Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

The Chicken-Head Incident

Posted By on August 25, 2008

aperitif2Monti-in-Chianti, August 2005

We took the four-bedroom stone house in Chianti for two weeks as an experiment, to see if we might like to rent the same place every summer. Three of the six characters remained the same from week to week, and one spanned part of the first and all of the second week. It was an unabashedly festive crowd (I prefer this word to child-like), and location-appropriate nicknames were quickly taken, and given.

By our third visit to the huge Iper-Cöop in Montevarchi, we were old pros. After pizza, pork, and red mullets had been crisped to succulence in the wood-burning oven on our loggia, we all felt it was time to try some birds. The chicken section at the Iper-Cöop almost, but not quite, destroyed my soul. Pale insipid poultry lurked between shiny cellophane and sterile styrofoam, proclaiming “No Flavor Here; Move On.” Luckily, we did, and in the butcher’s case I espied some lovely golden-yellow pullets with feet and heads still attached. They were actually capons (what we call roosters when they’re ready to eat), as evidenced by their bright red cockscombs. Back at the casa, I whipped up a thyme and garlic butter to stuff under their skins, whacked off their heads, and informed my Cinder-fella, Césaré (de Castelnuovo Berardenga, also known as Jared) that I’d like medium-hot embers in the wood oven by 7:00. He set off into the olive grove to gather kindling, and the extended cocktail hour began. We chopped and fried and mixed and laughed and tasted. And talked. That’s what we did most of all.

One subject was uppermost.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere had been, on the previous early morning, a partial sighting by Rondini Squarcialupe (Ronda) of a scary and unidentified large animal, in the kitchen. She had come down very late for some water, and found a scrabbling but barely-seen thing occupying the dark, far corner of the room. She fled silently, and slept late. When I descended, always the first to arise, I found that something had been into–and spread all around the room–the garbage. Later in the morning we compared stories, and it seemed clear there was an uninvited guest among us.

And so during the cocktail hour/cooking period–which had gradually expanded to consume more and more of the afternoon, evening, and night–we had a cabinet meeting. Since we’d been counseled to close all the windows at night (gee, I wonder why), the thing was, almost certainly, still in the house. Jacopo Piccolini (John, our pizza-maker) felt it must be a large cat of some kind.

Rondini simply covered her ears and laid in a supply of water upstairs. “It was not a cat,” she whispered to no one in particular, as she gently nudged one of several sizzling zucchini blossoms.

Don Cosimo (my husband C.) voted for a possible possum. A number of plans were advanced, and the upshot was that before we all retired, after our splendid repast, the four rooster heads were retrieved from the trash and placed in the center of the courtyard. We then surrounded them with a thick layer of flour, sprinkled about 12 inches wide. The theory (I believe this came from Rondini) was that the creature would be entranced by the rooster-heads, walk out the door (we’d leave it open just this one night) and cross the cobblestones to nab the heads, leaving telltale footprints in the flour. We, being the expert footprint-diviners that we imagined ourselves, would immediately identify the prints, thus outing our critter. A few morsels of the leftover wood-roasted chicken were added to the circle, just in case the critter shunned raw foods.

nicetableandfireJacopo slept with his camera set to flash and his ear right up against his ground-floor window-sill, in the hope of hearing the critter when it approached, then immortalizing it, digitally, in the act. This was to the chagrin of Bubalina (his wife, Julie) who was engaged in a vain effort to exclude all smaller crawling critters, such as spiders, from the house. This project was clearly not well served by leaving the screen-less window open all night so that Jacopo could hear the critter. (Earlier, Bubalina had been victorious over a large spider by encasing it in a mound of bubble-gum, which she had whipped from her mouth and into offensive action on the fly.)

I awoke early the next morning with a terrible fear: Rémo the pool man, who was always my companion in the rosy hours of the morning before the rest emerged, would see this macabre tableaux in the courtyard, report us as devil worshipers, and we would never be invited to rent again. But I needn’t have feared. Our hero Césaré had risen even earlier than I, and had dismantled the trap that had seemed so terribly clever the night before. He claimed there’d been no footprints, but we were all dubious.

Rémo had been looking after the house ever since the owner, our Italian-English friend Valentina, was a baby. He spoke no English, but his eyes sparkled a brilliant blue, and he had gallantly kissed my hand on the first early morning. Thus, I had become the designated communicator. I was working feverishly on my Italian, reading the grammar book each afternoon and vowing to memorize ten nouns per day, but my Spanish was still uppermost (the technique of simply adding an “o” to the end of the Spanish term had proved unsuccessful). But Rémo and I did manage a rudimentary interaction, and with gestures and using various languages, I did the best I could to convey the story of the critter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHis face lit up: “Ah,” he cried, “Istrice!” (ee-stree-CHAY.)

I looked up from the dictionary at the expectant faces gathered around me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“It’s a porcupine,” I told them.

It was not Rémo’s last word on the local porcupine population. He told us, by various means, that the mother porcupine often went into the vineyards to gather grapes for her young. In order to transport them, she rolled around amongst the fruit-laden vines until the grapes stuck onto the ends of her quills, then waddled back to the nest like a spiky fruit salad.

Later that day Césaré found a long and exquisite, brown and ivory-striped quill in the olive grove. I found one of my own a few days later, by the side of our dirt road. It still sits on my bureau, but we saw neither hide nor quill of our critter again. Perhaps he, or she, will visit us again next summer. And perhaps she’ll even be bearing grapes.

Note: Chicken-head photo, courtesy of Pat Epstein.

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