Late in the afternoon we set off for Sperlonga, a little way along the coast in the direction of Naples, where Federico has a villa by the sea. I took the back seat, and was instantly transported to the passive, detached watchfulness of childhood, lulled into a trance, half listening to parental conversation up front, counting the orange flashes of the streetlights marking our journey. I kept slipping into a safe and contented doze, stewed into drowsiness by the heat, the whup-whup of air juddering through the open windows, and the joints we had smoked before leaving. As I opened my eyes the outskirts of Rome made way for familiar Italian roadside scenery: scrubby allotments, trailing bougainvillia and oleanders, tall pines which always seemed to come in threes, stretching and holding up the sky, sheltering a little building- a restaurant, a garage or a house. Garden centres flashed past, one or two of them with an array of preposterous statuary. Behind all this were distant blue mountains that had huge layered sections cut out of them as though someone had helped themselves to a massive slice of Black Forest Gateaux. On approach you began to make out the terracing, the heavy machinery, the whiteness of the exposed rock like a part of its skeleton revealed. I didn’t know there were quarries here around Rome as well as up in the North of the country. Olive trees contorted themselves by the side of the road alongside low-slung vineyards and rows and rows of fir trees. On a twisty mountain road later we passed a figure paused by the side of the road. A chubby middle aged man huffing pinkly on an expensive mountain bike, poured into brightly coloured, labeled cycling gear as tight as a wetsuit. I remembered the ‘piropo’ or ‘compliment’ the Huertas Pirate once told me had overheard in Madrid, from a gang of construction workers as a girl walked past in sprayed-on clothes:
‘Oye, guapa, tienes esta ropa tan apretada como el tornillo de un submarino!’ (Hey, Cutiel, you’ve got those clothes on tighter than a submarine screw!’)
We stopped halfway there at a local shop, or what we would refer to as a ‘deli’. Our mission was to stock up on mozzarella, which is particularly good quality in this region. I had been hearing about this famous mozzarella for quite some time prior to the trip. Federico ordered a couple of kilos of the stuff, and they were handed over in brine, in a sealed plastic bag, which was heavy, the smooth globes knocking against the side. The boys also ordered tomatoes and fresh basil, which filled the car with its perfume.
I drifted off to sleep again as we drove, climbing steadily, passing small towns, stretches of open coast road and holiday homes. When I awoke we were nearly there. We were in an area of high hills covered sparsely with fir and pine trees. As we rounded a corner there was a swathe of blackened, burnt land, covering several hillsides and dotted with twisted tree stumps.
‘Shit, what happened?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t know there’d been forest fires here.’ said the Ponce.
‘There haven’t.’ replied Federico grimly. ‘It wasn’t like this the last time I came, a couple of weeks ago. This is the mafia. Bastards.’
‘Why would they do that?’
‘Oh, who knows? They’ve always got some reason. Either to punish a land owner for something, or because they want to devalue the land so they can buy it at a cheaper price… they do it every two or three years. They’ve really screwed up the countryside round here. Let’s not talk about it, it pisses me off too much.’
We drove past walled villas protected by clumps of firs, olive trees and pines, huddled around them on the top of bare hilltops which appeared to have been shaved all the way up. I wondered if the fires had killed anyone or burnt anyone’s villa to the ground. It seemed miraculous that they hadn’t reached the houses. We pulled up at the front gate of one of them and drove in underneath a canopy of vines, the driveway lined with plant pots bursting with flowers. We began to unpack the car and Fede took us round to the front of the villa. Round the front of the property was a vast covered terrace, giving onto an open sundeck, with a couple of rolled up hammocks and sun loungers. There was a large brick barbeque, a heavy plant pot in the middle of the terrace with a primary-coloured windmill sticking out of it on a long pole, which Fede adjusted absent-mindedly, so it could catch the breeze and turn silently. A wide, three-armed fan hung from the wooden ceiling and sliding glass doors lead into the living room and open plan kitchen.
‘I’m going to start calling you Rapunzel.’ I told him. ‘You always have the good views, don’t you? Fede in his tower with the great view, wherever he is. It’s a bit of a trademark. Look at this, it’s gorgeous!’ There was open sky above our heads, the tops of fir trees shading us from view all around, a steep, tree-covered hillside on the left, and in front the soft line of the sea merging into the sky as if done in broad water-colour stripes. We could hear the sea clearly, breathing and whispering far in the background.
Later that evening we sat outside and chatted, to a soundtrack of sea, birdsong, the flapping of pinned up sarongs in the wind, and the occasional passing car, the subdued noise distorting as it weaved in and out of the trees.
At the long wooden table on the terrace we ate some of the mozzarella with a tomato and basil salad, bread, olives and the fluffiest, creamiest ricotta imaginable. I had to agree with the boys- these mozzarella were like nothing I’d ever tasted outside Italy. They were heavy and dense, off-white, reminding me of an elbow joint, a smooth bone out of its casing. When you cut into them there was resistance, then the knife pierced the skin, and thick, full buffalo milk spilled out of its heart. The body of the cheese was solid and rippled like wood grain. The taste was enormous. It was difficult to compare these cheeses with the jellyish pellets you buy pre-packed in the rest of Europe, something raw and flimsy about them like shucked testicles.
‘You have to eat them within twenty four hours really.’ Fede told me. ‘That’s why you can’t export them. They don’t travel: you have to keep them in liquid as well, otherwise they dry up. D’you know, plenty of people from this region don’t even eat them any more.’
‘Too heavy.’ Agreed the Ponce, shoveling another half mozzarella into his mouth. ‘There’s only so many of them you can eat. And full of fat….Ha! Those people who go all holier-than-thou: I’m going on a diet, I’ll just have a caprese salad, please… yeah, ok, that’s about 9,000 calories right there, good luck. Wow, these are fantastic, though.’
As the sun went down I walked over to the corner of the railings, at the edge of the platform and stared out to sea. There was a blurring of the line between sky and sea. Pinpricks of light appeared on the horizon, sliding silently from one side to the other, boats and ships crossing far away. Lush, green trees framed the sea, and sheltered the terrace from other nearby villas. From here you could only see a tiny section of the ruined Apocalyptic hills that were all around us. The ravaged black scenery was not noticeable enough to ruin the view, but you were aware it was there in the corner of your eye, a literal blot on the otherwise serene landscape. The view was spectacular, the ambience very Ibizenco, bringing back memories of mountain villas and Summers with endless chill out sessions. But this wasn’t Ibiza, this was near Rome, heading down south, ever closer to the mafia. From Rome up, everyone pretends they don’t exist, they are merely a Southern problem, but they were there, the mafia, just round the corner, even this view marked with its black spot, its stain spreading over everything. Look closely enough in Italy and you will always find them, burning the country up and consuming it piece by piece with their own particular brand of Hellfire.