It’s Easter Saturday. It’s drizzling heavily (I can’t bring myself to admit it’s actually raining when we are so desperate for sun) and visibility is limited by skeins of mist drifting across the valley from the south. The vineyard, all of a drip-drip, looks bleak and wholly unpromising, making me wonder if luscious, juice-bursting bunches of grapes will ever grow from that lot this year.
So we go into the village to check the world is still turning, albeit at the snail-slow pace at which ours operates. Yes, there is life – of sorts.
In the bar there are the usual suspects – untidy clumps of men in their 60s and 70s, identically dressed in circa 1978-style (I use the word ‘style’ loosely), conversing and gesticulating like manic puppets. We find that, mercifully, the telly is not in its normal blast-your-ears-off state but blank and silent. Odd, that. Perhaps the plug’s come out. Giuseppe will be putting that right – domani.
We chat with Emanuela, the barista, and reassure her that when she makes her first-ever visit to London next month she will be able to get a cappuccino. I can’t operate without it, can’t even start my day, she tells us, with dramatic gestures, and we apologetically explain that while it won’t be half as good as the ones she makes, it’s the best we can do in a country where people habitually order a cappuccino as an after-dinner drink.
After our coffee we cross the piazza to the panificio. I’ve had a few awkward encounters in here over the years, my vocab so often failing me and a stabbing finger rarely being enough to compensate. The little shop is full and we join the queue, aware that, as ever, we are the objects of most people’s unashamed scrutiny. Actually, it’s not so much scrutiny as full-on staring, no holds barred. They do it wherever we go, and we simply cannot get used to it, especially as we are not in the least bit remarkable.
As the queue shortens, so my panic increases. Now it is my turn. I step forward and ask for 250 grams of “those” – stab-stab of finger at fly-blown cakey-biscuity things that might be puffed-up chocolate chip cookies but could equally, with my eyesight, be flat currant buns. Phew, she understands me. “A posto?” she asks. No, not done yet. I draw up to my full inadequate height, gulp a deep breath, and do a combined point-n-stab with mumbled Italian to signify my desire for “one of those bread things”, or that’s what I mean, even if it may not come across as that. Bless her, she grasps what I’m after and snatches up a large circle of bread from a display that looks not unlike a nest of sleeping snakes, and hands it to me in a brown paper bag along with the bag of mystery biscuity-cakey things. I pay, obediently take my receipt, squeeze my way past the staring know-alls and burst out gratefully into the rain. I mean heavy drizzle.
So what have I bought? Biscotti con pepite di cioccolato – I’ll give them the benefit of my doubt and call them biscuits – egg-glazed, choc-chip beauties that have benefited from a pleasingly light hand on the sugar. As well as the choc chips there are curious seed-shaped things like hard, flattened coco-pops. Interesting, and altogether moreish, to a disturbing degree.
The other purchase, the bread-snake, was referred to in the shop as a ciambella. I am intrigued. I rabbit on about this on the way home, telling my husband with great authority that it’s more than likely associated with Easter – you know, circle of life, that sort of thing, I say, knowingly. I am so delighted to think that this minor purchase has bought us entry into the local observance of Easter traditions.
Except, of course, I am wrong. Or I probably am. I look up ciambella when I get home. Wikipedia tells me it is a doughnut-shaped cake (i.e. one with a hole in the middle) of various sizes and many flavours, such as lemon, orange and aniseed.
What have we ended up with, then? It is an oddity, that’s for sure, so it’ll be a regional (Le Marche), or more likely an actual village, speciality. Our ciambella has the appearance of a crusty French stick, albeit a wheel-shaped stick, but break a bit off and it has the texture of a dry Yorkshire pudding or an unsuccessful attempt at a choux pastry ring. There is not the slightest hint of seasoning, nothing sweet, nothing salty, nothing herby. It is, in short, a tasteless disappointment and an enduring mystery.
What could it possibly be for? A baby’s lifebelt, perhaps? A table decoration? Pause to hunt for candles and sprigs of greenery.
Or perhaps it’s a halo. Yes, it must be a halo. I feel I deserve one for being brave enough, in those hostile circumstances, to buy one of the ghastly things in the first place.
But wait, I do have a use for it – and the timing must mean that our ciambella was indeed heaven-sent. Yesterday, the wheelbarrow tyre suffered a puncture and went flat. Do we have a spare? You bet we do. Pass me that ciambella!