Giornata della Donna~Franca Viola


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Auguri per la Festa della Donna! Today is la Giornata Internazionale della Donna or International Women’s Day-originally known as International Working Women’s Day. There is no one specific organization or event behind International Women’s Day, but it is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day to recognize the achievements of women and a call to action towards gender equality.  More about la festa della donna is in this post.

I thought today would be appropriate to write about an outstanding, courageous woman, and I have chosen Franca Viola.  In 1965 Franca was the first Italian woman to refuse to accept un matrimonio riparatore – a rehabilitating or reparative marriage. This was a situation where all charges of rape, sexual assault and/or abduction were dropped if the offender married his victim. This was legal! The assumption was that no one else would want the woman anyways, thus ‘restoring’ the family. Mannaggia! ‘Marry the rapist’ laws and practices were common in many parts of the world until the 1970s and unfortunately still exist in too many countries.

Franca was the daughter of contadini in Alcamo, Sicilia. In 1963, she was 15 and had a 23 year old boyfriend Filippo Melodia, the nephew a local mafioso. She broke off the relationship when he was arrested for theft. He left the country and returned in 1965, thinking he could just resume their relationship. Franca refused, in fact she had a new boyfriend, her future husband Giuseppe Ruisi.

Melodia was furious and threatened Franca, her family and Giuseppe. The evening of December 26 1965, he and a dozen others invaded the Viola house. They beat her mother and dragged Franca away. She was taken to a farmhouse and for 8 days Melodia repeatedly raped her, telling her she would have to marry him to avoid dishonouring her family and becoming una donna svergognata –a shameless woman. Her father worked with the carabinieri to organize a rescue. On January 2 1966, Franca was released and the kidnappers arrested.

As expected, Melodia offered un matrimonio riparatore, expecting the law support him. Contrary to Sicilian custom at the time, Franca publicly refused. With the support of her father, she took Melodia to court for kidnapping, rape and intimidation. Her family received threats and their barn and vineyard were burned down. The December 1966 trial received worldwide attention, including coverage by the New York Times.

Melodia’s defence claimed he was love sick and the feeling was mutual.   He claimed that Franca’s family did not approve of their marriage and that the kidnapping was a consentual elopement. Franca denied the claim, stating:

 Io non sono proprietà di nessuno, nessuno può costringermi ad amare una persona che non rispetto, l’onore lo perde chi le fa certe cose, non chi le subisce”. (I am the property of no one, no one can force me to love a person I do not respect. Honour is lost by the one who does certain things, not the one who is subjected to them).

Melodia was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was murdered in Modena 2 years after his release. 7 of his accomplices also received 4 year prison sentences.

Franca Viola became a symbol of freedom and dignity for all women who endured violence, and her example provided others with the courage to say ‘NO’. Her case led to the abolishment of Articolo 544, the article of law where a rapist/kidnapper avoided prosecution by marrying the victim. In December 1968, Franca married Giuseppe who supported her through the trial. They still live in Alcamo with their family.

On International Women’s Day 2014, Franca received the honour of ‘Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana’. President Giorgio Napolitano awarded her with this for her courageous gesture in refusing the matrimonio riparatore, which signalled a fundamental change in the history of the emancipation of women in Italia.

Ciao, Cristina

Photo credits-Cover photo and portrait of Franca Viola-Wikimedia Commons, second photo of Franca from with graphics added by Cristina.

Grano Arso in print!


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Italian Canadiana Vol 32 2018 Grano Arso Cristina Pepe www.unpodipepe.caMy presentation from the September 2017 ‘Italians in Canada: 150+ years’ 31st anniversary AICW conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario has been published!  The proceeds of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers Conference is a special edition of the University of Toronto journal Italian Canadiana (Vol 32 2018). This is not my first publication, but it is the first one that is not about diabetes!

Grano Arso is about a Pugliese gastronomic tradition that honours the resilience of our contadini ancestors. The conference proceedings are not available online, but if you have not already done so, read my 2015 post Grano Arso . It is not exactly the same as the publication, but contains similar information and photos.  There has been an increase in views of my post.  This may be due to the publication, or because there is not much written in English on the topic. I made some taralli di grano arso for my presentation and carried them with me on the plane to Ontario. Taralli di grano arso www.unpodipepe.caOther conference presentations included The evolution of the Italian grocery store, Representations of Italian Canadian Internment during WWII, Italianismi e pseudoitalianismi, and Documenting Italiese, which I will write more about in another post. Creative writing readings by Italocanadese authors included short stories, poetry and excerpts from books and a graphic novel. I reviewed one of the books here.

I don’t know if they have many copies left, but they can be ordered by contacting the Frank Iacobucci Center for Italian Canadian Studies c/o Dept of Italian Studies, University of Toronto 100 St. Joseph St.  Toronto, Ontario M5S 1J4 or contact

The next AICW conference will be in Italia in 2020.  Details will be available soon!

Ciao, Cristina

San Valentino ❤️


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La festa degli innamorati, la festa di San Valentino….people either love Valentine’s Day or think it is just una festa consumista – a consumeristic ‘Hallmark Holiday’.  The festa has been around for a long time, but what do we know about San Valentino?

February 14th was declared St Valentine’s feast day in 496 AD by Pope Galerius, but the history and reason why is obscure.  The saint’s relics are apparently in churches all over Europe, including Terni, Vienna, Malta, Poland, Dublin, Madrid, Prague, Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Santa Prassede in Roma.  How is this possible?  I know some people are big boned, but how many bones did he have?

Well…. there are at least 11 Saints named Valentino, including one woman, Valentina of Palestine, and a Pope who lasted only 40 days.  That would explain all the bones!  There were so many of them that their stories got mixed together.  At least 2 of these ‘Valentini’ died on Feb 14th around the year 270 AD.  One was a priest in Roma and one was the Bishop of Terni in Umbria.  There are enough similarities between these 2 that they could have been the same person, moving from Terni to Roma.  They both died as a result of their faith near the Ponte Milvio and Via Flaminia, which coincidentally is the road that leads to Umbria!

San Valentino the priest of Roma was known for performing marriages. Emperor Claudius II needed soldiers to fight his many military pursuits. He believed that soldiers would perform better on the battlefield if they did not have spouses, so he banned marriage.  Another version is that Christians, who were persecuted at the time, were forbidden to marry.  Valentino secretly married soldiers and/or Christians.  This landed him in prison. He is also said to have cut hearts out of parchment to give to the couples he married to remind them of their vows.

The Bishop of Terni was arrested for evangelizing. The Roman judge Asterius decided to test him by asking that he restore his blind daughter’s vision.  Her sight was restored and Asterius released the Bishop from prison.  Valentino went right back to performing illegal marriages, and was sentenced to death. Before his execution, he left a note for Asterius’ daughter signed ‘from your Valentine’.

The bishop of Terni was also known for providing a dowry for a poor girl so that she could marry the man she loved. With this act, he came to be the protector of innamorati.

San Valentino became associated with being a champion for amore, young lovers, engaged couples and marriage and we can thank him for Valentine’s cards and flowers.  He is also the patron saint of epilepsy, beekeeping, the plague and travelling!  What an interesting combination! We do not know if these stories are fatto o finzione-fact or fiction, but like it or not, Valentine’s Day has been celebrated and associated with devotion and love since the 14th Century.Auguri per la festa di San Valentino.  Baci e abbracci, Cristina

This post is written as part of the dolcevitabloggers linkup, hosted by Jasmine, Kelly and Kristie the 3rd Sunday of the month.  Click here to check out what the rest of the Dolce Vita bloggers have written on this month’s topic ‘Romance in Italy’.

Image credit:  Il Bacio, 1859 Francesco Hayez from Wikimedia Commons.


Pio Monte della Misericordia


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Pio Monte della Misericordia (Pious mount of mercy) is a charitable organization founded in 1601 by seven young noblemen in Napoli.  Every Friday they met at the hospital to minister to the sick.  400 years later, the organization is still in operation, assisting minors at risk, those struggling with addiction, unaccompanied migrant minors, disadvantaged families, the homeless and the terminally ill.

In 1602, the founders commissioned a small octagonal church on Via dei Tribunali. They wanted artwork to express their sense of charitable mission, which was guided by le sette opere di misericordia, the seven corporal works of mercy.  These are a set of compassionate acts concerning the material needs of others, based on the bible passage ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me.  I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ Matthew 25:35:36.  Bury the dead was added later and comes from another scripture.

They hired, who else but Caravaggio to paint one of the seven works of mercy for the altar of each of 7 chapels. Caravaggio was either in a big rush or feeling like a challenge, because he incorporated all 7 onto 1 canvas!  The capolavoro is one of the most important of his works, and of the 17th Century.  It still hangs in its original position above the high central altar! Seven local Caravaggio followers, including Luca Giordano, Fabrizio Santafede and Battistello Caracciolo provided paintings for the chapels.Caravaggio Sette opere di misericordia Pio Monte della misericordia

The composition is realistic, complex and dramatic. At the top of the painting, 2 angels are supporting the Madonna di Misericordia and child in the air.  The bottom half features figures carrying out the acts of mercy.  On the right, from the myth Roman Charity, Pero secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is imprisoned and sentenced to death by starvation. (feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned).  Behind the wall of the prison, 2 men carry a shrouded body with the feet dangling out of the blanket (bury the dead). On the left, St Martin de Tours comforts the injured beggar in the foreground (comfort the sick).  He tears his cloak and gives half to the naked beggar (clothe the naked). In the background, a pilgrim with a shell in his hat asks an innkeeper for shelter (shelter the traveler) and behind them, Samson drinks from the jawbone of a donkey (give drink to the thirsty). All of this action is taking place in a dark, mysterious vicolo, an alley that could be just around the corner. Caravaggio uses his signature strong contrasts of light and dark chiaroscuro, the bright light acting as a metaphor for mercy.

Caravaggio came to Napoli with a price on his head, on the run from a murder charge. He was idolized and successful in Napoli, but he was desperate for a pardon, so after only a year, he left Napoli for Malta where he thought the Knights of St John could help him. This may explain his decision to incorporate all of the works of mercy into one painting!  As discussed in this post, it has also been confirmed that he had lead poisoning.  Caravaggio understood Napoli like no other painter and had a profound influence on the artistic scene in the city for the next few centuries.  He left behind a lot of followers-the Caravaggesque movement.

The €7 admission includes a visit to the Quadreria- Art Gallery, which contains 15th-18th Century paintings by Napoletani artists and also the original receipt for 400 ducats paid to Caravaggio.  Via dei Tribunali 253, Napoli. Open Mon-Sat 09-18, Sunday 09-14:30Pio Monte della Misericordia

Images:  Scan of Le Sette Opere di Misericordia taken from the Pio Monte della Misericordia brochure.  Photo of me with the painting taken by another visitor to the church.  He said I looked so excited he had to take my photo!

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli


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Christ Stopped at EboliCristo si è Fermato a Eboli’ /Christ Stopped at Eboli is Carlo Levi’s memoir about his year as a political prisoner in Basilicata in 1935-36. Levi (pronounced LEV∙ee) was a doctor, writer and artist from a wealthy Jewish family in Torino.  He was exiled to Aliano*, a small village in Basilicata for his Anti-fascist views and writing. Eboli is south of Napoli, where the road forks inland and the railway does not. The title is a local expression suggesting that even Christ didn’t make it as far as Basilicata so they are a God forsaken land beyond civilization and beyond hope. Obviously the Mussolini government agreed, since their strategy to silence outspoken critics was house arrest in the south! Levi comes into contact with profound poverty, distrust, class differences, spells and superstition in a remote, neglected part of Italia.

Levi graduated from medical school in 1924 and did 4 years of lab research, but had not actually practiced medicine on humans.  He was not keen on practicing, but reluctantly did so, since the 2 doctors in Aliano were incompetent and lacked any compassion. The people did not fully understand him or why he was there, often commenting ‘someone in Rome must have it in for you’.  Levi comes to empathize with the peasants, becoming a much loved member of the community.

Published in 1945 after the liberation of Italia, Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was an immediate hit with both the public and critics. It gave the people a voice and brought attention to the region, including the socioeconomic problems and political neglect. 

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli /Christ Stopped at Eboli is required reading before visiting Matera, the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Near the beginning of the book, Carlo’s sister Luisa, a practicing doctor, visits and brings medical supplies. She needs a form stamped at the police station in Matera before she is allowed to see him. Luisa describes the Sassi as:

a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno’…….‘I felt, under the blinding sun as if I were in a city stricken by the plague. I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. ..This is how 20,000 people live!

There was a 50% infant mortality rate, malaria, dysentery and trachoma. Carlo spends a few hours in Matera near the end of the book and says:

I had time to see the town and then I understood my sister’s horror, although at the same time I was struck by it’s tragic beauty’.

Matera’s situation continued on unnoticed- until the 1945 release of this book. If you have not read my Matera post, please click on ‘I Sassi di Matera’.

I have read this book in both english and italian. If I had to pick a favourite Italian book or book about Italy, this is it. It is very philosophical and it is obvious from Levi’s writing and paintings that this experience affected him profoundly. He writes with great sensitivity and his paintings from Basilicata show an unbelievable amount of emotion and humanity.  The paintings are on permanent display in the Museo di Arte Medievale e Moderna in Palazzo Lanfranchi, Matera and in the Museo della Civiltà Contadina in Aliano.  Levi fought for social justice and went on to become a Senator of the Italian Republic. He is buried in Aliano, where he had requested to be ‘between the peasants’ whose endurance he so greatly admired.

Have you read Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Buona lettura, Cristina

This post is written as part of the dolcevitabloggers linkup, hosted by Jasmine, Kelly and Kristie the 3rd Sunday of every month.  Click #dolcevitabloggers to read blog posts by other participants


-my 1996 English edition nonna cover

-detail from Lucania ’61 mural by Carlo Levi in Palazzo Lanfranchi, Matera, Wikimedia Commons

-my 1978 Italian edition book cover with the painting ‘Il figlio della parroccola’ Pricetag says £ 1.800!

*Note-Aliano is called Gagliano in the book, although no explanation is given

La Brigantessa~Book Review


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La Brigantessa coverLa Brigantessa is a novel of historical fiction which takes place following the Unification of Italy (1860’s), during a decade of turmoil.  It was a time when law enforcement was often worse than the criminals and the law only protected the wealthy.

The main character, Gabriella Falcone, is a young peasant girl whose family work for the parish priest in a small village in Calabria.  Her inamorato, Tonino has volunteered to fight alongside Giuseppe Garibaldi. When Gabriella stabs a nobleman in self defense, she is forced to flee with the priest, knowing that her version of what happened will not be believed. La Brigantessa has everything a great read needs…love, honour, class struggles, jealousy, betrayal, bravery, suspense, and even a ‘modern’ Calabrese Robin Hood.

The story is told from the point of view of many characters, yet they are all so well-developed there is no confusion.  Each character is given a detailed, credible backstory, revealing their individual struggles and motivations.  I was emotionally invested in these characters, even the nasty ones!  The attention to detail regarding life and customs in 19th Century Calabria transported me there.

I have been waiting 2 years for this book to come out, since I listened to the author read excerpts from it at 2 conferences-and it did not disappoint. This is not one of those book reviews that gives away the whole book, so that is all I am going to say!  Pour yourself a glass of vino-red, of course, sit back and enjoy.  I can’t wait for the sequel and/or movie.

I give La Brigantessa 5 peperoncini out of 5 ! 🌶 🌶🌶🌶🌶

La Brigantessa is published by Inanna Publications, a Canadian Publisher based in Toronto, focusing on women’s writing.  The book is available from the publisher or from Amazon or Chapters.  Viva la Brigantessa!

Buona lettura, Cristina

Buon Anno 2019


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un po' di pepe Instagram best nine photosBuon Anno a tutti i lettori di ‘Un po’ di pepe’, vicini e lontani!  Spero che 2018 porta buona salute e gioia a voi e ai vostri cari.

Happy New Year ‘Un po’ di pepe’ readers near and far.  I hope 2019 brings you and your loved ones good health and joy!

WordPress keeps end of year stats which I find so interesting I need to share them. In 2018, Un po’ di pepe had almost 10,000 views from 97 different countries!  I wish I could visit even a few of them! WordPress’ method of collecting stats is odd and I am not sure how much this changes the results.  For example, the newest post counts as a ‘Home page’ view until the next one is published, making it difficult for a post from the second half of the year to make the top posts. We will have to work with that.

Something very different about the list this year….7 out of 10 were written in 2018.  In other years, only 2-3 were new posts. I think this means more of you are reading the newer posts! Based on the number of views, the most read posts of 2018 are:

#9 A Perfect Day in Italia, describing my typical day in Orsara di Puglia.  This April post was my first time joining the Dolce Vita Bloggers monthly linkup group.#8 In My Kitchen, September 2018 was my first time joining the ‘In My Kitchen’ (IMK) monthly blog linkup.  It was fun, and I wanted to participate in December, but the deadline was too early in the month and all of the kitchen action started Dec 12th!  #7 I was so surprised and super excited to see La Trinità di Masaccio on this list!  Yipee!  When I first published this art history lesson, it did not get much love, but I guess there was a steady trickle of readers throughout the year!

My quick sketches of the vanishing point, perspective lines and triangular composition. The colour image is my entry ticket from 2004!

#6 is a tie.  #6a is the 2017 post Palazzo Massimo alle Terme one of my favourite museums in Roma. It was the inspiration for Hairstyling in Ancient Roma. Have you been to Palazzo Massimo?#6b is Your Favourite Recipe.  In September, for the second time, I prepared the wrong month’s topic for the Dolce Vita Bloggers linkup.  The topic was supposed to be my favourite recipe, but since I was short on time, I wrote about the most popular of my recipe posts- Torta Caprese all’Arancia.#5 Uffa, allora, purtroppo, magari……mannaggia! This was a fun post to write, another Dolce Vita Bloggers monthly roundup on the topic ‘5 Words/Cinque Parole’#4 Aria Pericolosa.  I absolutely loved writing this post while I was in Italia, and plan to write more on this topic or do something else with it.  I won’t say any more, but if you have not read it, click on the link! Read the comments too, and metti la giacca!#3 A recipe for the Olive Oil Limoncello Cake I was inspired to bake at Casa Berti in Lucca, while surrounded by olive trees, freshly pressed olive oil and limoncello.#2 is the same as last year. Grano Arso from April 2015 is about a Pugliese gastronomic tradition that honours the resilience of our contadini ancestors.  In September 2017, I did a reading about grano arso at the Association of Italian Canadian Writers Conference in Sudbury, Ontario.  This may be the reason for the increased views -or the fact there is not much written in English on the topic.

I received an early Christmas present.  The AICW conference presentations were recently published in a special issue of the University of Toronto Dept of Italian Studies journal- Italian Canadiana Volume 32. This is my first piece of published writing that is not about diabetes! Yipee! Italian Canadiana Vol 32 2018 Grano Arso Cristina Pepe

#1 by a long shot once again is Italiano per Ristoranti my handy Italian menu pronunciation guide.  If you google ‘Italian menu or food pronunciation’ it comes out as the 8th suggestion! This post is from 2014, updated in 2016 and is available on the post as a downloadable PDF.  I am still planning to expand on this post and make it into an ebook. Will I finally figure out how in 2019? Speriamo!

Bruschetta (broo.SKET.tah)

For 2019 my goals are simple….less stress, more exercise, more art and writing!  Soon I will be making a big change to my work life so that I can have more flexibility. In the spring I will be a ‘libero professionista’-a freelancer!

On the blog, I plan to write more on Caravaggio.  My 3 recent posts are not enough! I may be doing some type of collaborative post with Luca from Luca’s Italy.  We don’t know what this will look like yet, but it should be fun.  The Dolce Vita bloggers group is on a break but should resume soon.  I also have several book reviews to post and more published writing coming up in 2019.

I would love to hear which post was your favourite.  What would you like to read more about in 2019 on Un po’ di pepe?  Looking forward to writing more cose interresanti /interesting stuff in 2019.

Vi auguro un 2019 piena di gioia e buona salute!  Ciao, Cristina

Buon Natale~Il Presepio di Mamma


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It is probably obvious from my photos that I love le feste Natalizie-the Christmas season.  Festive décor, lights, music and baking help me get through the early darkness and awful weather at this time of year.  I decorate every room in my house, but my favourite piece of Christmas is definitely the Presepio.  A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the history of Il Presepio and have included photos of mine in previous December posts.

My Presepio has grown over the years, but includes mostly the ‘main players’.  My Mamma’s Presepio also started out this way, but is now a whole village.  It was originally placed under the tree, since l’albero di Natale was a new tradition for most new italocanadesi.  It was eventually moved to the fireplace hearth, and then to a table.  The stable was originally ‘rustic’, made with one of those large paper grocery bags, with the rim folded down many times and a window cut out the back for a light, or a mandarin orange box covered in brown butcher paper. The figures were the Holy Family, an angel, and ox and donkey, a shepherd with a few sheep and the 3 Wise Men. The manger is empty in the photo, as Baby Gesù does not get placed there until tonight, la Vigilia di Natale.www.unpodipepe.caThe 3 Wise Men or Rè Magi are far off in the hills since they do not arrive in Bethlehem until the l’Epifania, January 6thTrailing behind is La Befana trying to catch up to

Presepio figures are not easy to find in Vancouver, but she slowly acquired village people, more shepherds, camels and lots of other animals.  Various pieces were purchased in Assisi, the Vatican and Mexico, even a napkin holder from Venezuela doubles as il forno.  The beautiful starry sky was brought by a friend from Roma. In August I went to Via San Gregorio Armeno in Napoli, the street famous for Presepio making artigiani.

Via San Gregorio Armeni Napoli, Antonio Pepe,

‘Lavorazioni di Pastori e Scenografie Presepiati Antonio Pepe’, Via San Gregorio Armeno, Napoli (no relation!)

The Presepio inventory is low in summer, but I bought a terra cotta prosciutto, capicollo and cacciotta and a cestino of eggs which you can see in the photo below. I also bought 2 tiny chairs just like the ones we have in Orsara. I forgot to buy a zampognaro-an Abruzzese bagpiping shepherd-so I will have to go back to Napoli!

Mamma gets very detailed and creative with her Presepio. She starts working on it mid November and really enjoys putting it together. I am often asked to help create accessories.  The cutest detail is the tiny loaves of bread, panini and focaccia Pugliese that she bakes for the forno.Presepio

It is interesting to note that San Francesco d’Assisi created the first Presepio in 1223 in an attempt to return to the true meaning of Christmas and take the focus off of gift-giving.  So Charlie Brown was not the first to search for ‘the true meaning of Christmas’! If any of you have a Presepio, I would love to hear about it!

Cari lettori di Un po’ di pepe, Vi augura un Buonissimo Natale e un meraviglioso 2019 piena di gioia e salute!

Dear readers of Un po’ di pepe, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a marvelous 2019 filled with health and joy!

Ciao, Cristina

L’Albero di Natale


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L’albero di Natale, my Christmas tree is now up and decorated.  I usually have it all done by now, but I am behind this year.  It was not planned, but I did the Italian thing this year!  December 8th is l’Immacolata Concezione, the festa celebrating the conception of the Vergine Maria.  It is a national holiday in Italia and the official start of le feste Natalizie-the Christmas season.  It is also the day most Italiani put up and decorate their albero di Natale and presepio. The Christmas decorations-addobbi Natalizie stay up until January 6th, la festa del Epifania-after a visit from La Befana. Earlybirds decorate on December 6th the festa di San Nicola.L’albero di Natale is long standing tradition in Northern European countries, but a much newer custom in Italia.  Alberi sempervivi-evergreen trees, have symbolized life, regeneration and immortality.  The Celts, Vikings and pre-Christian Germanic tribes decorated evergreens during Solstice celebrations.  In the harsh northern winters evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe were the only things that stayed green, so they were thought to have magical powers. Wreaths and evergreen branches were hung over doors as a defense against evil spirits and a symbolic defense against the harsh winter.  I can totally relate to this last one.  My addobbi Natalizie help me get through the winter!  ‘Modern’ use of l’albero di Natale started in the 13th Century and became a custom in Northern Europe.  In Southern Europe, it was seen as more of a Protestant custom and did not catch on.  In 1848, when Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree custom with him, which spread through the British Empire. Vancouver Club tree 2018Regina Margherita di Savoia-yes she of pizza fame-was the first to decorate un albero di Natale in Italia in the late 1800’s at the Palazzo Quirinale.  The custom spread slowly, but grew in popularity after WWII.  In 1982, Pope Giovanni Paolo II first introduced a tree in Piazza San Pietro. Now most families have un albero di Natale and the presepio is often placed under the tree.  Is your albero di Natale up yet?  Buon Natale, Cristina

La Raccolta delle Olive


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The olive tree has been essential to Mediterranean life for over 4,000 years. In addition to being a staple ingredient of the Mediterranean diet and an ancient trading commodity, olive oil has been used as a medication, soap, hair and skin moisturizer, terra cotta lamp fuel, furniture polish, and for cleaning and waterproofing leather.  Olive trees have a strong root system and can live for centuries. It takes up to 8 years before a tree produces its first olives. They grow well in lime and stony, poorly aerated soil, in areas with rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Olive trees have been considered sacred and symbolic. The olive branch has been a symbol of peace and the endurance of life since Genesis 8:11 the dove came back to him in the evening; and, behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf: so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth’. The shape and form of olive trees has always captivated me. I still have not mastered their tangled growth of trunks and leaves with a silvery green underside, but they are frequent subjects in my sketchbook. While in Italia last November, I encountered a lot of olives.  Seeing the trees heavy with ripe black and purple olives was new for me, as I had only ever seen them in their small green state! Every road near Orsara di Puglia was full of parked cars where families were harvesting their olives.  Unfortunately, I missed my family’s olive harvest by one day, but I was in Gugliano near Lucca during their harvest.  I used Casa Berti’s fresh olio nuovo to make Olive Oil Limoncello Cake.

La Raccolta delle olive-the olive harvest, is usually in late October/early November before the first frost. Nylon nets with a split down the middle are spread under trees and wrapped tightly around trunks to catch falling olives. On sloping hills, the edges of the nets are supported with sticks so olives do not go rolling away.Olive harvesting does not go well with mechanization. The more gently olives are picked, handled and stored, the better the quality of the oil they produce. Olives are harvested using a combination of the following methods:

Brucatura (broo·ca·TOO·rah) is picking olives by hand and putting them straight into un cestino-a basket, or a bucket.  This preserves the integrity of the olives and does not damage the tree or branches.  Ladders are used for the higher, hard to reach branches.  This method is slow, with a lower yield, but produces the best oil, with the least acidity.  Olive, Casa Berti

Pettinatura (pet·teen·ah·TOO·rah) is ‘combing’ olives off the branches with long handled combs/rakes and collecting them into buckets or nets.  Families producing olive oil for their own consumption harvest mainly by brucatura and pettinatura.

Bacchiatura (bahk·kee·ah·TOO·rah) is beating fruit off trees with long poles so they fall into the nets. A long-handled electric version for higher branches looks like 2 rakes facing each other that vibrate in opposite directions. If not done carefully, bacchiatura can cause bruising to the olives and damage to twigs and branches.

Raccattatura (rak·kat·tah·TOO·rah) is collecting ripe olives that fall spontaneously into nets. If not gathered right away, the olives can be rotting, with mold or bacteria, especially if it is damp or rainy.  Raccattatura produces oil with increased acidity

Scrollatura (scrol·lah·TOO·rah) A mechanical arm attached to a tractor wraps around the trunk and shakes the tree until all of the olives fall off into nets.  This method is efficient for large olive groves, but damaging to the tree and can produce inferior oil.  Luckily this method is not possible on terraced land or if there is not enough space between trees for a tractor.

Olives are stored briefly in crates to get warm and release oil more easily. Then they are taken to the frantoio, the olive mill.  Pressing within 24 hours of harvest produces the best quality oil with the lowest acidity.La raccolta delle olive

One evening while I was in Orsara di Puglia, I was lured by the divine smell of pressed olives. It was the frantoio, which of course is closed the rest of the year.  During la raccolta delle olive, it is open all the time and is a busy, social place. The frantoio is as cold as outside, since cold pressing prevents oxidation and preserves the nutrients, colour and flavour of olive oil.  I was curious to see the olive oil extraction process.

The olives are separated from branches, leaves and debris then weighed, rinsed in cold water and passed along a conveyor belt between rollers. Then they go into a vat with blades that mash or grind the olives into a paste- including the pits!  This used to be done with stone or granite wheels like a giant mortar and pestle. The olive paste is spread evenly over pressing discs/mats, which are stacked onto a press plate to evenly distribute the pressure.  The paste is not heated to extract oil, as cold pressing prevents oxidation.  Oil and water are separated and sediment removed using a centrifuge, then precious liquid gold, unfiltered olive oil pours out a spout draining into a steel basin.The colour of olive oil can range from grassy green to bright yellow gold, depending on the ripeness and type of olives and the level of chlorophyll in leaves that are included in the pressing. The fresh oil is stored in stainless steel vats until it is bottled.

The yield of oil per quintale (100kg/ 220lbs) of olives varies each year. It takes approximately 2,000 olives or 1 tree to produce 1L of olive oil! No wonder it is expensive!

The first press is virgin olive oil.  It can be designated as ‘extra virgin’ only if the % acidity is less than 0.8% and it has superior taste and aroma.  I will discuss this in a future post called Olio d’Oliva.

Photos featured in this post were taken at Frantoio Oleario di Nico Manna in Orsara di Puglia, my family’s olive grove in frazione La Cupa, Orsara di Puglia, and Casa Berti in Gugliano, Lucca.

Ciao from my amaca under the olive trees, Cristina