Monday, April 5, 2010

An Osteria in Chianti-

“Ultimo is Chianti.” The truth of these words—and the epic, century-long existence of one inimitable Ultimo Gori—is the essence of An Osteria In Chianti, Dario Castagno’s fourth book. A native “Chiantigiano” himself, Castagno delves into the history and character of Tuscany through Ultimo’s extraordinary arc, which begins with his 1908 birth, the tenth child of a sharecropping family eking out a frugal existence in the rock-strewn fields of Chianti Senese. When Dario initially meets Ultimo in 1983—after the then-septuagenarian tosses his Vespa into a tree as if it were a sack of wild mushrooms—it is by chance. But the 25-year friendship that followed was clearly meant to be, in the most profound of ways.

Shortly after first encountering Ultimo, Dario also crosses paths with a mysterious and elegant gentleman in a bar. Overhearing Dario’s tale of the rough-hewn Vespa-hurler, the enigmatic stranger gives him an important envelope to deliver back to Ultimo. He then launches into a spellbinding recantation of Ultimo’s life, his own place in it—and the evolution of Chianti itself. Tales of pre-modern Tuscany, tragically lost family members, unrequited love, friends humble and noble alike, World War II, swapped identity, imprisonment, and redemption cascade together. They are inter-cut with episodes from Dario’s deepening companionship with Ultimo. Ending with glimpses into a realm of magic, and a most fitting continuation of Ultimo’s legacy, An Osteria In Chianti takes the reader on an irresistible journey that—spiritually and historically—is Chianti.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Saturday, November 11, 7:00 A.M.
My wake-up call is all-natural. I’m roused by the sun as it ascends behind the eastern hills of Chianti. Its insistent rays penetrate my bedroom window and ripple over me, and I allow them to gently stroke my face for a few luxurious moments. Then I slowly open my eyes and watch as the light expands to take possession of the entire room. The sudden brightness warms the egg-yolk hued paint with which I recently adorned the walls, and brightens the cool green of the ficus plants in their terracotta vases at the foot of my brass bed.
It’s many years since I stopped closing the shutters at night; in my opinion, it would be unforgivable to block out the spectacular show nature offers us daily. True, observing the sunrise each morning is a bit like attending the same theatrical performance every day. The crucial difference is that the performance I enjoy varies wildly with regard to the temperature, the level of humidity, the disposition of the clouds, and an infinite number of other imperceptible, ambient factors that can never truly be identical to the scene as it was played the previous day. So while each new sunrise might initially seem repetitive it is in fact never predictable — and let me add an element unusual in today’s society: it never asks for anything in exchange.
Still half asleep, I slip out of bed and head to the window. Despite the fresh, fizzy morning air I lean out, the better to take in the view of the valley below. As always, it has been swallowed by a thick layer of fog, which will melt away as soon as this first glorious burst of sun reaches it. In the meantime, from the mountains of mist there emerge only the uppermost tips of the ancient towers scattered across the countryside; with a bit of imagination it can seem as if a freakishly high tide has taken possession of the entire valley. Some million years ago, when the Tyrrhenian Sea used to lap against these very hills, this is what Chianti might have looked like. I nurture this fantasy, toy with it as I sway between lingering sleep and the sweet torpor of waking.
This, then, is the serene, refreshing way my mornings almost always begin.
Today, however . . .
My head, as I crane through the window, feels as heavy as concrete, like it might snap off my neck and drop; it bobbles, it throbs, each chirp of a bird resounds like thunder in my ears. My eyes refuse to focus; they well up with tears, as though the fresh air were laced with mustard gas. My mouth puckers and parches; it still holds the acid flavor of the wine I drank in such epic quantities last night, at an assembly in nearby Siena of the Noble Contrada of the Bruco — my beloved Caterpillar.
I try to recall the specifics of what happened. As is usually the case at such gatherings, after the conclusion of the agenda and the closing comments by the Rector, I stopped to exchange a few words and to drink a few gottini (shots) with my Caterpillar comrades. As always, we punctuated our drinking with several rounds of songs and hymns dedicated to the glory of our contrada — glory which surrounded us, physically, there in the Caterpillar’s headquarters, hung with the effigies, banners, and photos of the victorious horses and riders who had triumphed in past Palios — those enduring, immortal bareback horse races that each July and August are the highlights of the Sienese calendar. And so, between bursts of lyric and bottles of Tuscan red, we paid homage to our heritage deep into the night.
And . . . then what happened? . . . I remember eventually making my way to collect my car, and becoming aware that I staggering slightly — no doubt due to the copious amounts of wine coursing through my veins. I accordingly decided it would be best to return home via an anti-breathalyzer route that I’ve perfected over the years. It comprises a longer distance, but has the essential advantage that its nearly complete isolation neatly evades any possibility of encountering any police. The snag, alas, is that en route I’m obliged to pass before Albert’s Osteria — in whose window last night I spotted a dim light filtering through the half-closed rolling shutter. It had been a while since I’d seen Alberto, so I reasoned it would be rude not to stop in for a quick hello. I pulled up and parked in the small square in front of the restaurant.
Alberto, I now recall, had just finished cleaning up, his staff had gone home, and all the chairs but one had been stacked on the tables for the night. Alberto himself was seated casually alone, puffing on a cigar and pouring himself a glass of Morellino di Scansano from a bottle he’d just opened. As soon as I passed beneath the partially lowered metal shutter — with my head dangling behind me and my torso curved back as though I were doing the limbo — he invited me to join him, and fetched me a glass which he proceeded to fill up to the brim.
As we drank, we discussed the new American Center that Siena’s basketball team had purchased for its upcoming season, which we agreed could only result in the squad’s decisive leap in quality. Eventually, having exhausted the subject of defense tactics and strategies, we switched to more substantial topics for the second bottle; and by the third we were avidly solving global warming, eliminating Third World starvation, and forging brilliant resolutions to the murderous conflicts that beset the Middle East.
When finally I reached home and lay my head upon the pillow, the blue readout on the alarm clock proclaimed that it was 3.47 a.m.
Now that I’ve recalled all this, I feel quite justified in having a ringing headache, a furred mouth and — I imagine — the kind of breath one might have after swallowing the corpse of a decomposed sewage rat who died of dysentery.
As I don’t want to feel guilty, I decide to don as penance a heavy woolen poncho I purchased in Guatemala and which has been hanging on my poplar cloak hanger ever since. Then I drag my sluggish body to the small office next to the bedroom to check my e-mail — after the performance of which duty, I promise myself, I will return to bed and hope that Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep, will readmit me to his realm of dreams.
I turn on the computer and the 56K modem. With my bloodshot eyes — “sailors’ eyes,” as we say in Italian — I stare at the monitor as it slowly downloads 224 new messages. My heart sinks at the sheer volume of them.
With a bit of difficulty (due to my numb, unresponsive fingers) I manage to identify the spam, first deleting any correspondence offering me cheap Viagra and Cialis. Then I abolish the invitations to websites where I’m assured I can see photos of Paris Hilton or Posh Spice naked. Finally I eradicate all the notifications of the many lotteries I’ve won overnight, and two urgent pleas from fake relatives of fake monarchs of fake African nations offering me millions of fake dollars in exchange for all my financial passwords and the free use of my bank account.
I’ve always taken it for granted that anyone who spends time on-line must receive this kind of spam daily. Otherwise — if this were really the fruit of research by expert marketers who have studied the habits and attitudes of my Internet usage and tailored their messages accordingly — I would have to be classified as a perpetually impotent sex maniac, who is also utterly guileless. (While I may confidently deny the former, I admit to being a little wary about being the latter.)
After having banished all the annoyances to the trash, there are nine mails left, six of which comprise fan mail for my previous books, which is always very welcome. As usual, the writers ask for tips for their upcoming trips to Tuscany and ask hopefully if they might meet me during their stay.
Another email seems at first to be such a fan letter, but turns out to be rather the opposite. It’s from a woman who read my first book in anticipation of coming to Tuscany and found it “a binful of garbage” and me “a pretentious son of a bitch.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, she does not ask to meet me.
Then there’s a message from an old friend from New Jersey who needs a supply of my extra virgin olive oil as a Christmas gift for a friend.
Then, finally, I reach the last — but as it turns out, far from least — e-mail, sent to me by a literary agent in America. I open it and read with curiosity:

Dear Mr Castagno
Buongiorno! I’ve been commissioned to write you on behalf of an established publisher in Los Angeles who is interested in a professional collaboration with you. They will be producing a series of books dedicated to the great wines of the world. We’ve already hired a number of authors who live in the most prestigious wine-making regions, and having read and enjoyed the style and personality of your previous books on the Chianti region, I’m convinced that you would be perfect for this endeavor. If you are interested in this proposal, let me know and I will respond with more specifics.
I look forward hearing from you.
Best Regards
Mia Lane

A book based on wine. . . ? That could be a very interesting undertaking. But . . . where could I possibly begin? Not with history — too heavy; nor with an attempt to describe the qualities that make the wine great — too lofty. Facts and figures on consumption and export? . . . Too dry. But if not these, then what? . . . With a subject as enduring, complex, and culturally weighty as this, it’s almost impossible to come up with an appropriate introduction. Especially with a hangover.
I resolve to consider the problem of the first chapter later, when I’ve had a chance to recover. I’m sure something will come to me. Meanwhile, I turn off the computer, shrug off the poncho, and return to the enveloping warmth of the blankets . . .

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back to the Tuscan Hills

After a quick memorable "blitz" to California I'm about to board my plane and fly back home. I enjoyed explaining the Palio to the Los Angelini kids in the schools and the talk at the Italian Cultural Institute last Friday was according to everyone extremely enjoyable. The turnout was amazing and being able to share the Bruco/Caterpillar victory with the enthusiastic audience will remain a truly memorable experience. These gatherings also make me realize how lucky I am to have such a bounty of true friends, a mix of people met decades ago when I was touring people through the Chianti hills and others that have recently discovered my books Honestly how could I do without you all? Thanks !!

Monday, October 13, 2008

So the big dinner is over......we were so fortunate as the weather was pleasant and eating outside was fine.
I'm off to LA but the parties continue in Contrada until the 18th!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

We Won the August Palio!!

Caterpillar/Bruco Palio Victory 16th August 2008
The Most Outstanding of them all

It is with colossal satisfaction and pride that I have the pleasure to announce that the Noble Contrada of Bruco (Caterpillar) won the 16th of August 2008 Palio in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. The third victory this century, the 4th in the last 12 years. Not bad for a Contrada (neighbourhood) that last century remained without a victory for 41 endless years and won 1 Palio in 75. The wind of fate has decided to change direction and is blowing decisively in our favour now. From being mocked as the eternal losers, we now rightly march with our heads high through the city streets in Siena. We can feel the looks of envy and jealousy of the inhabitants of the other 16 Contradas glued upon us as we proudly show off the Palio banner conquered and deservedly won with merit last Sunday in an epic race.
Beneath the heraldic coat of arms of my Contrada an ancient insignia reveals “Come Rivoluzion Son il Mio Nom” that signifies “Like a Revolution My Name Sounds” and beyond doubt Bruco revolutionized the subtle intriguing and complicated equilibriums of what is probably the last true medieval tournament remained in the world. Yes, because Bruco triumphed in what was probably the most astonishing and surprising unforeseen victory of the last decades and thus even more satisfying than ever for the entire populace of Via del Comune (our district main street) bearing in mind also that we weren’t expecting to take part in this Palio.
In fact as we had raced both July and August 2007 we had a 30% chance of participating in each race this year and that only if we got the random lottery pick. In the July event we were very fortunate and we did get picked but the surprises weren’t over for me.
Days later I was approached by the Vicar that communicated that I had been chosen to represent the Contrada together with another twelve in the historical parade that precedes the race. I couldn’t find adequate words. I was literally flattered. Regrettably though fate this time turned its back to me as I injured my foot and despite all my efforts and determination the pain was too strong and in tears I was forced to renounce. I was aware when I pronounced my decision that it would have been unlikely to be given a second chance.
However we did get assigned a decent horse and hired the jockey Tittia who won his first Palio in July 2007 on Goose to ride him. Porcupine obtained the best horse and hired the pluri-victorious legendary jockey Trecciolino; it was apparent that Porcupine sought after this Palio desperately and invested a great sum to make sure they would win it. The race was set, Porcupine dashed in the lead, the other Contradas remained behind and Trecciolino won his eleventh Palio completely undisturbed dominating the entire three laps.
On the 6th of July all of Siena gathered once more in the square to follow the picking of the three additional fortunate Contradas that would join Eagle, Panther, Goose, Tower, Forest, Sea-Shell and Turtle for the August event. At 7.00pm the sound of the clarions echoed throughout the square announcing the pick. The populace of Bruco went wild when the window on the town hall opened and saw that the first flag that was hung up on the pinnacle was ours followed by Ram and Dragon. Fate decided we take part once again and the amazing coincidence was that Caterpillar, Ram and Dragon had also been extracted in August 2007 and what’s more in the exact same order! We couldn’t believe how blessed we were as we going to participate in our 5th consecutive Palio. As we marched back to our headquarters overjoyed with delight someone pointed out that in this Palio there would have been 4 Contradas bearing green in their flag; Goose., Forest, Caterpillar and Dragon and in Siena we believe that when this occurs disaster is bound to happen.
On the 9th of August the Palio banner was presented in the town hall, Mario Ceroli the designated artist crafted a gorgeous painting that when uncovered was greeted by a standing ovation. On the 12th of August the day preceding the horse assignment during the dinner in our splendid gardens the Vicar approached me and communicated that the committee had decided to give me a second opportunity, my foot had recovered and so I accepted without any hesitation.
13th August was the day we went to get our horse, the ten captains of the participating Contradas decided to select an experienced lotto of horses with only 3 debs. Yet again, in a sizzling hot and packed square, the mayor randomly pulled out one by one the name of each horse and randomly assigned them to each participating Contrada.
Selva got Giordhan and left the square in silence as did Eagle and Sea-Shell that obtained the debs Ilon and Guess. Turtle was assigned Elimia and were extremely satisfied by the pick. We attained Elisir that had raced before but anonymously and our expressions on our faces were grim as we left the square with our horse. One of the two big names, Fedora Saura that won July 2007 went to the Dragons that roared with delight while the victorious horse of July 2008, Gia del Menhir, went to Tower. They departed the square in silence and tears in respect of a twenty year old member that days before was involved in a dramatic car accident and was in coma (was this due to the 4 greens?). Choci that won in 2006 was obtained by Ram to the joy of their members, Elfo a decent Palio horse to Goose and finally the last deb, Istriceddu, to Panther that according to experts had great credentials.
At this point the captains needed to sign up the jockeys according to the characteristics and qualifications of the horses
Eagle hired Paride De Mauro aka Tiburzi , Turtle got hold of Luigi Bruschelli aka Trecciolino (the legend with 11 victories in 33 Palios raced) and became automatic favourites together with Dragon with Jonathan Bartoletti aka Scompiglio. Tower chose Andrea Mari aka Brio. Nicchio hired Alberto Ricceri known as Salasso. Panther Walter Pusceddu nick-named Bighino, Selva Antonio Villella aka Sgaibarre, Goose Giovanni Atzeni aka Tittia, Ram Luca Minisini aka Dè. Our Capitano Gianni Falciani contacted Giuseppe Zedde, a jockey he had discovered years ago and that had raced his first ever Palio for Bruco in 2002. Gianni himself had conferred upon him the name Gingillo (literally trinket). He had since raced other 7 times for other Contradas with no victories; never leaving any positive impressions. We had no hopes, an anonymous horse a quack rider and further more with 2 recent victories no need to waste money. It was clear to everyone that this Palio was going to be conquered by some more “famished” Contrada.
All the same the atmosphere in our headquarters was exciting, we spent the rest of the 13th making puns on our jockey and we accompanied the horse back to the square singing our hymns out loud. During the trial the Ram horse collapsed, fortunately without consequences and dinner that night turned into a memorable banquet.
14th of August during the morning trial this time the Eagle fell without damages and in the evening the third trial was won by Turtle. In Contrada we continued to sing and drink wine making toasts to Gingillo, Elisir and the Nobile Bruco.
15th of August we laid the tables for over 2000 people and it started to drizzle then it rained, then it poured, the evening trial was cancelled and so inevitably was the banquet. The track turned into a mud pitch, the risk of the Palio being delayed became a serious possibility. The curse of the 4 greens again struck the city and to make things even worse news spread that a young member died tragically in the Sea-Shell Contrada.
16th of August the sun was shining in the blue sky but the track was still too wet and so the final morning trial was also inevitably cancelled. It was the first time since World War 2 that two consecutive trials were annulled, however the track was covered with more sand and at 2.00pm the local council announced that the Palio was going to be raced. In the meantime more shocking news was announced: Selva decided at the last minute to change jockey and hired the deb Ygor Argomenni aka Smarrancio.
I had lunch in Contrada with the other companions that would represent the Bruco in the parade. I sported yellow blue and green tights tucked in brown medieval slippers, a puffy shirt under a thick green velvet coat underneath a cape and a woolly blue cap on my head. I felt sorry for my companions that were clad in cumbersome armour and carrying heavy swords, lances and flags; all I had to do was keep my hands on the belt buckle.
Our Rector and Captain gave us a short briefing after the blessing of Elisir in our chapel, they encouraged us to keep a straight face and reminded us of whom and what we represented. All of a sudden I started to panic and while climbing the steep street of my Contrada I felt the tremendous responsibility, my legs started to shake, and my mouth went dry and my hands were sweating cold. I couldn’t wait for it all to be over. We entered the main street and then paid visit to the bank headquarters where our alfieri executed the art of throwing the flag. They performed with so much dignity; it seemed to me that they were tossing together with the flags their hearts in the immaculate blue sky. We then had to march through the crowded main street up to the Duomo and then finally enter the Campo square. One of the horses of the Police force (Carabinieri) that open the parade by charging around the piazza fell and was injured delaying the entrance by half an hour (again the 4 greens?). Finally it was our turn; we entered with a slow pace following the rhythms of the bell tower. In 40 minutes it was over. We had to change into a more comfortable medieval costume in the town hall and sit on the bleachers reserved for the participants of the parade. At 7.15pm out came the horses accompanied by a deafening collective roar of the over 30,000 spectators. The jockeys and horses trotted to the start known by the Siennese as la mossa where they awaited the line up (also randomly picked).
After 50 nerve racking minutes where rivals Goose and Tower, Panther and Eagle tried to obstruct each other and following three false starts finally Dragon entered and the race commenced. The contest began and emotions ran wild as we all got caught up in the electric atmosphere lived in the three breakneck laps around the treacherous track. Dragon dashed in the lead, we had a terrible start and were way behind in eighth place. Panther crashed on the mattresses at the first turn of San Martino and at the turn of Casato Dragon fell, the Goose was now in front while Gingillo and Elisir started to catch up, they were 6th, 5th 4th then in Goose seemed to worry more about enemy Tower leaving us space on his right, Gingillo took advantage of the gap and at the beginning of the third and final lap overtook him tackling the last turn of San Martino perfectly, and we were in the lead with half a lap to go! We started screaming with excitement and when Gingillo crossed the finish line after the third Casato with his arm raised in triumph we jumped into the square embracing all the members indistinctively with tears in our eyes. We proudly collected the Palio that days before I had longed to see hanging in the hall of victories of my Contrada. First, following tradition we carried it to the Duomo and then into our headquarters. My first thoughts went to all the Caterpillar members that had recently departed this world, I couldn’t hold back my grief and wept for hours not yet realizing what an amazing Palio we had won. The night was long, we drank plenty of wine, we sung and paraded back and forth to the square waving our flags and beating the drums.
Now we shall party every single night until the conclusion on the 11th of October with the big victory party in our streets and with the hero the winning horse that will get the head of the table.

What else can I say? I had somehow predicted a victory, we had won last century in 07; 12; 22; 55 and 96 the sum of 7 12 22 55 curiously add up to 96. This century we won in 03 and 05 and so it seemed obvious that 08 were supposed to be our victory year.
The Palio is the Palio, it is a fantasy where the attitudes and the resentments of a city divided into 17 districts converge, true there are futile and tenacious rancors, but also the respect of the enemy Contrada is lived with a sense of esteem and dignity in its fullness.
I wish to thank herein my Rector Fabio Pacciani, the Captain Gianni Falciani, and the whole Contrada for accepting me in their big family.
I wish also to thank Stephanie, Paul and Ashley that were with me the day we got extracted to race in August. Denise that stayed an extra day to bring luck for the horse assignment Diana, Rob, Lou, Colleen, Susan and Kip that shared the victory with me and all of you that follow the Palio from the US. I’m sure that the energy and passion you transmit must have an important role in all our recent victories. Last but by no means least I wish to express thankfulness to my Caterpillar godson Iain that I baptized as a Contrada member and who follows the Palio in Chicago with so much fervour as if he was a native born Senese.
I invite you to view the pictures of me in the attachment and the more than 1000 victory photos on the following link
I shall be producing a new Palio documentary focused on this legendary victory that will be available in October and that I shall be presenting in LA on the 24th October.

Grazie Mille!!


Caterpillar stem

Caterpillar stem

The Bruco Flag

The Bruco Flag