Another brick in the wall

Mr Blue-Shirt’s primary focus of late – now that the mighty woodstore is finished – has been phase one of building the terrace that will eventually surround the house. Currently, it sits apparently adrift in a sea of grass, gravel and weeds that lap right up to its crisply rendered walls, its only mooring the odd exposed section of concrete underpinning-cum-earthquake-proofing and a couple of broad steps leading up to the front door. Built from roughly laid terracotta brick, these may have looked charmingly rustic, but that’s about all they had going for them. All the mortar was crumbling away so the bricks were gradually wobbling loose, and the whole thing sloped towards the house, which meant that whenever we got a serious squall from the south we developed puddles in the hall (a rare occurrence admittedly, but no less annoying for that). Worst of all – in Mr Blue-Shirt’s engineering mind – there was not a single straight edge, flat surface, or right-angle to be found. So they had to go.

And go they did, crumbling away alarmingly easily with little more than a nudge from Mr Blue-Shirt’s heavy-duty breaker. Having carefully pegged and stringed out the properly established angles, he then set about digging foundations for the new brickwork – no mean feat in the rock-solid Marche mud – and sinking the downpipes that had until then simply spewed their contents onto the driveway. Then came the brickwork itself.  Although the previous owners had never got round to realising their plans for the outside for the property, they had, luckily for us, accumulated a huge but random collection of building materials and equipment – including several hundred salvaged bricks, so once Mr Blue-Shirt had shovelled from the van the several hundred kilos of sand and cement he had sourced from the local quarry, he was ready for the off. Installing countless metres or ironwork over the years gave Mr Blue-Shirt plenty of experience in general building work, so although he may lack a professional bricky’s speed, laying a few courses of bricks was just like old times and the ever-capable Mr Blue-Shirt was as happy as a pig in muck. So in just a few days, he had built the edging for the new steps and the section of terrace that will run along the front of the outside stairs to the doors to the boiler room. The equipment we had inherited from the previous owners included a tatty but functioning cement mixer, so once the brickwork was dry, back-filling the space with concrete was a relatively quick, if noisy, task. What took the time, though, was achieving a flat and even surface with just the right amount of ‘fall’ for drainage purposes, but never a fan of the ‘that’ll do’ approach to workmanship, Mr Blue-Shirt smoothed and skimmed and levelled until he achieved a finish normally reserved just for wedding cakes. But I am assured that this is the standard of finish required if we want the tiles (which we had also acquired from the previous owners) to sit evenly, which of course we do. But first we need to wait a few weeks for the concrete to dry out fully…

And as I stand admiring Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest handiwork it strikes me that this modest yet carefully crafted structure is not so very different from how our lives here are developing. The battles with bureaucracy are behind us, the temporary fixes and ‘making do’ have come to an end and the weeds and stones of settling in have been replaced with myriad almost sub-conscious processes that ease the flow of daily life. No longer adrift in a sea of new-ness and unfamiliarity, the patterns and rhythms of our respective work routines now shape our day and provide our moorings. And just like with that small section of terrace, with its sturdy foundations and its straight brick edges, there is a pleasing sense of increasing solidity and permanence. Another brick in the wall in every sense.

A few – well actually just one – of my favourite things

Those who read last week’s post will be aware that I am unequivocally in the ‘love it’ camp.  When it comes to Marmite, that is. And since living in Italy I have found that it is practically the only item that I would struggle to do without. But this is less because I am a Brit abroad than it is because it’s been a part of my life for so long it feels as if it has become part of my DNA. It is one of my earliest food memories: my dad always ate it on his breakfast toast every morning and I remember – I swear I do – asking for some of Daddy’s breakfast from my highchair and being given a single buttered soldier to try, with a tiny dab of the magic spread. And from that first intense umami kick I was hooked. Never one for sweet things (initially I couldn’t bear the taste of tea because my mum kept putting sugar in it) I instantly found that distinctive salty tang deeply satisfying and capable of quelling pangs of hunger more effectively than almost anything else. So a Marmite sandwich made from thinly sliced Hovis – the original uncut variety, with its domed crust and the letters embossed on the side – cut into triangles, crusts left on and served on my treasured Bunnykins plate soon became my daily after-school snack, eaten curled up on the sofa in front of Jackanory.

While I soon outgrew Jackanory, then Blue Peter and Crackerjack (and my Bunnykins plate, although I think I still have it somewhere) I have never outgrown the taste of Marmite. More than four decades later a Marmite sandwich remains my go-to snack, the rich savouriness giving all the flavour satisfaction of a proper meal. And as you know, when I am feeling under the weather, it is this that invariably makes it the only thing I have any appetite for. Other than Marmite on toast, of course: the deep glistening brown that looks like melted amber, its sticky trails mingling with the butter melting into the crevices of the fragrant hot toast. Even its never-changing dumpy brown jar makes me feel better: as welcoming as a smiling granny, full of the promise of comfort and cuddles.

I’m guessing there is some algorithm out there that has worked out that I am a Marmite-eating Brit abroad and that I must therefore be longing for some other tastes of home. It seems the most likely explanation for all the online adverts I get for products like Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies, Ambrosia rice pudding and Batchelors mushy peas, even though I’ve never bought or eaten any of these products. There are lots of online businesses selling Brits edible nostalgia, the essentially British products that can’t be found beyond Dover and that some apparently just can’t do without, and their adverts set me to thinking about which other British goodies we do miss, if not rice pudding and mushy peas.  Heinz beans? Nope. I’ve never eaten them and the multi-pack of individual tins we brought over with us when we first moved in remains un-opened in the pantry. They used to be a feature of Mr Blue-Shirt’s sitework breakfasts when he was installing ironwork in London, but that was then and this is now. McVitie’s chocolate digestives? Well, kind of. We brought a couple of packets with us for old times’ sake, but the second one went soggy as we don’t actually eat biscuits that much. Heinz tomato ketchup and HP sauce?  Yes, we brought bottles of both with us, but according to Mr Blue-Shirt (I can’t stand the stuff) Italian ketchup is barely distinguishable from Heinz, and the HP sauce is in danger of passing its best before date. It used to be Mr Blue-Shirt’s favourite accompaniment to an occasional Sunday morning Full English, or to an even rarer plate of fish and chips. But again, that was then and this is now.

This shift in tastes has not been part of any conscious plan to give up British foods, though. They just no longer fit with the way we live our lives, don’t fit with the climate, don’t fit with the food culture. Added to which we were never big on tinned or packet foods, always preferring to cook from scratch, even when life was at its most manic. Which means that we can still eat English if ever the fancy takes us. Cottage pie? No problem. Toad-in-the-hole? Easy-peasy. Flapjacks? You bet.

The thing is, though, we find that the fancy takes us ever less frequently. It is as if we are sloughing off our British ways as we gradually become more embedded in the Italian way of life – but not in a conscious, deliberate act of ‘giving up’ British things or ‘going native’. It is much more a matter of what feels more appropriate and more natural. And why on earth would we resist, with such a mouth-watering array of fresh ingredients to choose from? Why on earth would we seek to cling to emblems of a country that is no longer our home while rejecting those of our adoptive home – and whose cuisine we have always admired. Are we doing little more than ‘camping out’ and going through the motions of living in Italy? Or is it the real deal? And as it is naturally the latter, does it mean I’m going to have to stop eating Marmite…?

Miserable in Le Marche

Colds. I bloody loathe them. And the feeling is entirely mutual. Other people seem merely to get a few sniffles, perhaps develop an amusingly idiosyncratic sneeze, and actually rather enjoy the interesting huskiness a cold can add to their voice – but otherwise continue to function largely as normal. Colds are far less benevolent when it comes to me, though. They always attack me with a vicious and unwarranted enthusiasm. And then, to really put the boot in, invariably wait until the dog-end of winter when reserves are running low and I’m as easy a pushover as an exhausted marathon runner in the twenty-sixth mile. They clog my head and sinuses with liquid cement, plant rusty razor blades in my throat and swap my voice for an asthmatic donkey’s. They muffle my hearing, deaden my taste buds and leave me puffy-faced, glassy-eyed and Rudolph-nosed. And as if that wasn’t enough, they dull my senses, drain my spirits, fill my limbs with lead and rob me of every last drop of energy. And just when I feel as if I might be on the home straight, they slow my progress to the finish line with an unrelenting cough that sounds like someone trying to kick-start a recalcitrant motorcycle. Did I mention I bloody loathe colds?

Incidentally, no ‘drama queenery’ this, I promise, as Mr Blue-Shirt will willingly testify. For having had to witness these almost annual bouts of wheezing, hacking squelchiness at close quarters for more than half a lifetime, he freely admits that even ‘man ‘flu’ comes nowhere close. And every time one strikes, he is always there with soothing drinks and tempting morsels and with so much concerned sympathy he almost has me worried.

It is just as well, therefore, that the final lap of this winter’s onslaught coincided with the point at which state schools locally put lessons on hold for their annual ‘white week’ – la settimana bianca. One of Italy’s national rituals, la settimana bianca is the annual pilgrimage to the mountains to take advantage of the snow when it is at its best. And while the resorts of the Savoy Alps in the north-western corner, the Dolomites in the north-eastern corner and the southern slopes of the French and Swiss Alps in between certainly offer the best skiing in the country, every region except Umbria and Puglia has at least a couple of ski resorts. Here in Le Marche, for instance, the magnificent Sibillini mountains are home to half a dozen or so small resorts with a total 70km of slopes, so there is no need to pound up the autostrada into the Alps to enjoy a few days of the white stuff.

So with my exam students – several twenty-strong groups of boisterous eighteen-year-olds – presumably making their snowy pilgrimage somewhere in the country, I could surrender to this year’s assault with a relatively clear conscience. Better still, this timely lull left me with sufficient stores of get-up-and-go for my remaining in-company courses and individual students, and to finally get my cold licked. Well, almost. For as ever, it played one last trick. On my weekly run up into the village and back, hills that I can normally run up without actually expiring might just as well have been the foothills of Monte Bianco, and even the flatter sections had me gasping like a freshly landed salmon. My cold had clearly stolen my lungs and replaces them with something the size of a pair of teabags. But at least it gave me some welcome time in the mood-lifting sunshine and the chance to top up on some much-needed Vitamin D. And to believe that spring is just around the corner.

Oh, the photo. It’s my personal cold survival kit.  Never mind the more traditional paracetamol and honey combo; it’s Marmite and after sun lotion that ultimately see me through. More often than not, when food tastes like cardboard and eating is just too much effort, it is only a Marmite sandwich that I have any appetite for. And the frequent application of after sun lotion is the only thing that enables me to retain any skin at all on my poor Kleenex-chafed nose.


The view from this side of the Channel

“But why?” It is almost always the first question we are asked whenever Brexit comes up in conversation, no matter how tangentially. It is asked with neither rancour nor mockery, but with dismay, incomprehension and with disappointment. For even in Italy, where politics have recently taken an alarming lurch to the right and the current coalition of populist parties are going head to head with Brussels on a range of issues (chiefly migration policy and the budget) the UK’s imminent departure from the EU is seen as a profoundly mis-guided and retrograde step and as the loss of a close and valued friend.

Our bank manager and the clerk in the post office, the women in the town hall who handled our residency application, Mr Blue-Shirt’s barber and the bloke in his favourite tool shop, the chaps in the vehicle licensing office who helped us get our Italian driving licences, my colleagues and the teenagers and managers I teach. Even just the people in the village who hear our English voices or spot our English number plates. As if we are a proxy for the country that they have been watching blunder around in circles from failed negotiation to failed vote and back again in its still fruitless search for a satisfactory means of departure from the organisation that has shaped our lives for more than a generation.

We seldom enter into lengthy explanations, political debate or history lessons. It’s not really what people are interested in, I don’t think. It’s both much bigger and much simpler than that. It seems, rather, that all these people are simply seeking some kind of reassurance that ‘it’s nothing personal’. “We really don’t know,” we reply with a helpless shrug. “We don’t understand it either. It’s madness. And very, very sad.” Heads are shaken, sympathetic looks exchanged. “In our opinion it’s a huge mistake. But at least we have found a way to Remain (everyone knows the terminology). We are here!” A rueful smile and perhaps a tinge of comfort to find that ‘it’s not you, it’s us’, and with that, the conversation moves on.

Only it’s not ‘us’ – Mr Blue-Shirt and me – at all. Both committed Remainers, we have spent almost as much of our adult lives in Europe – in mainland Europe, I mean – as we have in the UK. Through living in in Belgium, France and Germany as well as Italy (all founding members of the European Community, of course) we have long been aware that the EU means so much more than trade or travel, budgets or bureaucracy. For years it has been clear to us that the bonds the EU has forged between nations that had spent centuries at war have played a decisive role in ensuring that not only could it never happen again, but that they have helped make Europe a global power in its own right. Nations that had long been bitter enemies, that had repeatedly been left ravaged and impoverished by conflict and whose borders had been fought over time and time again, have for over sixty years been united in the pursuit of the common goals of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the web of co-operation and reciprocity it has woven over the years. So despite the EU’s acknowledged shortcomings we firmly believe they pale into insignificance when compared with the inestimably wider benefits the Union brings – and are certainly infinitely preferable to the hubristic, isolationist alternative that is fast approaching.

Now, I realise that some may find this a somewhat romantic view, but we have found it reflected back at us to a greater or lesser extent in nearly all of our ‘why?’ conversations. Take the one we had at the town hall last spring. On this occasion we were there to find out what paperwork was required to obtain the health cover we needed to secure residency. While the woman dealing with us was on the phone to the health authority, the colleague she had waved into her cramped and gloomy office to help her get us out of our latest blind alley took up the baton. “So what’s this Brexit thing all about, then?” he asked a little more combatively than most. We took a breath, preparing to respond as we had done so many times before. “Why?” he continued before we could get a word out. “Why? When thousands of your forces died to liberate us from fascism, why do you want to leave the body that came out of that victory and that has made war unthinkable, the body that Churchill dreamt of?” He paused and swallowed hard. “Churchill! Don’t you British know that?!” This was no rheumy-eyed, nostalgic old soldier either, but a man in his forties with no direct experience of those troubled times. Yet for someone whose country had within living memory been devastated by occupation, civil war and dictatorship, there was nothing remotely romantic about over half a century of peace, prosperity and democracy.

His passion and his concern deserved an answer and so we did our best to reassure him that we not only shared his views but also understood why he held them. And to explain that like him, we saw being part of Europe as expression of sovereignty, not its abandonment; an expression of solidarity not capitulation; and of co-operation, not competition; of the belief that when one member prospers, all prosper.

There was so much more we could have said, of course, about free movement, trade, finance, security, science, medicine, education, social justice, as well as all the geo-politics. So many more reasons we could have given him for our deeply-held desire to remain in the EU and our belief in it as a force for good, but his colleague had finished her call and was impatient to get on with her day. So once she had passed on the information she had been given, we merely shook his hand and took our leave, walking from the town hall beneath the twin flags of the Italian Republic and the European Union that fluttered proudly from the balcony.

New Friends

After three months of unintended catlessness, we recently decided that the pain of losing Mimi so suddenly had diminished sufficiently for us to think about finding a feline friend to fill the enormous hole that she left in our lives. So I am pleased to announce that we have now been joined by an almost matching pair of four-month old tabby kittens – a brother and sister, we believe – for which a cat-loving blacksmithing acquaintance of ours over in Treia needed to find a suitable home. Consequently, much of my available writing time this week has been spent on my hands and knees under the dining room table with Mr Blue-Shirt, trying to persuade the two new members of the household to come and make friends properly. Wide-eyed and cautious, they have remained cuddled up together on one of the dining chairs, only occasionally hopping down for a quick turkey biscuit or two before returning to their refuge. Although still reluctant to explore their new surroundings, they happily accept scritching and stroking and have even found the purr button. But they still need a little time to understand that all shall be well here in their new home at Casa Girasole. And we still need a little time to get to know them well enough to work out what their names should be. Ideas on a postcard, please…

Normal blogging service will be resumed in due course.

Another piece in the jigsaw

While we might not quite be in the starting blocks, we are at least warming up on the track. We have recently been granted permission to demolish the crumbling pigsty behind the house that currently serves as Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop and replace it with a modest holiday cottage for visitors. As one might expect in a place where wrapping things in red tape is practically an art form – I even had to provide my codice fiscale (analogous to my NI number in the UK) at Ikea the other day just to claim my €15 token for having brought our Christmas tree back for composting – it had been a protracted process.

One of the many features that originally attracted us to the house was that it came with an outbuilding which in turn came with planning permission (permesso di costruire) to convert it – into an art studio, admittedly, but one man’s art studio is surely another’s open plan holiday cottage. By the time the house was ours, though, the clock was running down, so getting the planning permission extended became a priority since if it lapsed, we would have to begin the whole application process from scratch: something we wanted to avoid if at all possible. Our solicitor Giovanna got straight on the case, and was soon able to reassure us that our anxiety was unwarranted. The vendors’ architect had submitted a confirmation of the commencement of works a year earlier, and this had automatically extended the planning permission by a further two years. Now you might be a tad surprised that we were unaware that building work had begun. You might be less surprised, however, if I explained that in order to secure a confirmation of commencement of works certificate, it is necessary to do no more than stick a shovel in the ground and, ideally, erect a few metres of orange plastic netting.  And indeed, some prickly tramping around in the sprawling thicket of brambles behind the pigsty did indeed reveal a few tatty fragments of sun-bleached orange plastic. No matter: it gave us a year’s grace.

The vendors’ plans were not significantly different from what we wanted to build, but there were certain features that would need to be changed to create living accommodation rather than a studio. So it should now just have been a matter of applying to make the required changes, right?  Oh no: far too straightforward; far too Anglo-Saxon. The first hurdle was that while the property had automatically been transferred into our names on completion of the purchase, this did not mean that the planning permission had. So, before our architect, Silvano, could move anything forward, we had to get the planning permission transferred into our names. Which naturally involved putting together another bundle of copies of every conceivable document that proved that we were who we said we were and owned what we said we owned. In duplicate. Obviously.

Silvano presented us with the freshly-issued document – now in our names – a few weeks later when he came round to go through the changes that we wanted to make, with a view to him producing formal drawings to submit to the planning department. He’d long been aware of the type of changes we had wanted to make, and while sorting out the transfer of the permission into our names, he had discussed them informally with the planners.
“They reckon it will be better to let the current permit lapse and make a new application,” he informed us.
“But we spent ages making sure that the permission wasn’t about to lapse precisely so we didn’t have to make a new application!” I exclaimed.
“I know. I’m as surprised as you.  They say it’s because you want to create living space and the existing permission is for a studio.”
“But the footprint is exactly the same. We only want to change the internal layout and add a couple of windows.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s ‘residential’ so different rules apply. They have to think about pressure on local services and so on.”
“But it’s a holiday cottage – not for ‘residents’, for visitors!…”
“It still counts as residential, though.”
“…Visitors who will spend money here!”
“Planners aren’t interested in that. Look, I know it’s mad, but it’s part of a new law that’s just come in…” He shrugged apologetically and raised his hands as if in surrender.
“So why have we just gone to the trouble of transferring the existing planning permission into our names?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure myself,” said Silvano. He looked slightly sheepish: he is a real stickler for detail and process (very un-Italian, but very comforting for us) and also knows our local planners quite well having successfully navigated the planning process for the conversion of the property from derelict farmhouse to a generous four-bedroom home. “But I think it is something to do with keeping the file open so there is some kind of planning timeline. They said it would help, though.”

So it was back to the drawing board – literally. Over the next couple of weeks, Mr Blue-Shirt upgraded his concept sketches to dimensioned drawings, and there then followed a slew of decisions on building materials, utilities, finishes and so on that would enable Silvano to draw up the definitive plans containing every last detail required by the planners.

In autumn, we had a meeting with Silvano to sign off the final drawings he would submit with our application.  We were excited to see the ideas we’d been throwing around for months crystallised into this composition of lines, figures, and elevations that bridged the gap between imagination and reality.  “How long do you think it will take,” Mr Blue-Shirt asked as we re-folded the bundle of drawings. Silvano checked the date on his watch. “I don’t think it will be before Christmas,” he said. A good ten weeks, then – assuming it all went through smoothly. Now well-versed in the glacial workings of Italian bureaucracy and having long since got out of our systems the urge to cry “But in the UK….” when presented with such timescales, we merely shrugged. After all, it was not as if we could realistically start work in winter anyway. In fact, if permission was granted towards the end of the year, then this would give us winter-proper to get quotes for the works and select a contractor in time for ground to be broken in spring. We just had to hope they wouldn’t have any queries or objections…

As it turned out, Silvano’s prediction was pretty well spot. In early January we received notification that permission would be granted – and thanks to Silvano’s thoroughness, with no amendments or conditions. This only left one more visit to the planning department before we reached the finishing line: to pay another round of fees (naturally) and get a couple of tax stamps from the newsagent across the square, all of which Mr Blue-Shirt achieved without incident. And in return for his efforts he was duly rewarded with our formal Permesso de Costruire. In duplicate. Obviously.

Felice Anno Nuovo!

The restaurant was already almost full when we arrived, pink-cheeked after the brisk 20-minute walk from home. Our table for two was tucked in between one with three young chaps dining together and one with two well-padded couples in their late sixties already attacking their antipasti. Mr Blue-Shirt had booked the table back in November, but we had no idea what the format for the evening would be. The staff clearly did, though. The second we were seated, bottles of water appeared and a pitcher brimming with red wine was plonked on the table, a few drops slopping onto the pristine white linen table cloth. We barely had time to fill our glasses and take in the fact that no menus were in evidence before our first course arrived. A generous plate of cured meats – the same as on the neighbouring tables. As it was well after 9pm we were really quite hungry, so soon cleared our plates, which subsequently transpired would be a major tactical error. We had worked out that it was a set meal. And this being a very traditional restaurant surely meant antipasti, primo, secondo and dolce, right? Wrong. So wrong…

Next up was a savoury pancake filled with a heavenly, mousse-light cheese sauce topped with flakes of earthy black truffle. Still labouring under the misapprehension that this would be the second of four courses, we again cleared our plates and Mr Blue-Shirt even accepted an offer of seconds – the fool.

So, we had had our antipasti and primo, albeit a slightly unorthodox one: while still carb-based, it wasn’t exactly pasta – which could mean only one thing. Next up would be the main course, and the star of the show: the new year classic, zampone con lenticche – pig’s trotter with lentils. Although we both consider ourselves to be pretty unfussy food-wise and will generally give most things a try, there are certain animal parts that for us cross a culinary line. When in Brunei, fish-head curry and grilled chicken’s feet were on the wrong side of that line, along with stewed parson’s noses and grilled ox vein skewers. Closer to home, what might be termed ‘advanced offal’ crosses, the line, as do animal extremities such as ears and tails. And trotters. We discussed how we might manage to avoid having to eat any of the meat without making it too obvious, and more importantly, without making a huge cultural gaff as well as insulting our hosts. The swing doors from the kitchen burst open and the team of five waiters processed into the restaurant, each bearing at shoulder height a platter of steaming something. Barbara, the chef’s daughter and head waiter approached our table with a determined look in her eye. We mentally rehearsed our “Just a little for me” and “No that’s plenty, thanks” as she presented her platter to us with an almost audible ‘ta-dah!’.  “Tagliatelle con ragù al cinghiale” announced Barbara. Tagliatelle with wild boar sauce?  Was this a second primo? Or a first secondo? But in that moment the distinction was immaterial. The main thing was that we had been given a stay of execution: still no zampone. And in our relief, we failed to say “basta così” – that’s enough, thanks – as Barbara coiled onto our plates great mounds of golden pasta laced with nuggets of dark tender meat in a deeply-flavoured sauce scented with juniper. Comfort food alla Marchigiana and one of our favourite dishes.

Our contented reverie was cut short as once more the doors from the kitchen swung open, and once more the procession of waiters entered the dining room, bearing their latest batch of steaming their platters aloft. We craned our necks to see what Barbara was serving to the other tables. Was it finally trotter time? “Tagliata di manzo” she announced. Wafer-thin strips of medium-rare char-grilled sirloin steak – and, in normal circumstances another of our regular choices. Here and there around us we could make out the occasional reluctant “ Mi dispiace, non posso” – sorry, I can’t – which made it slightly easier to ignore Barbara’s disappointed gaze as I also declined the slices of tender meat she gently gripped between her tongs. Mr Blue-Shirt restored her faith, though, but even he managed to say “un pochettino” – just a tiny bit – this time.

Several diners had already pushed their chairs away from the table, leaning back as if to ease the growing pressure on their waistbands. Others were tugging on coats, preparing to go for a cigarette in the starry cold and creating an unofficial interval before the second act. We speculated how this might play out as there was still over an hour to go before midnight, but since there was no sign of any kind of any dancing or live music, the only possible conclusion was that it would involve yet more food.

The interval over, the smokers returned to their tables, seats were pulled back in, red linen napkins returned to laps as the doors swung open and the procession of waiters took to their stage yet again. First up were lamb cutlets, and then came porchetta (rolled roast pork stuffed with herbs), both of which Mr Blue-Shirt naturally found impossible to resist, and then finally the blessed relief of something green: platters of grilled vegetables and bowls of tingling fresh salad, which I actually managed to pick at briefly. The clock was ticking down and the TV had been turned on to an outdoor New Year concert in Rome. Barbara and her team were now going from table to table offering “Spumante secco o dolce?” – dry or sweet fizz? “Secco,” we responded above the bustle and buzz of expectation that had suddenly filled the dining room. Our fellow diners were on their feet again, checking the time on watches and phones. We followed their lead and reached for the glasses and bottle of fizz that Barbara had plonked on the table. Someone had turned the volume up on the TV. “Dieci! Nove! Otto!…” Foil caps were removed, bottles held aloft…. “Tre! Due! Uno! BUON ANNO!” A volley of corks ricocheted around the dining room and within seconds, we were all clinking foaming glasses with one another, shaking hands and exchanging kisses.

Magically, amid the tangle of arms and raised glasses and bottles and hugs and impromptu dancing, the zampone con lenticche finally made their appearance. And remained largely untouched, except by a handful of elderly arch-traditionalists who gamely chewed away on the pink, rind-rimmed discs. So having wrestled with our cultural consciences all evening, it seemed that zampone may be to Italians what Brussels sprouts are to the British. And having forgone this classic dish, we had not made a gaff, but had in fact earned a cultural gold star. Not a bad way to start the new year.