, fair skin and once-blond hair, it was a bit of a feat convincing them that I was the real deal, Italian (albeit only half), indeed very much a local.
I made sure we visited the town’s famous “Bar degli Specchi” café, which was started in 1911 by my grandfather’s brother – which is also where, together with the town’s beloved confectioners “Purificato”, Frascati’s other claim to fame besides wine was first sold, just after the second World War: it is a biscuit depicting a female figure with three breasts – two for milk and one for wine. Great for teething babies, not so great for grown-ups who might chip a tooth on one! The recipe consists of just plain flour and honey basically. The biscuit comes with a name “la pupazza frascatana”.
Not infrequently, Frascati being what it is in size, I chanced into people I know and whom I always acknowledged and greeted, exchanging a few words. This was very helpful in backing my local yokel credentials. It’s hard to be anonymous in a small town.
The thing about guiding is that you have to keep your wits about you at all times as you steer. And you definitely want to avoid being a Little Bo Peep about it. I made a point of keeping an eye on my “ sheep’s “ body language, seeking out and distinguishing among the shy, the bored and the physically jaded or resigned tag-alongs; also, the nit-pickers, the brash look-at-me-look-at-me , the over excitable and the woeful cynics. Whenever I heard a giggle or saw a smile break out, that’s when I knew I was doing a good job. And yes, there was that dreaded ‘wall of silence’ too on occasion, in which no amount of cajoling on my part drew any response. Not unless you count a glazed look as a response. Not all were fluent English speakers and that meant I had to ssssslooooow down my recital, and choose my words more carefully, avoid jargon. And some did not have, to my regret, much sense of humour – these were the difficult clients. Italian and Spanish are similar and so I somehow managed to convey quite a lot to a group of Spanish speaking clients during lunch until it came to pecorino cheese, made from ewe’s milk. I knew the word for cheese was “queso”. But I didn’t know the word for lamb or sheep. So I started bleating like crazy “baaa baaa meh meh meh” I improvised. They got it. All was well. Playing it by ear, winging it, tweaking – these are all qualities to be developed if you want to make people feel welcome. The one-size-fits-all approach to tourism is the one I detest. I can honestly say that, whatever my mood or worries on any given day, I did my best to do my best for these clients. After all, they had paid to have a good and pleasant experience and that, no matter who they were, was what they deserved.
“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short”, Shakespeare.
In my excitement to present as full a historical picture as possible, I realised straight away that I would risk boring some of the people to tears. Information overwhelm is easy to succumb to, as we all know. It was imperative that I find a way to make Frascati’s history and Who’s Who List appetising even for those who had the poorest of grasps on history. And the logical conclusion I came to was to devise a way of presenting the storyline and facts almost like the plot of a history soap opera, caricaturising the protagonists somewhat.
Here is an approximate list of notables whose tales were worthy of mention: the mythical Dioscuri twins Castor and Pollux (you wouldn’t believe the antics they got up to in the battle of 496 BC that took place down the road from the Minardi winery), a Tusculan tyrant, the last of Rome’s Etruscan kings, a few Roman statesmen and philosophers, inventors, popes, princes, British royalty, Grand Tour painters including Turner, Goethe (who lived in Frascati for three months) and Nazi leaders from World War II (which got Frascati thoroughly bombed twice by the Allies).
Whilst I couldn’t expect most people to have heard of Pope Paul III Farnese pictured above, for instance (and by the way neither had I until a few years ago), just as I couldn’t expect North Americans to be intimately acquainted with Bonnie Prince Charlie, picture my disappointment and dismay, instead, when I discovered it was many English (young English it must be noted) who had never heard of Mary, Queen of Scots! At times, I was thankful for the TV Series “Outlander” (which I have still to watch) because some people were well acquainted with it.
My biggest ‘disappointment’, however, was a thirty-year old Canadian who had never heard of Napoleon. (Napoleon’s favourite sibling, his sister Pauline, was married to Frascati’s Prince Aldobrandini – so this prince turned out to be Napoleon’s brother in law; also, Napoleon’s brother Prince Lucien lived just above Frascati for two years in a beautiful villa that is now a hotel). I remember gasping inwardly when this young man asked me who Napoleon was. But once I got over my intellectual ‘shock’, I became rather sad. It wasn’t the poor bloke’s fault he hadn’t heard of Napoleon! (And, by the way, I had responded very nicely to his question, no hint of condescension whatsoever, just a factual “a very important French military man and then leader and emperor”, something like that.) Regrettable though that man’s ignorance was, the real issue was all about school curricula and general knowledge. And I wasn’t about to shame him or any other person who has not had the good fortune to have access to what used to be called a ‘good school education’.
All this to say that I am immodestly proud that I managed to prick the interest of quite a few otherwise uninterested people by my soap-opera approach to local history. Which just goes to show how making lessons more fun might encourage pupils to become better engrossed in the history of humankind. People are people are people and have always been people, beautiful qualities and warts and all. I have to thank this young Canadian for making me realise just how ignorant I too am! My knowledge of much of history is scant to say the very least, and/or very Wikipedia-deep – and for shame those who fingerpoint to its superficiality!
Which is how I come, now, to the reason behind this post’s title (I can just picture you sighing “And about bloody time too!).
There is a Scottish journalist living in Nemi, the name of a town and volcanic lake which is about a twenty-minute car drive from Frascati. Her name is Margaret Stenhouse. I had the good fortune of meeting her in person just recently but had read her biography of Henry Benedict, Duke of York.
Prince Henry Benedict outlived his brother Bonnie Prince Charlie and was the last direct descendant of the Stuart male line, who had lived in Frascati for the better part of 40 years. A beautifully written book, which I can highly recommend and which would make a great docu-film; it chronicles the two-year period which saw the Duke, who was a cardinal and Bishop of Frascati, having to run away from Napoleon’s troops encroaching on Rome.
Margaret Stenhouse has also written a book about the Goddess of Lake Nemi, Diana, and of the legend inspired by tales of solitary forest warrior-kings keeping watch over her sacred groves. It was a visit to this very lake that had inspired the anthropologist Sir John George Frazer to write “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion”. (Diana was the Roman name for the Greek Godess Artemis, twin sister to Apollo).
Anyway, I began reading her book shortly before Christmas and the more I read about antiquity and myths and gods, the more I felt I had to get a better grounding in the Classics.
And guess what? I started reading The Odyssey. Beat that. At the tender age of 64. Never say never, and all that. I’ve seen TV renditions of The Odyssey, and I am sure I must have read a child-friendly abridged version when I was a kid. One way or another, we’ve all heard about Penelope and Odysseus, and the one-eyed man-eating giant Cyclopes … the Homeric tales, The Iliad and The Odyssey … they are part and parcel of our whole Western culture for goodness sakes. So many of the most famous paintings and statues in the West are all about the antics of the Greek and/or Roman Gods and Godesses. It really was time, for me at least, to get more acquainted with them. I’ve even started jotting down notes putting their family tree together, the genealogy is head-scratching stuff!
I’ve got to the part in The Odyssey when Odysseus finally lands back in Ithaca. The thing that has struck me most in this epic tale so far is … well… the sheer amount of words dedicated to eating and drinking! Those ancient Greeks liked their nosh and wine! Seriously, I kid you not, every single chapter goes on and on about banqueting, the washing of hands before a meal, the butchering of some animal in sacrifice to the Gods and which then of course gets eaten by the mortals, and the mixing and the pouring of wine! Interesting to know that wine was drunk at breakfast too. But then, it was often in those days mixed with water and honey. There is much talk of eating bread, fish and hogs/sheep/goats/heifers/bulls, olive oil, fruit but no vegetables. Fancy that. Also, there is no mention of chicken. Or eggs. Someone told me fish would have been eaten by the poorer echelons in that society. Things have changed since then, at least in this country – fresh fish comes at a premium!
One episode in particular brought a smile to my face, and this was the tale of how naughty Aphrodite and her lover Ares got ensnared in a magical, invisible net wrought by Aphrodite’s jealous and cuckolded husband, poor lame Hephaestus. When I say ‘poor’, I mean that kindly because he’s not exactly a sympathetic character and one wonders what prompted the dazzling Aphrodite to even think of marrying him! Anyway, once the Gods had had a good laugh at Ares and Aphrodite in their naked amorous pickle, they decided to unloosen the net and Aphrodite repairs to Paphos, on the island of Cyprus. Which was the cause for my smile.
You see, a long time ago, my (Scottish) stepfather decided that he would like to spend his retirement between English-speaking Cyprus and Frascati. This was before he divorced my mother and married his much younger secretary in Pakistan, in a ‘classic’ older-powerful-man-younger-woman situation. It has to be said that my mother had never taken to Cyprus to begin with, meaning, she thought it lovely and all that as a place to visit, but not as a place in which to make one’s abode. That and she hates islands! Hell hath no lament as that of my mother forced to spend time on an island! She and my sisters had spent six months living on the Channel Island of Jersey at a time when civil war between East and West Pakistan had uprooted our father’s work in East Pakistan, and he had sent them to live there for the time being as he sought work elsewhere. I was at boarding school at the time, in England. To this day, the very mention of Jersey will cue my mother to start an impassioned diatribe on the horrors of living on an island. Cabin fever in the extreme. I, on the other hand, just loved Jersey because it meant I could telephone my mother every day if I wanted to, and that I got to spend two half-term breaks with my her and my sisters rather than with friends (lovely and very kind friends, with whom I am still in touch today – but family is family). Same thing re Cyprus. Daddy bought a lovely villa on the hills in the background of Paphos and when one is on holiday, what’s not to love? That and I love swimming in the sea. One of my favourite holidays ever was a July spent in Paphos in 1981.
They say that Aphrodite was washed ashore on Paphos, brought in by the huge shell she was born in from the foam of the sea. In the bay of Paphos there are some clumps of rock, one of which is called Petra tou Romiou.
Legend had it that if a young girl swam around it three times, she would find her husband within a few months. And so, nothing loath, I embarked on the vigorous swim around that rock, three times, as per instructions. And by the way, this is not as easy as it sounds, the sea is very choppy there. But yes. Yes indeed, just two months later, in September 1981, I met my future husband. “Other popular myths tell that swimming around the rock three times will bring various blessings, including eternal youth and beauty, good luck, fertility and true love.”
I wonder why the Cypriot Tourist Board does not advertise this legend more! Not sure about the ‘eternal beauty’ bit but it worked for me in finding a spouse. So maybe, who knows, my husband and I should go to Paphos some time and show our gratitude to Aphrodite. Meanwhile, closer to home, I’ve got Diana to check out at Lake Nemi.
All these thoughts about myths and gods and Classical times got me thinking about what to prepare for our new year’s dinner.
You will forgive me if I make as little mention as possible about what 2020 was all about. For each single one of us. Suffice it to say that instead of a party or of going out, ours was a very homey affair. Four of us: my recently widowed father in law, my next-door neighbour Rossella (we live on the same landing and see each other every day, so we consider ourselves covid ‘family’ bubble whereas we might stay away from other friends and family for covid mitigation measures) and my husband and me.
I decided to go classic French menu. Rossella brought same savoury crepes and made spinach according to my mother’s 1950s very Francophile recipe (aka loads of cream). I made coq au vin. And we drank a bottle of Pommard given to us by some neighbours a few years ago, which we had not drunk in anticipation of a ‘special occasion’. I think that seeing the back of 2020 was a very special occasion indeed. For the whole world and not just for us.
Happy New Year Everyone !
Forno a Legna Ceralli, Frascati
Bar degli Specchi, Frascati
Pasticceria Purificato, Frascati
Azienda Agricola Minardi