Fare La Scarpetta

While having lunch with friends this week, Steve said, one of the things he likes about Italy is that it’s socially acceptable to dip your bread into your sauce.This reminded me of an article I wrote for Italy Magazine when I wrote for them. So I’ll share it with you all, and some images of bell’abruzzo.

Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

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This end to a meal ritual is vastly popular all over Italy; however, where it originates is still open to debate. There’s one theory that the practice began in Venice, though bread wasn’t usually served with pasta in northern Italy, whereas it was in the south of the country, therefore it is implausible to assume it originated there.

In his book about medieval eating habits, Fabrizio Vanni proposes that the act took place following the introduction of tomatoes to the Italian diet back in the late 16th century. Before this time sauces tended to be thicker and more robust; with the introduction of the tomato, sauces became lighter and therefore required mopping up. Another suggestion regarding the origin of la scarpetta is that back in a time when wasting food was frowned upon, the bread merely became a tool to be used much like cutlery.

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A Calabrese friend of mine who tells me the phrase has its origins in Southern dialect prefers to have a more romantic notion regarding la scarpetta. He is convinced it stems from the heart of cucina povera (poor cuisine), from a time when people were literally so hungry they’d have eaten the soles of their shoes. He says when you are unsure when you’ll eat next, it made sense to mop up every last drop of sauce.

As with many Italian expressions, the reasoning behind the phrase is visual: during the practice of sweeping the bread across the plate the finger becomes the leg that pushes the bread which becomes the shoe. It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

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This said there is a time when making the little shoe is frowned upon and Giovanni Della Casa explained it in Il Galateo, his guide to the rules of polite behaviour and etiquette: it is acceptable to engage in the practice during an informal meal, however, in a formal setting and in public, when making the little shoe you must use a fork and not your finger to move it across the plate.

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Generosità

I think the Italian people are inherently a generous bunch. Over the past four weeks I’ve been showered with no end of free things. My builder has brought me bags of De Cecco pasta, croissants and pizza. A neighbour dropped by to welcome us with a bag of fresh eggs and I’ve had two litres of home produced olive oil given to me, not to mention my lovely handmade olive wood hanging basket. All of these things have been greatly and graciously received. One thing I have noticed that the Italians are very generous with is advice. Everyone has the answer to any little problem, and despite everyone’s answers being different, theirs is always the definitive one.

I’ve had advice about foraging and had the results for dinner, I’ve been directed to shops that will save me money rather than using the large supermarkets and even had three different people ask if I’d like to buy their house for a very good price. Because I already live here, I am entitled to get it at a discount unlike a foreigner who’ll have to pay more for it. I’ve politely declined all three offers, much to the sellers amazement; Why wouldn’t I want a second house a few kilometres away, Italians have more than one – I really am a pazzo straniero, (crazy foreigner)

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Last night I was watching a DVD when at 9.00 there was a knock at my door, at first I was quite shocked, as we’re so remote you don’t expect visitors to arrive unannounced. I open the door and its Nicolo from the farm down the lane. “Genziana, un regalo per te.” (Genziana, a gift for you). I take the little bottle from him and thank him, he squeezes my hand and wishes me a good night, calling me his new friend. I close the door and say to my other half, “See it pays to be friendly with the locals.” Genziana, is a straw coloured liqueur made from the roots of the gentian plant. It’s drank as a digestivo after dinner and has a bitter, herbal taste. This gift is obviously homemade as it’s in an old beer bottle with a plastic stopper. As I’m not really keen on it, I shall save it for visitors and stick with grappa and my own homemade limoncello.

I was waiting in line today in the post office, when a young girl came in and gave everyone that was waiting a small polystyrene cup with a shot of espresso inside. Now she could obviously have looked at me and assumed that being a foreigner I’d not want a shot of the rocket fuel, but no, she didn’t even enquire if I’d like one, she just handed me my cup and along with the Italians in the queue, I thanked her and enjoyed my mid-morning coffee, feeling very much an accepted part of village life here in Abruzzo.

Later, in the afternoon, a car pulls up and its our builder’s wife, she arrived with dolce (sweet.) So we all tuck into a slice of soft brioche style cake and munch sugar coated almonds as we stand around gabbling away like turkeys, while the iPod shuffles and fortuitously Mac and Katie Kissoon sing Sugar Candy Kisses

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04.05.13: Last night I decided to post this addition to my blog when there was a knock at my door, I opened it to find Michele there with another handful of wild asparagus for me. I’ll have to think of a way of repaying all this kindness.

Dented Cars and Dirty Fingernails

All countries and people have their idiosyncrasies and Italy is no exception. They say that the English are the most eccentric of people, but I disagree, I think all people have a little bit of eccentricity about them, while others’ are just plain bonkers. Take today for instance, I woke up to find the car covered in sand, during the night a sirocco must have whipped up and deposited part of the Sahara on the Zafira. So, not finding the sand particularly bothersome, I just sploshed some screen wash across the windscreen and drove away. I was on my way to the supermarket and passing the self-service car-wash nearby when I spotted the queues of cars waiting outside. I spotted someone I knew and pulled up and chatted, we passed the time of day as he waited for the person in front to complete the washing of his car. My friend asked if I was here to wash the sand off my car, “Boh,” I said. (See how soon I’ve began to fit in. Boh means absolutely nothing but everyone uses the expression.) “Sabbia, non.” He looked at me horrified that I didn’t see sand as a problem, I then looked at his car with its dented wing and scratches down the side. “What’s a bit of sand compared to scratches and dents,” I told him, and again he looked horrified. He then moved closer, put his hand upon my shoulder and whispered to me that dents and scratches are evidence of a useful car, a car that works well for its owner, however a dirty car tells all and sundry that the owner is a lazy man. It’s more important to be clean than it is to be dented.

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No doubt the owner of the car I spotted on Sunday up at Gessopalena will worry more about the dusty bonnet than the broken side light due to poor negotiation of the limited space available in this particular street.

Now, I have been back in Abruzzo now for twenty-two days and it’s fair to say that every single one of those days has seen me comment upon how dirty my fingernails have been. I mentioned this to my builder, who gave me an odd look, making me realise that finger nail conversations aren’t butch enough for builders. “That’s because you are living on a building site.” he said, more than likely to humour me, as I’m the one who pays him at the end of each day. “I guess so,” I say and begin to walk away, when he says, “Maybe if you had been a builder and not a writer then dirty fingernails wouldn’t be a problem for you.”  It was my turn now to toss across an odd look,  “Me, a builder. No way, far too hard a job for my liking,” I said. “I’ll stick to sitting at a desk and writing.”

“But look at all these beautiful stones,” he said, “Writing cannot bring these out like a builder can.”

“Oh yes it can,” I told him. “It’s the writing that pays you to do it.”