Silverio Venturi [2.2.1953–5.3.2020]
We bought our house in the appennino bolognese in 2010 and it came with more terrain than we could manage. Fortunately most of the land was let to Andrea a friendly farmer who was happy to renew the letting, but there was still the challenge of a big garden and an acre of forest to be managed. After seeing me struggle with a strimmer and making a bad job of pruning a tree, Franco our immediate neighbour, called out to me that I should get in touch with his friend Silverio who was very skilful with trees. He scribbled the number on a piece of paper and a few days later I called Silverio and mentioned that I had been given his name by Franco. Silverio came by and was soon helping us with the garden and with Oriella quickly became our best friends in the village and a source of much advice and local wisdom. In fact it was through Franco and then Silverio and Oriella that we were quickly welcomed and accepted in a village that has seen very few incomers in the last 40 years and no foreigner settling down.
Silverio and Oriella had both been born in Rocca, within a stone’s throw of our house and it soon turned out that Silverio’s father, Ezio, had in fact lived in our farmhouse and worked on the land for a short period during the war. He told us how it had been laid out as a proper farmhouse with an apple store in what is now our living room. Ezio was then a very young man and to avoid conscription and fascist military service, in 1944 had gone into the mountains to join the partisans. Just as the war burst onto our little patch of hillside. He and others in the village could remember the winter during which Rocca was a no-man’s land, the battle zone between two warring armies with the Americans (and Brazilians!) on our side and the Germans above in Santa Maria. Ezio remained a partisan and a loyal communist to the end and in our first few years in Rocca we would see him walking briskly through the village, impeccably dressed. Sometimes with a red beret.
Silverio was born well after the war, in 1953, but he and Oriella were immensely proud of the father’s record, and as had been common with most people in these parts were instinctively of the left. Silverio was not forcefully political but he was very patriotic, but not blindly or just for Italy, his patriotism was for the very land where we lived and he had been born. Especially for Rocca but with a fondness for Bologna, the Bolognese, BFC/rossoblu, and even for some of the neighbouring towns and above all for the forest, the hills, the mountains over towards Corno alla Scala, the castagneta (chestnuts and chestnut flour being the speciality of this area), the cherry trees, the funghi, porcini, the deer, badgers, wolves and all the wildlife. He had an immense and instinctive dexterity with tools and his career had been as a mechanical engineer, but his truest and firm love was for the skills and expertise of country life. For the horses and dogs that he kept and for the knowledge of trees and flowers and for all local wisdom. The heavy Modenese dialect and the quite different chattering Bolognese dialect, both of which sound quite foreign to our ears. Deep knowledge to of the grains, vegetables, milk, cheese, meat and game of these parts. But Silverio was discriminating in what he ate and ate little. From a very young age he had avoided all alcohol, and food should be enjoyed, used and eaten sparingly but quickly in the right way. On one occasion he was rather shocked when I made to have some parmesan cheese with my tagliatelle al tartufo (or was it .. al funghi)? In either case, cheese was unnecessary and would mask the good and rare taste. After a glance and exclamation of astonishment from Silverio, I replaced the spoon in its cheese bowl. The tartufo stood out much better that way.
Silverio would always make sure that things were done in the right way, and he was very careful in his commitment to making things tidy. When our son Ben and Rachel our daughter-in-law decided that they wanted to be married at Montebenso, Silverio was convinced (and convinced us) that it was time that our castagneta was cleared up and restored to its former glory. We now have a beautiful and spotless bank of grass with a steeply cambered, smoothed and clean basis for chestnut trees, many of them with freshly grafted new saplings. In one of our last meetings with Silverio we had a long discussion with some friends from Tuscany who wanted to know how to plant a group of chestnuts. Fergus was given detailed and explicit instructions on how to gather castagne selvatiche (wild chestnuts) to be planted in a sort of raised bed, then as a rootstock onto which to graft cuttings from a marrone (a cultivated chestnut with large, regular fruits). Then in a few years the chestnuts would start to fruit and there would be the long and laborious process of harvesting, shelling, cleaning and then drying in a seccatoio with a smouldering fire, with further cleaning and finally to the mill. Fergus asked Silverio how often the fire was tended. ‘Three times a day,’ he answered quick as a whip, ‘ but I’d be there all the time just keeping an eye out.’ This traditional method had born fruit for centuries here and also in the Casentino. This all sounded quite complicated and multi-staged so I was concerned that our friend Fergus would lose his enthusiasm for the project, which Silverio clearly regarded as quite natural and reliable. But Silverio had judged his questioner correctly, Fergus also just wanted to do it properly with the guidance of a knowledgeable expert. He just needed good advice. It is very sad that we will not next year be able to go with Silverio down to Arezzo to see the fruit of his advice nor in four years to go back again to help with the harvest. But Silverio’s spirit will still animate our garden and his advice will have been well taken here and in other places.