ou never know what you’ll find in the cellar of an Umbrian house. Bits and pieces of past lives keep company with the odd wheel of pecorino, a few salamis hanging from the ceiling, a demijohn filled with undrinkable country wine made by a neighbor. Relegated knickknacks come in multitudes.
My friends Paolo and Luciana Tonti actually have a few 19th-century wooden handlooms in their cellar. Paolo’s family has been in the textile industry since the 17th-century when his ancestors came to the tiny mountain village of Rasiglia in Umbria as wool dyers.
In the 1930s, in the same small village, his grandfather actually built an electric generator to power up the family business (only parts of Italy had electrical power at the time, with most of the countryside still powered by coal and wood). His machine provided energy and improved efficiency in the making of wool textiles, the family pride for over a century.
Paolo’s mother Vanda shared the lives of the weavers, their pastoral ways outside the woolen mill, the terrors of World War II, and the reconstruction of a new and modern factory in the boom days of the 1950s and 60s.
Times have changed and the wool mill is long gone. But the family tradition remains strong. Luciana has restored some of the looms to operating condition. Whenever she has a free moment — not often with a teaching job and an olive oil farm to run — she weaves beautiful, bright things for those who wish to bring a piece of the past to their homes.
For a week in April, during a weaving festival, Luciana opens her house to demonstrate her skills (it’s part of the “Penelope in Rasiglia” cultural workshop set up by the regional tourist board to show off the town’s textile skills and other local traditions). But if you’re not in Umbria at the time, you can always drop her an email — [email protected] — for a private weaving demonstration.
If you’re lucky, you might even see Luciana and her friend Arderia setting the heddles, a vital component in any loom. It’s an arduous, two-day procedure in which each strand of the warp is threaded through heddles to reflect a specific pattern. It’s a magical lesson in skill and concentration.
Whenever I feel sorry for myself and decide I work too much, I have to remind myself of these women, who sit at looms for days on end, manage large families, take care of vegetables, deal with animals, and still wash everything by hand. And also make wonderful cloth that can stand up to the wear and tear of centuries.
The recipe below — pasta and ceci beans — is a typical weaver’s dinner based on ingredients that were readily available in a country kitchen: handfuls of pasta scraps (maltagliati), bacon, cooked beans.
It’s still suitable for very busy people for three reasons: it’s wholesome, nutritious and ready in a flash.
Pasta e ceci (Serves 2)
- 1 cup cooked garbanzo beans.
- 60 gr (2 oz) cubed guanciale — heavy, unsmoked bacon — or pancetta.
- 1 small onion, finely minced.
- 3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley.
- 1 small chili pepper.
- 200 gr (scant 1/2 lb) fresh whole wheat maltagliati pasta or large fettuccini cut into 5-cm (2-inch) pieces.
— In a large sauté pan, soften onion in 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.
— Add guanciale and sauté an additional minute until translucent. Add beans with 4-5 tablespoon of their cooking water and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Chop the chili pepper in very thin pieces but don’t cook it.
— Meanwhile cook the pasta in a large pan with plenty salted water on a rolling boil. Fresh pasta will cook in a maximum 2 minutes.
— Drain and transfer the pasta in the saucepan with the chickpea mixture. Stir quickly on high heat, add chili pepper and fresh parsley, a drizzle of fruity olive oil and bring to the table piping hot with grated pecorino cheese on the side.