My Italian adventure actually started with one of my mother's youngest sisters, who was both brilliant and bold. I can still hear my grandmother saying in her smoky, husky voice, "She's too smart for her own good". She procured herself a good position with the UN in Rome, and, shortly afterwards, when my grandmother died and my grandfather remarried, my remaining unmarried aunts weren't happy sharing the house with the new arrival, so off they went to Rome too. When I finished secondary school, the threesome, who were always looking out for me, suggested I apply to art college in Rome. That done, I joined the newfound Irish colony and was properly pampered. Jean weaned me on to Italian food, Pauline taught me how to maintain a house and dress fittingly, and Sheila schooled me in Italian culture.
It was the taming of Eliza Doolittle all' Italiana. Needless to say, my sisters came too, followed by nieces, neighbours and friends - but no men!
During my years in Italy, I learned many things, including how to make a beautiful tablecloth, dress a table, and never to use tomato puree. One of the things I learned is that Italians have dishes for every occasion and season, including for Labour Day on May 1. At this time of year, a time when our thoughts turn to Italy, and indeed the hope for a more equitable society ahead, it is of Labour Day I have been thinking.
Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao is a catchy anthem that I have taught to most of my non-Italian friends. The song is about a dying freedom fighter who wants to be buried on the side of a mountain under the shade of a beautiful flower. Bella ciao (beautiful goodbye) was the anthem of the Italian anti-fascist movement during and after the Second World War. Putting aside the political connotations, it's an irresistible tune that everyone loves. And one that I think is perfect for now.
The annual Labour Day (May 1) open-air late-evening concert at the imposing Basilica of San Giovanni in Rome is a tradition and is broadcast live to every corner of Italy. Thousands gather each year under the imposing cathedral, once the seat of popes, and the ancient Egyptian Lateran Obelisk that was ripped from the temple in Karnak.
Because of the global pandemic, this year is different, of course, but usually it draws a multi-generational sea of individuals: young people who come to hear their favourite groups play live, and older people who come to reminisce about the concerts of years past. The bella ciao anthem weaves in and out intermittently between the rock and the jazz, and everyone joins in.
On Labour Day, families head for the nearest woodland and spend the day collecting pinoli (pine nuts), crushing them open with heavy stones; and wild mushrooms, and munching on heaps of home-made food.
This recipe, below, is the kind of dish they might take as a picnic. It is just as easily enjoyed at home.
This is an edited extract from 'Festa' by Eileen Dunne, published by Gill. See gill.ie