April 28, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Light rain shower 18°C

Hot and wild

By Letizia Mattiacci
Published: 2012-06-27

Garbanzo beans and arucola. Photo by Ruurd de Jong.

ummer has come to the hot and quiet Umbrian hills. Not much happens when temperature hover at the 35C mark — well into the Farenheit 90s — for days on end.

I had far more exciting summer days in my previous life, which consisted of tracking down insects in sundry corners of the planet. I remember once arriving in Rekomitjie, a remote field station in Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley, and finding a group of elephants busy tearing apart a baobab.

We were assigned a hut and warned never to lock the doors. If an elephant walked by you needed to be able to jump inside. You never ran; there's no point since they're much faster than any human. They also tend to stomp on anything that annoys them.

Since it had been a hot and dry Zambezi summer, the animals were thirsty and hungry and probably wandered over to the station to paw over what little that was left. There were no fences. Be careful, I was told.

One night three loudly roaring lions crossed the field station on a foray. I was careful.

Sometimes we had no water. Why? At night, the elephants would casually yank the pipes from under the sand.

People have no idea about the life of an entomologist. They imagine an absent-minded scientist dashing around with a net and eventually pinning endangered butterflies to a board.

Not me.

I was the intrepid Italian in the savannah. Locals drove me to riverbeds where we sieved the sand seeking tsetse fly pupae. The heat was bone-drying and I wore a fly net on my face.

You don't know what pupae are? Think of tsetse fly babies. And no, they don't bite. Wait around long enough and you get a fly.

Scenes from another life.

All of this was rather interesting. What I could have done without was a recurring fantasy involving a lion. All my assistants would flee and rapidly clamber up trees, leaving plumpy me as a juicy beast snack.

Though life was rough and rugged, we at least had a proper cook to make us dinner. He even made us macaroni and cheese and a wonderful salad with tomatoes grown inside an electrified fence, the only way to keep away the animals.

Life has changed since then, but the golden light of some summer evenings reminds me of that old wilderness. Of sitting at sunset with a glass of wine on a safe outcrop watching buffaloes from afar.

Now as then, we live on salads and eat on the terrace, which is our breezy retreat. It's so quiet here. No danger lurks. Not even mosquitoes pay a visit. We only have to look out for the fireflies.

Baobab Salad

Ingredients (Serves 2 as an appetizer or vegetarian main)

  • 250 gr (approx. 1 and 1/2 cups) cooked garbanzo beans.

  • 6 cherry tomatoes, halved.

  • A couple of handfuls of rucola leaves washed and drained.

  • 1 garlic clove finely chopped or minced with a garlic press.

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin.

  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil.

  • Salt and pepper to taste.

  • 1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar.


— If using canned chickpeas, rinse and drain. In a shallow saucepan warm olive oil and garlic until fragrant.

— Add chickpeas and cumin, simmer slowly until warm.

— Switch off heat, add tomatoes and rucola, season and transfer in a bowl to serve immediately. Drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar. I use 15-year aged balsamic; a little goes a long way.

— Optional: To make the salad more substantial, cook 125 gr./one cup of faro in boiling water. Drain, toss with 2 tablespoon EVO oil and add to the chick peas. Serves 4.

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Letizia Mattiacci

Letizia runs Alla Madonna del Piatto, an Umbrian cooking school and B&B, and has a blog.

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