Asked how I feel today, I’ll say, “Fresh as a fish.”
It’s a figure of speech I heard on the TV yesterday. The program examined the quality and safety of fish from the Adriatic. We were at an inland restaurant eating brassato, a braised beef dish our friend Lidia makes. At noon, for the workers who come for lunch, Lidia turns on TV news. The focus was on fish. This was long-form journalism. Three journalists in a studio were importantly holding forth, along with reporters and scientists in the field hoisting octopi aloft by their tentacles, displaying crates of sole, mussels, and clams; a full half-hour expose on fish. Given my limited fish vocabulary, I couldn’t follow much of what they were saying. I recognized a few fish names; every so often I heard inquinamenti, the Italian word for pollutants.
When the program went to a commercial, this phrase flashed on screen, in the interrogative mode: “Sano come un pesce?” I wondered about the quotation marks, thinking the phrase must be more than the title of the program. It had to be an expression.
“Sano come un pesce,” I said to my wife.
“Healthy as a fish,” she said.
“Is that something people say?” I asked her. “Healthy as a fish?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hello, how are you today? Fresh as fish, thanks. How about you?”
“Healthy as a fish. I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
“Fit as a fiddle. Fresh as a daisy. Why not fresh as a fish?”
She pointed to her plate and nodded at Lidia as she walked by. Come burro, she said. The meat was tender, like butter, they say in Italy.
I told my wife I was going to try out ‘fresh as a fish.’ Why not?
I’ve been collecting figures of speech. Costa un occhio della testa. High price. Expensive as an eye in your head. Svelta come la polvera. Describing a person. Fast as dust; agile, quick-witted. Ogni morta di papa. Something that happens infrequently, as often as a pope dies.
Sano come un pesce.
Then again, fish smell bad, even good fish. Maybe a person can’t be fresh as a fish. Maybe only other things. Like a fish.
Anyway, I’ll try it. Come stai stamatina? Sano come un pesce.
Today we take to the road on what becomes a cheese hunt. We don’t really choose this adventure. It finds us. We drive off in the direction of Morciano di Romagna. Every so often we pass blue road signs for hill towns, Gemmano, Montefiore, Saludecio, Mondaino, Montegridolfo, all within 15-20 kilometers of each other. We’re just above the Adriatic, on narrow roads winding around fields of grain, olive groves, and vineyards, rising to these old fortified towns. In Morciano, when I stop and ask some men in a coffee bar which town they recommend, they confer gravely among themselves, puffing cigarettes and trading opinions in dialect, then say Montefiore, for the castle, or Mondaino, for the cheese.
We choose Montefiore, for the castle.
It turns out Montefiore also has a santuario.
In English, a sanctuary can denote part of a church, a zone where wild life congregates, or a hiding place for rebels and combatants. In Italy, it’s a holy place, where the divine is manifested, where holy people are buried, or where their relics (body parts such as fingers, throats, ears, noses, and hearts) are kept. My wife, a good Italian Catholic, loves a santuario.
We park in front of a coffee bar and locanda in the little piazza in Montefiore. When asked, I inform the proprietor, Maurizio, that I am fresh as a fish today. He claps me on the shoulder and smiles. So it works. Or he tolerates foolishness. After coffee and rolls, we tour the locanda: rooms upstairs (two with a fireplace he says with pride—and maybe we might be interested?), dining area, and cellars. When the castle was occupied, he tells us, in the 14th century and after, all the major properties in Montefiore were connected by tunnels. We go downstairs to see. Sure enough, there’s a tunnel. It’s dark. He lights the way with his cell phone. There’s a musty smell. And close, cold, damp air. Good for keeping the wine cool, he says.
“What about cheese?” I ask.
He wags a finger, no. “Too damp,” he says. “In Mondaino, they burn straw in the pits to make them dry for the cheese. For the cheese, damp is bad.” Mondaino, a few kilometers away, is famous for its formaggio di fossa (cheese from the pit), made from cow, sheep, or goat’s milk, or some combination of the three. The cheeses are wrapped in bags and lowered into a pit that is sealed for 80-100 days, allowing them to mature. On any menu in Romagna you are likely to find pasta served with formaggio di fossa. Its taste ranges from piquant to bitter to pungent.
“What do you think?” my wife says to me. “Castle? Santuario?”
“Or cheese,” Maurizio says.
He hands us a brochure for Il Formaggio del Perdono (the cheese of forgiveness). The producer is Fattoria Sociale San Facondino, established in 1980 by a churchman named Don Oreste Benzi. Maurizio explains the program: The fattoria (farm) houses prisoners who are serving time. They live a wholesome farm life, learn cheese-making in the process, become, it is hoped, new men. On the brochure it says, L’uomo non e’ il suo errore. Man is not defined by his mistakes.
“Santuario?” my wife says again.
My feet are hurting a little. I’m wearing new flipflops. We vacillate in English, tell Maurizio maybe we’ll see the castle next time.
The santuario, he says, is just down the road. For the cheese of forgiveness we have to take the turn for Saludecio.
The road winds down the hill. It’s green and shady and cool. As we approach the small religious complex, consisting of a church, a store, and crowds of pilgrims, we stop and start, mostly we stop and wait. The pilgrims are coming from all directions, men and women, young and old, in buses and cars, on scooters and bicycles, mostly on foot. I know my wife really wants to do this. I whisper, Do we really want to do this? We vacillate in silence. With no place to park, and thoughts of lunch pressing upon us, we decide to seek the cheese instead.
Saludecio is easy. We follow the signs. When we reach the hill town, the bells are ringing for eleven o’clock mass. We chat up someone walking past the church. (I wait for the right moment to announce I am fresh as a fish. It never quite presents itself.) When we are joined by a few more passersby, we ask about the cheese of forgiveness. Everyone seems to know about it. Drive down the hill, we are told, toward Cattolica (yes, a town called Catholic). Along the way we’ll see a church and a fork in the road. Go right. The farm is down there.
I ask, along the way roughly how far?
Not too far. We can’t miss it. Follow the signs for Cattolica. Look for the church and the fork.
It sounds easy enough, except there are a few churches at intersections, and some of the intersections look vaguely fork-like. Ten minutes or so down the road, when I’m beginning to think we’ve missed it, there’s a church. And a fork. My wife has a feeling, says jog to the right.
“You think this is the turn?” I ask. The road is paved, lane-and-a-half, small-car Italian size. We’re the only car, pointed in the direction of the middle of nowhere. It’s a very pleasant nowhere, but still, nowhere. There is no pilgrimage to the cheese farm today.
“There was a church,” my wife says. “This must be it.”
I slow the car, move to the edge of the road. “Was there a sign?”
“I didn’t see a sign.”
“Shouldn’t there be a sign? Cheese of forgiveness, this way?”
“Everyone knows about it. Maybe they don’t need a sign. Maybe you can Google it on your phone?”
I pull into a paved parking lot and Google around, fighting autocorrect, and find nothing. “Zip,” I say. “Un bel niente.” A beautiful nothing.
She points. A kilometer or so down the road, the aluminum roofs of a couple barns reflect the bright sunlight. “Let’s go down there.”
“A halo,” I say.
It’s a farm, all right. Lots of hay. No people. No cheese.
We drive back and forth, trying not to lose heart, return to the road to Cattolica, where we find a woman walking along the shoulder who of course knows all about the cheese of forgiveness. We talk for a few minutes. I’d like to tell her I’m fresh as a fish, but again the moment isn’t right. Yes, she says, we took the right road. We just have to continue down that road for a while, beyond the hay, until we see the cheese place on the right.
I ask, How far beyond the hay?
Not too far. She says we can’t miss it.
We execute a U-turn and go back to the church and the fork. “Do we really want to do this?” I ask my wife.
“We’ve come this far.”
“It’s seems like a lot of fuss for some cheese.”
“It’s an adventure,” she says. “What if it’s right there? Shouldn’t we at least try?”
It turns out we were almost there. Not far beyond the hay there is a sign, on the right, by the side of the road, small black letters painted by hand on a white board the size of a pizza box, formaggio, and one lane of dirt road so rough I have to drive at walking speed, up a hill, over a crest and down the hill, past a couple houses, winding down a kilometer or so into a valley until we reach a structure too big to be just a house, with a long drive and, in the back, in front of a white facility that has dairy and cheese written all over it, a tractor and a young man standing next to it.
His name is Giovanni. He looks thirty or so. He is wearing jeans and has tattoos up and down both arms. He says he’s from Florence. He says he never imagined living in the country like this, taking care of animals, and making cheese. He takes us inside the facility. We walk from cooler to cooler, where there are racks of cheese, floor to ceiling. He has fresh caciotta, caciotta with nuts, caciotta with pepperoncino, mozzarella, ricotta, and scamorza. We ask to try the fresh caciotta.
He unwraps a wheel and cuts two slices with a long knife.
“Do you eat the rind?” he asks. “It’s okay to eat the rind. But not everyone likes it.”
We eat our slices, rind and all, and, buy two wheels of Giovanni’s fresh caciotta, along with a small tub of fresh ricotta.
We chat for a few minutes, about who we are and how we found the cheese of forgiveness. Giovanni is knowledgeable, happy we are interested, pleased to talk about cheese. He shows us how to scrub the cheese if the rind starts to turn green, which he guarantees it will. If the rind changes color, he says, don’t worry. The cheese is still good.
“You just run cold water over it,” he says, “and scrub it clean with a brush.”
He finds a wheel with a coat of green, goes to a sink, and washes it. “See?” he says. He holds it up. It’s clean and white. “It’s that easy.”
Clean cheese. It’s a special moment, both for him and us. We thank him and take our cheese and slowly drive back up the hill, back to the main road, feeling good, feeling fresh as fish, maybe even better.