Palmi, Calabria, deep in Italy’s south, where my Nanna Francesca was born. So many people warned me off going here, telling me it was too dangerous – including my own grandparents! But I’m eternally grateful Roger and I didn’t heed the warnings. For me, I think the pull of seeing the place of my Solano, Carrozza, Misale and Rizzitano ancestors was too great.
Like many parts of Italy’s south, there’s much unjust poverty yet there is such richness in the life, the cooking, the coffees, the music, art, the dancing and song stories. I love that in the space of a day in Palmi you can find yourself by the sea, in a gorgeous park, up the forested mountain stopped by sheep and a shepherd with a flowing white beard, or down in a cramped city street. Having lunch near umbrellas made of palm fronds next to the gentle swish of the sea or dinner where a tv surrounded by wine is blaring with a variety show on.
I still have the corno and chilli amulets from Palmi hanging in my Brisbane kitchen and I can still smell the salt and Vespa fumes, feel the sun’s blast and the coolness of the Tyrrhenian Sea of when I was in Calabria. And of course, I got to see where Nanna Francesca loved living with her Mum and her Nonna, the local baker. Sometimes it’s good not to listen to hearsay and judgments about a place and just find out for yourself.
Costa Viola…the Violet Coast of west Calabria (when I took this the violet colour of melding sea and sky seemed even more vibrant in reality).
This view of the Tyrrhenian Sea is what my Italian grandmother, Nanna Francesca, saw from the balcony of her childhood home – her grandmother’s house – where she and her mother lived after her father went to Australia in 1927.
The house is now gone but I took this from the street where it stood. Those hills across the sea in the distance are in Sicily. Closer are some of the palm trees that give the small, coastal town that was my grandmother’s birthplace its name – Palmi. Though hard to spot, the tall-masted boats on the sea are sword-fishing boats.
I first learnt of this town when reading Old Calabria
by Norman Douglas (published 1915), and on the map it looked a good halfway point to stay between Palmi and Pompeii. This part of the old town reminded me of some of the lanes in Fossa, (not so the 40 degree heat at the time) and even though it appears not to have changed much over the years, the town was quite different to the one Douglas had encountered about a century before when brigands were still imprisoned in the castle.
For many centuries, baking in most Italian villages took place mostly once a week or even a fortnight. Both my grandparents told me how they recalled the women of the village taking their dough to the forno (often the only oven in the entire village), and that each piece of dough had an identifying mark on it for when the women came back to collect their baked bread.
In Palmi, Calabria my great, great grandmother and bisnonna baked for their area in a large, wood-fired oven or forno in a room beneath their house.
While I’d heard these stories and have been to the village forno I had never seen any pictures so I was thrilled when photographer, Carla Coulson recently sent me this Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph. It was taken in 1953 in the Abruzzese town of Scanno as women were carrying their dough to the forno for baking.