Summer passed all too quickly in Vico Equense, and I was sorry to see things returning to normal. I had enjoyed the holiday mood of Vico in the summer: the pedestrianized streets with artisans selling their wares to tourists and locals: the pan-pipers and human statues: the late-night concerts in the piazza and Miss Vico beauty contests: the beers in the piazza with Thomas and Catello. Despite the fact that I had had a mere three weeks off work, such was the atmosphere of Vico in the evenings, on my return from work, that I felt I had been away from the office for a good few months. Now, however, things were changing back to the way they had been before. People started to eat inside behind closed doors once more. The beach was getting emptier every day – not that I minded that: the one thing that I detested about the Vico summer was the hoards of Neapolitans that descended on the place to leave litter lying around and cover everything in graffiti. It took a good month to clear up after them. And there was a definite chill in the evening air. For the first time in months, I had to dig out a pullover.
There was, however, one more thing to look forward to, before Christmas. For some time, I had heard tell of a chestnut festival held every weekend in October, up on Monte Faito. This had intrigued me, for short of genetically modifying chestnuts and crossing them with chimpanzees, so that they might perform clever tricks, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what chestnuts might be capable of that would warrant a month-long festival in their honour. Well, how wrong I was! I will never again look at a chestnut without paying it all due respect. The festival was a marvellous get-together of people from the entire Sorrento peninsula, who had come to have a damn good knees-up under a natural canopy of chestnut trees.
The event revolved around a huge fire upon which thousands and thousands of chestnuts were being roasted. These could be bought by the bag as you went in. Visitors spent their time walking from stall to stall, stuffing hot chestnuts into their flushed faces and perusing the various products on offer, some of them chestnut-related, others decidedly not. There was a stall dedicated to outdoor candles; another dedicated to incense: another with a glass beehive and jar upon jar of honey in differing shades. Then came the cooked food stalls: gnocchetti with chestnuts served from a steaming cauldron; a delicious soup made from chick peas, beans, wild boar meat and chestnuts, and humungous rolls filled with sausages and spinach. Then the chestnut sweet stall, the chestnut liqueur stall and various others, not to mention the obligatory “Miss Chestnut” contest.
The wind up on Faito was ferocious, which meant that all this took place against a backdrop of falling leaves, falling chestnuts (which you would pick up and toss to the laughing girls behind the fire) and swirls of sweet smoke. It was the sort of elusive autumn evening that you read about in children’s books and heard about on Blue Peter. It was always what you hoped Bonfire Night would turn out to be before the rain came down, extinguished your sparklers, made your hot-dog soggy and made you wonder why the hell you inflicted this on yourself year after year. I became a great defender of the chestnut festival and spoke of it in suitably reverent tones to any holiday-makers I met on the peninsula over the next few weeks.
Intrigued by the e-mails I had been sending home, with tales of beautiful walks in unspoilt countryside, of lunches of lobster and linguine, and of Great Chestnut Festivals, our friend Bill, from Yorkshire, had booked himself a flight and was on his way out to see what all the fuss was about. I was very much looking forward to his visit as, not only was he a passionate walker and, therefore, a good excuse to revisit some of my favourite walks of the season, he was always good, loud fun, had a ribald sense of humour and liked a drink. To celebrate his arrival, we booked a table at a local restaurant and were delighted to find that it was still warm enough to dine outside, under the pergola.
Now, Italian meals have a rigid, ritualistic formula. You generally begin with an “antipasto” or starter. Often, these are taken communally and consist of salami and other charcuterie products, mozzarella and various cheeses, vegetables preserved in oil and hunks of fresh bread. Alternatively, you might have Parma ham with melon, or a selection of seafood. First courses are either pasta or rice-based, and are conditioned by whether you will be having meat or fish as your second course. With the second course, you may have a contorno or side-dish, generally a vegetable or a cheese. Then comes dessert: ice cream, or “lemon delight” or perhaps a babà, a Neapolitan spongy confection soaked in booze. To end the meal, you might have a liqueur – limoncello is popular in these parts – or a coffee. If you are a particularly vulgar individual, you may have both, liqueur followed by coffee, but this is frowned upon.
How dangerous to depart from the recognised norm when dining out in Italy. And how often the English do!
“I’ll start with the Pizza Quattrostagioni,” began Bill. “And then I’ll have the lasagne.”
The waiter lowered his notebook and pen. Clearly he hadn’t heard correctly.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Pizza Quattrostagioni,” repeated Bill, in broad Yorkshire, “and the lasagne.”
“Together?” asked the waiter, incredulously.
“No. the pizza for first course and the lasagne for second.”
The waiter still looked confused.
“Pasta for …,” he could hardly bring himself to say it, “… second course, sir?”
“Aye,” said Bill.
“And a pizza to start with?”
The waiter shrugged.
“And would you care for something to drink?”
“White wine,” Bill told him decisively.
“Er … white wine with pizza and … er … lasagne.”
The waiter looked nervously around, perhaps to check whether there wasn’t a camera hidden somewhere, with a TV celebrity ready to jump out of the shrubbery with a microphone to announce that he had been set up. Then he shuffled off in the direction of the kitchen. A few moments later, the head waiter appeared. He addressed us in an apologetic tone.
“I fear that there has been a bit of a misunderstanding,” he apologised.
“The order seems to be for … erm, pizza, followed by a pasta dish.” He gave a chuckle as if deeply embarrassed that one of his staff could possibly think that we had been so gross as to …
“That’s correct,” said Bill.
“With white wine?” the waiter continued, looking as though he might be about to burst into tears at any moment.
The starters arrived and Bill sat patiently as Giovanna and I demolished them, ravenously. Then came the first courses. Whore’s Spaghetti for me, and penne with aubergines and tomatoes for Giovanna. And Bill’s lasagne, along with the pizza, cut into triangles and accompanied by several empty plates.
“Excuse me,” said Bill. “I ordered the pizza for first course and the lasagne for second.”
“I’m sorry,” said the waiter. “I think the chef thought that the pizza was, perhaps, – how you say? – an assaggio – just a taster for all of you? In place of the bread?”
“No,” said Bill. “It’s my first course.”
“Oh,” said the waiter. “My apologies.” He just could not get his head around this. “It’s just that it’s … well …, rather an … erm … unusual choice, sir.”
But he took the lasagne away to be kept warm while Bill cheerfully wolfed down the pizza and took hearty swigs of white wine. In the doorway of the restaurant, I could see the waiters in animated discussion.
Bill was having difficulty finishing the lasagne. Every now and again, he put down his fork, thrust out his bloated belly and gave a deep sigh.
“You don’t have to eat it all if you don’t want to,” I told him.
“Nope. I’m determined,” he replied, and set about the lasagne with renewed vigour.
Even the waiter was impressed, albeit disgusted, when he came to retrieve the empty plates and when Bill then ordered a cappuccino, I thought the poor man was going to faint. The English habit of pouring hot milk on top of all that food that your interiors are, at that very moment, doing their best to digest, is just a little bit too much for the sensibilities of your average Italian gourmet. And, quite frankly, I’m on their side over this one.