Milan, November 1—WE SEEM USUALLY to have incredibly good luck finding places to stay and to eat. In Lanslebourg, wondering what to do for three days and nights near Chiomonte, I looked for "agriturismo" near Susa, and found four. I chose the first, nearest Susa: Cré Seren. After finally getting my jacket liberated from the museum in Modane we drove back to Lanslebourg, then over the Moncenisio pass…
But first a few words on this road, which we'd already taken a few days earlier, on Monday, in a light snowstorm, northbound. We first drove this road perhaps thirty years ago, and I had distinct memories of that summer's drive, past a pretty lake where two girls, maybe twelve years old, were sitting on the grass weaving daisy-chains as they kept watch over their small herd of milk-cows.
We'd driven down through France and were eager to get to Italy and were pleased to see the conifers on the French side of the pass give way to mixed hardwood forest, then palms and citrus trees. Kennst du das Land, wo die Citrönen bluhen? Heidi and The Sound of Music giving way to Goethe!
Last Thursday, though, I noted the lake was a reservoir held back by an immense earthen dam; there were neither girls nor cows to be seen; the weather was chilly. The end of October is a long way from July at this altitude. We did stop just beyond the dam to investigate what seemed an abandoned village, its few buildings in varying degrees of collapse. It wasn't inviting, and we went on.
Our dashboard navigator with its incredibly irritating Englishwoman's voice — turn right at the vee-ah ee-vray-AH — led us to our agriturismo by a dubious route. I should have expected this; the same thing had happened to us in Sicily, when we were also led into an increasingly narrowing street. We turned an improbably steep angle, down a cobbled road between plastered stone walls confining fields, between frugally placed houses leaving almost no room for traffic, finally pulling in both side mirrors and driving with inches to spare, but finally noticing signs to Cré Seren, and finally drawing up at a pretty little chapel beyond which stood a winery shed across the street from what proved to be Cré Seren's restaurant.
This wasn't our digs, though. The restaurant was closed; no one seemed about. Back at the parked car, wondering what to do, we waited until a pleasant-looking man, fortyish, walked out of the winery. He asked us what we needed, then crossed the road to call into a kitchen window, and our hostess stepped out, apologizing for her lack of English, smiling at my Italian.
Another fellow drove up in a small pickup with a box of tomatoes and peppers, and the hostess transferred them to the wheelbarrow and trundled them back across the road. In the meantime her mother had materialized, a small, goodlooking woman with a marvelously good-natured face all smiles: she would lead us to our bedroom.
She set off back down the road, on foot, motioning to us with that curious Italian gesture, pawing the air palm down, and we drove slowly after, down the street and into a courtyard where she showed us to leave the car in front of a woodpile, the hood and windshield under an overhang.
The room itself was another forty feet away, up the street, into another yard flagged with basalt and granite, next to a vegetable garden, up a flight of stairs. Inside, two twin beds and a bunkbed; next to that bedroom, an enormous bathroom (lacking, however, a tub).
We later learned that this cheery lady was Sylvana Sereno. Her daughter, the cook, is Serena Sereno. (Her brother, who we never met, is named Hilario Sereno: Sylvana is a master of light poetry, I suspect.) The winemaker was Serena's husband, GianCarlo Martina: Italians often keep their own surnames when they marry.
I won't write here about the food and wine at this agriturismo; you may already have read about it over at Eating Every Day; if not, click over there if you like. I will explain that an agriturismo is a place licenced by the government to bring tourists in contact with the agricultural tradition of Italy; the food and wine served is often, perhaps always for all I know, produced by the location (obvious exceptions like cocoa, sugar, and coffee being tolerated); and in our experience the people who run these places seem to be particularly oriented toward small-farm, sustainable, chemical-free practice, though by no means refusing continuing education into modern versions of traditionally-valued agricultural practise.
After unpacking and cleaning up a bit I wanted a walk, and set out toward a chapel I'd noticed perhaps half a mile away, down the street through the village — if village it was: for there seemed no commercial center or indeed any commercial buildings at all apart from the winery, itself a modest sort of barn with no facilities for retail sales or tasting. On either side of the street were houses and their vegetable gardens or, occasionally, small orchards or vineyards. These were fenced and in many cases guarded by frisky, noisy dogs, mostly terriers it seemed.
I passed a fellow who was cleaning up a press-basket, having just finished pressing out his private stock of Barbera. We had a pleasant conversation, in the course of which he agreed that things in the Valsusa were changing: The only thing that's improved around here is the wine, he said, though he didn't seem outraged at the decline; rather he seemed optimistic and grateful for the improvement. I went on, past an open pasture in which the most enormous chestnut tree I've ever seen stood, certainly toward eight feet in diameter. A man was raking its leaves and chestnut-burrs away from the trunk, working methodically, raking out to a circular periphery exactly at the dripline, say twenty feet from the trunk. A wagon stood nearby; he'd soon be piling the leaves in it. For feeding his livestock, I wondered, later in the winter, when everything would be snowed in?
As I walked back the man with the press-basket eyed me curiously. You must be Mario's cousin, he said. No, I said, I don't have a cousin named Mario, I have no family at all in these parts, it's my wife's family comes from here, from Chiomonte. Ah, Chiomonte, he nodded thoughtfully; Chiomonte.
In the next three days we had three dinners at Cré Seren, each very good indeed. When on Friday morning we drove into Susa for information on walking-paths in the area I mentioned that we were staying there, and the lady at the tourist-office desk nodded and said Very good table there; that's a woman knows how to cook.
Serena feigned no English, though I suspect she speaks a little and understands more. (I'll never know how it is these people can understand more than they can speak; with me it's the contrary. Perhaps it's just that I speak, I talk talk talk, whether I know what I'm saying or not. As Laverdure the parrot says, in Zazie dans le Metro, tu parle, tu parle, c'est tout ce que tu pourras.) That didn't keep us from conversations, in the course of which she mentioned that the government restricts agriturismo tightly; they must have no fewer than x beds, no more than y; their dining rooms must have no fewer than x covers, no more than y; they must serve traditional food of the country: in this case, vitello tonnato, bagna cauda, brasato al polenta, bonet…
None of that offends me at all. In fact I think it a good idea: old traditions are kept alive that might otherwise vanish, and the links among terrain, climate, nutrition, daily life, and daily pleasure as well as work are maintained.
For the most part the natives of this valley seem remarkably healthy. We hear of people of considerable age: there's a woman in Gialgione who's 105, and in full command of her senses though a little deaf, they say. People are lean and bright-eyed and ready to do things, perhaps at a measured rate, but one that accomplishes the task. Tools and vehicles are appropriately scaled. All parts of the land, the buildings, the day seem to be put to use: when not, they're allowed to collapse gracefully, sinking back into the soil.
Yet Serena told us even here there's been the constant flight to the city, especially by the young people. (I reflected on the migrations of the past: of Lindsey's father's family, for example; only her father, of his family of five siblings, ever returned to the land; and then to a distant land indeed, fortunately for me.) As people leave, their smallholdings begin to disappear. Where once had been orchards and vineyards the wild forest begins to encroach. They never used to worry about wild animals; now they have to fence against mountain goats and sheep, capretti, wild pigs.
Wolves? Yes, she said, even wolves; they don't bother us of course, they don't bother the gardens, but if you have sheep you have to think about them, shepherds now have big white dogs big enough to hold the wolves at bay, and the dogs are frightening too.
We've seen a fair amount of this forest, both on drives and on a wonderful walk we took the other day. Mixed hardwood forest with a fair number of chestnuts and horse-chestnuts, the colors and textures of the forested hillside incredibly beautiful to look at. The balance of nature and human occupation seems poised at a tentative stand-off, and I'm glad the traditional values (not to menbtion the skills) haven't completely vanished: before long they may well be needed, when areas like this have been left by technology's failure to fend for themselves.