Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Travelling in the Past by Katherine Webb

The fashion for ‘vintage’ seems to grow all the time - clothes and home decor and hobbies that either are or have been made to look old. As someone who has always loved old buildings and old things and old stories, and the sense of something having its own personal history, I can quite understand the appeal. For others, this harking back is a reaction to today's instant, throwaway culture - the hurried transience that seems to afflict every aspect of our daily lives. The permanence and ‘authenticity’ of things that were ‘built to last’, in an era we can look back upon through the rose-tint of nostalgia, can be comforting. I noticed this happening everywhere I looked in Puglia, in the southern ‘heel’ of Italy, when I visited to research my novel, The Night Falling.

Peasant wedding in Alberobello, 1920

It’s well known that the economy in the south of Italy suffers in comparison to the more affluent north - it has for generations. I’d had no idea before I began my research just how poor the south had been, until very recently. But, today, tourism is helping to change things. Puglia’s climate is hot and dry; it has miles and miles of dramatic coastline, riddled with caves and long expanses of beach where the waters of the Adriatic are crystal clear. It has white-washed medieval towns clustered on the high ground inland; it has fantastic food and wine. Basically, it has everything it needs to tempt sun-starved northerners to visit. What was most interesting to me, as I explored and learnt, was how the remnants of Puglia’s hard, violent history have been incorporated into this new tourist expansion. And have, in their own way, been white-washed.

The same street in Alberobello today

The Night Falling is set in 1921, at a time when Puglia still suffered a repressive system of land ownership called latifundism. This basically meant that a single wealthy land owner - who often lived away in Rome or Paris - owned huge tracts of land, divided into farms that were run by tenant farmers - often also outsiders with no incentive to improve the land. The vast majority of Puglia’s population, the braccianti, had no opportunity to acquire land of their own. They lived in squalid towns and sold their labour for a daily rate, walking miles to wherever there was work before the day had even begun. The same landowners they worked for owned their apartments and rooms, and charged outrageous rents for even the dankest of cellars. In the town of Matera, huge numbers of people simply lived in caves. Even water had to be bought. In years of poor harvest - of which hard, bone-dry Puglia had many - large numbers of these peasant poor simply starved to death.

In the aftermath of the First World War,  the same socialist movement that rocked much of Europe made tentative inroads into Puglia. For a short while there were workers’ registers, rosters, and fixed wages. However, almost immediately, the fledgling Fascist movement rose up in response, and crushed it. The armed brute squads with which the landlords had always intimidated upstart peasants now had official sanction, black shirts and emblems. Political corruption was so rife, and the police so partisan, that the peasant movement stood no real chance in Puglia. It fared slightly better elsewhere in Italy, but, by 1922, Mussolini was in supreme command.

A ruined trullo, used to house the poor, to shelter animals, or the guards who watched the crops

Once you know a bit about this history you can see traces of it everywhere. Puglia is riddled with trulli - the conical stone houses which served for the secure storage of grain and animals, as guards huts out in the fields, and also as housing for some of the poorest people. Now, they are being converted into holiday homes; and in Alberobello, which has the highest concentration of trulli, they have been quite literally white-washed, with many now selling souvenirs. At the other end of the property ladder are the masserie - the huge, imposing farmhouses of the tenant farmers and landowners. These are typically fortified, with high, impenetrable walls around an inner courtyard, where people and produce could be protected. Some of them look like castles. Why so fortified? Because they were built to withstand attack from generations of starving, desperate, despairing men. While I was there, I met several men whose grandparents and parents had spoken of the infamous Massacre at Marzagaglia, when unarmed peasants demanding to be paid were shot down by guards from behind the masseria walls. It was an outrage so heinous that it lives on in the oral history of an area overladen with outrages. 

The formidable walls of a masseria

Puglia’s food, for which it is also developing a reputation, leans heavily towards the organic, the slow food movement, and the revival of peasant food. Black pasta - made from burnt wheat - is very popular. Why burn the wheat? The chefs I spoke to talked about the nutty, smoky taste it gives, but it dates back to when the poor would make flour from the charred grains they were allowed to scour the ground for once the stubble had been burnt. Chicory and beans is another favourite - beans being the only protein the poor could generally get, and chicory - or any other dark, bitter greens - that could be pulled up wild around the fields. Weeds, essentially. The peasants had no land to grow vegetables, and no money to buy from the market. Their food was scraped together, scavenged, desperately inadequate. One common meal so very meagre that it hasn’t been up-cycled by today’s restaurants is aqua sale - water, with a little salt and either a dash of olive oil or some chunks of stale bread in it. It would have astonished those peasants, I'm sure, that wealthy travellers would ever choose to eat such fare.

Burnt wheat pasta, upcycled

So, while I heartily approve of traditional cooking and recipes making a resurgence, and of old buildings being brought back to life, part of me also wishes that more was known of their origins, and their past. But then, it is a hard and dark history. Perhaps the people living there, the descendants of those who survived such times, are content to watch things moving on. And enjoying a trip to Puglia - or anywhere - does not, of course, rely on knowing anything at all about its history. But for me, it hugely enriches the experience of any travel.


Lydia Syson said...

Yes! Completely with you. Still hoping to get to Puglia, but all the more interested in going since reading this.

Katherine said...

It's wonderful, Lydia! I hope you get your trip there.

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post - thankyou Katherine! I want to go there now, too!

carol drinkwater said...

I spent time a fair amount of time in Puglia for The Olive Route books and then again for the documentary films of the same name. It is a wonderful region of Italy and as you so rightly say, there are clues everywhere in the nature and ruins that speak of its rich history. Puglia is producing some fine wines and olive oils and the farmers are working hard to find organic ways to farm their products.
Alberobello, of course, translates as Beautiful Tree and probably was intended as a tribute to the magnificent groves of Roman olive trees still growing nearby. I really look forward to reading your novel, Katherine.

Penny Dolan said...

What a moving glimpse into a desperate past, Katherine, and no wonder that punitive economic structure matched with the Facist movement. Good luck with THE NIGHT FALLING - the history certainly sounds interesting.

Celia Rees said...

Fascinating post and a salutary reminder of changing times and how what was the mark of desperate poverty in the past is now a tourist attraction, whether it is the Trulli, or the cuisine. I especially liked your observation that even the modern 're-discoverers' don't go as far as aqua sale when they extoll the food of the area.

Katherine said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Celia, Penny, Katherine and Carol.

Leslie Wilson said...

I can't wait to read the book. Yes, the thing about the burned pasta is definitely ironic, to say the least. I wonder, though, if it derives from people whose lifestyles have improved but feel nostalgia for what they used to eat in childhood. It doesn't appeal to me, mind you! I hate charred food of every description, though that is very modish nowadays. Polenta, which is a luxury food in Britain, and sneered at by people who consider themselves 'more down to earth' was the 'Mus' of my Austrian peasant ancestors, and they ate it because maize was the staple crop in the mountain valleys, day in, day out, with no parmiggiano or other embellishments. The Scots ate porridge like that, too, didn't they? It was breakfast, dinner, and tea, just a staple - like rice in China and bread in Britain. All the same, I love polenta, and make it as a treat, but we have it as well-off farmers had it, with parmiggiano and tomato sauce, though not slathered in butter as they did. I think in some ways it's not a bad idea for people to appreciate simple food - but that aqua sale, like the 'Brennsuppe' in Tyrol, which was basically water thickened with a bit of flour, is probably a step too far. Though maybe someone will base a slimming diet on it! Send the idea to Gwyneth Paltrow? It's gluten-free if you have the dash of olive oil option. Vegetarian, carb-free..

Ms. said...

I agree-It's hugely relevant to know the past, to acknowledge the origin of things. That up-cycled black pasta picture has a hint within it...the streak of red could easily remind one of spilled blood. I truly appreciate your post and all the past references carried forward into the present. Thanks for this.

conformable_kate said...

Very interesting post - and more importantly a serious corrective to the arcadian versions of Italy's peasant culture. It's no fun being a landless labourer.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating post. There sometimes needs to be a generation or two distance before people are willing to look at and document the past. Perhaps as more people visit more will be revealed.

michelle lovric said...

There's a new restaurant near the Borough Market called Pulia ... specializing in Pugliese cuisine. meet you there!