First I hear the tentative trill of a bird outside my window, then quiet. A moment later the trilling returns, more insistent. I open my eyes and in the soft early dawn light I see a bird in the pear tree outside the small window cut through the 2-foot-thick whitewashed walls. It seems to be staring at me. It's a timeless scene, and could occur in any era from the 15th to the early 20th centuries. But as sleep leaves me I remember where I am.
Do you ever wonder if there's any place left that hasn't been touched by MTV and McDonald's? A place where the wine tastes as it did centuries ago, the food is as fresh as it can get and the people are true and pure? There may not be many such places, but I have found one.
The Val di Nepente lies at the northern end of the Piano Grande, a vast mountain plain best known for the profusion of wildflowers that covers it briefly every spring. The nearest sizable town, San Guglielmo, lies a 40-minute drive south, and is noted primarily for lending its name to the region's chief export: Mirto di San Guglielmo, an especially aromatic myrtle believed to make the best bed on which to rest fresh country cheese.
The phrase "beyond the back of nowhere" certainly applies here. The nearest airport is a 3-hour drive, the nearest train station an hour away, and the closest bus stop is in Gobba, halfway down the mountain. I rented a car and drove, and drove some more. The few residents of Val di Nepente are fiercely protective and private, and have blocked any attempts to build a road to the valley. They also routinely remove any signs pointing the way. The simplest route is this: Go to the northern end of San Guglielmo, leave by the Porta Vecchio, and follow the dirt track under the telephone wire—which serves Val di Nepente's sole telephone—along the edge of the plain. Eventually it turns uphill and into a valley framing a pretty, ice-cold creek—the Nepente. When you get to the end of the wire you're in Lenticchio, the 12-building village center of life here.
There are no hotels, but if you are persistent, Erardo Bombo, possessor of the telephone and the town's only automobile, will put you up agriturismo style in his 16th century farmhouse. What it lacks in creature comforts it more than makes up for in charm and integrity.
The afternoon of my arrival Erardo told me the story of the valley while roasting goat ("Her name was Maria Grazia. She was bellissima, molto raffinato," he says warmly while basting) in his ancient fireplace. "Before the war," he explains, "there were lots of places like this. A person could make a good life without leaving their valley. Truth is, we have everything we need here." He counts off on his fingers, "The grapes for wine; fresh good water; the grass for the cows; chestnuts; goats." He shrugs. "But after the war everyone left for the cities. When you're poor you can get big ideas too, no? Eh, especially when you're poor."
Our dinner begins with fresh creamy cheese served on the fragrant myrtles, followed by Maria Grazia served with chestnut pancakes and a wild dandelion salad. As he drags his greens through the meat juices, I ask Erardo if he ever puts olive oil or vinegar on his salad. "Bah," he exclaims, "city food."
Likewise the wines. Don't expect to find any Cabernet here: the wines are simply white or red. The terraced vineyards line the warmer wall of the valley, and are such a jumble of obscure grape varieties that little further distinction is possible. Pitchers are drawn off of enormous barrels for meals and refilled as needed. The white is fragrant, not unlike retsina, but with pronounced wet hay aromas. The red is as rough and rotund as my host, and has a dogged finish that can only be described as pitch. It matches the food perfectly, organically. Now I see Erardo's point: This not big-city wine with its silicone and botox and fake smiles. This is real wine, made by real people, lumps and all.
Dessert is a single pear just pulled from the tree. Its mottled skin and vaguely obscene shape are unlike any pear I've seen—it doesn't get any more heritage than this—and it possesses a musky, almost feral aroma.
It is the simplest meal I have had in ages, and surely one of the best.
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