E’ arrivato l’inverno. Winter is here.
This was the topic of conversation around the piazza this morning. It’s suddenly overcast, damp, and chilly. I can’t say it’s actually cold as I grew up in the mountains of Pennsylvania; southern Italian winters just don’t compare. But for some perspective, I was wearing a turtleneck sweater and a light jacket, which means it’s considerably more wintry than it was last week at this time.
And make no mistake: the stone houses here are not well heated or insulated for the cold and damp winters, so it’s not exactly tropical around here once December (or if we’re lucky) January hits.
Even before I went up the piazza, though, I knew winter was here because my neighbor Anna Maria was out preparing her braciere, or brazier. When I first arrived in the village, I noticed Anna Maria storing coal in a little bin outside her house and asked what it was for.
Remember, folks, I’m from Coal Country, so this was something that intrigued me.
I picked up a piece of coal and realized that it wasn’t what I was used to; this was much softer. This seemed like charcoal — a far cry from the hard, shiny anthracite I’m well acquainted with.
But the innocent question did land me at Anna Maria’s that evening, and from then on, she and I shared many a serata around the brazier, which incidentally is still sometimes the only heating source a house may have.
She talked mostly in dialect as I struggled to find a stray word that I remotely understood and sipped coffee freshly brewed in the moka on her stove.
Around Anna Maria’s braciere, I slowly picked up local dialect as well as a lot of local history; my favorite stories were always about what life was like here during and immediately after World War II. She recounted, for example, a children’s rhyme about Il Duce Benito Mussolini that lamented days without bread and nights without light: “u jornu senza pana, ‘a notta senza luci.”
Some of my fondest memories of Badolato will always be those evenings with Anna Maria.
So how does this ancient contraption work?
For some background, there’s a basin for the charcoal:
The charcoal, by the way, is bought from a car that drives down the main street blasting Calabrian folk music and announcing rather indecipherably, “Carbone! Carbone! Carbone!” over its loudspeaker. Emphasis on the loud. And the indecipherably.
Once the coals are smoldering, the basin fits inside its holder. On top rests an iron structure, slightly conical with a flat top surface, which is then covered by a woolen tablecloth. All together you get something that looks like a round table the size of a nightstand.
First, take the basin outside and scoop out some of the old ashes.
They will be reused later, so don’t throw them away.
Next, add the coal.
Now add some dried twigs or other kindle to get the fire going and light it up.
Then smother the whole thing with some ash you scooped out before, ensuring smoldering as opposed to flaming coals.
Now lug the basin inside and place the iron table on top.
Finally, do like Anna Maria, scoot up a chair, and rest your feet on the rim of the burner. If it’s particularly chilly, pull up the table cloth so it covers your hands and lap, and voilà!
Warm and toasty, Calabrian style.
P.S. Throw in some clementine peels and you have an air freshener too!