To me, winter was fog. When I was a child fog was thicker, especially in town. Fog has a distinctive smell; it dampens sound; it reveals architectural details that otherwise would go unnoticed, hiding the ugliness of the whole; it is beautiful on flat rice fields, where you could be in a lost, far away world, and the farmer’s house could be a witch’s den. I find fog very charming and I miss it sometimes.
In Milan, where I grew up, winter was distinctively colder than the other seasons; there was often ice, but snow was a rare event, bound to make me happy. I did not like the soggy dirty snow piles left on the street for a few days, but when snow was pristine it made even Milan look almost beautiful, and I would spend hours looking at the hypnotic dance of snowflakes. And in winter I would get the clearest, bluest sky of the whole year. Clear winter days made me feel as if anything was possible. I was bursting with energy from the sunlight and the cold – which I loved, much more than heat. I heat up easily when moving and a short walk in the icy sunshine was enough to make my blood flow quick and hot through my fingers.
In Wales winter did not have such a characteristic weather. Good winter days could easily be better and warmer than bad days in August. What was distinctive to me was darkness. The nights were so dark and long, it looked like they would never end. They had a certain charm, because it was not cold, although the fall of daylight always makes me feel sad. Those long hours of darkness, often warm, gave the night a wrapping, cozy quality and by nine pm sometimes I could not wait to go to sleep just because of the dark peacefulness of the night. And in the morning I would sleep long hours, undisturbed by any awakening of nature.
In Germany days have exactly the same length. Similarities stop here. The nights are polluted by too many artificial lights and the gray, low sky reflecting them. The first time it snowed I noticed how everything looked clearer and brighter and I liked it. That was possibly the last time I am ever going to like snow. Too much snow, and life becomes a fight for months at a time. Every time I go out, I am gambling I will be able to come back somehow. Maybe it could be ok if I knew that buses would be running anyway. And the cold. I cope with up to minus five Celsius – we get that in northern Italy now and again – but below that my body does not work any more. My glasses make my cheekbones freeze and I feel utterly miserable.
Here good winter days feel like spring up north. Bad ones are rainy and a bit humid, but they are relatively rare. When the sun is shining it is quite nice to stay outside without any coat. The sun is very bright and the sky is clear. When scirocco, the wind from the south, blows, it can actually be uncomfortable to wear a coat at all. As a result the land is vividly green and full of wild flowers, while in summer it is dry. Gardens are at their best, with their festive display of oranges, lemons and pomegranates; the occasional roses are flowering, as well as hibiscus. This simple salad is the flavour of winter here – sweet and juicy oranges, crunchy fennel, shaved thinly. Barely a recipe, and still, so good.
Fennel and orange salad
a fennel bulb
a large orange
Method: shave the fennel thinly. With a sharp knife pare all the skin off from the orange: do this over a bowl, saving any juice you loose in the process. Cut into thin slices, and cut slices in half. Mix with fennel slices. Dress with orange juices, good olive oil, salt and some black pepper. Best eaten immediately.