There’s a fruit grown in Toscana for hundreds of years known as the Giuggole (jujolay). The fruit is about the size of a cherry, looks like a crabapple, and when it’s ripe, tastes like applesauce with cinnamon. There’s an old tuscan expression, that when life is really, really good, you are living in the “il brodo di guiggiole” (the broth of the giuggole). The broth is actually a mixture of heated white wine, sugar and giuggole berries. Some historians say that when Odysseus landed in the “land of the Lotus Eaters” where the fruit of an exotic plant made his men forget their past lives, it was really the fruit of the Giuggole tree mixed with wine. In the western world, we know this plant as the Jujube.
We spent a week with our close friends, the Cinelli family, in Lastra A Signa, about 12 km west of Florence. Outside of their beautiful 15th century tuscan villa are a few very old Guiggole trees. All I can say about our week was that we were in “il brodo di giuggole”.
The week flew by. We did get into Florence a few times (it’s an easy 10 minute drive from the Villa Cinelli), and Fabrizio and I played a few rounds of golf, but mostly, like all good Tuscans, we sat around the large family table with friends and family and ate. There was the Pizza party; Fabrizio Cinelli makes really delicious pizza. There was the tuscan steak, the porcini mushrooms, the pasta, soups, crustini, gelato, fresh fish, salads, pastries and of course the wine. We opened different tuscan wines every night.
The Tuscan table is much more than a meal. This is the time when everyone gets to be a family. Problems and family issues are worked out, everyone pitches in and either prepares the meal or cleans it up. No matter how busy they are, there is always enough time to prepare an incredible lunch or dinner.
Paola Cinelli is always able to put together a 3-4 course meal in less than an hour. In Italy it works. In America, if a family is lucky, they’ll have a sit down meal together maybe one a day, in many cases, it’s once a week. But in Toscana, it’s twice a day. When it’s just the family, the TV is ever present and the conversation slips in an out of an Italian reality show, football match or dubbed version of a two year old American TV show. When there are guests, the TV is still invited to the party, but more as a background environment, in the same way an American family would play music.
Since we were the newest members of the family, we were constantly treated to family anecdotes, old photos albums and great stories.
In planning this trip through Italy, we thought about visiting Naples, but our Tuscan family convinced us not to go, saying it was ugly and very dangerous. The Fiorentini and Napolitani have never really had a very cordial relationship. Remember, Italy has only been a unified country for around 130 years, and city pride, language dialects, upper class snobbery and of course football, all have added to the love/hate relationship that Italians have with Italians. The Romani hate the Milanese, the Fiorentini hate the Napolitani, the Napolitani and the Siciliani hate everyone. The Italian license plates have a 2 letter code telling what city they hail from. And if a car with FI on the license plate (for Florence) decides to drive to Naples, they should be carrying a lot of car insurance.
We were told that our temporary French plates were also a beacon to all the thieves of Naples (and from what we’ve heard, there are a lot of them). And so, heeding the warnings of our friends, we changed our plans. At one dinner, we recounted our initial Naples plans to our friends Mario and Vonda, who immediately agreed with Poala and Fabrizio. Mario said the thievery in the south was literally unbelievable and to prove a point, he told us the following story about a close friend of his.
The friend was traveling with his family in the south of Italy. When an Italian travels with their family, it means husband, wife, children, mother, father, mother-in-law, father-in-law and occasionally brothers, sisters and their families. The small family holiday can easily get up to 15-20 people.
The family was in Campania when the father died. It was an unfortunate event, but even worse was when they found out how much it would cost to ship the body back up to Tuscany. Instead, they decided to bring Papa back home themselves. They wrapped the body in plastic, tied him securely to the top of the car and drove north, figuring they could make it back to Toscana in less than 8 hours. When they were close to Naples, they decided to stop off at a rest stop and have a bite to eat and so they left Papa strapped to the top of the car and went into the restaurant. When they returned to the car, it was gone; stolen, Papa and all.
Now the police did eventually find the car, and Papa was still tied to the top, but the story remains and the lesson is, don’t drive your car to Napoli unless you have Napolitano license plates. even then it’s a risk.