A Hermit's Feast
The drive seemed to go on forever, but the fog was as thick and white as cream; it even managed to white out road signs along our way. All I knew was that I was in a taxi bound for the mountains outside of Parma for lunch and wine at a friend of Luca's.
Luca is a taxi driver I met a week into my year-long stay in Parma, Italy. He happened to pick me up twice that week and through bits of my bad Italian and his broken English I managed to communicate that I was a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. From here he launched into a reverent description of his friend; a legendary intellectual, conversationalist, and most importantly a cook. He happened to be going to this friends mountain home the next day for lunch and would I like to come? Of course I found this offer to be golden- an invitation into the home of an esteemed cook. I'm in. See you tomorrow at eleven.
Luca's hulking friend Bruno is also a cabbie and I am surprised to see him occupying the front passenger seat when they pull up outside my apartment in- what else- a taxi. I hop in the back seat next to two bottles of wine, a salumi, and a smoked calciocavallo cheese which I am instructed not to eat because it is for later. Just outside of Parma the fog swallows us and we don't escape until we climb above it onto the mountain. We emerge into a different world from the one we left. The trees are tall, pine, and this world is covered in road-silencing snow. We finally stop in what may qualify as the smallest town in Italy where Luca's friend and former math professor is meeting us in his four-wheel-drive. The taxi shouldn't be risked further up the mountain. It takes about ten minutes for the professor's questionable vehicle to climb down, during which Luca and Bruno smoked four cigarettes each and chatted with great velocity in Italian. It starts to creep into my mind that I will have difficulty following conversation. The four-wheel-drive appears. It is about twenty years old, shedding upholstery, and reeking of wet dog and old cigarettes. The car's owner, Artimedes speaks no English either, so my feeling that ears will be useless today became a hard fact. However my sense of taste would be enough.
We climb further into nowhere for fifteen minutes and Artimedes' dog appears- the sentry of the hermitage. The huge white guard almost blocks the view of the house sitting serenely in the snow with a chimney puffing smoke into the crisp air. We attempt to exchange pleasantries as the wine is opened, the salumi sliced, and the water set to boil, but language is difficult and I just smile a lot. To be generous, the kitchen is Spartan. It clearly is the home of a straight man living alone for a long time. The necessities are all there, with no décor and little attention to tidiness. Artimedes reaches into his tiny freezer and grabs an unlabeled, indistinct jar half filled with a brownish-black grainy paste. Within ten minutes there is a steaming plate of linguine with black olive pesto sitting in front of me. As is typical in Italy, I'm encouraged to eat immediately and not wait for the others to be served. “It's hot now so eat while it's at its best.” This is a cultural phenomenon I wish the rest of the world would accept. I take a bite which transforms the rustic dusty kitchen into a swooning, spinning etherial place where olive pesto shook any skepticism from me. The pasta is al dente to the point of being uncooked, but its firmness plays off the squishy minced olives in a beautiful partnership. While my teeth work the strong linguine noodles, my tongue swirls and savors the delicate black-ripe olives in oil. Artimeded salts the pasta water, but not the sauce, since the olives take care of that. The ingredients are as few as the accoutrements to the man's home, and that allows each to shine. If a taste bud can sense the care with which a dish is prepared, mine knows immediately that Artimedes loves his olives. The pesto was prepared last fall when the olives were at their best, and the olive oil came from the same farm as the olives- a farm that a friend owns in Tuscany. It takes about a half hour of conversation and references to my dizionario for me to understand this small fact- but I became much more interested in this loner on a mountain after the first bite.
A diminuitive man of about fifty years, Artimedes is a chain smoking life-long bachelor whose love of food seems to be in the blood of everyone in Italy. He is a man with thinning hair but admirable charisma, which is easy to see in any language. The way he holds court with the two young taxi drivers reminds me of a sage in a cave taking occasional visitors to bask in his enlightenment. We sit in uncomfortable ladder-backed chairs around an indistinct Formica table for hours. Nine hours. And we enjoy it. After the pasta we start in on the contorni of olives marinated with peppers or onions, bread, oil and more wine. Then the cheese; the calciocavallo Luca brought, and a peccorino Artimedes had purchased for the occasion. And then, after a Tuscan cigar, comes the dolce.
Artimedes prepared for us what is to this day among the best desserts I have had in Italy. It's a simple torta of apple and raisins. This is not something I would usually care for, but his crust is not the paste-like substance that often passes for crust in Italian bakeries. It is sweet, crumbly and buttery and somehow light on the stomach. It also has a reasonable amount of fruit and accompanying caramelized juice to remind you that it is, in fact, the star of the dessert. The raisins had been soaked in an unidentifiable low-alcohol liquor and so are revived to juiciness. The apples are substantial in texture balancing on the precipice between undercooked and mush. The juice respects the boundary of the crust due to its thickness and is just sweet enough. Artimedes swells with pride as we all dive in for seconds. To reward our good taste, he brings out last year's Nocino, a dark brown home-made liquor made from nuts. I don't understand which nuts, but after a couple cordials and a caffe corretto with grappa I find the Nocino's chewy sediment a bit more charming at the base of a glass coated in the syrupy residue. Also newly charming are the two cab drivers who suddenly feel they can sing Frank Sinatra and re-enact action scenes from movies. When Bruno does a startlingly realistic death scene after being shot by an invisible bullet in the chest, I don't flinch. My trepidation from the morning hours vanished, I glance at Artimedes through a cloud of smoke from his latest Tuscan cigar and run to the side of Bruno in his death throes acting as the bereaved widow-to-be.