Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Life in a Palace

Sandy with Maria Teresa and Signora Crisci

The civita vecchia of Ogliastro

 This morning our wonderful new friends, Andrea Tesoniero and Maria Teresa Calabrò, met us at a local business in the gorgeous little village of Ogliastro Cilento and took us through the center of the civita vecchia (old town) to tour a palace.

     We have grown accustomed to hill towns where the old town clusters around a castle at the highest, and therefore most defensible part, of the mountain, but as we slowly drove down the corso of the old town, Andrea explained that towns further inland, away from the menace of Saracen pirates and the dozen other sea-borne raiders who have plagued these parts for centuries, could afford to locate on the southern aspect of the mountain, where the wind doesn't howl in the winter and agriculture is (or at least has been before climate change) more profitable in this part of Italy which has been famous since antiquity for its plentiful water and agricultural bounty.  We found the same phenomenon last year in our tour of nearby Copersito with Nunzio and Teresa.

   We had met (in person; Andrea was already my Facebook friend by way of Nunzio) the night before at a great new pizzeria, Da Zero, and Andrea had told us of his dream to recreate an authentic traditional frantoio, olive processing plant, using only traditional crafts, and then to operate the frantoio to produce artisinal oil using only traditional techniques.  If it were anyone but these two proposing such an ambitious scheme, I'd be a bit skeptical, but these are very resourceful young people.  Andrea graduated from the University of Naples, has done extensive graduate work in various European countries, and earned a doctorate in seismology from the University of Copenhagen.  Maria Teresa is an attorney.  Today Andrea is interviewing via internet for a position at Yale, and of course I wish him well, but part of me hopes they both stay here where their vision is so sorely needed.  Andrea spoke to me of his passion to preserve the best parts of the 'old' in his little village, and in my dreams I suppose the best of both worlds would be for this power couple to move to New Haven, become rich and famous, and then move back to Ogliastro to become the patroni of their town.

     We parked next to an imposing palazzo, strolled up a beautiful, ancient street and stood before the gorgeous, imposing portale of the Palazzo Crisci, built in 1755.  We were admitted by a lovely woman with a warm, unpretentious demeanor, Signora Rossana Crisci, whose husband was born in the palazzo and was heir to the family estate.  Andrea had promised a tour of the house, which we relished, but first Signora Crisci wanted to show us the frantoio on the ground floor, which she assured us had not been unlocked for four years.  I hope you can appreciate from Sandy's wonderful pictures how lovingly the couple has restored the facility.  It is spectacular.

The old mola, olive mill, with an antique saddle on top

The huge beam press of the frantoio
The vat where the raw olives were put before processing

The furnace for heating water and a ziro to the left

     The most spectacular elements of the plant are the huge olive mill and the enormous torchio, or lever press, easily 30' long.  An exterior door was opened to provide more light and Andrea was kind enough to stand holding a spotlight, and Signora Crisci explained what we were looking at.  At the far side of the room was a large vat, perhaps 6' X 12', made of masonry and plastered to make it waterproof.  Into this the raw olives would by placed as they were harvested.  On the opposite side of the room, near the exterior door, was a small wood-fired furnace which heated water in a large bronze kettle.  The signora explained that the olives which came in during the November harvest (olives are frequently harvested in stages to insure perfect ripeness) were often so cold that they were reluctant to give up that precious nectar, so hot water was poured over them in the vat, cleaning the olives and heating them simultaneously.  Then they were placed on the pedestal of the mill and two men would push the axle projecting on either side of the millstone to rotate it.  Alternately, a donkey could be harnessed to one of the sweeps to do the same thing.  As the olives were macerated and the flesh was reduced to a paste, the paste was transferred to frails, flexible baskets made of esparto grass and open at the top, and these were stacked on the circular bed of the press with circular wooden discs between them.  When a stack was complete, a huge screw at the opposite end of the beam was turned and the tremendous weight of the chestnut beam as well as the force of the lever squeezed out the precious oil along with the watery element in the olives, a part the Romans called amurca.  Eventually the screw would lift a huge stone counterweight attached to its base so that, as the olive stack shrank as liquid was expressed, the lever would continue to exert a constant pressure.

The press bed with its frails and the tub into which the liquid drains

The giant screw of the press...

And the huge counterweight

With Andrea and Amrigo

    The oil and amurca ran through a channel on the front of the press bed into a large wooden tub.  If you've ever mixed a vinaigrette and left it a bit too long, you know how oil will float to the top of the vinegar because of its lower density, and so separating the oil and amurca was simply a question of allowing the two elements to separate and then ladeling off the oil.  Amurca is so bitter and tannic that if you tried to eat a raw olive your mouth would pucker up and you'd be unable to speak.  It will also taint the oil if left in contact very long.  The water was poured out onto the floor and ran down a declivity and out into the street.  Oil in antiquity was stored in huge terra cotta jugs called dolia, sometimes as much as 200 gallons.  The standard Italian version is perhaps 1/4 of that, and Fernando tells me that locally it's called by the Arabic word ziro.  The Moors didn't simply raid in these parts, they were also part of the cultural landscape.  From the ziri it would be ladled into glazed vessels such as you see in the picture.

    The Signora is assisted in her restorations by a very nice gentleman named Amerigo, who Fernando tells me is a well known musician in the area.  Amerigo explained that when Don Filippo Crisci, husband of Signora Crisci, was having the frantoio restored, he had every floorboard over us numbered because they were so carefully fitted to each other, despite their crude and random appearance, that trying to reassemble them otherwise would have been a nightmare.  Today Amerigo was working on some pretty French doors at the entrance to the western suite of rooms.

An antique pitcher...

And beautiful amphorae

Sax guards the house

The beautiful inviting courtyard of the palazzo

The salone of the Palazzo Crisci

The terrazza

Incredible views everwhere

Olive groves and the Cilentan mountains

     When we finished our tour of the frantoio, Signora Crisci invited us upstairs for caffè and cake and for a tour of the residential part of the home.  She showed us a large, exquisitely decorated salon, complete with the beautiful glazed tile floors which make such rooms seem so opulent, then led us through the study to a south-facing terrazza where she served us.  The coffee was great, the cake was delicious, a sort of pound cake but with olive oil substituting for butter, but the vistas to the south were the real star.  We could see the Cilentan countryside for miles! In the foreground, the olive groves which apparently gave the little town its name, a huge masseria, farm production building which Andrea explained belongs to the De Stefano family, and up the hill he pointed out their palace, the only one in Ogliastro bigger than Palazzo Crisci.  But, c'mon now, we're talking about an embarrassment of riches.  And then the mother church and the old town clustered around it, clinging to the slope of the mountain and drowsing in the sun.

    After we finished our spuntina, the Signora gave us a tour of the rest of her quarters. The dining room, lovingly preserved in its former glory, featured a huge, rustic table, a tall etagere with dozens of wine goblets of every description, a glorious old sideboard, and a framed shadowbox with antique keys from the palazzo's past.  The kitchen was long and narrow and had been updated with modern appliances while still respecting the best of the eighteenth century, not least the rustic, beamed ceiling, the hearth and fireplace which originally provided the cookstove, and an ingenious rotating steelyard above the hearth from which large copper and brass cooking pots were formerly suspended over the embers on the hearth.  The Signora explained that during the restoration a small cavity beside the fireplace had been detected by knocking on the wall and hearing a hollow sound.  The wall was carefully opened to reveal a clever little warming station with its own tiny furnace beneath a pedestal for a small pan and with a small smoke hole which led into the chimney nearby.

The dining room

Keys from the past

The cucina

Signora Crisci demonstrates the revolving steelyard

The little warming nook

Bedroom with its antique bed

    Signora Crisci showed us the two bedrooms in her private suite, both lovingly restored with family heirlooms and period pieces, most notably a wonderful iron bed of the nineteenth century from Naples.  Both bedrooms opened onto an extension of the terrazza we had previously enjoyed, and both had that spectacular vista.

   So, yeah, it must be nice to be rich and live in such opulence, right?  Well, not all sweetness and light, it seems.  The house was for the Criscis and is still for Signora Crisci more a labor of love than a guilty pleasure.  Professional careers dictated that the couple had to live in Salerno and then Rome for their entire married lives, and the old palace is a beast to try to heat in the winter, despite its southern aspect.  And then there are the constant repairs that such an old dinosaur always requires.  Amerigo's presence today was no accident; after a recent storm several leaks in ceilings appeared and had to be addressed quickly.

   But if you'd like to experience the life of an aristocrat without all the headaches, take heart!  Signora Crisci has furnished a separate suite of rooms across the cortile as a bed and breakfast and is eager to rent it out to mature Americans and Northern Europeans.  No riffraff please!  And what a glorious vacation it would be!  First there is this achingly beautiful part of Italy that few Americans have even heard of.  Second, there is life in what I will personally guarantee  is one of the prettiest hill towns in Italy.  And then there's the apartment.  The suite has its own cool, inviting salon, a cute little kitchen, a bathroom completely updated with modern fixtures, and a bedroom straight out of a movie set.  And from every single window, those same incredible views!  If Sandy's pictures don't convince you that you want to be here, I despair, but let me simply say that any American with a lick of imagination could sit on the terrazza of that beautiful suite, sipping your caffè and scanning those miles of countryside and easily imagine yourself the king of Italy.  Or at least the duke of Lucania.

The salon of the B &B suite

And its bedroom

Your own terraces...

with your own spectacular views

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