David and Toby are, of course, pathetic. By which we mean we are not super-confident, hurly-burly let’s-paint-the-town-red kind of people, at least not in the throws of a blossoming love affair (with Badalucco, that is). We prefer to let things grow organically. Having said that, the biggest obstacle in just getting chatty with the locals – we do chat, but so far it is, although very friendly and amiable, rather limited – are our Italian language skills. At least we have the basics and we never resort to French or English. And some locals talk in dialect and/or mumble, and here your average acquired Italian is of little use anyway. But we often feel we want to ask the locals about their village or the surrounding countryside or their activities as olive oil farmers or shop owners or whatever, but we get all mushy and timid. But: perhaps the locals sense our genuine affection for this place (in that respect we are not shy) and that’s why they are genuinely sweet and, a real bonus, totally lacking in overbearing curiosity. At least we can say that we’re not being coy or deliberately hiding out in our flat all the time: we are a regular presence in the village’s hotspots (the bar, the deli-café, the bakery, the piazza duomo, the butcher, the pizzeria, the tabacchi and our various walks in the surrounding countryside), and we are also, in our humble opinion, not your typical ignorant and un-sensitive tourist. In our own humble way, we are inquisitive and try to convey how much we enjoy our residency here.
Anyway, today there has been a breakthrough!
A short preamble: we had planned to have lunch at a restaurant just outside Badalucco which we had peeked into a few weeks back when we couldn’t understand the many cars parked on the highway with only an apparently abandoned country house nearby; well, we soon realised all you had to do was open an unassuming door and you entered into a raucous, super-cosy restaurant with open fire and a friendly vibe. The place being (understandably) fully booked, we vowed to return soon. This we did today, only to find it was closed for holiday until March! We were really confused, because most other establishments had closed for December in order to re-open for January – we had noted a perceptible increase in activity in January in contrast to December. Not to be defeated so quickly, we retraced our steps (idiots that we are we had walked from the village to this restaurant – no-one here walks anywhere, and for good reason, you have to walk along the highway!) and this time got the car to drive just beyond the other side of Badalucco to try a restaurant which we had also earmarked for quite a while now. (We don’t go out to restaurants willy nilly as we have to watch our budget. But this month we have been diligent in our budgeting and a break in home-cooking was called for.)
Although this has nothing to do with our breakthrough, we would like to mention that on our way to the second restaurant (there are three in total, one we’ve tried and were very happy with, plus the pizzeria within the village) we chanced upon a procession in occasion of La Santa Messa in onore di Sant’Antonio Abate e la Benedizione delle Castagne in our village. This featured a small procession with an effigy of what we gathered was Sant’Antonio (or the Madonna? or Jesus?) of villagers and a brass band; the procession ended by entering the main church where mass was in full swing (the doors were open); a few villagers not part of the procession were standing in the wings, as it were.
Charming as this was, we were hungry and continued our own little procession to the car and hence to the restaurant in question, La Capanna dei Celti (The Celtic Hut). Reverting momentarily to our usual patheticness, we hovered outside the restaurant because we were a bit early and so far the place was empty. But when the first people came we overcame our stupid timidity and went in.
The place, run by a chef with a French-sounding name, immediately felt homely and welcoming. The menu was interesting in that it featured dishes that were not exclusively Ligurian (French chef in the kitchen, we suppose). Soon after we arrived and placed our order (David: a brandade-style mash of stoccafisso (stockfish) and potatoes, oven-baked lamb; Toby: pan-fried foie gras and salsiccia (Italian sausage) and a gorgeous Tyrolean Gewürtztraminer), a group of three relatively burly men sat down at the table next to ours. We are always suitably impressed and slightly in awe when locals enter the scene. We enjoyed our lunch and talked about food and wine and, of course, the other people lunching in this restaurant. Even though we are not fully-bitched-up gossip-freaks we do like to analyse our partners-in-crime: a delightful table of two American-Italian couples of a certain age, a table of three consisting of a mother (funny hair but simpatica), daughter (atrocious black nail varnish and even more atrociously bad make-up) and a man whose connection to the two remained a mystery, but who sported an index finger in plaster, which provided us with yet another torrent of tittle-tattle), plus others who shall remain unmentioned due to lack of interest.
As time went by Marcello, he of the fabulous enoteca in Badalucco, appeared, to animated and warm greetings by the three men at the table next to ours. He sat down with them and lively chatter ensued about – what else – wine. It soon transpired that Marcello was not happy with the choice of wine the three men had made. His response was to leave, return after a short while and bring them a bottle from his own cellar. This alone would be unthinkable in a UK restaurant! As they went about trying the new wine accompanied by many expressions of appreciation, Marcello spotted us, remembering us vaguely, we gathered, from one of our (too few) visits to his enoteca (we will remedy this at once!!). When he rose to leave, he came over and shook our hands briefly. We did feel rather chuffed, we don’t mind reporting.
After Marcello had left we continued to enjoy our lunch and were absorbed in conversation when suddenly, out of the blue and without warning one of the three men turned to us, holding the bottle of wine Marcello had bought them, gave us an impromptu introduction to the wine, pointing out how delicious it was, and then, after we agreed that it must surely be good if it came from Marcello, he poured us a taster into our by now empty glasses. Gobsmacked yet really touched by this sudden and unexpected gesture of generosity we sampled the wine (a 2001 Langhe red of an estate whose name we sadly forgot) and continued to have a brief and lively chat with the three guys about wine, Badalucco village life and other things, and answered the most genuinely curious and well-intended questions about our stay here in Badalucco while at the same time gleaning information about the activities they were involved with (construction, olive oil producing). When we thanked him for sharing their wine with us he beamed a smile in our direction, raised his shoulders and said that he believed it was a privilege and joy to share pleasures with others, and that it was too easy to always share annoyances with your fellow men. Indeed.
We suspect that they felt it appropriate to share some of their wine (and, therefore, establish some sort of friendly contact) because Marcello had said hi to us on his way out. But equally, they may have been aware in their subtle and cunning ways that we were quite fascinated by their deliberations about wine and food (that much we could understand – and anyway, few Italians talk about much else except food and wine).
We’d had our first proper chat with a bunch of super-friendly über-locals and they were the initiators, in as sudden a manner as it was charming. As we rose we said thanks for the wine and buon appetito (their mains had just arrived – a succulent-looking arrosto di manzo, roast beef) and they cheerily said their thanks in return. As we left the premises after paying the bill (not cheap but boy did we not care, our food was sublime) and a quick chat with the very very charming (and cute) chef we turned once more to say good-bye and were again greeted with raised hands in warm and expressive salutation by the three men.
We were so chuffed by this amiable exchange so totally devoid of any cynicism or we-are-locals-you-are-not snobbery that we went straight to the village bar to have a coffee and a grappa. The bar was packed, as usual, with a mix of young and old watching a football match (David noted: no-one was actually drinking any alcohol!! Can you imagine this in the UK?!?) and we had our drinks (2 grappa, 1 dble espr, 1 espr, 1 capuc = €8.30). As the match remained at 0:0 (Juventus vs Sampadoria) we left to go home to our cosy little flat, grinning with joy until our jaws hurt.