Friday, November 19, 2004

Day 5 - Part I - Miss

I awake early my final full day in Abruzzo despite an extremely late night the previous evening. My plan is to walk to the mercato ittico - the fish market - to observe the morning auction of fish from the fleet which has been trolling the waters off Pescara overnight. Rough weather has confined the fleet to harbor during most of our trip, but calming seas have been braved the last two nights and today holds two promises - a chance to experience the boisterous market this morning and a seafood dinner tonight.

Olive trees growing on the beach.
Only in Italy.
I struggle out of bed and get my belongings in order for our bus trip to L'Aquila and then head out of the Hotel Esplanade for the 15 minute walk to the fish market. It is not quite 7:00 and the sunrise is painting a pastel orange and pink sky as I wander along the lungomare - the seaside road that follows the beach to the mouth of the Pescara river, a small harbor that the local fishing fleet calls home. It is quiet, peaceful and lovely as I arrive at the dilapidated building that houses the fish market and as I near the entrance Monty and Daniel, two of our august group, emerge from the building. They, too wanted to experience the fish auction, but alas, it is not an experience for vacationers. Starting at 5:00 am, the market has been closed for quite some time and all that is left are some empty cardboard boxes and the lingering smell of today's catch. And thus is set in motion a day of misses and near misses.

The three of us wander back to the Esplanade, looking for a silver lining in an early rise that has come up empty. For me it is a peculiar sight along the way, a single olive tree growing from the sand of the Pescara beach. Quite a healthy looking tree for such an inhospitable environment - white sand and salt water are not the ideal growing conditions for olive trees - this sight further reinforces my impression of the fertility of Italy. Quite simply, everything seems to grow here.
Our pullman departs the hotel slightly behind schedule, as has been our wont. It seems every day someone or ones (who shall remain nameless) are unable to find the bus at the appointed hour. After having kept the group waiting for over an hour at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on the day of our arrival, I have finally been supplanted as the tardy one. It is an honorific I am happy to bestow on someone else.

The drive to L'Aquila, the provincial capital of Abruzzo is mostly uneventful as I try to recapture some of the sleep I had mistakenly traded for the opportunity to see the fish market. There is, however, a strange undertone of sniping and a murmur of hushed comments about our bus driver, a demonstrative and, we discover, excitable man who has guided us for five days and who waits alone with the bus while we tour facilities and eat our meals. He is a bit of an enigma, but this morning his erratic driving seems to be engendering some ill will among our usually chipper group.

We turn off the autostrada for the final ascent to L'Aquila along the S.S.17, a straight, two lane state highway that runs along a valley flanked by mountains on either side. There is a great deal of traffic along the highway, including slow-moving lorries and some occasional roadwork, all of which forces our driver to madly accelerate into the oncoming lane in order to get us to our destination a few minutes quicker. Unfortunately his haste is for naught as we pass our first destination, Dolciaria Castellana, not discovering the fact until we are a good ten kilometers down the road. The misses continue.

What ensues is a tricky three point turn on a narrow two lane road with no shoulder, as lines of traffic assault us from both directions. The tension in the bus is palpable as our group seems to have chosen our hapless driver on which to vent its collective fatigue and grumpiness. The driver seems to understand to whom the silence and whispered comments are directed. His tension is now clearly evident and his response seems to be to try to release it through his toes to the accelerator pedal. We fly down the highway like a rocket car on the Bonneville Salt Flats, screaming into the parking area of the Dolciaria, miraculously stopping without aid of a drag chute.

Our group disembarks, not a single passenger giving into his desire to kneel down and kiss the ground, Pope-like, but all are clearly relieved to be on terra firma. We are greeted by Signore Brancadoro, whose family has run the the Dolciaria Castellana for generations. It is here that the week's stories begin to blur into one another - my father/grandfather/greatgrandfather/other began producing parrozzo/pan ducale/pane dell'orso/torrone/confetti/other in 1854/1896/1926/47 BC/other and I am the second/third/eighth/other generation to carry on this trade. I am even toying with the idea of producing a Mad Libs Abruzzo version for sale on our website:

My Favorite Candy
Sulmona, and ancient __________ (adjective) town, has been producing _______________ (noun) since ________ (year). This ___________ (adjective) sweet is very popular at Italian ____________________ (a celebration). The most famous confetti is produced by ________________ (proper noun), which has been making them since _________ (year). Signore/Signora _______________ (proper noun) is the ____________ (ordinal number) generation in her family . . .

You get the point.

But for all the sameness of the stories, each visit reveals its own gem, a hidden secret about the family, about the product, something that confirms once again that these people are not just candy makers, that they are not just in it for the euros, but that this is a labor of love, that they do what they do because they have to and because they want to. (That was entirely too many commas and sentence fragments, but sometimes you have to bend the rules). At Dolciaria Castellan the McGuffin is in the technique of producing torrone, the specialita della casa. Torrone, the incredibly edible nougat and nut candy bar that the Abruzzese surprisingly do not claim to have invented (they only claim to have improved it by making the hard, brittle torrone of the Piemonte into a softer, gentler variety) is a rather simple concoction. Honey is mixed with egg whites and nuts are added. The sticky mass is spread into forms and dried and the hardened candy is sliced into bars. But Signore Brancadoro explains his secret for making torrone: the goo must be mixed for a long time - anywhere from four to seven and a half hours - for it to achieve the optimum consistency. He also eschews metal cookie sheets for forming the mixture into bars, using instead handmade wooden forms that better absorb the moisture from the torrone, resulting in a better bar.

It is these signatures, these trademarks of the craft that are not publicized but are done because they are the right thing to do and because they have been doing them this way for so many generations, that give so many Italian products a soul and personality. You may not always be able to put your finger on what makes it special, but you always know it's there.

continued . . .

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