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Summer Pleasures From a Tuscan Farmhouse
Henry James and Bernardo Bertolucci notwithstanding, summertime in Tuscany is not just a lush, languid vista of hillsides thick with olive trees and rich, handsome expatriates striking artistic attitudes on the sun-dappled terraces of Renaissance villas.
Not my Tuscany at least. Teverina, the mountain village south of Arezzo where I have spent a good part of the last 25 years, is no country for Isabel Archer. Here summer is devoted to hard work, as farm families labor to grow, harvest and preserve the fruits of fields and gardens, orchards and vineyards in ways not too different from those of their forebears.
Combines, it is true, have taken the place of scythes for cutting grain, and in many cases grain has been displaced by more lucrative tobacco. But the people of this isolated mountain community still cherish an ironic affection for the most labor-intensive farming.
Instead of hand-chopping, my neighbor Mita Antolini purees the gorgeous big red tomatoes from her garden in an electric machine, but she still bottles and preserves them the old way, in a boiling water bath over an open fire, then stores the jars for winter sauces.
Farm wives like Mrs. Antolini still comb the steep hillsides after summer showers, gathering wild porcini mushrooms to slice and dry in the sun; farm children still wait like little birds, mouths open, beneath the fig trees for the rich purple fruit to crack and drop, heavy with sweet ripeness, and farmers like Mita’s son, Arnaldo, still hover with increasing anxiety over the fat grape clusters as they swell and start to color on overarching vines.
For all summer’s labors, it brings considerable rewards, not least to farmhouse tables. The season is liberally sprinkled with events that demand festive recognition, whether it is the successful completion of a harvest (wheat, tobacco, grapes, olives, each in due course, stretching from midsummer nearly to Christmas); a wedding scheduled for the few weeks of freedom between the trebbiatura, the threshing of the wheat, and the vendemmia, the harvest of the grapes, or the grand Feast of the Assumption on August 15, when all of Italy closes down for a month’s vacation.
Except of course for farmers, the Antolinis like to remind me: Who could take a holiday when there are pigs and chickens, ducks and rabbits, always to be fed?
Even farmers have their festive celebrations, however, when entire days are given over to the pleasures of eating and drinking, when huge extended families, including second cousins twice removed, as well as anyone who lent a hand or a hammer in the previous year, gather at long tables under a pergola of grapevines or along the shady wall of the house. Often, Sunday itself is enough to justify a feast at the Antolinis’ big stone farmhouse, with its sweeping view of the upper Tiber valley and the distant chain of the Appenines.
Hospitality on such a Homeric scale still binds together Tuscan villages like Teverina, where family pride is displayed in the simple abundance of a table on which almost all the dishes represent the fruits of the family’s own labor. Their wheat provides the flour for the bread and pasta. The brilliance of their red tomatoes colors the pasta sauce. Their chickens and rabbits, impregnated with rosemary and sage and roasted in their wood-fired farmhouse oven, grace the center of the table. Green beans, zucchini, salad greens and scarlet and gold peppers, gathered that morning from the family vegetable garden, provide the meal’s colorful trimmings.
There is a studied ease in these occasions that derives from the predictable nature of the feast -- the crostini, the pasta, the roasted meats, prepared and served just as they have always been, and the dry cake at the end to dip in vin santo, the Tuscan countryman’s prized dessert wine.
Yes, most of the work is still done by women like Mrs. Antolini; her daughters, Fernanda and Anna, and her daughter-in-law, Maura. It is not simply a time of ease for them. But it is work done with pleasure and pride -- pleasure from the company and the quick, gossipy exchange with other women, pride when a young bride, perhaps, wins instant acclaim with a variant on a favorite tradition.
Meanwhile, the menfolk relax in the shade of the ancient chestnut tree, smoking and sampling wine, talking of crops and weather, tobacco prices and the state of the Government, as if they could make any difference. The feasting goes on for hours, from the first platter of crostini, when everyone crowds around the long tables, to the final crumbs of ciambella, a ring-shape spongecake, and tiramisu, the dessert that seems to have spread from Venice to Tuscany by way of America.
Late in the day, after the last chicken bone has been tossed to the dogs, the last bit of sauce scraped from the plate with a crust of bread, someone, usually Arnaldo, a talented musician, pushes back from the table and brings out a fisarmonica or piano accordion. Then the old songs and the dancing begin, as homemade grappa and vin santo flow into outstretched glasses, children fall asleep in their mothers’ arms and the moon rises over the mountains.
Waltzing to an accordion in the dust of a Tuscan farmyard while a full August moon sails overhead is not an experience easy to duplicate on an American summer eve. But the feast, the kinds of dishes and, above all, the ease and naturally expansive flow of the occasion are things we might emulate.
Especially in August, when the summer seems to stretch, turn and settle on itself like a tawny country cat curling in the warmth of the sun, it is time for a leisured pace in the kitchen, for dishes that can be prepared ahead and enjoyed without haste, for easy feasting with visiting friends and family members.
Most of these dishes can be prepared well ahead of time. Like other people around the Mediterranean, Tuscans maintain that food tastes best when it is neither piping hot nor refrigerator-chilled, but just a little warmer than room temperature.