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Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted

Overview

In 1983, a pale Annie Hawes and her equally pale sister leave England for the sun-drenched olive groves of a small Italian town in Liguria. With fantasies of handsome tanned men and swimming in the sea urging them on, they are hired to work for ten weeks to graft roses — of which they have little knowledge — along the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included.

But none of the men seem to be under forty, and Ligurians have particular ideas about life, including swimming ("To go...

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Overview

In 1983, a pale Annie Hawes and her equally pale sister leave England for the sun-drenched olive groves of a small Italian town in Liguria. With fantasies of handsome tanned men and swimming in the sea urging them on, they are hired to work for ten weeks to graft roses — of which they have little knowledge — along the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included.

But none of the men seem to be under forty, and Ligurians have particular ideas about life, including swimming ("To go swimming in seawater outside the month of July or August is even worse for your health than drinking cappuccino after twelve noon!"). But Annie and her sister are captivated by San Pietro's quirkiness and beauty, and suddenly their brief stay stretches into years, as they are bemused, charmed, and ultimately accepted by the eccentric inhabitants of their adopted home.

Resonating with captivating verve and humor, Extra Virgin dishes up a sumptuous sampling of Italian life from an irresistible new voice.

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Editorial Reviews

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Our Review
A lighthearted travel memoir, Extra Virgin takes readers to the heart of a tightly knit Italian olive-farming community in the mountain village of Diano San Pietro. As Annie Hawes, a native of England, looks back over her 18 years in San Pietro, she recounts the tale of how she and her sister Lucy first stumbled upon the village. Lucy was the one who discovered the ad in a newspaper: "Ten weeks' work on the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included." Although Hawes lacked the skills required by the ad -- knowledge of grafting roses -- she decided to go anyway. The result is a delightful, funny memoir that follows the two sisters through their immersion in the food, language, and politics of San Pietro.

Over that fateful summer, Hawes and her sister manage to work their way into the hearts of the eccentric residents of San Pietro -- a community that is not very receptive to stranieri (strangers). The girls are constantly teased and criticized for a wide spectrum of behaviors that seem bizarre to the villagers -- drinking more than one cup of coffee in the morning, eating salad on the same plate as pasta, saying "Mmmm" when the food is particularly tasty. In spite of the teasing, the beautiful mountain village works its charms on the girls, and before the summer ends, the irrepressible pair have bought a dilapidated farmhouse high in the terraced hills above the village. Enamored of the landscape, Hawes writes: "The countryside around here is dotted with slate-gray rocks the size of haystacks, standing like prehistoric altars among the olive trees." The hard work of caring for their new property brings Hawes and her sister into the community's good graces. It sets them apart from the stranieri who buy up the rustic homes and then, since they are only interested in the tourist season, allow the precious olive trees to go to ruin. Another factor in the sisters' favor is their budget, which doesn't allow them to undertake the vast, expensive renovations that have helped the stranieri change the face of the Italian countryside. The open, inquisitive attitudes of the two sisters -- and their big appetite for the fresh, hearty food -- endear them to the villagers and help them turn their little stone house into a true home.

Through the ups and downs of their story -- the turbulent olive market, which has serious effects on every aspect of life in San Pietro; devastating summer fires; joyful festivals; and the satisfying olive and grape harvests -- Hawes presents the life of San Pietro in fresh, energetic prose.

--Julie Carr

Cleveland Plain Dealer
The subject is lively, and [Miriam] Margolyes matches it with an upbeat manner and voice that is attractive...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Margolyes reads this delightful memoir with gusto, recounting how the Hawes sisters moved from England to a Ligurian village in 1983, following a whim to go work as rose grafters work about which they had no knowledge, but keen interest for 10 weeks. Upon arriving in a land of brilliant sunshine, rich gastronomy and stubborn but charismatic locals, the pale Anglophiles slowly assimilate into the Riviera lifestyle. Raised eyebrows from many card-playing Italian men aside, Annie and Lucy become friendly with the town's farmers and vintners. They learn to use baking soda to brush their teeth long before Arm & Hammer introduces it, they feast on fresh ravioli years prior to Tuscany's explosion, and they learn to live off the land in a way unheard of in their previous lives in England. Assimilation leads to a full-fledged love affair with the region, and the sisters eventually buy a decrepit farmhouse to call home. The reader's crisp British accent moves things quickly, and she even rolls her "r"s with verve. Hawes, who still lives in Liguria, presents a loveable and enticing portrayal of this quirky, beautiful place. Based on the HarperCollins hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 4). (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1983, Hawes, a freelance film editor, left England with her sister for a ten-week holiday in a remote village on the Italian Riviera. Seventeen years later, they are still there. This comical memoir of their experiences in Liguria opens with their arriving at the house as seen by Franco, the next door neighbor. Franco will grow important to the sisters, becoming their tour guide, translator, friend, and confidant throughout the years. The rest of the book is told from Hawes's viewpoint, picking up from the sisters' entrance into the house. Hawes describes in detail every aspect of life in this small Italian town, complete with her expectations, ignorance, and stereotypes. As she grows from a na ve girl on holiday to a bona fide member of the village, the writing becomes stronger and more confident. More a tale of a fish out of water than a travel narrative, Extra Virgin will entertain and delight most public library readers. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/00.]--Stephanie Papa, Baltimore Cty. Circuit Court Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Two English sisters play peasants in the Ligurian countryside in Italy: one describes their adventure here, clearly hoping to do for the tiny village of Diano San Pietro (and for herself), what Peter Mayle did for Provence. The girls arrive to graft roses as a summer job, and end up buying a peasant's cottage for a pittance. They restore the little house, learn how to sanitize its outhouse, and cultivate a hillside garden. They import their boyfriends and a few power tools, none of which are compatible with the tough foliage and easygoing ways of the Italian hillside village. They polish their shaky Italian and learn the eccentric Ligurian dialect. Liguria is an olive-growing area, and when the women arrive, olive prices are in the pits, resulting in a depressed local economy and even more depressed local inhabitants. By the end of the story, however, a lipid-conscious society elevates olive oil to new heights, and the prosperity of Liguria is restored. Small incidents—the purchase of a British car, the inability to get parts, the subsequent abandonment of same, minute descriptions of local fêtes and festivals—make up what passes for a story line here. There is also much description of food—how it is eaten, what it consists of, and in what order the courses arrive according to local protocol. This causes no end of yuks for the British sisters, who are eventually seduced and learn to adapt. Presumably, they learn to cook, too. Not enough style or humor to keep the pages turning: the author brings so many touristy preconceptions to the plate (one tires early on of descriptions of"hanky-headed" olive growers and their quaint, local customs) that it ishardtosee whether she fell in love with a country or an ideal.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060958114
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 356,211
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Hawes has worked for the past fifteen years as a freelance film editor. She has lived in France and Africa as well as her native England. She now lives most contentedly in Liguria, Italy.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Glamour, we soon spotted, was not the outstanding feature of the village of Diano San Pietro. As far as the crusty olive-farming inhabitants of this crumbling backwater were concerned, the Riviera, a mere two miles away, might as well be on another planet. Down on the coast, Diano Marina has palm-shaded piazzas and an elegant marble-paved promenade along a wide blue sandy bay. Diano San Pietro, on the other hand, straggles up the steep foothills of the Mediterranean hinterland, its warped green shutters leaning into decrepit cobbled alleys overrun with leathery old men on erratic Vespas who call irately upon the Madonna as they narrowly miss mowing you down; with yowling feral cats and rusty tin cans full of improbably healthy geraniums.

The lodgings in which we are doomed to spend the next ten weeks -- courtesy of Luigi, walrus-mustached landlord of the village's only hostelry and liveliest spot in town -- have turned out to be a tiny pair of echoing tiled rooms above a barful of peasants who take thriftily to their beds at about ten-thirty. Our own beds are made of some kind of weird hammocky chainmail that droops horribly under your mattress, squeaks and gibbers at your slightest movement, and are only yards from the village campanile, whose great wheezing bell rings each and every hour, each and every half-hour, shaking the whole building to its roots. Only a masochist, or someone who was born and bred here and had been heaving sacks of olives since daybreak, would try getting to sleep before the 12:30 A.M. extravaganza was over. Twelve long-drawn-out gut-vibrating bongs and, after a short pause, a rusty, breathless bing. One A.M. is music to our ears.

Down by the sea Diano Marina folk have consorted openly with visiting strangers ever since the elegant days of Wintering on the Riviera. No terrible retribution seems to have fallen upon them: in fact a century or so of this wanton behavior has left them looking rather sleek and prosperous. Up on the mountain, the grimly fascinating folk of Diano San Pietro prefer to meet the eccentric behavior of strangers with a united front of appalled incomprehension. In San Pietro a woman does not wear shorts and a T-shirt. Not unless she wants to face a barful of seriously quelling looks over her cappuccino. No: she wears an apron, a calf-length tube, ankle socks, and slippers. Her menfolk go for the faded blue trouser held up with string, the aged singlet vest that is not removed in the midday heat -- certainly not, we're not in Diano Marina here -- but rolled up sausagewise into a stylish underarm sweatband, leaving the nipple area modestly covered while the solid pasta-filled midriff is exposed to the pleasantly cooling effect of any chance bit of air that may waft by. Naturally, a large and well-worn handkerchief always protects the head during daylight hours; knotted at the corners for men, tied at the nape for ladies. Our slinky holiday gear languishes in our bags, untouched. Still, since barefaced lying has brought me here, board and lodging paid for, wages (barring detection as an impostor) in the offing, there is perhaps a certain poetic justice in the severe lack, in my immediate vicinity of bright cosmopolitan life, of frivolity of any kind, or indeed, of anyone under forty apart from the occasional babe-in-arms. Maybe also in the fact that my ten-week stay in Diano San Pietro will end up stretching on into infinity.

Ten weeks' work on the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included, said my sister, waving the job description at me. Mediterranean fleshpots, sparkling seas, bronzed suitors with unbearably sexy accents, wild nightlife.... Why didn't I come too?

What about the bit about being able to graft roses To Commercial Standard, I asked, examining the document. Was this not of some importance to my putative employer? Would I not find it hard to conceal my ignorance of such matters?

Of course I wouldn't, said Lucy. Not with her at my side to coach and camouflage.

After a long and gloomy winter of angst and form-filling I'd firmly established that I had absolutely no chance of getting a loan to buy the home of my dreams. I was, I now knew, a Bad Risk. The sister was doing her best to save me from despair. Enough lurking in the London gloom, skidding home exhausted through greasy city dark and drizzle. What did I care about a career? Or real estate, for that matter? Freelance horticulture would do very nicely. So here I am, middle of February, in Italy and ready to graft. San Pietro may correspond hardly at all to any idea I have previously formed of the Italian Riviera, but it is undeniably a great improvement on London. No more miserly damp horizons stopping twenty feet away at the nearest office block. Here they stretch up into the misty foothills of the Maritime Alps on the one hand, on the other down into the intense blue vastness of the Mediterranean. The sun shines warmly even at this unlikely time of year; the sky is blue; and I am seeing plenty of both.

Moreover, the board makes up twice over for any small defects in the lodging chosen for us by our boss-to-be, Signor Patrucco, whose rose nurseries lie a couple of hundred yards away, just past the olive mill. In under a week the lugubrious Luigi and his statuesque wife Maria have transformed us from just-give-us-a-sandwich philistines into budding gourmets, agog to meet whatever they'll be putting on our plates tonight. Or more accurately, into budding connoisseurs of antipasti. It has taken us some time to learn that you're meant to start with a few of these delectable antipasti-things, then move onto your primo piatto of pasta. Next, the focal point of meal; your secondo piatto of meat-and-vegetables or salad. Followed, if you want, by fruit or cheese. This, to locals, is so obvious that it needs no explaining: just part of the bedrock of civilization. But with no menu, no ordering, only Maria or ten-year-old Stefano, her son, appearing with serving dish after serving dish of delicious stuff and doling it onto your plate unless you told them not to, how were we going to work all that out? Conceptually challenged, we saw only a deliciously haphazard abundance, tried a bit of everything -- or two bits of particularly good stuff, when the dish did its second round -- and stopped, naturally, when we were full up. Usually before we'd even got onto the pasta course, and only, as far as our hosts were concerned, a third of the way through our meal. Causing immense consternation all round.

Maria mills in and out of the kitchen, serving course after course, neatening and tidying, prodding and petting us and the dozen men she feeds every evening, dour hanky-headed folk who, like us, have somehow found themselves short of the womenfolk you need to fix you a decent twenty-course dinner of an evening. Our fellow diners sit in twos and threes commiserating with one another sotto voce, only livening up when we, or any other stranieri there happen to be about the place, do something particularly bizarre.

Have some stuffed zucchini flowers, says Maria. A tiny pie filled with broccoli? A few friscièûi of borage leaves in crispy batter? Now, oven-roasted baby onions, stripy-grilled slivers of peppers and eggplant with a dash of Maria's anchovy-laden bagna cauda. A couple of fat slices of rich red tomato under a big dollop of pesto -- the oil from Luigi's own trees, the basil from the vegetable patch around the back. Some little squares of fresh herby cheese tart?

How would you guess that all this was just a starter? We know it now, thanks to Luigi, whose training in abstract thinking (he is San Pietro's answer to Antonio Gramsci) alerted him to the fact that our eccentric eating behavior was not due to a willful refusal to conform, but the lack of a whole framework of reference. We have much to learn. Tonight we obligingly horrify everyone by putting salad on the plate with our pasta. Salad, of course, is not eaten with the pasta. Salad comes afterwards. It could easily, Maria explains, snatching it back off again with her serving tongs, make the pasta curdle in your stomach. A lot of wise noddings and a chorus of Ah, sí, sís rise from the surrounding hoary heads, confirming her words. (Nowadays, with years of experience, we know that you can get around this annoying convention by casually spearing bits of salad out of the bowl as you eat your pasta -- the important thing is not to put it on your plate.) Next, as if the salad offense weren't enough, we give in at the end of the pasta course. No secondo? Again? Can't we even fit in a taste of the great sizzling piles of meat that have now appeared? The secondo is the whole point of the meal! No, we can't. Maria is most put out. Unfair, since it's at least partly her fault; she's so entertained by our antipasti addiction that she can't help egging us on to try more and more of her tasty tidbits. Still, at least we've made it past the pasta course tonight before falling by the wayside. Our hosts are on our case, and have, they say, great faith in our potential.

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Reading Group Guide

Introduction Following in the footsteps of Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle, author Annie Hawes finds herself welcomed into a foreign community whose peculiar traditions she relates in Extra Virgin, her account of becoming a homeowner in a remote village in the Italian Riviera. Hawes and her sister Lucy flee their native England in 1983 for the allure of the sun-drenched olive groves of Diano San Pietro, a small town in Liguria, Italy. After signing up to graft roses for a season -- part of an enterprising villager's cottage industry -- the sisters envision themselves falling for local Romeos. Instead, they fall head over heels for an isolated rustico, an abandoned farmhouse set in the hills above the village, which they buy and rebuild. Hawes sets her engaging narrative of purchasing and fixing up their house against a colorful backdrop of eccentric neighbors. She describes the locals' unaccountable distaste for the flowers she and her sister go to lengths to nurture, the San Pietran compulsion for neatness, and their inexplicable reliance on the powdery substance of lime as a catch-all for any and all household problems. She observes with amusement (and exhaustion) the Christmas tradition of exchanging pannetone with every single neighbor visited during the holiday, and she skewers local wisdom about what it is acceptable to eat and drink at any given time of the day. Hawes delves into the inexplicable, long-standing antipathy between Diano San Pietro and nearby Diano Marina, a more prosperous and tourist-friendly town. A feud between two neighbors and the childish forms of revenge they exact on each other flavor both local gossip and Hawes's account. Hawesaffectionately details the flamboyant characters who come to her aid. She reveals the bottomless reservoirs of kindness she and her sister encounter as foreign females in southern Italy. Hawes offers an insightful look into agricultural customs that have gone largely unrecorded in popular literature even covering the arduous process of gathering olives and processing their oil. She bears witness to a shift in local attitudes about the cultivation of olive trees. Her English perspective on the culture of rural Italy offers a wry and intimate look at a part of the world unknown to even the most widely traveled. Discussion Questions
  • How would you characterize the author's Italian adventure? Were you surprised by her integration into the tight-knit community of Diano San Pietro? Did you find her approach to living in a remote, rural region unusually adaptive, foolhardy, or brave?
  • Are there any traditions in this region of rural Italy that you found especially memorable as you were reading? Did you find the author's anecdotal narration of her experiences to be effective?
  • Were there individuals in this story whose personalities you found amusing or bewildering? Who were they? What behaviors or attitudes did they exhibit?
  • How would you describe the relationship between the neighboring communities of Diano San Pietro and Diano Marina? If you were visiting the region, would you prefer to stay in one village over another? Why?
  • Were there aspects of everyday life in Diano San Pietro that reminded you of some of the traditions in your community?
  • Were there other facts about the author's experience that you wanted to know? Did you feel the book did a good job conveying the author's personal experience of life in a rural village?
  • Have you ever traveled beyond your immediate community to a place where you have had to "do as the Romans do" in order to coexist peaceably? How do you think the author's behavior was perceived by her neighbors?
  • Does the account of life in a village in Extra Virgin remind you of other books you have read by travel writers? Which ones? About the Author: Annie Hawes has worked for the past 15 years as a freelance film editor. She has lived in France and Africa as well as her native England. She now lives most contentedly in Liguria, Italy.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2004

    Different from the Riviera I visited! I think I'll stay in my beautiful hotel in S.Margherita instead!

    I enjoyed this book. It did take me a long time to finish. Not exciting enough to keep me turning the pages but so many things are true about the Italian way of living. I did laugh at many things that reminded me of my great Aunt. Things such as you should never have salad till the end of the meal and many other tid bits took me back in time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2001

    AN IN SOUCIANT AND CHARMING READING

    Many have extolled the virtues of living in Italy, but few have done so with the insouciance and charm of Annie Hawes. Her story of years in a small Ligurian village is pure delight, as sunny as the oil yielded by dappled groves of olive trees lining the area. Now, an additional delight - the audio version of 'Extra Virgin' as read by Miriam Margolyes. This gifted actress has worked with many of Hollywood's top directors, including Martin Scorsese in 'The Age Of Innocence.' She starred in her own television series, as well as gathering other television credits in various telefilms. Ms. Margolyes also conquered radio with her stunning rendition of a novel in which she played all members of the British Royal Family. Her reading of 'Extra Virgin' is one more stellar accomplishment, allowing us to revisit the incomparably beautiful Italian Riviera whenever we wish.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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