I walk every day around Florence. Since the colder weather came in and our liberty decreased due to regional efforts to limit the spread of the virus, I take advantage of every possible moment, every sunny day, dry day, day without rain. Before work, in the afternoons. In late afternoon I sprint to the kids’ school and make our kids walk home with me. I take the heaviest backpack between the two of them, temper their whining, hold a hand or two. We skirt and step around the unfortunate canine deposits. I treasure the walks with my children, hearing them talk about their school day, all the gossip fit to share from the worlds of first and fourth grade. The walks on my own are another kind of treasure: exhilarating, free, unburdened, brisk. My headphones deliver a soundtrack to my private world. If anyone should ogle me or call out, I am protected by ignorance.
When I returned to the palazzo yesterday from a five-mile stroll, Chiara was in the foyer, her head deep in the hollow of the massive walnut trunk that holds court over the steps and flagstones. A carved crown sits atop its high back, each pointy tip topped by a ball the size of a nut.
“I am looking for Maria Luce’s skates!” she hollered at me from inside the trunk. Balls, portable pumps, shoes, boots, Frisbees, all flew from the trunk. Chiara grew up in the palazzo and inhabits it with an enviable ease: her family home. “I have found everyone else’s skates, but who knows where hers are!”
I admitted that I had not seen the skates. Usually I am loath to open the trunk as it is positively overstuffed with family detritus, and I fear I may not convince it to close again. Chiara’s ponytail bobbed up as she lobbed me a pair of rainboots. “You can have these,” she said, “too small for Maria Luce.” I looked down at the boots. They seemed to be between my kids’ sizes, in good shape, an expensive brand. “Sure, I’ll take them up,” I said, unthreading the headphones from my ears and mask and scarf. There is often a hopeless tangle of items from my shoulders up these days. A gleam caught my eye. “Is that all your olive oil?”
Chiara’s head bobbed up again. She was still resolutely digging around inside the trunk, her posture reminding me of a terrier at the beach, pawing through sand. “Yes, fifty liters!” she crowed. New oil season in Tuscany is a reason to cheer. It lifts the mood, the knowledge that olives will yield their bounty in the late autumn of each year, the luminous oil poured through funnels into steel cans. Those who receive their olive oil before everyone else are the objects of envy. O delectable elixir! The very color of health and good food, the taste of love in the kitchen. I confess that until I was patiently taught, I never knew what good olive oil should taste like. I just bought Bertoli at the grocery store. It tasted like hay. I thought this was good, a good taste, but my palate was ignorant. My husband made the sign of the cross over my olive oil when we were first dating. “This olive oil is dead,” he intoned. “May it rest in peace.”
At first I could not get used to the spark and pepper in new oil. What do you mean it’s like wine, blended and vintage with speciality labels? I asked my husband. This is weird. It tastes bad. I don’t like it. But the initiated are soon converted. The pearls cast before me just a handful of times. Seventeen years later, now I like it, now I get it.
The first thing – the very first thing – that a Tuscan will make to eat with the new oil is fettunta, literally a fetta unta, a unctuous slice. (Unta as in unctuous.) Tuscan bread is unsalted, and for reasons of taxation and an argument with one or more popes lost in a deep swirl of centuries, it tastes awful – but still they make it. They choose to make this bread even though they’ve been able to easily come by salt for centuries since, and still they make their bread this way. They say it is because their cuisine is so salty, the cured meat is so salty, the zuppa is so salty. The slices are grey and sad in the restaurants. No basket or cheery checked napkin can dress them up. And woe betide any unsuspecting visitor who might pop this wad of old paste into their mouth. It tastes of discarded plaster, chalk powder, nothing. But oh! When fresh, and cut into slices, this pane toscano – Tuscan bread, so designated for its utter lack of salt – is toasted, and brought out to be drizzled with the new oil and a pinch of sea salt.
And what glory it becomes. It is the snack of choice for children, the perfect pick-me-up for older relatives. In our son’s daycare in Arezzo, when he was just a year old, the snack cart would roll out with its silver platters of fettunta, a woman in a white cap, neat apron, and clean gloves would pinch a warm slice from the platter with a pair of silver tongs, depositing the treasure on each child’s plate. Fettunta is an item you might feed an ailing relative, or a mother struggling back from a bad bout of bronchitis. It even sounds like the name of a trusted wise auntie, in rhyme with the old-fashioned Assunta, “You know what Fettunta always says, to not skip the oil!” The new oil, full of health, packed scientific compounds that are named to bolster the argument for non-believers, but no one, no one in Tuscany, needs to hear this argument. They feel it the minute the oil touches their tongue. They all know it in their bones.
I walked slowly upstairs with the rain boots – they’d need to be washed; their soles still caked with gravel and mud. I opened the door of our apartment on the mezzanino, the former servants’ quarters but comfortable by any standard, and saw my husband had proudly lined up his five green cans of new oil. Fettunta for weeks, months even. The fettunta season will abate somewhat when warm weather returns, but for now, the forecast is all fettunta.