Torrone dei Morti
My first Italian death was touchingly unspectacular yet emotional. She was Antonietta. Eighty-two years old. Unmarried. My husband’s second cousin. Deaths of loved ones are common when you live in small town Italy. A second cousin’s funeral barely registers beyond banal recognition. It’s sad because death is, well, sad, but you learn to tolerate the mild discomfort of death rituals when you attend regular funerals. I didn’t know that at the time so Antonietta’s death was unexpected, painful and embarrassingly emotional for me.
I had just met her the summer before she died. She had a little mutt named Bimbo whom I suspected was part Corgi. Together they lived with Antonietta’s unwed little brother, Giovanni in a crumbling old house near Peppe’s childhood home in Agerola. On boring August afternoons when it was too hot to go to the beach in Amalfi, I liked to visit Antonietta and play Neapolitan card games with her.
Her house sat behind a cornfield next to the communal brick oven Peppe’s father had once used to bake bread every Saturday. The brick oven was still there but nobody used it. They all had faux retro Ariston gas ovens by then. Antonietta never got used to her oven and barely turned it on anymore. She preferred her stove, which she used to simmer ragù every Sunday morning for fifty years. It was said that her mother, Angela had once made the best ragù in Agerola. A deep blood red, that ragù still causes Peppe to sigh with nostalgia.
“It was the sugna,” Antonietta once told me, “the pig fat made the ragù taste so good.”
Whenever I visited Antonietta , she served me chilled red wine out of recycled Fiuggi water bottles. Giovanni made the wine with the Aglianico grapes that grew in front of their house. They had a wine stockpile in their cellar which Peppe and I nearly single handedly cleared out that summer.
It was easy to like Antonietta. She held my hand with the unassuming affection that often comes so naturally to Italian grandmothers. All the while she poured us wine and fed us tablets of dark chocolate that her brother brought back from Switzerland in circa 1989. I suspected that it was her special occasion chocolate.
Antonietta served that special occasion chocolate a lot that summer. Mostly whenever Peppe and I visited. In the last week of August, an American friend visited me in Agerola. I am pretty sure this was the first time Antonietta had ever seen a black person. She kept patting my friend on the head and saying in dialect, “you’re a beautiful black lady--una bella guagliona nera.” I can’t imagine what Antonietta would have said had I introduced her to my homosexual friends the following summer at my wedding. Probably she would have just given them chocolate and called them beautiful gay boys.
At the end of the summer, Peppe and I left Agerola to return to his home in Grenoble. We paid Antonietta a visit on a farewell tour of Agerola. Our goodbye was unremarkable. We played briscola. Antonietta gave us a bottle of wine, a sopressatta, some grapes and a rosary blessed in Lourdes and told us to go with the Madonna.
Six months later we were back in Agerola for Easter. Peppe and I were making our traditional salutary rounds when we arrived to a crowd at Antonietta’s house.
“Permesso,” we shouted before opening the heavy wood door.
There was a large crowd gathered in the kitchen around Antonietta who sat awkwardly in a wheel chair. Her head was titled to the side and her eyes fluttered open and then closed. A fat male nurse from Gragnano was attaching an oxygen tube to her nostrils as he explained to Giovanni the medicines Antonietta needed to take.
“This blue one is oral and is to be taken three times daily. The other one needs to be injected, but only in the morning,” he rattled off as Giovanni stared blankly at the television.
I was afraid to greet Antonietta because not only did I not know what to say but I thought I would cry. All of the family members huddled in the kitchen organically thrust me forward and there I was in front of Antonietta, looking so small in her wheelchair.
“Cristina, you came to visit me.”
I nodded and started to cry.
“Somebody get Cristina and Peppe some chocolate and wine,” she faintly wheezed while barely managing to lift an index finger.
A family member fumbled under the sink and found the same Fiuggi bottle of wine we had been drinking the previous summer. Two short glasses of wine materialized. A platter of chocolate was placed on the table next to plastic bags of painkillers. We drank a glass of wine and she patted our hands.
“How is your beautiful black friend?” she asked me in whisper.
She died the next day.
I learned all about mourning the dead in Italy that spring. There is the wake when you kiss the dead person’s cheek. Antonietta’s was the first lifeless cheek I had every kissed. The death notices pasted on street corners. Antonietta’s read ‘adored by all.’ The burgundy velvet announcement placed almost regally in front of the dead person’s house that still causes a little jolt of electricity to coarse through me when I see one. The funeral procession through town. The massive orchid arrangements at the cemetery. The biggest often sent from family members living in America. The fresh mound of earth that will cover the dead body for five years before it is exhumed and placed in a family vault. All of this I learned from Antonietta.
Since Antonietta’s passing, I have attended at least a dozen funerals in Agerola. There was Uncle Gennaro the carpenter who first taught me how to plant and harvest potatoes. He laughed when he learned that my grandfather was Irish.
“To think I taught an Irish immigrant’s granddaughter how to plant a potato,” he told me with a hint of satisfaction.
There was also Peppe’s friend Franco who wrote poetry and called me cara Cristina, sweet Kristin whenever he saw me in the piazza. And Cousin Pietro who once upon celebrating Thanksgiving with us said that the turkey was great but the pumpkin pie was disgusting.
On the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, we visit these family members at the cemetery in Agerola. The longer I live in Italy, the more friends I have in this little departed corner of town. We buy flowers. Red carnations for Peppe’s father. A single red rose for Antonietta. Then we walk through the cemetery and greet the dead. Usually I rub a photograph of the dead person and then kiss my clenched hand. Some of the people in the cemetery whom I greet, I have never even met before but they are friends of friends or family of friends or they just have nice smiles in their picture so I feel like saying hello.
On the day of her funeral, I stood behind Antonietta’s grave with Peppe’s mother. My high heels sank into the wet earth and I nearly tripped as Giovanni kissed my cheek. He was crying and then I was crying. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t really even know Antonietta that well. I wondered if people would think I was fake crying for effect.
Immediately after her death, a rubber band affixed a laminated plastic picture of Antonietta to a temporary cross above her plot. Now there is a permanent bronze plated frame and picture of Antonietta looking dignified and wearing lipstick. It doesn’t really look like the Antonietta I knew but I like the picture anyway. Maybe the photographer from Pimonte with the stutter took this picture of her. It was probably back in the late nineties. I wonder why she took the photo on the day she did. Did she know that this would be her cemetery photo? Did she put on the lipstick thinking about all of the people she knew who would one day pass by her grave, especially on November 2nd? Antonietta was my first death in Agerola, and also my most memorable. Today, her grave is always my last visit at the cemetery. I leave the single red rose, rub her picture and kiss my clasped hand.
This year we also visited the Fontanelle cemetery in Napoli on the Day of the Dead. It is a common ossuary that sits beyond the old city walls and contains much of the skeletal remains of plague victims. In 1656, the Bubonic plague killed half of the population of Napoli. The dead’s remains were placed in mass communal graves outside of the city center in what is today the Fontanelle cemetery.
Thousands of their bones populate a common crypt. They are anonymous. In Napoli we call them the abandoned souls and today families that belong to the nearby Santa Maria del Carmine church have adopted groups of bones, which they clean and decorate with familiar affection. Among the anonymous piles of bones, you can spot small skulls, large femurs, occasional plaques and coin offerings. It can be overwhelming to think about to whom each skull belonged. Did their mothers make ragù with lard? Did they have secret stashes of Swiss chocolate for special beautiful black lady visitors? Did they teach foreign women how to harvest potatoes? Did they hate pumpkin pie?
The anonymity of the dead at Fontanelle is at once banal and dramatic. Human remains are stacked in tidy crisscrossed piles that remind me of Lincoln logs. Uncle Gennaro, once a petit man with attractive blue eyes, taught me how to stack wood in Agerola. There was an architectural science behind wood stacking and peering into the Fontanelle I wondered if the same is true for bones.
There are no pictures marking the dead here. No names. And no final tombstone to visit when I leave the Fontanelle. I think of Antonietta and those Fiuggi bottles of wine and tablets of Swiss chocolate. And for some reason, I don’t want Antonietta Avitabile to be anonymous. She was a nurse to her neighbors, a cousin, an aunt, a sister and a dog lover. I knew her for six months and I loved her.
On November 2nd, we make Torrone dei Morti, a kind of dark chocolate fudge throughout the region of Campania. According to old legend, this chocolate treat makes an unbearable day of remembering our departed slightly more tolerable. It is shaped into one long rectangle that is reminiscent of a bone, a dead body or a coffin. Today young lovers exchange Torrone on November 2nd as one might exchange chocolate hearts on Valentines Day.
There are also hazelnuts in this chocolate fudge. Some people say the crunch of the hazelnuts is reminiscent of bones. I don’t know how I feel about this textural metaphor, but whatever works. I suppose the point is mainly to treat death with practiced nonchalance so that we become ritualistically unafraid. Neapolitans are comically fatalistic. They also love sweets. It is only natural that Torrone would result. I enjoy making Torrone because in a strange way it reminds me of all that chocolate I once ate with Antonietta.
Torrone dei Morti
Serves 10 as a dolce
- 2 cups coarsely chopped dark (70% cacao) chocolate or chocolate chips
- 2 cups coarsely chopped milk chocolate (or chocolate chips)
- 2 cups coarsely chopped white chocolate (or chocolate chips)
- 3 cups Nutella
- 1 cup hazelnuts
- Form a Bain Marie by placing a glass bowl over simmering water (water should not touch the bowl) and melt 1/3 of the dark chocolate, stirring constantly with a wood spoon
- Spread melted chocolate over the bottom and sides of 12 x 4 1/2 inch loaf pan using a pastry brush and/or pastry scraper
- Place chocolate lined pan in coolest part of fridge for 20 minutes allowing chocolate to set
- Melt 1/3 dark chocolate in Bain Marie as in step 1
- Spread second layer of melted chocolate in pan as in step 2. This step is necessary to allow chocolate layer to set and form torrone loaf
- Place chocolate lined pan in coolest part of fridge for 20 minutes allowing chocolate to set
- Melt milk and white chocolate in Bain Marie as in step 1
- Mix melted chocolate with Nutella and nuts in a bowl
- Add mixed chocolates to loaf pan and spread evenly into corners
- Place overnight or for eight hours in coldest part of fridge, allowing to fully set
- Melt remaining dark chocolate as in step 1.
- Spread over top of chilled chocolate and place in fridge for 30 minutes
- Slip a paring knife between chocolate and loaf pan and gently jiggle around and until you here slight crack.
- Invert the pan and release Torrone
- Serve at room temperature.
Excellent with chilled red wine.