Sunday, 25 September 2011

Love and food in the Apennines 4

Grand opera meets jam and Jerusalem

The long awaited announcement
Il maestro torna a casa, says the headline in the newspaper being read by the man at the next table in the more popular of the two coffee shops in the square in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. When he leaves, we pick up the paper and pick our way through the Italian. It transpires that il maestro is the operatic genius Giacomo Puccini and tomorrow is the grand opening, with open air concert,  of the house in Lucca where he was born. 

What greater incentive could there be for tearing ourselves away from the terrace and the views and the pool and make that long awaited expedition to Lucca.  Despite not being able to identify on either of our city maps the location of the Piazza San Lorenzo, where Puccini’s house is sited and where the open air concert is taking place, we set off.

On reaching Lucca’s impressive ramparts that completely encircle the city, we find somewhere to park and have the right change for a four hour stay. By chance, the nearest gate into the city is the Porta Elisa, named after Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi whose story I recounted last year. (Elisa Bonaparte and Lucca). She commissioned the construction of the gate in 1804, piercing the eastern wall that had been kept intact for defence against Florentine invasion since the 16th Century.

The walls saved the city of Lucca in 1812 when a massive flood of the Serchio River inundated the valley. Elisa was governing Lucca at the time from her villa outside the walls, and when she tried to get into the city for safety, the people didn't want to open the gates for fear of the surging waters. Lest they let their princess (and, more important, the sister of Europe's emperor) drown, they hoisted her highness over the walls rather unceremoniously with the help of a crane. Like most of Elisa's life, the tale is reminiscent of grand opera - a reverse of Tosca throwing herself over the battlements.  

Local audience
 We find a city map that pinpoints Piazza San Lorenzo and after a little while we simply follow the sound of music through the mediaeval streets,. An orchestra, resplendent in full uniform, is playing under the hot sun in front of a fine bronze statue of Puccini in a square crowded with attentively listening people. We manage to find two chairs at a pavement café, all the tablecloths printed with Il Maestro torna a casa, and order the local speciality of lemon sorbet floating on chilled sparkling mineral water. 
All ears and standing room only
A succession of local dignitaries and representatives of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, who acquired the house and paid for its restoration, give speeches before the orchestra completes the concert with a rousing rendition of the Te Deum from Tosca followed by that universal crowd pleaser, Nessun Dorma from Turandot.

Buoyed by the celebratory atmosphere and a reminder of wonderful musicianship, we explore more of the fascinating city before returning home in fine spirits to find another of Natalina’s baskets on the doorstep. This time in addition to tomatoes and grapes, there are 1.5 kilos of fresh and very ripe figs. Not the large black figs that are sold individually at an exorbitant price in the UK, but smaller brown figs with pale creamy stripes which reveal wonderful juicy, pinkish purple seeds and flesh. 

Even the most dedicated fig fan (husband is definitely not) would have difficulty in consuming this quantity but I  cannot bring myself to throw away such bounty.  I have one large glass jar with a screw top, a full bag of sugar and a couple of lemons, so it's time to make jam. Of course there will be room in the suitcase......

Fig jam
1.5 kilos of figs, washed with stems removed
500 gm granulated sugar
juice and grated zest of one large lemon

Put all ingredients into a large pan and bring slowly to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and then let cook gently for about an hour until the fruit is soft and breaking up. Test for a set and pour into hot sterilised jars. 

The mixture filled a 687gm jar  plus a dish that held a further 300gm and which we ate fresh, keeping it in the fridge. The lemon juice and zest gives a welcome sharpness to the rich, sweet fruit. Highly recommended for regularising holiday digestive systems - and tastes good too!
Freshly pressed grape juice and fig jam.

Photographs by Rod and Sandi

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