Harvesting a sense of place from Italy’s agriculture

By Renee Ciulla

It was a deep sense of conviction that brought me to Italy, although I couldn't pinpoint one exact reason for being drawn here. Perhaps it was my family roots in Sicily, or a vivid childhood memory of a postcard with a Tuscan landscape my Nana always displayed. Or it could be my passion for real food and simple country living. Whatever the reason, I felt instantly at home. I've fallen in love with a country bursting with lessons on how to live life to the fullest while keeping your heart grounded home.

On the fork between two dirt roads on a hill in the Val D’Orcia Valley of Tuscany, I'm blessed with an expansive view: winding roads lined with cypress trees, distant farms and hills that melt into forever. Fluttering wings of roused pheasants in the olive groves echo through my ears as my eyes scan from the medieval village of Pienza to the dormant volcano of Monte Amiata, passing rolls of farmland with ancient homes scattered in the folds. The thick early fog rests between the thighs of each hill giving the landscape a surreal feeling of elevation, as though each farm is a castle nestled in clouds.

By the time the fog rises from the valley, morning greetings of “Buongiorno!” are heard across the piazza like the solid ringing of bells. Words roll off Italian tongues reminding me of dewdrops beading down twisted grape vines. I can listen to their unstoppable and beautiful language forever, regardless of how little I comprehend. The old, cranky widow threatening with her cane at the street dog could be spitting profanities, and still I drink up her melodious words.

Walking becomes exploring as I gingerly watch each step on the uneven cobblestones winding down the narrow streets. Aged wooden benches seem reserved for the equally historic elders, soaking up the early morning rays, who momentarily turn from the sun to send me a welcoming grin. Terracotta pots overflow with bright-red geraniums. Children dressed in plaid skip by on their way to school. Bicycle bells chime. There is much to smile about this morning. Above me, antique wooden shutters are thrown open as the women of Italy welcome another sunrise, and with it the warm Mediterranean air.

Buongiorno!” The words echo through my head as I step inside the humid, thickly sweet air of the local bakery. My inability to fluently speak Italian is of no consequence. The baker can easily comprehend the joy spread across my face as I “read” all the rows of freshly baked sweets and breads. Every mouth-watering pastry calls to me – the freshly-filled canollis with ricotta oozing over the lips of their perfect shells, the almond-and-honey paneforte with glaze that makes flirtatious winks, and the mysteriously moist lemon, rice and ricotta pie I have been unable to walk away from the past two mornings. If only the void in my stomach was as limitless as the million taste buds dancing in anticipation.

Customers bustle in and out of the bakery knowing precisely what they will order the second their bellies hit the bar. “Scusi, scusi.” The patrons excuse themselves as they swim through each other on a mission to the counter. I’m struck by how the faces reflect the pastries: each one uniquely striking. Refocusing, I admit defeat to the ricotta pie and return the baker’s smile as he reaches for my piece. As he recites the total, I am lost in the aromas and sounds of bakery bustle and a comforting sense of peace.

Although the thrills of village life never subside, my preference is the Tuscan countryside brimming with uncontaminated smells, sights and sounds. I spend the majority of my time with Vilmo, a farmer who lives in the same home in which he was born. He shares this home with his 73-year-old mother and his son—three generations under one roof. During the olive and grape harvests, additional hands appear from other familial houses in the valley, making what could be a daunting task a family celebration peppered with laughter and, of course, bountiful meals deserving two complete hours.

I pick my way up the dirt driveway leading from the stone dwelling where I sleep to the main farmhouse. The copper buzzer feels cool under my fingers as I press down to alert Vilmo’s mother that I am waiting to be let in for breakfast. Lea’s old, worn slippers slowly slide down the stairs as she comes to open the heavy wooden door.

Mangia! Mangia! Va bene? Va bene!”

Always the same lines spoken with such earnest and sincerity. I desperately want to learn the language if only to communicate better with the matron of the family, knowing full well she would never consider learning English. The only sign of Lea's 73 years is her significant hunchback and crop of bushy gray hair. Her gentle, brown eyes view me with the same tenderness I've seen in my own Nana's face, and her ageless smile exudes the comfort and warmth of a fireplace.

She continues her rambling Italian on our way to the kitchen—words endlessly flooding over like a pot of forgotten boiling pasta. My head, still trapped in the sluggishness of morning, tries to sift through the torrent of expressions and find at least one recognizable word. She is on her usual mission regardless of my dumbfounded expression. Back bent almost doubly, turquoise-blue apron tightly tied and sleeves rolled high, Lea is never resting. There is always something to sweep, a flower to deadhead, basil to harvest or a son to scold. I patiently wait for an appropriate moment to lend a hand, wondering what sort of feast she will create today. A tantalizing meal always seems to appear like magic from the few simple ingredients living in the kitchen.

Italians eat from their own sea and soil, meaning the food on the table changes with the seasons. Meals often consist of hand-rolled pici—pasta made from wheat grown in the field—freshly pressed olive oil and wheels of pecorino cheese from shepherds in the valley. My personal favorite is zuppa de ceci—chickpea soup filled with fresh garden vegetables—and bread from the morning delivery.

Vilmo’s connection with the land has resulted in a deep knowledge of how to consistently obtain local food, like hunting for wild boar and wild mushrooms, collecting herbs, making fruit preserves, harvesting and pressing olives and raising vegetables. Many foods ripen just when certain nutrients contained in the plant are needed in the human diet. For example, the high concentration of Vitamin C and E in fresh-pressed olive oil arrives with the onset of winter when immune systems benefit from consuming such huge quantities of these nutrients.

Vilmo is reminded daily of the continuing toils faced by farmers. By living on the family farm, he is never far from childhood memories of his father tilling the land with cattle-drawn plows while struggling to keep the family fed. Most crops have stayed exactly the same: barley, chickpeas, lentils and wheat. The only change is they are now certified as organic, assuring his customers pesticide-free products grown adhering to biological principles.

Today he is also proud to own a successful agriturismo, offering apartments in the farmhouse for tourists from around the world. He is often confused by their “need” to travel and with furrowed brows curiously wonders what tourists search for. Vilmo says he hopes they find whatever they are looking for, as most tourists he meets seem tight-jawed, perplexed and purse-lipped.

The steady rumbling of the tractor’s engine roars over the otherwise tranquil land. It’s the fifth day of hauling stones out of the field in preparation for planting the crops. The crust of the earth is exposed and cracked in rivulets and waves, making it difficult to walk steady in my mucky boots while searching for the enemy: rocks, boulders and stones. Every year Vilmo devotes days to this backbreaking and time-consuming labor of love. This love of the land provided for his father, now provides for him and will someday provide for his son as well.

Suddenly the tractor stops and Vilmo is waving his arms for me to follow him while shouting jumbled words of magnificent Italian. I piece the phrases together to understand we are looking for fragments of Etruscan ruins dating from 280 A.D. Roof tiles, broken pieces of urns and vases, even the remains of the ancient street are all easily identified by Vilmo, who eagerly anticipates this annual archeological "find" almost as much as planting his crops each season. Rubbing the scratchy red clay pieces between my dirt-encrusted fingers, I look closely to see the fading colors he describes as paint. I am amazed at the history buried deep within this land.

Returning to the rock hunt, I quickly tune out the tractor’s hum and begin meditating to the rhythmic pattern of tossing, digging, stumbling, fully enjoying the ache of my working body. Despite a sore back, growling stomach and sweaty brow, it’s impossible to complain. All I have to do is lift my face from the ground and there in front of me are the rolling fields, medieval hill towns and scattered stone farmhouses to which I feel intimately connected.

When the day arrives to harvest olives, Vilmo proudly shares how olive oil has, “…il colore e il valore dell’oro…” the color and value of gold, and also a place in the farmer’s heart. The production of olive oil is a treasured ritual commencing when the first olive ripens and lasting until every label is tightly pressed around shining glass bottles.

I pull an olive branch closer, squinting against the Tuscan sun, and examine the colors of each fruit—purples fusing into greens speckling into black, all sprinkled with a dust of pale yellow dots. I hug the tree trunk while craning my neck to see bowing branches laden with the rainbow assortment of olives. They are enticing to touch, but the temptation to eat one quickly turns to surprise once I bite into the meaty flesh. I rush to spit out the bitter fruit. My deepest respects go to whoever discovered you could press delicious oil out of such a taste!

Glancing at the fields around me, the task of harvesting hundreds of olive trees seems overwhelming, if not impossible. How can this many individual fruits be collected by such a small group of people before the inevitable autumn rains? But as is often the case, the assumptions I have carried over from America lead me astray. I quickly learn this is not a task but a time-honored privilege.

Jovial laughter and streams of Italian phrases float through the trees as another day of harvesting begins. Uncles, aunts and friends arrive. My favorite of the bunch, the 74-year-old Alfiero, has endearingly nicknamed me scoiattolini or little squirrel. I spread the tattered, green catch net around the waist of the tree, double checking for holes through which cherished olives might slip. Once satisfied, I clutch the small plastic hand-rake and climb into the heart of Italy: the olive tree. The net catches every fruit as they fly off the branches and sail through the air. I am combing the precious hair of an Italian goddess. When all her knots are brushed away, a bounty of nutrition will await the frantoio or oil mill.

Each farm produces its own unique flavor of oil due to differences in soil, humidity, olive varieties, tree age, storage conditions, the length of time from harvest to press and the material used for the press. Farmers are alerted by telephone when their olives are entering the mill. You can see them frantically, almost comically, drop whatever they were doing and rush to the frantoio to see their precious fruits through to completion.

The bright green of Vilmo’s pure oil flowing from a spigot at the mill instantly captures my attention and appetite. I crave bread to soak it up. With the fresh, wholesome oil safely home, we can finally appreciate this year’s flavor. I drink in the rich, earthy aroma and feel the smooth trickle on the tip of my tongue, until, finally, the spicy taste rolls down my throat. Smiles and words of praise surround the kitchen table as more hands reach for fennel and red peppers to dip greedily into the green pool of olive oil.

Wandering at night, I can close my eyes and still see the shapes and colors of olives and their delicate leaves dancing against my lids. I can't help but admire how Italians faithfully respect their "sense of place." So much rests on these few words. To truly know a land—its people, weather, animals, seasonal cycles, history, daily pulses, geology—and be emotionally anchored is a gift many people never receive. America is presented with a unique situation. As a melting pot of every nationality, we are everywhere and yet nowhere, faced with the questions, “What do I do with my life,” and equally, “Where does my life belong?” If home is where the heart is, than perhaps the people's deeply rooted passion for "their place" is ultimately the real beauty of Tuscany. Whether taking a morning pastry stroll, gathering stones in the field or harvesting olives, each precious hour I've spent echoes with the valley's tolling church bell. Now I better understand the meaning of campanilismo, an enchanting word reserved for Italians who spend their entire lives within the sound of their own village bell.

Vilmo Barbi's farm, Azienda Agricola Barbi, is located 1 km from Monticchiello, Pienza (in the Siena region). He grows chickpeas, barley, lentis, wheat, grapes and olives commercially, in addition to keeping a small vegetable garden for family consuption. He was the first person in Italy to sell pici—thick spaghetti-like pasta typical to Tuscany—made from his own wheat, and the first farm in the region to open for agritourism. Vilmo's father purchased the 33-hectare farm in 1975. Vilmo took over in 1990 and transitioned to organic production in 1997. For more information on Azienda Agicola Barbi, visit their website at www.agriturismobarbi.it.

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