'Oh yes,' she cried. 'We're all scoundrels'

It started as an ordinary evening excursion, such as anyone on holiday in Italy might make. Having lazed and swum in the sea all day, we hired four mopeds and proposed to ride up into the hills for a beer at some bar up in a mountain village.

All went well as we clawed our way through a dozen hairpin bends, pausing now and then to gawp at the sea far beneath us. At the top we skirted the village of Castellabate, with its splendid medieval centre, and headed inland along a ridge, our target the hamlet of Perdifumo.

It was a perfect evening for scooting. The sun slanted low from behind us, and the wind of our passage brought refreshing relief from the heat. On either side, olive trees clung to slopes which tumbled steeply away; the verges of the road were bright with flowers, and tall, feathery wild grasses hung out over the tarmac.

Then - pssssssch . Down went one of the back tyres. None of the bikes carried any tools. Grounded, miles from anywhere. What to do? Abandon the casualty and proceed with two people on the single seat of one of the other mopeds?

By a miracle, we had just passed the one establishment which looked capable of giving help: some kind of industrial enterprise, with a fork-lift truck outside. Back-tracking, we found the place was an olive-oil pressing and canning factory. A man produced an air-line, and blew up the flat tyre, but it went straight down again, and obviously needed repairing.

As we dithered, there burst upon the scene a ministering angel with raven hair, flashing eyes and a powerful American accent. Cindy, wife of the factory owner, is American, she told us. Her parents came from the area we were in, but they had emigrated and settled in New Jersey, where she had been brought up. In the 1980s, returning to the family's native haunts, she had met and married her husband, owner of the olive oil business.

Speaking at machine-gun speed in either language, she bade us welcome in American, then in Italian phoned a mechanic in Perdifumo, ordering him to come down at once. As we waited, her three daughters, aged eight to 18 months, squawked and capered round us.

When I asked about the business, we entered another world. Suddenly we were inside a hall full of gleaming, stainless-steel machinery for processing olives: washers, grinders, conveyor-belts, centrifuges. It was clear that the equipment had cost several hundred thousand pounds.

The harvest, Cindy told us, lasts from October to March. Last year's was a cracker. Most owners spread big, fine-mesh nets under the trees and simply collect the fruit as it falls; but the finest oil, the green- tinged extra-virgin brand, comes from olives picked fresh from the branches.

Her own family own extensive groves, but they also press tons of fruit for other growers, and themselves bring in big lorry-loads from Bari, on the far side of the country, to augment their home-grown raw material. So well known is their brand that it sells all over the world. Potential buyers come from far and wide to attend tastings, rolling samples round their mouths and spitting them out, like wine, and other samples are despatched by post for tasting on the spot.

As information poured out, I began to be troubled by the name of the family firm, printed on all the cans and bottles: Malandrino. Does the word not mean "rogue" or "ruffian"? From Don Giovanni I remembered Masetto cursing Zerlina, his wayward bride, with the words, "Brigonaccia, malandrina, foste ognor la mia ruina" ("Little brigand, rascal, you always were my ruin"). Delicately, I raised the matter with Cindy. "Oh yes!" she cried with a merry laugh. "We're all scoundrels!"

By then we were sitting under a tree laden with ripe lemons eight or nine inches long. Perhaps alerted by news that strangers had appeared, people kept coming and going. In due course the mechanic arrived by car and dismantled the punctured wheel, but had to go home to mend the tube. Again, chat flowed agreeably. Why was Perdifumo so named? What had lost smoke to do with it?

"Nothing!" bellowed Cindy's husband, who was beginning to enjoy the conversation. "Perdifumo - basta!'

At last the mechanic returned, reassembled the wheel, and charged the derisory amount of 5,000 lire (less than pounds 2.50) for his services. Once more our party was mobile.

Too late, by then, for any mountain beers. But as we wound down through the hairpins in the hot dusk, we felt as happy as if we had lowered several pints, exhilarated by the kindness and good nature of our scoundrel-hosts.

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