Photographer's Note

Italy's Land Of Legends And Lentils
(By Kate Singleton International Herald Tribune)

Remember the Old Testament story of Esau, who so "despised his birthright" that he sold it to his brother Jacob in exchange for a "pottage of lentils"? No one would understand that around here, where the Sibillini mountains embrace a huge, fertile plateau devoted to the cultivation of that diminutive legume.

The Castelluccio lentils happen to be the birthright of the local population. For a start, they cost more than four times as much as humbler varieties grown elsewhere, and hence account for considerable local wealth. Moreover, the lie of the land in this mountainous area of central Italy dictates a way of living and an attitude to nature that have shaped deep-rooted traditions. And these, too, are still experienced as a birthright; an expectation and a due.

But there is another reason that the biblical tale seems far removed from reality up in this area of the Apennines, where Umbria and the Marches meet. As local toponyms suggest, it is a landscape full of legends, with hints of sorcery and pagan beliefs that belie the orthodoxy of Christianity: There's the mysterious Sibyl who lends her name to the encircling mountains, there's the Pian Perduto (Lost Plain), the Forca di Giuda (Judas's Pass), the Lago di Pilato (Pilate's Lake). But then there is also a more reassuring Grotta delle Fate (Fairies' Cave), a Fosso del Miracolo (Miracle Ditch), a Sorgente Santa (Holy Well) and indeed a Fonte Matta (Crazy Spring).

Arcane worlds Giacomo Leopardi, the great early 19th-century Italian poet, described these as "arcane worlds." The epithet is perfect, at any time of the year. In winter, you can wind your way up narrow mountain roads, take a last turn past the craggy outcrop where the golden eagle has returned to nest, and gaze down on the Piano Grande, pierced by shafts of watery sunlight and separated from its lesser sibling, the Pian Piccolo, by the squat hump of Monte Guaidone. Perched on the hillside above it is the village of Castelluccio, the only human settlement in sight.

Born as an outpost from which a vigilant eye could be kept on the profitable business of transhumance, Castelluccio still lives off the bounty of the surrounding countryside. The most palpable products of the karst soil and pristine air are the many-hued organically grown lentils, still largely harvested and sorted by hand, and so tender they can be cooked without prior soaking.

Yet the plateau also offers delights of a more ethereal nature. Surrounded on all sides by mountains that rise to 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level, the entire basin, at 1,500 meters, fills with winter snow that melts only late in the spring. Then, as if to make up for time lost, it explodes in an astounding fanfare of color: in late May myriad wildflowers, including the yellows and whites of daffodils, narcissi, buttercups, dandelions; then the blues of cornflower, the reds of poppies; and finally, in late June or early July, the deep purply mauve of the lentil flowers. The scents are heady and the bees have a field day.

La Fiorita, as the flowering is known, attracts visitors to Castelluccio from far afield. As the days grow warmer, it also becomes a favorite haunt for those devoted to hang-gliding: Few places in Europe offer better venues for launching and landing. There is also plenty of scope for trekking on foot or horseback. "In the summer our village comes back to life," says Maria Perla, one of Castelluccio's two remaining winter residents, as she sorts through lentils at a table in the café. "Fifty years ago there were 850 people living here. But it's cold in the winter, and we can be completely cut off for days at a time. Most people have taken to passing the winter in Norcia."

A noble trade Norcia is an attractive walled town with some fine buildings and a well-displayed collection of medieval and Renaissance art retrieved from the ruins of the 1979 earthquake that caused considerable damage to churches in the area. If Castelluccio is surrounded by an aura of mystery, Norcia speaks for the certainty of Civitas. It is also renowned for the art of norcineria, or butchering and dressing pork. The foremost exponents of this tradition are the Ansuini brothers, whose shop fronts the main square and whose name derives from their noble trade (in Italian suino is the adjectival form of pig, or pork). Norcia is also famed for its black truffles, tiny fragments of which are — surprisingly but effectively — included in chocolates made by the excellent Cioccolateria Vetusta Nursia.

Castelluccio lentils are understandably produced in limited quantities. So extra happy is the man or woman who eats them on New Year's Eve. In Italy lentils are an essential ingredient of dinner on that auspicious night. Each little pulse is supposed to represent a coin, and hence augur good fortune to the eater. Now what would Esau make of this? Or Jacob, for that matter?

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Additional Photos by ANDREA FEDERICI (presidente) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 74 W: 0 N: 160] (1122)
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