Category Archives: time

La Nostra Vendemmia 2016

There was no stopping the industrious P. at the land on Saturday. Replicating the vendemmie observed recently, he diligently set the crates out along the vines and grabbed his forbici for cutting.

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Tom was still asking me whether we knew the terms of Carlo’s wine offer. Would we get to taste our own wine or were our grapes going into a sfuso mix? Would he store it for us? Would he bottle it for us? For my part, I was relieved that Carlo, to whom I already felt considerable homage, was doing the first stage of the wine making process.

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There is a meditative peace to harvesting – or rather to a harvest small enough not to be overwhelming and on which one does not rely for one’s livelihood. Standing low in the field, the children’s voices faded to an incoherent babbling, interspersed with the odd rippling giggle. I wrapped myself in the gentle calls of the birds and the slice of secateurs as I snipped the grappe, my fingers gradually dirtied and roughened from picking off unwanted grapes. The rhythmic repetition of the task, as with all manual labour, is liberating. At one and the same time the mind focuses the hands on the task and yet is free to wander through thoughts, memories, possibilities. In turn and in time, this, our first vendemmia, will become the focus of reminiscence, for all of us.

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Later, the clouds draw in and we smell the rain in the air. We have stopped for lunch, the blanket spread under the fig trees, and we hungrily devour Tuscan bread and pecorino, with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh tomatoes.

The children, joined by friends helping us, are filthy, their hands stained with purple grapes and their faces streaked with dirt; they have abandoned the vendemmia now and are digging in a huge pile of unwanted sand. They create a kingdom with underground tunnels, secret passages, a domain for each of them, interconnecting paths. Their play becomes ever more elaborate. They find discarded bricks and pieces of wood to stabilise walls and passageways. Theirs is a private world, it is not ours to enter and nor do I want to. This is how the play of childhood should be: unguided and uncensored, inaccessible to adults and unrestricted by time. I feel a clarity again: this is what this year and this space has offered us. The separation from the pace of life we had. The separation from the need to be, to do, to say, indeed to perform in a certain way at a certain time. I feel more urgently than ever the prodigious need for childhood to be childhood. I feel the incongruity of the choice afforded by modernity juxtaposed with the pressures the same propagates. Gains sit uncomfortably next to losses. The paradox that our choice to come here was facilitated, even made possible only because of, our access to the very modernity we are trying to escape.

 

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The clouds look increasingly ominous. The children, cocooned in their imaginations are impervious to our voices. We leave them to their own creation, their mini-adult world and return to the vines, working with increasing pressure to fill the crates and strip the vines of the grappe before the rain sets in. We stack the crates inside the stone house and the air turns cold with the impending storm and the whole group, children included now, comes together to finish the last fila. The children join forces to haul a crate up the hill and we count them up. Fifteen crates. ‘Poci, pero’ buoni’ says Vincenzo. A small harvest, but a good one. The grapes, it seems, particularly for an amateur, are fine, good, even. Vincenzo drags his boys away from their play, they are stained with sand, inside and out. Dirty children: a direct correlation to a happy day. Adrian helps us load the crates into the cars and our neighbours come up to see how we have done. ‘Congratulazione – la vostra prima vendemmia!’ Harvesting, the coming together of the year and the bringing together of a community.

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Carlo’s cantina is in the valley below our land, with a work space inside and the equipment for the first stage set up outside, under the pergola. Crates of white grapes stand waiting as Carlo bustles around with red flexi piping. The welcome is immediate and warm. We are strangers united by this experience and I try to explain how grateful I am. Carlo is a delight: he started making wine ‘quindici anni fa’ (fifteen years ago) with ‘niente’ (nothing). This was new to him, he learned, not from his father, but from scratch. This is his passion. This and snow: wine making in the summer, ski instructing in the winter. A kindred spirit indeed for Tom. He is alive with the excited energy of a school boy about to start a science experiment. He checks the equipment, ‘speriamo’ he says – let’s hope. It should all work, but there is often something ‘impreviso’, something unforeseen. He will press the white first then move onto ours. There is a final check of equipment and several sallies back and forth into the cantina itself.

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I love the peculiar conflation of the semi-professional cantina, with the huge stainless steel barrels inside waiting to ferment the wine, and the beautifully make-shift approach, as the red piping needs to be artificially shortened, to which end it is coiled back on itself, snakes round the floor and is then strapped to a pillar, the mouth opening into the waiting barrel.

Finally, the machine is turned on and the first crates of grapes are thrown into the container at one end of this machine. Next to this is a square container, which on closer examination reveals a revolving toothed mechanism. To one side of this is another revolving toothed mechanism, opening into an empty box. From the other side the red corrugated piping leads to the waiting vat.

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The machine groans into action and immediately the raspi are spat out into waiting box – the stems are bared of their grapes with remarkable speed. The machine spits them out frenetically and the children soon gather round the crate, collecting stray raspi and tidying them into the box. Tom helps to throw the grapes in at the other end, I am called upon to hold the red piping up – it keeps threatening to break loose and flood the floor with wine, but we catch it just in time.

As the last crate of grapes is loaded in, Carlo turns delightedly to us. ‘Sai cosa abbiamo fatto?’ I love his eagerness to explain and in explaining, to share his passion with us. This first stage separates the ‘raspi’ from the rest of the grapes. Now we have the ‘uve’ with their ‘bucce’ (skins) and the ‘semi’ (pips). These white grapes will be kept in the container with their skins on only over night. The juice will then be drawn out and the grapes pressed again to remove their seeds and skins. Carlo gestures to an old fashioned looking press outside, which will be used for this process. The red grapes, conversely, will be kept in the container with their skins on for approximately 10 to 14 days. Carlo breaks open a red grape to show the clear flesh inside. The only difference between red and white wine is the skin colour. The colour of red wine is achieved through this longer period with the skin on, which also gives the red wine more tannin, the natural compound in grapes responsible for the dry taste in the mouth when drinking wine.

The white wine is finished and there is another flurry of activity as we stand by, waiting for instructions. La Principessa has woken up from her nap in the car, and is ‘in braccia’ now, partly snuggling in for warmth, partly an embrace forced by us to keep her away from the grapes which she is keen to tuck into. ‘Not eat uva, make vino?’ She asks, pouting slightly.

Stretched out to its full length, the red pipe now leads into the cantina, where it hangs over another empty barrel. Carlo explains that he will be harvesting his Sangiovese grapes next week. This barrel is for our grapes. Naturally, he cannot add his grapes to ours next week, to do so would be to ruin the quality of both wines. Tom and I exchange excited glances. The irony of worrying for weeks about the practicality of turning our grapes into wine and now, how we have fallen on our feet, being directed to Carlo at the eleventh hour. Too late to do anything, I nevertheless check with Carlo, ‘Sei sicuro? E vi si imbottigliare anche tu?’ – Are you sure, and you will bottle the wine too? ‘Ma certo!’ – Sure.

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Carlo is vibrant with energy, absorbed in the wine making process so when I propose the 50/50 share of wine which is standard here, he shrugs his shoulders: ‘Ma perche? Tranquilla’. Don’t worry – he is happy to make the wine for us. Seeing we are onto our grapes now, H. and P. rush over to help lift the cassette up, hauling the grapes into the barrel. Carlo gestures to la Principessa, offering her a grappa to throw in, making sure we are all part of this wine making process.

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And it’s finished. The crates are empty. The uve and bucce separted from their raspi. We all take a look in the barrel at the beginnings of our wine. Carlo is dragging the red piping out of the cantina. So, what next? I ask – we come back in April? ‘Ma non! Venete in due settimane’ to see the drawing off of the juice from the bucce. It is as important to Carlo as it is us that we are part of this process. ‘Ci sentiamo’, he says – we’ll be in touch. It’s raining now as we leave and the lightening forks over Montegiovi. We arrive home, wet and cold, but bubbling with the exhilaration from this day of bounty.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest; the same word is also used for ‘vintage’ as in Vendemmia 2016

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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The Walkie Talkie Walk

P1020161Walkie Talkies topped both H. and P.’s letters to Father Christmas this year.  Father Christmas evidently concurred that this was a great idea and H. and P. each opened one half of a pair of walkie talkies on 25 December. La Principessa looked on, eyebrows raised, ‘Me?’ I attempted to distract her with a rather lovely painted wooden recorder from her stocking… however, I think Father Christmas is already resigned to another walkie talkie appearing in the house well ahead of 25 December 2016.

Up, dressed and full of the day’s excitement, we suggested that the children play outside with their new toys, to test the range, while we sorted out breakfast before the grandparents arrived.

Some ten to 15 minutes into the range test, the children finally realised that walkie talkies work best if both participants are using the same channel and I popped outside to see how they were enjoying this new form of communication.

I found P. armed with a long pointed stick, ‘I’ve got my spear,’ he announced, ‘I’m going to walk down to Granny and Grandpa’s!’

Really, I asked – on your own?

He was adamant and apparently fearless.

I asked H. if she wanted to go with him. No, she didn’t.

I tried asking again, this time suggesting that she should go with him. No, she shouldn’t, apparently: ‘P, you go, I’ll stay up here with the walkie talkie and check you’re ok,’ she said. I liked her inversion, presenting staying behind at Base Camp with the walkie talkie as an important role of responsibility, thereby deflecting attention from the fact that she was secretly a little afraid of walking down with P, alone, to the apartment their grandparents were staying in.

By this time, P. was at the bottom of the drive, radio-ing in. ‘I can hear you, Mummy. I’m on the lane, I’m ok’.

For a minute, H. toyed with the idea of joining him – she even ran down to the lane, only to turn round the moment she was off the boundary to return to the security of the house.

Meanwhile, the intrepid explorer and his spear had dipped out of sight. I should explain that I could see the end point for which P was aiming. It’s about 20 minutes walk away, all on the stone tracks that pass for roads cutting through the hills and olive groves here. We’ve done the walk together countless times, and I was under no doubt that P. knew the way – it being only two turns, would not get lost and, on Christmas Day, there was likely to be none of the ‘traffic’ that we do sometimes meet passing to and from the olive press.

Nevertheless, this was a Milestone with a capital M. It’s one thing to know the route, to make a judgement that it’s safe and not to be worried about cars on roads, it’s another to watch your five and a half year old boy walk off by himself, with his trusty spear (and walkie talkie). I tried to put myself in his shoes: what does it feel like to be five years old, walking down a lane surrounded by nothing but the silence of the olive trees (and one’s walkie talkie)?

I’ve thought before (here) about the notion of labels such as ‘danger’ and ‘dangerous’ and the fear with which we, as parents, imbue our children. It’s a well-intended fear, borne from love and fuelled by a primal desire to protect. I know that from an early age, I taught my children to stand away from cars, to think about where they were walking, to look before running across the road. Though I might have tried to explain rationally, very real dangers meant that in practice this often became an alert: ‘Don’t!’, Stop!’, ‘Careful!’ and ‘Watch out!’ peppered our walks to school in the UK. In trying to teach them that we need to take care around cars, amongst other things, I unwittingly instilled in my children fears which at times have become distorted and as they become older, I have seen them worry disproportionately in spaces and places where I feel considerably more comfortable. H.’s reluctance to walk down with P. was a manifestation of just such a fear mingled with her own need to be ready, at her own time, to take that kind of independent step.

So when P. took to the lane on Christmas Day, I felt fortunate that we are in a space in which he can make bold choices and gain so much strength from the satisfaction of doing something on his own. I burst with pride when he arrived at the gate to the apartment and radio-ed in. ‘I’m here, Mummy, I can see Grandpa’. His little voice crackled down the line, a fitting reminder that, only 50-odd years ago, the notion of children running wild all day in the countryside would have been commonplace. How far we have come in such a short time, and yet what have we lost?

Apparently he slipped into the apartment with Grandpa and sat down to a bowl of museli. When he came back up to the house later, I asked him how he felt. ‘Good, Mummy. It was a bit scary. But I knew my way.’

 

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Time for Bread

Today, I made bread. Correction: Today, I Made Bread. As in, Proper Bread. Bread that takes time. The sort of time for the little things that are actually quite big things, which are so often pushed to the side in our all too hectic, pressure-crazy, fast-fast, quick-quick, SMART-criteria lives.

The first bake – helping the Master Baker

Sourdough bread is the ubiquitous hot love of the SMART-crazy commuters inhabiting many a chichi up-and-come-d hot spot in London. To eat sourdough is to care about what you are putting into your bodies and to have enough money to be able to pay the smart London premium demanded for it. Sourdough is being appropriated, in much the same way as have been blueberries, pomegranates, avocados and countless other ‘superfoods’, as a trendy requirement of the money rich and time poor; the sourdough irony is that flying by the local deli to grab a loaf of sourdough to fuel a body fatigued by its frenetic lifestyle slightly misses its point.

My solo bake

My solo bake

Setting out on my own over the last week, keeping an eye on my starter and preparing for Dough Making D-Day, I realised that making sourdough wasn’t nearly as tricky as I might have been led to believe. Using the basics from my master class, (under the tuition of a young couple, bakers ‘extraordinaire’, who are ‘WWoof’-ing their way round Italy and France and whom I invited to stay at casa mia for a few days,) over the past seven days, I have thrown a little flour and water at my starter, chucked the odd spoonful away when I felt it was smelling a bit too sour, stirred it and checked on its bubbles. Today, transforming my boozy-smelling starter into a loaf of bread, I was a little less precise and a little more haphazard with flour types and folding techniques than might have been my ‘tutor’. Guided by the basic instructions, I ‘watched the dough, not the clock’, followed my instincts and the good news is that my bread was delicious. It tasted of bread. It was chewy, flavoursome and it had texture. Proper Bread. Real Bread. Bread worth making and bread worth eating.

So here’s the thing. At the risk of being a bit English teacher-y about it all, it’s something of a metaphor, isn’t it? Bread and life and all that. I was around for my bread today: I checked up on it, added salt, folded it, let it rest, folded it again… folded it again… and left it on the worksurface (the posh phrase for this is giving it ‘the bench rest’), put it in the rising basket so it could do its thing for a bit, then baked it.

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To make sourdough is not to commit oneself to weeks of drudgery keeping the precious starter alive and then to a day of intensive, hands-on kneading time. It’s to commit oneself to being around, to being present. To having time for the things in life that matter and working other things around it. Bread matters because to feed oneself decent food matters – mens sana in corpore sano. And the things in life that matter need time. Perhaps, if the bread-life metaphor is precise, I should rephrase that: life needs time. It’s a bit of a paradox, that, but I think it’s the crux of the matter. Life is time but paradoxically it needs time and only we can give it to ourselves. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it: here and now. It’s my life and it’s my little people’s lives: they need the kind of time that means being present, being around. Being here. The little people who matter don’t need the helicopter parenting of guilt-ridden adults trying to micro-manage their children’s lives – vicariously or otherwise – in the way they would work their way through a dreaded spreadsheet of checks and balances. They don’t need the constant feeding and kneading of test-driven schooling deified increasingly in the UK and the USA. They need a bit of attention and plenty of space in between – they might be taking the bench rest, they might be playing – to work it out for themselves. They need someone around to love them, to notice if something isn’t quite right, (if there are no bubbles in your sourdough starter, you definitely won’t get a loaf of bread out of it), and to care about the end product. Making sourdough is about being around, about being present. For me and for them.

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