There is an Italian saying: “Una bedda jurnata nun fa stati”. One beautiful day doesn’t make a summer. But if you are Amelia Pane Schaffner a childhood filled with beautiful summers makes for Z Tasty Life. My summer series today takes us to Sorrento, Amalfi coast, Italy…circa 1970s. GREG
My summers were wild, fragrant, filled with adventure, arts, and sea…very, very free.
Barefoot was the standard. Skinny dipping at midnight under the shooting stars was what you did in August. Five people –plus a dog– piled-up in a 1960 VW Beatle open convertible (with no seatbelts) singing “yesterday” was how you got to the beach. Dancing in the rain was encouraged. Camping in the garden behind the house was allowed and staying up with the grownups while they danced and sang was how I got to peek into the mysterious world of adulthood.
My parents surrounded themselves with all sorts of artists (dancers, musicians, painters, writers, bon-viveurs and many species of life-lovers) and threw these magical parties that might last for a whole week-end. My sister, my brother and I would sneak under the tables or staircase to observe; our experience knit into a fabric of splendid humanness, vitality, and conversations.
I got to meet some unique human beings that lived in symbiosis with the universe and nature. Vali had tattoos all over her porcelain white skin, the rest of her body was wrapped up in her abundant red hair. She slept in a cave up in the lush mountains of Positano with 2 men, a red fox and bathed in sheep milk every morning. Carla, the ballerina, practiced her dancing incessantly at dawn on the deck of the boat. We’d watch Massimo, the photographer, chase…and catch… the golden light at sunset. We’d listen to Domenico play the piano and his friends playing the sax and drums deep into the night. We’d be mesmerized by Vincenzo (an Italian realist painter), George (a Swedish painter) and Katinka (a mysterious lace-glove-wearing Polish-German painter) fill the world with color and their surreal imaginarium. Then came the movie directors, theatre saltimbanks (entertainers) and actors. One time we heard a friend sing “summertime” so intensely that the crystal chandeliers vibrated and almost fell from the ceiling. They all loved the “spaghettata di mezzanotte” (spaghetti cooked at midnight, something Italians do quite a lot– usually just an “aglio, olio e peperoncino,” oil, garlic and chili pepper).
And then, we’d sail to faraway islands in the middle of the Mediterranean (Sicily especially) with a crew of these odd friends for weeks at a time. These were our summers. They were endless. They’d start in May and end in September.
“Vai!” (go!): my dad would holler once we got to a solitary cove with pristine, gelid water at 7am in the morning. No boats around us. We would just tote our mask, a knife and a bag. We would swim up and down the coastal depths to collect sea urchins, barnacles, mussels and other little creatures. My dad was so good at catching the octopus. He’d surface like a Greek god, hands covered in ink, the octopus in one hand and a glowing smile. It never got old. His enthusiasm contaged me for life. Once surfaced from the ocean meanders, he’d arrange this platter with sea weeds on the bottom, Gorgonia corals as trees, a red star (that would go back to the ocean soon after), sea urchins cracked open, and other gifts of Poseidon and bring it on board for the lucky convivium. The urchins’ eggs were sweet, briny, rugged, creamy, delicate, ever-so-slightly pungent, umame, sensual on your tongue… They must have been the food of the sirens (not surprisingly legends says that the sirens Ulysses heard lived right on the coast of Sorrento where I grew up). The second dive of the day would be more sea urchins to be stirred, like caviar, on top of sea-water cooked spaghetti: it would melt with the heat creating this shiny coralline and sweet sauce. The small octopus caught earlier and a few mussels would also go in the dish, drowned in vino bianco. The orgasmic chorus of “oh and ah” this dish would garner was enough to make one blush.
Once we arrived on an island, we’d scatter around and explore. Picking and foraging was part of the adventure. We’d perch on their branches to suck in the figs honey-like nectar – they were like tiny boobs! The skin was the best part, especially of the smaller, green ones. If we were lucky enough we’d find some juicy, succulent, tangy purslane leaves (“porcellana”) to dress with olive oil and a few tomatoes. Prickly pears (we called them fichi d’India: Indian figs) were next on the list; picking was tricky though. They are sweet, juicy, mealy (in texture), very very seedy and make for a great “granita”. Caper berries were gathered to be salted later on.
At night, after laying out the small fishing nets we brought along, we’d sleep on the deck of the boat (the rooms inside too small and too hot) under the stars, the lucky ones on a hammock that would rock them into their dreams, and wake up in the morning covered in ocean dew…small salty pellets that would quickly turn white as soon as the sun would rise.
This is the smell of my summers: “salsedine” (a difficult word to translate from Italian: means encrusted saltiness of the sea and wind), wild herbs, the almondy pit of cherries and apricots, the fish aroma from the nets, the citrusy punch of the lemons, the milkyness of freshly kneaded mozzarella, the sweet honey of the figs, the earthy soil of the tomatoes, freedom, open-mindedness, adventure, and the wide open tingling scent of the ocean touching the sky at midnight while I am swimming inside it. Amelia