Monday 27 February 2017

Paolo Tullio ... In his own words

Paolo Tullio loved family, friends, food and Italy
Paolo Tullio loved family, friends, food and Italy

Family, friends, food and Italy were the loves of Paolo Tullio's life. To mark his passing, here we bring you an extract from his book that celebrates his greatest passions.

My father was born in 1918 in Gallinaro, one of the 12 villages in the Comino Valley. His father, Luigi, had the dubious distinction of being one of the last soldiers to be killed in World War I - wounded on November 10, 1918 and dying three days later, six months before my father was born. My grandmother, Luisa, young and pretty, refused two offers of marriage and brought up my father and his elder brother by herself.

My father won a scholarship at the age of seven to Frascati College, to the south of Rome. It was a boarding school, where he excelled at Latin and Greek, but a year before his baccalaureate he was expelled for bringing a girl to his rooms when it was discovered, despite his protestations, that she was not in fact his cousin.

Luisa, my father's mother, was not from Gallinaro originally. Her family, the Fuscos, were farmers in the hamlet of San Nazario. The farm had been sold off bit by bit - family history has it that this was to cover gambling debts. Mario, Luisa's cousin, decided that prospects on the farm were far from good and so he emigrated with two of his brothers to Scotland.

Paolo Tullio with Chris de Burgh at the launch of Paolo's book 'Longing and Belonging'
Paolo Tullio with Chris de Burgh at the launch of Paolo's book 'Longing and Belonging'

Mario had two daughters, the elder of whom, Irene, he sent to school in Italy, where she lived with her aunt Rosa in Casalattico. After returning to Scotland for two years, Irene went back to Italy to the College of Santa Giovanna, in Arpino, where she met my father, Dionisio, her second cousin. Nuns, being what they are, ensured that contacts between their female charges and the outside world were as short and as sporadic as possible, so it was not until my mother and father were visiting their respective halves of the family house in San Nazario that their romance blossomed. But then came the war.

My mother returned to Scotland, while my father studied law at the University of Florence. They corresponded as frequently as they could, but towards the end of the war messages became harder to send. Its last years found my father as a second lieutenant in the Italian army, hiding from the Germans in the mountains surrounding the Comino Valley. When Cassino finally fell, the Germans left the valley and the rebuilding began. In Italy, it is traditional on New Year's Eve to set off bangers and fireworks. My father told me that New Year's Eve 1944 was quite a sight.

In 1946, my father was elected mayor of Casalattico, the youngest ever and almost certainly the first with a degree. In Scotland in 1947, my mother was making preparations to marry a nature-cure practitioner. Shortly before the wedding date, my grandfather took her to Italy to visit their relations. My mother met my father again and their romance started anew. The impending marriage to the Scot was called off with three weeks to go, gifts were returned and a new wedding planned. My father, disillusioned with post-war Italy, came to Scotland to marry my mother.

I was born in 1949 and, although I spoke only Italian until I was five, English became my first language. Like my father, I was sent to boarding school at the age of eight. Although I have happy memories, I can also remember how frequently I was told that 'We won the war'.

Paolo Tullio at a charity launch with some of Ireland's top chefs
Paolo Tullio at a charity launch with some of Ireland's top chefs

The differences in culture were never more apparent than on visiting days, when my father was apt to kiss me. Whereas a kiss from a mother was just about tolerated, a kiss from one's father was definitely suspect, if not damn foreign.

As I got older, a sense of being Italian grew in me. Throughout my schooldays a holiday in Italy was a yearly or sometimes twice-yearly event. The house in Gallinaro that my father had inherited became a home from home. Here I met cousins and the children of my parents' friends, with whom I made lifelong friendships.

My parents moved to Dublin in 1962, while I continued boarding in England. During his years in Dublin, my father was increasingly pulled towards returning to Italy. I had completed my first year at Trinity College Dublin when, in 1969, my parents went back to Italy, where they remained until my father's death.

Now my children can, and do, compare life in the Wicklow hills with their Italian cousins and friends. We go to Italy every year and I hope that my children have come to love the people and places as I have. I have grown up with my friends and relations in Gallinaro, watched their careers begin and flourish, and now watch as their children grow. They have given me love and companionship over the years, as well as an understanding of how life in Italy is lived.

The Abruzzi National Park is a two-hour journey from Rome or Naples. In the winter the once serene, silent mountain valleys are now host to thousands of Italians on skis. Pescasseroli, the capital of the park, is the centre for the downhill skiers. It has a cable car to the summit of Monte Vitelle, some 2,000m high, and 25km of piste. It's an enchanting village, whose older male inhabitants still carry a staff and wear the black beret and cape typical of the Abruzzi. In contrast, the weekend fashion parade of Romans and Neapolitans sporting their latest ski-wear is a wonder to behold. I used to find their sartorial splendour intimidating, until I understood that in many cases the dressing-up was as close to skiing as many of them ever got.

Mothers and fathers fuss and coddle small versions of their tailored selves, encouraging and cajoling - 'E sù, Marco' - until Marco finally stands upright on his tiny Rossignols. Fretting Italian mothers are torn between two conventional truths: mountain air is good for you, and children shouldn't get cold. You can see lots of tiny, red-faced Italians sweltering in portable saunas called ski-suits, while their mothers refuse to let them undo so much as a zip.

Corina Grant, Paolo Tullio and Vivienne Connolly
Corina Grant, Paolo Tullio and Vivienne Connolly

At the pass of Forca d'Acero there is a beech-lined forestry road which slopes gently downhill to a huge natural amphitheatre called La Macchiarvana. This is where most of the cross-country skiers gather, where the road joins the open plain. If you're feeling adventurous, from here you can set out for the wilderness, with a backpack and food. Or for the less gung-ho, like my family, we start out towing a small sled filled with wine and beer, a small charcoal grill, sausages and cured ham, scamorza (a local cheese that toasts to perfection), fresh crusty bread from San Donato, and perhaps a pork chop or two. We always try to get our skiing in before lunch; after a lunch with ice-cold beer and wine - we bury it in the snow - it's hard to start trekking again, especially in warm sun.

On windless days it can get remarkably hot, a condition that can only be cured by more beer. Lying in the sun against one of the beeches that skirt the Macchiarvana plain, cold beer in hand, looking over the vast expanse of white, the snow-capped peaks starkly silhouetted against the dark, deep blue sky, is one of life's great pleasures. Over the years we became very attached to these picnics in the snow. I remember one occasion when I described our picnics to some friends. They thought it sounded like fun and decided to join us there. By that strange serendipity that allows Italians to meet one another when neither the time nor the place has been decided, we met up with our friends miles from anywhere. We had arrived on skis, towing our sledge of victuals and pushing our baby daughter in her buggy, on which I had fitted tiny skis.

As I unpacked our picnic, I began to notice what the others had brought. A three-kilo bag of charcoal, a large, not-so-portable grill and oven combined, 15 beef steaks, eight large brown trout, a two-kilo loaf of bread, a 10-egg onion omelette, a kilo of liver sausages, seven litres of wine, four bottles of mineral water, beer, a large mixed salad in a plastic bag, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a box of salt, Tabasco and a large fruit flan. Oh, yes, and a tin of corned beef. There were six of them.

It was hard to make half a kilo of sausages look exciting as I unpacked beneath their watchful and slightly pitying gaze. We built a large fire on the snow from the dead branches that were all around us; without it we would have spent the day with cold feet and wet socks. As the day passed, the fire burned a deeper and deeper hole in the snow, until by evening it was a good 3ft below the surface. It also became clear that skiing had assumed a distinctly lower priority than eating.

The steaks were cooked on the fire embers, and eaten between slices of pagnotta, the large two-kilo loaf that is the Italian staple. The trout were wrapped in foil and suspended on green branches over the fire, the omelette was divided, the sausages and cheeses devoured with beer and wine. The flan was followed by a thermos of good coffee. All this under a dark blue sky with the sun blazing against the brilliance of the snow. We didn't leave until nearly five, as the gathering darkness brought the cool night air. It was a special day for all of us.

Paolo Tullio
Paolo Tullio

Extracted from 'North of Naples, South of Rome' which, along with Paolo Tullio's 'The Mushroom Man', is published by The Lilliput Press. Both titles are available for digital download at lilliputpress.ie

Paolo Tullio at his home in Wicklow
Paolo Tullio at his home in Wicklow
Paolo Tullio with Teena Gates, Frances McDonald, and Nuala Carey in 2014
Paolo Tullio with Teena Gates, Frances McDonald, and Nuala Carey in 2014

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