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Archive for August, 2013

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

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. 

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

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.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes - melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes – melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

The big one. A very welcome 'payment' in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

The big one. A very welcome ‘payment’ in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

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The procession sets off

The procession sets off

ITALIAN communities need little excuse to stage a celebration. They turn on the party mood for anything from saints to squid, from sausages to shrimps.

Our village has been having a high old time paying homage in various ways to the saints associated with its five churches – yes, five, in a village of 1,000 souls. There has been food, lots of it, enjoyed at trestle tables under the stars in the piazza, music, dancing, a volleyball tournament and a solemn procession up and down the hills around the village stopping at each church, accompanied by the oompah band, a tolling bell and an occasional exploding firework.

The village's youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

The village’s youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

Prominent in the parade was a huge gold-framed portrait of the Madonna, topped with a crown and carried shoulder-high on a red velvet bier by a team of strong men. Along the route, gold-trimmed red cloths hung from windows as a mark of respect.

After more fireworks and the release into the velvet sky of scores of coloured lanterns there was a big shared meal in the piazza, by which time it was about 11pm and not one child was tucked up in bed. All were happy participants in a timeless, deeply affecting event that drew the little community together to confirm its faith and say a God-fearing thank-you to the saints.

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

The previous week the mood had been very different when a palio was held in the medieval centre of the village to decide the champion contrada, or neighbourhood. Unlike the famous palio in Siena, our men wore not dazzling racing silks but coloured tights. And there were no horses.

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

It was late, we’d all been eating for hours, the atmosphere was benign, the night was warm – but this was serious, there was a contest to win and glory to be had. HD and I joined the crowds lining the cobbled street and waited to cheer our contrada, whose main man, Luigi, was in white tights and a velvet Renaissance-dude tunic instead of his usual farmer’s overalls. As he is our very own contadino, we felt inordinately proud and proprietorial.

Each of the seven teams took it in turns to pull a racing sulky at speed along the cobbles. Bouncing unsteadily aboard the sulky was a man – Luigi was ours – holding a long lance with which to hit a thing like a giant saucepan suspended 15ft up in the air as he passed underneath. A flag, white or red, held by a disembodied hand then appeared from an upstairs window to indicate if the hit had been fair or foul.

It was not gripping stuff, as HD’s weary expression made clear. The only real excitement came when one of the lances whacked the saucepan so hard it whizzed off-centre and had to be re-positioned. For this, a gang of volunteers in yellow, pink and turquoise tights held a ladder vertically while another in white tights clambered up and down to make adjustments. The operation, no doubt contravening every health and safety rule that bureaucracy could ever dream up, took us beyond midnight.

It was all very odd, very Italian and therefore completely unfathomable. But Luigi and our contrada won, so we can hold our head high as proud champions, of a sort.

They didn't need their umbrellas.

They didn’t need their umbrellas.

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Our very own contrada royalty - the winners! -  with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Our very own contrada royalty – the winners! – with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

Waiting for the palio to start

Waiting for the palio to start

11. The mayhem of the palio is underway

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