il Castello – Who You’ll Meet
This is the woman that looks after housekeeping at the castle, a daunting challenge considering the size and age of the place. It’s impressive too, as we often tend to make the kind of mess you’d expect we’d make, having so many men in the kitchen. You half expect war correspondents to try to make sense of it afterward. ‘We’re getting word that this is large mess over here is where someone tried to cut the parsley….using a chain saw’.
Come morning, without any of us hearing even two pots touch one another, it will be put back together again, even cleaner than we started.
‘Sometimes I walk through the kitchen when Silvestro is teaching and I see so many people from all over the world’, she says, shyly. ‘I makes me proud of our local cooking, that people value it, even those that come from so far away’.
‘Anything you say, chef’, says Giuseppe, our butcher at the castle. ‘Coming right up’. Like many in the trade in Italy, he’s 5th generation meat cutter, him deciding to go into the profession with about the same contemplation that it took him to decide to breath: that is, never gave it a single thought.
‘My grandfather’s knives are still sharp, so fixed is the profession in my family. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else’.
As a school we rely on him quite a bit while at the castle, for rabbits, chickens, castrated sheep and the occasional whole pig.
‘Chef, I might be the lumberjack but you folks are the carpenters’, he says, wrapping a bundle of lamb into a perfect little parcel.
She’s our greengrocer, as well as guide, as it were, to the local produce. I say ‘local’, because while the castle is only 40 minutes of Lecce, the produce changes radically in such distance, so that I’m often left grasping for solutions when students ask me about this plum or that type of chicory: we simply don’t have it in Lecce.
And we do all of our canning at the castle, which is why Serena earns an extra place in our hearts: she’s our source for the cases of tomatoes to make our yearly sauce, our hyacinth bulbs, our quinces for quince pasta and on and on, Serena arriving in her rumbling ape, her sheepish grin, well aware of the heart-warming impression that she makes.
He runs the central bar in the main piazza of where we host our castle weeks (which is right in the historical centre of a small Southern Italian town).
It’s interesting to note that in Italian, ‘barista’ or ‘person who works at a bar’, has none of that overly-educated-underly-employed hipsterness that you find in the New World. It’s a job, and for the owners of small bars in Italy, a tremendous commitment to the clientele, who tend to view your bar as an extension of their own homes.
And Salvatore thrives with such attention. He lights up when folks walk into his bar, the conversations continuing right where they left off the last time you were in. He’ll remember.
In the warmer months we all have breakfast at his place, tables pushed together right in the main piazza (pastry, juice and espresso). In the colder months, he delivers his pastry each morning to the castle, suggesting that our students stop in and see him if they would like anything during the afternoon break. It’s a relationship that works out beautifully, giving our students a sense of what it’s like to live in Italy, to have that one bar where the owner is tickled to see you.
Bordering on a modern-day renaissance man, Francesco earns a living by 1) producing one of the best extra virgins in the Salento 2) Selling antiques on world markets. That he also speaks 5 languages, routinely travels to places that few of us find on a map, makes the ultimate dinner guest.
‘Before Silvestro started his courses at the castle I used to have to travel great distances in order to talk with visitors from outside Italy. Now, a quick phone call and I get to practice my English, French, Dutch and Castilian’, he says. ‘ A year round international cooking school in the Salento. I never thought I’d see the day’.
He’s a stray that somehow ended up being taking in by the baron’s family. That was his introduction though: now he roams the town as if he were the major, trotting from butcher shop to butcher shop, soliciting meaty bones with one quick bark.
His ears prick up whenever you mention ‘bone’, but only in Italian, a fact that amazes many of our students for some reason.
And he probably wouldn’t think of myself as ‘mayor’ either, but ‘il sindaco‘.
If you’re a man, it’s best not to think about it too much.
Because it’s difficult not to feel a bit like a girly girl around Giuseppe. Ask him to build a wall and he’ll have it done by noon, the bricks as perfect as a butterfly’s wing. Ask him to rewire the great hall of the castle and he’ll do it, unfazed that the ancient system cracks and pops just like the electrical lines that brought Frankenstein’s monster back to live. He’s an expert on a bulldozer, as if the machine’s controls skipped his hands and were wired directly to his brain. He can open a beer bottle, I swear, off just about anything.
And he’s ours for the week, aiding us in anyway we need. He comes to meals, takes over the grill when our fingers sting from the heat. But like all of our trusted people at il castello, Giuseppe looks after us, making you feel right at home.
The only thing we won’t like about il castello, is having to leave. It’ll be like that for you too.