Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Coming home from a long vacation home (does that make any sense?) is exhausting, especially when you do not have a clothes dryer, and it is raining.
Good morning, rainy Monterosso!

The piazza in Pignone.  You can't even see the mountains above, the fog is so thick.

After making the completely out of character decision to leave the laundry where it was until a sunny day, we got together with Manu's whole extended family to eat Sunday lunch together, an affair that stretches into early supper time.  On a rainy, grey day we packed ourselves into our car and headed to the little village of Pignone (not pronounced pig-none, but pee-gnoooooh-nay), which sits nestled in the mountains above the village.  Several sharp, foggy turns later, the view of the sea faded into the woods, and the rain was pouring down the mountains in waterfalls.  As we all observed the cascading water, our car started to remark that the drainage had never been this bad, and Manuel's grandmother noted quietly that when people criticize the landslide and flood of last year as the neglect of formerly terraced vineyards and farm land, this area has always been woods, from top to bottom.  This area was also very heavily damaged on October 25th.  I'm quite sure they have the same quiet anxiety we do.

A hazy, foggy view from a little garden.

Clouds settled upon mountain peaks.

Behind the altar, a reminder of the end of life - what you are, I once was, what I am, you will become.

Pignone, she noted, is rich with the cuisine of the land, and remembers coming up here to trade salt that they had dried from the sea water with the local beans and, of course, potatoes, Pignone's most famous vegetable.  Seriously.  I had been reading patate di Pignone on the menu at the Ristorante and the Cantina for months before it ever occurred to me to ask what type of potato a "pignone" was, when I was laughingly informed it was actually a place (and our neighbor at that).  They even have shirts that they sell - I (heart) patata di Pignone.  Besides the potatoes of Pignone, the village is renown for sausage production (the sausages of Pignone are found even in the "artisinal" section of the mega-supermarket in La Spezia), salumi and other products decidedly land-based, as opposed to the constant emphasis placed on the sea spread out below us.  As I always try to remind people, the sea might be the most obvious thing when you look down, but when you look up to the hills and mountains climbing up past the beach, it's clear that there is another very strong influence on the cuisine of this area.

We arrived in the village on a day where the clouds seemed to have settled perfectly nestled in the valleys and nooks between mountains.  The remainders of a recent snowfall melted into the rainwater, and steam came up from century-old stone streets, leaving an eerily appropriate haze about the little village.  The medieval village (from about 1000 AD) is laced with old stone arches and facades dotted with wooden shutters on closed windows, sturdy doors opening up to a winding street accesorized by old barrels, waterpumps and mortars that now hold flowers, brightly out of place on a colorless day.  The bustling metropolis of 600 seemed to be hiding indoors, as we were the only ones strolling around.  It was fairy-tale charming, a little creepy, and completely appropriate.  As we walked over a bridge, I half expected a shriveled troll to pop his head out.  I was enchanted.

We headed over to the old church, and I was not at all surprised to see the priest closing the doors, then less surprised when he saw us and happily reopened them, explaining in intricate detail the history of the parish.  It seemed immediately like a village where people want to tell you stories of things long ago.  In fact, I would have been disappointed if there wasn't a priest there full of history, happy to spend his afternoon sharing his knowledge with someone who wanted to listen.  He took us on a tour, of sorts, telling us about the artwork that was in every corner of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta.  It was a patchwork of art from various centuries, things held on to for hundreds of years, belying a proud people that held on to the things that shaped their village culture.  He showed us an incredible collection of vestments in the rooms of the Church behind the altar that were the opposite of the grey day in the mountains - their colors were vivid even after so many years.  As we thanked him and left, he walked away smiling, and as we drove back down into our own little village, I was smiling too.

Pignone is a little piece of Liguria not many get to see, as Manuel's mom reminded me of how fortunate we are in the Cinque Terre to have the train.  With the ferrovia, our area completely changed, and Pignone provides a stark contrast to that, hugged in the mountains, in the woods, and more then a little off the tourist path.  They have a festival of gli orti every year, where they celebrate the things that they harvest from their land, opening up gardens, little farms and cantinas in the village up to show off their culinary traditions to the smart visitors who get in their cars and fill the streets of a village that is during the summer, bathed in sun.  With a car, an empty stomach and an afternoon free, it makes an interesting trip to really appreciate the cuisine of the mountains, and a little village full of history. 

And potatoes.

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