The last time I went away ‘for a year or so’, I was ‘sola’: 21 and apparently fearless. My then-flat mate messaged me today: ‘You’re brave. Hope it gets easier for you’. Surely not as brave (or foolish) as spending 15 months in a war zone? We drank a great deal of the old vino rosso there, too, she pointed out.
That was a terrain of olive trees and rugged hills too. But there the similarities end.
Here in southern Tuscany, I can segue into the good times. Our personal “challenges” have dominated my thoughts and this blog, because the transition to scuola Italiana has been overwhelming. It’s inevitable that throwing children into enormous change will bring difficulties and we have naturally had our doubts about this whole plan. Besides, hearing about beautiful sunrises, crisp autumn days and stunning walks would probably start to grate somewhat…
That said, in between all this ‘Operation Settle the Children’ business, we are having fun! October here on the mountain is busy. Everything has come at once and we have been keen to see and involve ourselves in as much as possible, so this weekend – which has been deliciously mild by day – we have harvested olives with our new (!) friends and been along to the local ‘la castagna in festa’ – for this, the town is turned over for two full weekends to celebrating chestnuts, with the ‘cantine’ (cellars) of the old city opening up as little bars and home-spun eateries, touting all sorts of chestnut-laden dishes.
The chestnuts are fat and ‘la castagna’ are a serious business here. For well over a month now process of cleaning (pulizia) has been going on: the mountain has been a patchwork of smoke rising from bonfires as the ground under the sprawling chestnut trees is cleared, ready for gathering. I’m told that elderly ladies sit and sort the chestnuts into three different sizes ready for roasting, selling or turning into some dolce or other. There’s even a dedicated verb for this – peculiar to this region: capare, in case knowing it might be of use.
The town was heaving when we arrived at midday, yet apparently this was nothing compared to the night time shenanigans, which had finished only hours before with the last cantina closing around 5 am. Tom and I will be back, one year, to enjoy a very different ‘la castagna in festa’… For this year, though, we were content to wander the main corso and take in the smell of roasting chestnuts while browsing handicraft stalls, filled with everything from exquisitely crafted chestnut wood bowls, spoons and toys (yes, we bought The Boy a carved wooden sling shot…) to deliciously beautiful scarves from local alpaca wool: gorgeous, decadent but most definitely something for the Save Up For list.
The children bought raffle tickets. Or rather, we gave them the money; they chose the numbers. I was keen on first prize – a night for two at a local agriturismo – but would happily have settled for third – a hamper of locally produced delicacies. Alas, we had no more luck in this small town raffle than we have in the National Lottery. For the latter, it’s largely because I don’t buy tickets, so I had rather hoped for a better return on my 4 Euros on this occasion.
The olives we ‘helped’ with are massive trees, grand and gnarled, growing on a steep incline and harvested in a traditional way, by hand and with rakes as well as by pruning the loftiest branches during the gathering. The nets are spread under the tree and staked in at the lower edge, to create a barrier to collect the olives. Needless to say, the children thoroughly enjoyed hammering the stakes in (a useful by-product of which was surely that this proved an additional outlet for P.’s angst…) Lower branches can be combed virtually by fingers or using the rakes, raining black and green olives down to the nets. La Principessa helped out, carefully harvesting individual olives with plump, dimpled fingers and rolling them down.
I’ve finally had a definitive (I hope) answer on colour: the ripe black olives make the oil creamy and smooth, while the less mature, green olives, give it the all-important astringent, bitter kick. A good harvest wants a mixture of both.
It’s easy to see that as a livelihood, growing olives is charged with emotion and could turn on a bad summer; the harvest itself is labour intensive, protracted and laborious. But as an interested, willing participant, joining in on a sunny day, it was therapeutic, timeless and relaxed. To pick olives gently by hand, the children running wild in the groves and down to the river with their new found friends, within an extended family, was to feel a sense of the ageless grandeur of Nature. How incongruous to snap photos on smart phones which reached our families hundreds or thousands of miles away nanoseconds later. How ironic that even in the midst of all our modernity, Nature could have turned this year’s idyll in an instant: last year the crop was blighted first by the unusually wet summer and later by the olive fly. Most farms produced not even enough oil for themselves, let alone for sale and subsistence.
At the end of the morning, we tasted the Real Thing: the oil from olives picked earlier in the week, taken in the first delivery to the press in the village. There is no going back from Extra Virgin Olive Oil now. Our family food budget has just amplified.