There are flood warnings across Piedmont, where houses are being swept off hillsides. It’s rained, and rained, and rained for ten days without respite and the water is beginning to seep into the rivulets of even the most sardonic Italian frowns.
So, it was with a slightly inflated sense of awkwardness at my very broken Italian that I hopped in the car and braved the wet-weather racers on my way to P.le De Gasperi.
There is nothing ceremonious about an Italian farmers market in the North. Most of the produce is stacked in the back of dusty, decrepit white vans – all of which appear to have at least one flat tire. In my Black Watch tartan oilskin field jacket (lifted for £40 from a sale in Como), complete with fisherman’s beanie and a scarf that’s about the same size as a duvet, I obviously stick out like a sore thumb.
This has its upsides, though. From under the tatty Barbours and rakish fedoras (which seem to be all the rage here in Varese amongst those of both youth and age), gloved hands are extended at every turn, as one farmer, or farmers’ wife, or farmers’ son, or farmers’ daughter peddles me their wears with a wink, a smile, a bellicose bray of laughter and even rather frequent pats of the bottom… (I haven’t sussed out how I feel about that, yet).
However, there is one lady who will hold a place in my heart for the rest of my passage from the cradle to the grave.
They say that, when you find it, love can hit you like a bolt of lightning and render you naked and feeble under the glare of its intensity.
Regina, dear sweet Regina, hails from a family farm, which she has lived in since her birthday 91 years ago! It sits, she tells me, at the foot of the slopes of Sacro Monte.
Sacro Monte is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is uniquely beautiful for its “Via Sacra”, an old pilgrimage route through the heart of the community, all cobble stones and tiny doorways, with fourteen chapels lining the path to the summit. You should understand that, even if she did try to tell me all of this in Italian, I wouldn’t have understood. Luckily, I had been to Sacro Monte a couple of days before, so my blushes were spared.
Regina doesn’t sell much. A few crates of clementines, a couple of crates of (very ripe) apples and, bizarrely, some kiwi fruit (they come from her greenhouses) were all that she had left when I arrived. However, I’m reliably told that one doesn’t frequent Regina for her fresh fruit, but rather for her fruit juices, which she won’t even let the inquisitive ethicist taste before buying.
I asked for some apple juice (none of that orange rubbish with the pulp, no sir, no thank you!) and with a cackle, she gave a little smirk and creaked, pivoting around on her well-worn joints. She sprang up on the side of her truck with the adroitness of one practiced in the art, and began to heave crates of juice around with a reckless abandon more akin to a sumo wrestler than a diminutive rural dame of the fields.
To say I was shocked would be the understatement of the century.
One she found what I desired (a 5L box of the good woman’s pride & joy) she heaved it onto a trestle table and patted its head and flanks, as if demonstrating the fatty attributes of a well-reared calf.
I was convinced. I nodded, grumbled ‘si, si, certo, bene, bene’ (all good noises to make, I’m told, even if they are entirely incorrect) and took another drag at my cigarette. I then leant forward and put my hand out to grab it.
She slapped the back of my hand with a firmness bordering on abusive, and demanded €10 from my companion.
€10?! For apple juice?! In a country where you can buy a litre perfectly palatable Chianti Classico for just shy of €5, and get pleasantly pissed as a result, I was a little taken aback. Actually, a lot taken aback.
Regina sensed my indignation and flashed her gummy, near toothless smile at me. She extended a wizened hand and beckoned me in close, whilst she fiddled with the box, attempting to release the dispensing nozzle. From a damp pocket she produced a small, brushed metal flask glass and dribbled some of the sweet nectar into it.
Handing it to me, with a reverence akin to the offering of church wine to the faithful, I was suddenly gripped with the serious gravity of the moment.
People around me had stopped to look.
Cigarettes burned down to the quick in the gnarled fingers of the agricultural congress that crowded in on all sides, hoping to catch a glimpse of the divine experience that would shortly ensue.
They know, as I do now, that Regina’s produce elicits in even the most fearsome atheists an argument for the existence of God.
Without wanting to over-sexualise the relationship I developed with that mouthful of sweet, rich, voluptuous nectar, I’ll say this – it was the best thing I have ever tasted.
On reflection, I’d probably have paid €50 for a single cup, and I’d sell my soul to Lucifer to better understand quite how it is made.
As enigmatic experiences go, Regina and her holy juice will go down as the first, most remarkable chapter on an Epicurean journey that will take me to a form of sensory nirvana – at least, it should do, if today is only the start.
I shall very shortly be braving the bracing wind and rain again on my way to the Varese Chocolate Festival. ‘Bring me that horizon’, and all that…
So, until next time, I wish you ‘Bonne continuation!’