Some like it hot

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‘Hot’ is a subjective term.

In relation to food, here we say ‘piccante’.

Just a hint of chilli is nearly too much for my father-in-law. My mother-in-law though, is borderline obsessed with curry, especially the very fashionable turmeric, which has even made its way into some varieties of foccacia, giving it a bizarrely un-foccacia-like hue I’d call ‘highlighter yellow’. Me? Last night at the dinner table my husband was dropping Tabasco directly on my tongue, so you know where I stand.

When I asked him exactly how you’d describe a ‘hot’ woman, ‘bella’ was his answer.

‘I expected something a bit more creative,’ I said.

The guy at the petrol station said ’Ciao bella’ to me after I gave him 10 euro for fuel yesterday. It’s not exactly…spicy.

The reason I asked him in the first place is because there was a bit of controversy in town this week.

Chilli and cheese. Now all I need is a glass of wine.

Chilli and cheese. Now all I need is a glass of wine.

The annual ‘Festa Pic’ – literal translation ‘Hot Party’ or ‘festival’, in its eleventh year, was on again.

And far from being about women, it’s about chilli.

It’s run with the support of local government, in conjunction with the body responsible for the promotion of chilli: the Accademia Italiana di Peperoncino (yes, this really exists).

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In the days prior the main street is adorned with bright red fabrics and giant replica chilli, and for two days that main street, and Camaiore’s three piazzas, become a chilli-lovers’ paradise in a place that is, gastronomically speaking, pretty faithful to its mountainous-with-a-coastal-influence cucina povera roots. In practice, that means we eat lots of legumes, grains, vegetables; not much meat – but when we do it’s likely to be pork (or rabbit) – and local favourites like delicious cecina or scarpaccia - virtually unknown outside this part of the world (but described as ‘crack bread’ by my best friend when she was here for our wedding. Despite being told at the bakery that they didn’t make till after lunch each day, she went every morning just in case.) It’s uncomplicated, healthy food, that relies on good produce to excel. Which it does. Chilli however, doesn’t really feature highly.

The controversy arose when apparently some shopkeepers took the ‘hot’ concept a little too far, posting erotic images in their store windows. There was enough outrage for the issue to make the front page of the newspaper.

Newspaper coverage of the controversial ‘erotic windows’.

Newspaper coverage of the controversial ‘erotic windows’.

I bang on a lot (although not in this blog, more in person) about the difference between living in a city, like I did in Australia and living in the country. There are always a couple of days every few months where I crack and a simple question like ‘what would you like for dinner?’ from Nicola turns into a small rant about how I miss burritos, take away coffee, sushi, actually all Japanese food in general, thanks for asking; small bars, dynamic yoga classes, the beach, going out without seeing anyone I know (saying this about Perth is probably a stretch, yes), the social acceptability of drinking an entire bottle of wine in one sitting, and Australia in general.

But for a relatively little place, Camaiore has a lot going on. Consistent feedback from Italian friends is that it is lively, compared to their small towns. And with a highly active Mayor supporting community groups there’s barely been a weekend since June where there hasn’t been something happening: from a month-long arts festival, to a healthy food and living weekend, to a Slow Travel Festival (that raised controversy of its own when rock-climbers took to the main street and climbed buildings), a craft beer festival, and a weekend dedicated to street artists…you name it, we’ve got it. This is my second summer here, and I appreciate how buzzy this little spot is far more than last year, when I was trying to grapple with the language; meet family and friends (and in the process attend what seemed like a dinner every night); go to language school – which involved a commute, try to keep some semblance of a career by working online and oh, see if this whole thing with this man I’d followed to the other side of the world was going to work out.

So I’ve been excited this summer to revisit all the festivals I feel like I only got a taste of last year, including this one. From spicy salsiccia to chilli olive oils, cheeses, dried rubs, pastes, chocolate, chilli plants and raw chilli themselves, there was a lot of offer at Festa Pic. I’m still not used to eating the sausage raw, like lots of Italians love to do – even if it’s loaded with chilli. Most vendors came from Camaiore or surrounding areas, including Lucca, but there were a couple from the south too: a Calabrese pair offering tastings of spicy anchovies on bread; chilli oils on crackers. And while I’m not so tone deaf as not to realise it’s pretty un-PC to conflate the subjective ‘hotness’ of women and chilli, the festival even had it’s own type of Chilli King, walking around town with a megaphone proffering the benefits of the spicy plants, one of which is apparently that it acts as a natural aphrodisiac (you can see him in all his glory below).

We’ve been spoiled with sunshine this month and even though the bulk of the tourists left before mid-September, town was busy, even at 2pm on a Sunday when you’d expect everyone might have their feet up after lunch. We ate fritto misto from a little food van, sitting ourselves next to a group of six or seven Australia women from the NSW Central Coast, who were renting a villa nearby for a whole month. Wearing wide-brimmed hats with spotty ribbons and trendy sunnies, they reminded me of my mum. Last year I barely saw an Aussie (or American) here, except for my visiting parents. This year, that’s changed, and I think that trend will continue over the next few years as tourists begin to discover my home: this ‘other’ part of Tuscany.