Finding Valentino by Angela Di Sciascio
Angela Di Sciascio’s father can no longer describe his past, lost in a world ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. Deciding not to let his story fade, Angela embarks on a voyage that takes her through four seasons in her father’s Italy, reconnecting to her ancestry and absorbing all of its chaos, beauty and style. Meal by meal at her father’s family table and step by step through the Italian countryside, she slowly comes to understand the young Valentino who left for the new world. Along the way, she discovers the simple pleasures of rustic polenta high in the mountains, pesto on the Ligurian coast and shares melt-in-your-mouth food with friends in boisterous Rome. But she is always drawn back to the small hamlet tucked in the embrace of the Abruzzo mountains and the cuisine that feeds her soul, sharing with us her family traditional recipes, as well as the joy of finding her father’s home.
I think you guess from the synopsis that this is going to be a tearjerker. The author’s father has Alzheimer’s and is starting to suffer from amnesia, aphasia (loss of ability to express or understand speech) and apraxia (a loss of voluntary motor skills). The effect on the entire family is overwhelming.
“I, in turn, feel the whole identity of my father is crumbling in front of me. The image of my father is collapsing like a house of cards under the weight of his sorrow.”
Yet, the author goes on a quest, not only to discover her father’s past life in Italy but to experience it. This journey is poignant, moving and yes, emotional.
The book is written like a diary. She records events, feelings, reflections and even the food she ate but this is done, not every day but quite uniquely, in seasons. While our parents are alive, we never take the opportunity to ask about our ancestry, our youth is about moving forward yet when a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, suddenly it comes important to understand the past, to honour their memory and keep their legacy alive. This is where Angela begins. She starts her journey to discover the heritage and the country that has come to play such an important role in her identity. What she sees is the historic harshness of life in Abruzzo which dictates the customs and way of life. Seasons in Italy are distinctive. The author arrives in Winter and takes part in the traditional ritual of pig killing. Every part of the pig is used to make salami, sausages, pancetta or prosciutto. She mentions that although it is a gruesome event to bear witness to, it is an opportunity to honour an animal that sustains each family. As the snows of winter start to melt and the ground becomes greener, only the high mountain tops are left with a dusting of snow.
This story is also perceptive and insightful. In her sabbatical year, the author takes the opportunity to travel to many other regions of Italy such as Rome, Sicily, Le Marche, Lake Como, Lombardy and concludes that Italy is a land of contrasts – language, character, climate food and lifestyle all vary greatly from town to town and region to region.
Summers in Italy are hot and humid. and the author takes part in the summer harvest along with her extended family members. She jumps on one of the tractors for a tour of the land which originally belonged to her grandfather and his brothers. A patchwork of majestic olive trees with wizened branches stretching out for sunlight to ripen the fruit.
“I have a deep sense of belonging, standing amongst these trees. In my minds eye, I see my grandfather and grandmother resting in their shade. I see my dad as boy playing and working here.”
Why I recommend this book
This is an exceptional and deeply personal account. Meal by meal, this memoir discovers the young Valentino who left his home in Abruzzo for the new world. The author reconnects with her ancestry, captivated and enthralled by its iconic architecture, cuisine, etiquette values and lifestyle. For those of us familiar with Abruzzo, we can identify with the distinctive culture, the harshness of rural life and inbred traditions handed down from generation to generation which were so important for survival.
“The pasta table belonged to Nona Chiara, its top worn from years of kneading. It is a table which has fed several generations.”
The author is fortunate to experience a way of life which is coming to an end now and even more significant because what she sees is her father’s Italy and the people who once knew her father as a boy, as young man with hopes, dreams and a whole life ahead of him.
One hot summer’s day, the author is out walking and passes an old lady at the front of her house, standing next to a huge pot, stoking the fire underneath and cooking tomato sugo. She discovers that the old lady’s younger sister was once in love with her father, when they were young.
All the recipes in the book are authentic and characteristic of each season’s fresh produce or locally reared meat or associated dairy products made from keeping animals. She reproduces dishes which she has tasted on her travels, made for her by members of the family and most are without precise quantities or even instructions. They are simply handed down and perfected by experience. The author is not only impressed with the level of self-sufficiency but recognises the significance that food traditions are what defines Italians. The care taken in preparing the food is part of the culture and this cultural heritage is inherent in her father’s life. She gathers as many stories as she can,
“To capture the essence of life in Abruzzo for posterity, her young nieces and nephews in Australia and as a tribute to her father and the life he left behind”
The author returns to her home in Australia. The reunion with her family is moving and tender.
“Now, here we are. Dad and me. Standing together, embracing, silently weeping with happiness. The Valentino of Italy is the same loyal, quiet, respectful, honest man that is my dad.”
Melbourne University Publishing (1 April 2011) ISBN:9780522858419 Available on Amazon
Reviewer Wendy Ridolini is a book blogger and reviewer on books written about or set in Italy. She works as a freelance writer and hosts creative writing retreats. Abruzzo, Italy, is her home and she can be found at www.sunflowerpublishing.com.