Friday, August 30, 2013

What's up with those sheep?

The countryside around Nuoro, Sardinia, is wild, but in a gentle kind of way.  Narrow roads rise from the plain into cork forests dotted with sheep and huge granite outcroppings, the latter mimicked by neolithic structures that testify to several thousand years of human habitation.

We went there to visit Testone, an agriturismo run by the Secchi family, Sebastiano and his son Matteo. It's a third-generation family farm with over 300 hectares and maybe 5 sheep per hectare.

About 30 minutes after leaving the city of Nuoro, we pulled up before an old stone building with a foosball machine and picnic bench on the porch.  A group of high-school students were boarding their bus for the return trip to Sassari. They'd spent the day learning where their food comes from. Sebastiano greeted us warmly and plunked down a bottle of local grappa on the picnic table, offered a toast, then left us with the jug while he attended to the departing guests. We were introduced to Mario, one of Sebastiano's lifelong friends, and an artesanal carpenter. Mario's voice boomed like those of the shepherds we would later meet, like he was calling from across the valley even through he was standing right next to us.

We would be the only guests 3 of the 4 nights we were there in March. But in high season the huge dining room with the fireplace at one end fills up with overnight visitors in addition to people who come for the day to eat well. Each night, Sebastiano or Matteo joined us at dinner, 3-hour affairs filled with conversation about matters ranging from music to politics to ornithology to local culture.

Almost everything we ate or drank during four nights there (except the coffee) was grown or made on the farm or nearby. Cheeses, of course,ricotta, pecorino of various ages, formaggio fresco and fresh sheep's milk for breakfast. Honey (miele de asfodelo) from local hives. Pane carrasau and white bread. Cannonau wine. Grappa, some infused with l'erba luisa, distilled by a local guy who pulls a still around the area in the back of his truck.

Here's some of what we ate and drank during the time we were there:

  • Testa in cassetta - head cheese
  • Filindeu and malloreddus - local varieties of pasta
  • Beccaccia - a kind of snipe, caught by Mario, turned into crostini and pasta sauce served over alisanzas (rough-cut lasagna-like pasta)
  • Corthella -- sweetbreads, lights and liver of lamb with bay leaves and a little vinegar
  • Cordedda - lamb intestines
  • Animelle - sweetbreads
  • Roast lamb
  • Porceddu - roast sucking piglet
  • Carciofi e finochietto salvatico - artichokes with wild fennel
  • Favete con pancetta e mente - fava beans and pancetta and mint with a little garlic 
  • Agrumello -  liqueur made with lemon and mandarines
  • Seadas - Sardinian cheese fritters with pecorino and lemon peel

Regrettably, we weren't able to participate in the cheese-making and other activities Testone has to offer. But one morning we woke early to follow the tinkling of sheep bells in the mist through the rock-strewn fields up to the the milking shed to join the sheep for their breakfast.

Here's the link to Agriturismo Testone's website.

Testone entranceWelcoming committeeMain building, TestoneGuest room terraceOld gateOutbuilding
Outbuilding interiorLower pastureValley viewValley view 2LiloOff to pasture

Testone, a set on Flickr.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


A recent exhibition, Illustrations of Diabolical Women, at the Yayoi Museum, was festooned with images of femme-fatales, terrifying she-monsters, a homunculus or two, and most hilariously, proto-middle class housewives (talk about scary!) who invaded the Japanese consciousness from the Taisho era well into the Showa. The small museum was packed with hundreds of illustrations - for book covers, magazines, posters and the collectors' market. The appearance of the aesthetics of ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), particularly in the early novels of Junichiro Tanizaki and Edogawa Rampo, set the stage for a vision of women at their most taboo, most dangerous, and most thrilling.

One artist that stood out among a mess of interesting illustrators was Sayume Tachibana (1892-1970). His paintings, drawing and woodcuts illustrated a dream-world of seductive, grotesque, strange, and strangely appealing women. One of his most arresting tropes is sort of surrealism of surfaces, where a kimono reveals the fires of hell, a woman's tattoo is a giant louse sucking the life from her body, the hair of a dreaming pair weave and tangle into a psychedelic pattern. And many of his subjects seem to be nodding into a junkie dream-world of sinister stillness, bordering on death. His work was just one of the many discoveries at this gem of a show.

The Yayoi Museum specializes in magazine, poster, manga and other illustrative arts of the 20th century. It's attached to the Takehisa Yumeji Museum, a mausoleum to Yumeji, a faux-naive painter and illustrator from the Taisho era, whose works haven't aged particularly well; imagine Margaret Keane-stye waifs in kimonos, but not painted quite so well. Be sure to check out the Yayoi. Skip Yumeji.

Yayoi Museum
2-4-2 Yayoi, Bunkyo, Tokyo 113-0032
tel: 03-5689-0462