Yesterday I arrived in Anghiari, a mediaeval town in eastern Tuscany to which I have been returning over the past 12 or so years. It is early morning and the bells are ringing around the town, one set after another.
From the moment my companion and I get off the train in Arezzo, I feel a sense of welcome. The young man in the Avis office remembers me from our last stay here, 4 years ago. It was my name that did it: he is amused that ‘game’ can refer to both football and wild boar. A new credit card system has arrived with a thick book of unintelligible instructions, and while his offsider gets help from a colleague in Siena, I learn that our man lives in San Sepolcro, the birthplace of Piero Della Francesca. His family have been there a long time, and he himself is said to resemble Della Francesca’s San Giuliano. It’s the eyes, he says, and laughs again.
The final point of the journey from Australia is the turn into Corso Matteotti, the main Renaissance street of Anghiari, which becomes the straight Roman road down the hill, across the Tiber valley, to San Sepolcro. Suddenly, there is a breathtaking view. It’s siesta time when we arrive, but, later in the afternoon, when we head out to do some shopping, the town is coming to life. There is a constant stream of vehicles down Corso Matteotti, and the central piazza is abuzz. There is no special event on – this is just an everyday Saturday afternoon.
It’s a little too early for my favourite vegetable and fruit shop to reopen, but I notice artichokes outside another one. There are a couple of different varieties of these beautiful purple vegetables, and the proprietor tells me about their different qualities and ways of cooking them. I leave with some of the small firm ones, as well as cavolo nero and other vegetables, all local and extraordinarily fresh. The lemons, he says, are wild. And here is what strikes me time and time again: these small, unassuming shops have the most wonderful food; and, it’s not gourmet; it’s everyday. Anghiari has a population of something like 6,000 people, with five shops selling fruit and vegetables as well as a weekly market (which, according to a sign on a wall, has been here every Wednesday since 1388).
Perhaps even more ordinary than the vegetable shop is the next one we visit. It’s what’s referred to as a supermarket and is common in small towns all over Italy. These can be even smaller than this particular one and, yet, carry everything, from laundry detergent to the local prosciutto. From the outside, there is nothing about this shop that would indicate what lies within – there are no boxes of enticing artichokes, even though you might well find them inside, and, as it is on a spring, the door remains closed.
The elderly couple who own the shop do a little double take as I enter and, then, with big smiles, welcome me back. For how many years has it been? Am I staying in the same place? For how long? There is a choice of pecorinos – the whole range from ‘fresh’ to ‘hard’, and we are offered tastes. They press their own oil, and, in response to our enthusiastic response to this information, we are offered a taste on some of the traditional saltless Tuscan bread. It is prepared with care. Then, oil is decanted into a bottle for us, and a search for an appropriate cork ensues. We hear that last year was an unusually bad one for their olives; some bug had got into them and very little oil could be produced. This year has been better, and their ancient trees have recovered. As we are filling our little trolley with basic supplies, we are presented with the classic Tuscan crostini chicken liver dish made by the wife herself. What generosity.