Italy is synonymous with great food, and wine of course, we mustn't forget that. The Italians have dreamt up an infinite variety of mouth watering recipes, enjoyed by food lovers all over the world. They have national dishes, regional dishes, even villages have found fame for a particular bake of bread, a goat's cheese, or a spicy sauce to pour on your pasta. But one village in northern Italy recently had a taste of something it wasn't expecting.
It happened in the Apennine Mountains of Emilia Romagna, on the day Sologno held it's annual festival. Solongtonians had worked tirelessly for weeks, preparing for the big day. Stallholders set up in the early morning sunshine, calling on each other to admit defeat and come over to them to taste some real food.
Colourful bunting hung gaily across the streets, aromas filled the Sologno air, and the snow capped mountains rose in the distance. Carnival floats of rustic scenes from a bygone age were hitched to tractors and edged their way through the growing throng. Even Sologno's brass band, tuning up in the town's piazza, couldn't dampen the mood.
One stall stood out, and there wasn't a crumb of food or a drop of wine in sight. Despite this, a crowd was buzzing around it. A framed photograph of Her Majesty, smiling benignly, adorned the stall. Beside her, a notice advised people that Devonshire cream teas were to be served that afternoon, and if people wished to have a truly British experience, they should stroll across the road to Pauline and Larry's place, where the tea service would begin at 4 o'clock sharp.
Larry and Pauline were well known in Sologno. They'd bought a run down stone house with a barn, near the village square, and turned it into a thing of beauty. The house was not only their Italian home, it also provided an attractive rental income from summer lets. There were plenty of return bookings; visitors loved the place. Although Pauline was as British as Blackpool, Larry was half Italian, on his mother's side. Signora Maria lived with them. She caused a stir in Sologno amongst men of advancing years and receding hairlines; rivals for the honour of carrying her shopping bag.
"Il Castello," as their house was known locally, was the oldest in the village, taking it's name from the original arched entrance. The barn stood opposite the house, on the other side of a courtyard that had the Apennines for a view. There was a small pool, to cool off during the summer. Wine cellars running all the way under the house had been converted into a large, bright taverna. There was a bookcase in one of the bedrooms with a secret room behind it, allegedly used by partisans hiding from the Nazis, and by Larry when advisable. The locals were curious, not to say nosey, to see inside the house their British friends had brought back to life. Their appetite for fixtures and fittings was as ravenous as their desire for a Devonshire cream tea.
Larry and Pauline anticipated a couple of dozen people; there was no charge, but any donations received were given to worthy causes. They wanted their tea party to be as authentic as possible, so invited friends over from the UK. They dressed up as ladies from the Women's Institute, in flowery summer frocks and broad brimmed straw hats. All of them made up like Widow Twankey, some had full beards. The "ladies" would be serving the tea.
Pauline discovered where the oven had been hiding and baked a hundred golden scones. In contrast to Larry and the girls, she chose sobriety, for once, and wore the black suit and white collar of a parish priest. Mama Mia!
The tables were laid; the hour was nigh, so Larry flung open the doors of his home. He was astonished by the sight that greeted him. A queue of people stretched all the way down the hill. He called Pauline to come and take a look. "Have you ever seen anything like that?"
"Italians queuing you mean?"
But Larry was speaking about length, not ability.
The first party of smiling Italians was welcomed through the door and took their places. After the heat of the day, the cool, old cellars were just the ticket. There's no language barrier when you drink tea, although explaining why men dressed as women were serving it, and a woman dressed as a priest was saying grace over it, got a bit lost in translation. Blank Italian faces listened attentively to a man in drag describing the wonderful work carried out by somebody called W.I.
"She sounds secretive, whoever she is," said Signora Ramboni to Giovanni, her husband.
There was a lot of looking around them. They commented favourably on the quality of the stone work and were impressed at how the oak beams had been taken back. Some of the villagers had played there as children and got quite emotional seeing the old place restored.
Elgar provided the music as the scones were cut and filled with cream and strawberry jam. Some of the ladies circulated with tea pots, others arrived on their heels with the milk and sugar.
Larry and Pauline noticed looks were being exchanged amongst the guests and asides whispered discreetly. Their visitors fidgeted and avoided their perplexed stares. They couldn't make it out. What on earth was wrong? Everything had been going swimmingly.
The return of Signora Ramboni, from a comfort break, revealed the reason for their sudden reticence. She looked down at her cup and turning to Giovanni asked if he was the clown who'd put the milk in her tea. Giovanni assured her that everybody was having milk, lemon was not the British way, and besides, Pauline said it was obligatory. His wife sought a second opinion, more like her own.
"Mr Larry," she said, "Is it true you want us to put milk in our tea? You surely must have a lemon I could squeeze?"
"It's quite true Signora; it's the way tea is drunk in Britain. This afternoon, we'll not allow any lemons in the house, but please try it with milk, I'm sure you'll like it."
Tough love, but it worked. The Signora lifted the cup to her lips and tried a new taste sensation. She bit into her scone and washed it down with more tea. Her head began to nod slowly, like the man from Del Monte. "Buonissimo," declared Signora Ramboni, which was the sign for all around her to tuck in. Before long, cups and saucers were flying in and out of the kitchen. More milk was needed urgently and they were running low on jam; "hide that lemon," shouted Larry, standing up well to the heat in the kitchen.
Larry and Pauline's tea and scones went as far as the loaves and fishes; no one went home disappointed. They promised to do it all again the following year. For the villagers, their taste of British life was short and sweet, but it proved instructive. As a memento, they had their pictures taken, surrounded by men in flowery dresses and high heels.
Larry and Pauline recently made the difficult decision to return to UK. Why not take a closer look at Il castello, on sale with Realpoint. A beautiful home with income from summer lets. It might be your cup of tea!