It became apparent in early 1950 that it was unsafe to stay in Asmara, Eritrea, the city of my and my siblings’ birth. We had many pleasant and memorable years there, and I still think of myself as much African as Italian or American; but the nightly raids and murders of white settlers put us at mortal risk.
My father, uncle and grandma left first – and fast – my father having some political baggage (another story for another chapter) and being at imminent risk. They went directly to the US, with visas procured by my uncle Caesar, who would establish a home for us when the rest of the family could immigrate legally.
My mom was born in Canada. Her four children were born in Africa. We were in less immediate danger than my father, so left later and went to Italy. She had family in Le Marché and they would take us in while our new life would be established in America.
When the time came, we bribed our way to Massawa, packed into a truck in the middle of the night with only the clothes on our backs. Massawa is a seaport on the Red Sea, located strategically in the center of the sea with the only deep water approach and facility on the Red Sea. We were kindly taken aboard a USA Red Cross refugee ship sailing for Naples through the Suez Canal, the straits of Messina and into the Port of Naples.
Mama’s father, mother, three sisters and their families lived in a small medieval town, Cerreto D’Esi in the province of Le Marché. Themselves having traveled from Italy to America and back more than once, understood the plight of their daughter and four kids with nowhere to go.
Le Marché was for centuries an area of farms owned by people of nobility but farmed by sharecroppers who lived on the land and had to give the lion’s share of their crops to the owners – particularly the finer, more desirable items: truffles, mushrooms, game, wines, olive oils, the best meats, poultry, fruits and produce.
My great grandfather was one of these sharecroppers until the system was discontinued, and fortunately he ended up with a small farm with a charming old farm house and outbuildings. He lovingly named the farm “Il Roccolo”, meaning roughly The Rockpile. It was in Roccolo that we experienced our first scary earthquake, common in Italy but unheard of in Eritrea.
When my grandfather Carlo returned to Le Marché from fifteen years in North America (which is how my mother came to be born in Canada), he had the resources to take over Il Roccolo. Eventually, he moved into the town of Cerreto and put a sharecropper of his own in the outbuildings. He kept the main house as a retreat for the family.
It was to Cerreto that we came, apprehensive, scared and totally without means to survive. We were welcomed with open arms and we kids were affectionately known as the African Cousins. Imagine the surprise and shock felt by our Italian cousins when they saw four blond, blue eyed kids. They expected us to be black and burst into tears of disappointment that we were not.
Grandpa Carlo Cossa was a big man, quiet, purposeful, a bit intimidating at first, but goodhearted and generous. Carlo’s wife, Grandma Catalina, was a warm loving person and spoiled us terribly. We had a bedroom allocated to Mama and we four kids, small but cozy, and we soon loved our new family and home.
The Cossa household was famous for three things:
First was their love of food; entertaining; and cooking skills. Carlo’s farming experience meant that they used – and understood – the best ingredients. In fact, he sold local salumi and produce from a little store in his basement.
Second was the family’s claim dating back centuries, that they were related to a man of the cloth who almost became Pope.
Third, Carlo made the best white wine in Le Marché, a beautiful, full, green colored Verdicchio. Le Marché has become world renowned for its Verdicchio and Carlo’s was much sought after by neighbors and wine merchants. Children of Italian families were allowed to drink a little wine with meals – older kids like me straight (I was 10); and for smaller kids diluted with water, the amount dependent on the child’s age.
It was a great pleasure to pick the grapes, press them, and put the wine in barrels, working with our Nonno in the basement of their home. This was probably the beginning of my life long storia d’amore with wine.
So continued the family tradition of food, wine, family, life at the dining table and all the wonderful tastes and descriptions of all things shared with love by the family.
For two months we stayed at the seashore, close to Cerreto, with an aunt who was the largest, fattest woman I have ever seen. But what a cook! What a baker! What a grillmaster of seafood! I will never forget all the wonderful things we prepared, ate, shared and relished at Il Roccolo, Cerreto and the seashore.
All this comes back to me as Linda explores foods in the Marchigiano style – today sharing them with her cookbook co-writer and our photographer, with me pouring a beautiful Verdicchio from Le March -and tomorrow with family and friends.
Such great memories to share some sixty years later! As we in fact did with our Return to Le Marche.