Friday, March 15, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: The Baptism

Our guest today is Ren Finch Mattioli. Born in Cape Town, Ren studied in Switzerland and worked in London before moving to Sardenia when she was 21. Later, in Rome, she worked in the international film industry and met her husband Luca Mattioli. After a few years in Milan, they found a small stone house in Maremma (in Tuscany) and moved. With the help of two builders, they did the restoration themselves. She started a small artisan knitting company with a bevy of country women who knitted, crocheted, and embroidered the products she sold. She and Luca produced olive oil and enjoyed the life of the locals. Returning to Rome, she started a cooking school featuring a trip to the local market, hands on pasta making, and a jolly lunch. She’s now back in Tuscany where she maintains a vegetable patch and forages for mushrooms. The following excerpt from a memoir she is writing describes the housewarming of the stone house.

Once the restoration or building of a house in Maremma was finished, two members of the local community, dressed up as a bishop and priest, performed a rather pagan ritual of “baptism.” This was the beginning of our joining the local community of this small medieval village.

The stone house in winter
It was wintertime, and we organized the housewarming party following local tradition. The men, experts in roasting pigs, chose a big one from a friendly farmer. This of course, took a few weeks because the animal was hung—always done when the weather was cold.

The cooking was done in an outdoor stone fireplace filled with wood where the meat roasted for many hours. The stuffing was rich with the liver, herbs, garlic, and chili pepper so that everyone got some of this delicacy when the meat was cut into slices. The local bakery provided delicious unsalted Tuscan bread and cookies made with a sweet wine called vin santo (a Tuscan speciality).

We chose round wheels of aged cheese from the farmer renowned for the best. And ordered liters of deep red wine from another producer. These arrived in 10-liter green glass bottles loaded in a cart hitched to the back of a tractor. The villagers quivered with delight in preparation for the fun.

The roast pig
We invited friends from across Italy and found rooms for them here and there. In addition, we invited all the builders, the plumber, the ironmonger, the marble carver and their respective families. In fact, we told the whole village there would be open house for all.

The house wasn’t finished but it was perfect for everyone to wander upstairs and down and to use the old stable on the ground floor—now converted to a huge kitchen—as a dance floor and buffet for the food and wine. The house nestled just below the village’s medieval wall. Groups of people came down the lane, each and every one with a gift of some homemade cake, or bottle of wine, or preserve. The Maremmani are extremely generous and almost never let you leave their homes without pressing into your hand some delicious homemade something whether it be olive oil or fresh eggs or fruit.

The "priest" and "bishop"
At the appropriate time, our two friends appeared in full crimson and black regalia in the garden, chanting and reciting their idea of a baptismal “blessing.” They threw water all over the place. Thus, the house was well and truly baptized, and we invited them to share the feast.

We’d had a huge barbecue made from a petrol drum cut in half, like they do in South Africa, and some kind men spent hours toasting bread to rub with garlic and olive oil and grilling sausages. These men bided their time telling huge lies about their hunting and fishing. I imagine that the sizes of the wild boar became as big as rhinos and the fish as big as whales as the night went on.

Being the hostess, I had to exhaust myself dancing with each of the men in turn because they felt it a way of paying me a compliment to whirl me around. Luca, as the host, was luckier in that his role was to see that everyone’s glass was full and that the bishop and friends were happy.

At the height of the fun, we heard a loud crash coming from upstairs and ran up to find our friend the bishop looking very upset in his now creased robe. He lay in agony and held his hand, moaning in pain. “You won’t believe me,” he said, “but, I was standing still, talking to my friends, and I fell heavily down to the floor without having even moved.”

“Yes, yes,” said his friends. “We swear.”

We wrapped the throbbing wrist and put the whole episode down to too much of the joys of Bacchus. A few days later when I bumped into him in the village, he said he would never perform the ritual again. He felt it was a sign of divine providence that made him fall while standing perfectly still. And forever after, there was a broken tile on the spot where he fell to remind us.

The stone house in summer


  1. What a wonderful way to celebrate a labor of love - and a good way to make friends with your neighbors, too. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Such a beautiful house!

  2. I met Lucca & Ren on my first trip to Italy which played a strong part in my decision afterwards to move there for awhile to experience life abroad. I will always be glad I made that decision. This was 22 yrs. ago. Because of them I was fortunate to feel never feel alone and they showed me what it's like to really live the Italian lifestyle. This meant learning about farm to table, (now in vogue)an appreciation for nature no matter what it throws at you, taking time for real conversations (dinner lasted for hrs.)song, laughter & real friendship. All of which took place in their lovely stone house they made home to all who entered.

  3. Thanks for sharing! What wonderful memories for you, and what a great story for us to read.