Friday, September 24, 2010

Of vegetarians and carnivores

Of all the associations our synapses automatically fire off when someone mentions Italy, food is probably the one most often made. It's a sensuous thing (as most things Italian are), and I'm as much a victim of our preconditioning as anyone. Hearing the clattering symphony of plates making their way to the table in wrinkled hands as I stroll the cobbled alleys of a hilltop village at lunchtime never fails to conjure images of steaming pasta and the babble of multiple conversations around a table that is cosy, comforting, and convivial.

Pasta? Almost always, yes, not least in this neck of the woods, where this quintessential primo piatto is more often than not followed by pork (or some other meat). Which is what made La Coroncina so different last weekend. Now there are more opinions about the quality of restaurants in this area than there are culinary establishments, ranging from the romantically-inspired view that all the food here is good, to complaints about a lack of variation and overcooked meat. But regardless of your proclivity, there truly is only one word to describe La Coroncina, snuggled as it is amongst the hills of Italy's pork belt - unique.

It's unique for one primary reason - it's vegetarian. In and of itself, this is sufficient reason to get the permanent black marker out to score it from over 90% of locals' restaurant lists. Indeed, when our part-time Australian neighbours took their garden maintenance man and an Irish meat-and-potatoes friend there, they described it as "a religious experience", most likely heading home afterwards to scour the fridge, praying for a beastly chunk of salami.

Now I like my meat as much as the next carnivore, but I also appreciate good food for what it is, whether there is muscle in it or not. (My favourite restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, with its ample supply of quality steak houses, was indeed vegan.) And that's exactly what La Coroncina is - good. Very good, in fact. It's a real testament to imagination, with a variety of seasonal dishes that inspire curiosity with their originality and moans of pleasure at their medley of flavours - cream of yellow tomato soup with ricotta and basil, layered aubergine slices with pine nuts and mint, ...

The welcome is warm too - diminutive Melania with her shock of blond/white hair is friendly, attentive, and a constant smiling presence. We effectively had the run of the place too, with only one other dining couple (locals, somewhat to my surprise), in a beautifully restored farmhouse. The agriturismo is officially classified as organic - you can find more information (including the menu) on their web site: www.agriturismocoroncina.it.

That was Friday. Saturday threw my taste buds so far in the other direction as to give them culinary whiplash. With his mop of long, thick, graying hair and his dental discontinuities, our neighbour Sergio is a wiry local character that's always entertaining to be around. Aside from having done a marvellous job with our patio, he throws an end-of-summer party each year, to which we are typically invited. With the promise of a hearty, meaty menu, HRH - a marchigiano in the making, whose suspicion of a vegetarian restaurant prompted him to decline the invitation to La Coroncina the night before - readily sacrificed Saturday night out with his friends to join his old man up at the local church.

While it's hosted by Sergio, it seems that most of the work was done by the Mari family, who own the house he lives in and who produce a range of delectable honeys from their hives spread over the province. Husbands, wives, daughters and sons ferried trays piled high with the steaming contents of the most classic of marchigiano meals. Around the church hall tables and hard chairs, Sergio and his friends engaged in the most simple and amicable of pastimes - talking and eating, with each enjoying equal priority. Amid the clamorous echos of competing conversations, we flattened numerous platters of first tagliatelle al rag├╣ di cinghiale (pasta with wild boar sauce) and then roast lamb with roast potatoes, all served on paper plates. Wine from
Giuliano's vines on the hill next door flowed generously, his daughter capped it all with a delectable tirams├╣, and Giuliano brought out his precious acqua miele (literally "honey water", an ancient distilled liquor made from honey, water, and grapes). We ate, drank, and chatted to satisfaction and beyond, until we just couldn't any more.

Simple. Delicious. Warm and friendly. In short, a classic marchigiano evening.

Life here may be difficult at times, but if I'm able - just every now and then - to enjoy a weekend of such delicious diversity, I'd say I'm a rather lucky man.