Of Mushroom Hunters and Sheep Parades

“The hills are alive with the sound of music!”

I wanted to jump from my bus and run singing through the green pastures of the pre-Alps of Bergamo province.  To distract myself from this rather strange urge, I was content instead to spend the last ½ hour of my trip counting sheep.  Total tally: 238 sheep. 27 cows.  Basically, my life is a movie…

My destination was Cerete a small town in the Mountains just outside of Clusone (a slightly bigger town in the Mountains).  How did I find myself on such a journey?  Well, it is a story that pretty much sums up my Italian experience.  Before ever having come to Italy, I met a girl from Puglia who worked in the same department as my mother at UCSD.  I practiced my Italian with her as we walked around La Jolla.  I had meant to visit her when I studied in Catania, but the opportunity never presented itself.

Anyways, when I found out I had been placed as a teacher in Bergamo, a city I’d never heard of in a province I’d never visited, I did what anyone would do and called in reinforcements.  I contacted every single Italian I knew from both my time in the US and my year abroad.  My goal was to get into contact with anyone in my age range in the area.  As it turned out, my Pugliese friend Feldia had a friend in the area.

By Bergamo, I assumed Bergamo city, but it turned out that Alessandra lived in the lovely town of Cerete smack dab in the mountains that I have been staring at longingly since arriving in Bergamo.  Italians continue to astonish me with their kindness, as a girl that I had never met in person invited me to her house in a small town in the mountains, advising me not to expect too much in the form of partying “the night-life wouldn’t be particular exciting.”   I would say that she was wrong, as it was the first “exciting” night I had in Italy.  Working in an Italian high school, everyone I come into contact with is either over 40 or they are my student, so it was fantastic to stay with an Italian family and hang out with people closer to my age.

My introduction to the pre-Alpi started with a tour of Clusone, an absolutely stunning ancient town in the mountains that boasts a famous Mosaic straight from my art history book.  Content to absorb the culture with local and organic gelato in hand, I came across one of the funniest activities I have encountered.  Clusone, being a small ski town in the mountains, was having a sort of race for their ski teams.  This was unlike any race I had seen, and I would say I am experienced as I lived with Nordic skiers in college and my cousins were competitive freestyle skiers.  You may ask how there was a ski race in October when there is no snow.  Well, I have to say at first I was somewhat confused, teams of 4 had strapped long ancient wooden (skis?) to their feet and were hiking up the central windy road as a team in said contraptions.  The male teams were dressed in boxers with Hawaiian leis, while the females seemed to wear goofy wigs and granny dresses.  Needless to say I was impressed, and more than slightly amused.

The best part of the day had to be dinnertime, when I had the second best meal I’ve had in Bergamo.  Dinner consisted of meat lasagna with a creamy white sauce in place of the typical red sauce.  I don’t know exactly what went in it but it was fantastic and made even better accompanied by the local sparkling rosé (a genius wine that I had never encountered before).  This was followed by cheese purchased from a local cheese provider in the region… Cue the movie references.  I could go on like the pretentious food snob that I am and describe the explosion of flavor in every bite, but I’d rather skip to the best meal I’ve had so far.

The best meal I’ve had so far happened the next day after watching the town next door have their annual sheep fashion show.  Having had my fill of sheep dressed as Snow White or Cinderella, I was content to head “home” and commence my midday food coma.  Lunch as is the norm was an hour-long, 3-course meal, and my hosts it seemed had prepared something very special.  As many of you know, I am an avid risotto chef, and have been perfecting my recipe since my first trip to Italy.  The risotto I had this day, however, blew my attempts out of the water.  I could only sit and sigh with content as the flavor of steaming local porcini mushrooms (picked by Alessandra’s mushroom hunting boy friend) and local cheese filled my mouth and nose.  This is going to sound strange, but I could literally taste the mountains, the rich soil, the crisp fresh air, last week’s storm…  and no I was not hallucinating!  Well, unless you count the high you feel from tasting truly great food.   This was followed by some sort of traditional roast meat, a sort of local take on meat loaf.  As most of you know I am not a huge red meat fan, but Italy may be changing that, because I could not get enough of this.   Bite after bite was sent down my throat until my stomach told me absolutely no way.

Well-fed and well rested, I was content to spend the rest of my time sitting on the patio looking into the misty mountains and exploring the old town’s church, which happened to be in my hosts’ backyard.

I left Cerete happy and healthy with the invitation to return.  Living far from my family, I am thankful to have met such generous Italian families.

A Alessandra e la sua famiglia:  Grazie mille!!!

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