OVER the few weeks that we have been in Italy the landscape has changed from a healthy green patterned with huge swathes of golden-yellow sunflowers to a brown that smacks of struggle and despair. Water, give me water! Turn that heat down! It has been so hot and dry that the earth is baked rock-hard and the once-cheerful sunflowers hang their heads dolefully, fearing their own demise.
The farmers potter about hotly on their tractors, not all of them with the luxury of air-conditioned cabs. They are engaged in all the usual high-summer activity, much of it at night when they and the earth can breathe. Vines take priority. Here, it’s all about the vines. Come the vendemmia, the whole area’s focus will turn to picking the grapes and getting them off to the cantina for turning into wine.
In our vineyard, as in our olive grove, it’s always a poor harvest – or so our contadino (tenant farmer) tells us, shaking his head and looking as unhappy as one of the drooping sunflowers. Farmers are the same here, then, as they are in the UK. This ritual attack of the glooms is our farmer’s transparent ruse for excusing his diminishing annual rental payment.
We have always had an agreement that in return for farming our land, harvesting our grapes and olives, and no doubt accruing some tasty EU subsidies and grants each year, he will pay us in lakes of wine, vats of oil, with occasional extras of fruit, vegetables, eggs and strange, stringy chickens thrown in for good measure.
Nowadays, we are lucky to get a fraction of that. But we don’t mind. We’re happy with the slightly one-sided barter system and, although others advise us to get tough, we have no intention of coming over all landlord-ish with them. Besides, we like our farmer and all his family and wouldn’t ever want to fall out with them.
They work incredibly hard, papa and his two sons, tending scores of acres of land for a number of different landowners, toiling up and down hills that are like the sides of mountains. Once, a tractor toppled over and fell on Filippo, crushing his legs. Now, 12 years on and aged 78, he struggles to walk as arthritis takes its toll. His sons are the contadini now, lovely men with wives and children who always hail us like old friends.
As well as wanting to remain on good terms with Filippo and the boys, I am aware that making a fuss about the paucity of gifts could mean a resumption in the supply of chickens. These have been a problem to me in the past. As a vegetarian, I am not sure how many of those strange things I can cope with handling any more. The last one was presented to us already roasted, incinerated to a rich brown-black colour, with its fully beaked head twisted round to give it a view straight up its empty insides.
A few pounds of tomatoes? Now you’re talking.