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Giuseppina, a dear farm neighbor, came for dinner the other night, arms wrapped lovingly around a bottle of her mosto ("must" or grape juice prior to full fermentation and transformation to wine.) Sipping Giuseppina's mosto brought back fond memories of our first (and last!) vendemmia (grape harvest) in 1975, the year we moved to the land here in Umbria.
In early September, Pino and I had moved into our ruined stone farmhouse - abandoned for the past ten years due to the untimely death of the farmer, now called by the locals "Povero" Giannetto. "Povero" ("poor") is the affectionate appellation the Umbrian rural people give to the deceased. His wife, Nunzia, and their two children moved off the land and "to town" after Povero Giannetto's death, knowing that without him, they could not continue to live off their eight acres of hillside land. We have heard over the years many wonderful stories of "Povero" Giannetto and his hard-working family. We know that as he plowed the land with his oxen and unearthed local field stone, he and his wife Nunzia loaded the stones onto their farm cart and then piled them around the bases of the oak trees in their fields. Giannetto then used those stones to build our house, making mortar of the earth of our road and cutting down oak trees for the main beams of the ceilings and fir trees for the joists.
Our first American friends to visit, exclaimed, "how charming to live in a medieval farmhouse, Annie! When was it built?" I took them around to the side of the house to show them the brick set into the wall above the pigstall with the date of construction carved into it by Giannetto: 1926
But yes, the appearance was "medieval".
We moved into our farmhouse in mid-September and opened the tap to not even a drip. One of the nearest farmhouses was that of Peppe and Mandina, about one kilometer down the dirt road winding through our woods. They lived with their children, Giuliva and Ivelio and Peppe' s mother whom we too quickly learned to call "Nonna".
They opened their home to us - and their hearts, sharing with us everything they had from abundant farm meals to... water.
Peppe told us that our farmhouse depended on spring water and that the spring often dried up completely during hot summers of drought - like the one in 1975.
Water finally splashed out of the kitchen faucet again on November 15th, when the first rains bucketed down. For most of September, we carried plastic jugs of water from Peppe and Mandina's house up the road on our shoulders a few times a day. Pino eventually bought an old Gilera 150 motorcycle for a pittance (we couldn't have paid much: we arrived in Umbria with about $150 between us). He then built a carrier on the back of the motorcycle where we loaded the water jugs. But our road was rutted out from 10 years of disuse. The motorcycle could only get us halfway home. Then we parked it, unloaded the water jugs and carried them the rest of the way.
The washing? We did not have a washing machine that first year. Mandina did - but like many a frugal contadina (farm woman), she washed most of the family laundry in the outdoor wash basin, telling me that the washing machine "wasted" electrical current - and wore out the fabrics! Waterless til November up at our farmhouse, I scrubbed along with her, side by side, at their outdoor basin (those warm sunny afternoons with soap up to my elbows and engrossed in conversation with Mandina are still treasured happy memories). Pino and I then motorcycled the cleaned wet wash in a plastic basin up our road - for as far as we could and shouldered the wash up the rest of the way. It was a few months before we could finally afford to have the road graded.
September slithered into October and Peppe advised us that it was time to pick our grapes. "Povero" Gianetto's wine cellar (below our kitchen) still held the huge oaken barrels but little else, so Peppe offered to do the wine-making for us in their wine cellar. On the day of our vendemmia (harvest), a gentle rumble and a clatter sounded in our woods: Peppe and Mandina were arriving in their farm cart pulled by two massive white Chianina oxen, with wine barrels jostling in the back and the wooden wheels clattering on the rocky road.
For most of the day, the four of us picked the grapes in warm and gentle sun as Peppe and Mandina talked with affectionate admiration of the once-magnificent vineyard so skillfully and lovingly pruned, plowed and cared for by Povero Giannetto. But that year, Giannetto's vineyard gave us its last fruits: abandoned for ten years, phylloxera had won.
At sunset, the oxen cart rumbled down our road, Peppe driving the oxen and Mandina steadying the full barrels of our grapes behind her. Helping to steady the barrels, we walked behind the cart - down the road through our woods to Peppe and Mandina's farm. The barrels seemed full of abundance to us. But, then, we had not seen the harvests of the past years.
The vineyard is gone but we still have a few of "Povero" Giannetto's vines which he had planted about half a century ago. True to local custom, he planted not just a vineyard, but also vines at the base of the aceri (European maples) in the field in front of our farmhouse. The maples which guide the vines are pruned quite severly by the farmers so that the branches jut out and up like the arms of traffic policeman. The vines twine around the branches which lift the vines to the sun. A maple planted specifically to guide a grapevine is called la madre dell'uva ("the mother of the grape vine"). The farmers used to plant the maples here and there in the fields where the wheat, oats and barley were planted - a clever way to get the most out of the small plots of land which characterize the Italian farms.
Gratefully, we still have some of Povero Giannetto's grapes. No matter if they are few: they are the symbol of joy and healing, fullness and richness, youthfulness and abundance.
(I often put Gianetto's grapes in these fall recipes: "Bucatini with Vino" and "Sausages with Grapes.")