Our Farm Friends: Givers of the Greatest Gifts
After living the rural life with them for over thirty-five years, I am still learning from our farm neighbors. Over the years, each has given us treasured gifts. The gifts keep coming.
Here are some of the people who taught us about the land. Some are still alive. Others are gone. Each has given us the greatest of all gifts: of themselves, fully.
Click to enlargeMandina and Peppe were our closest farm neighbors (and not just physically) when we moved here in 1975 and started to work the land.
They truly inaugurated us into rural ways. Mandina taught me how to raise chickens, from egg to chick to prolific laying hen. Out in the fields as we scythed, she showed me which grasses were best for the my rabbits and which grasses were deadly. She showed me how to gut chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, turkeys and rabbits – and how to cook them. She also showed me how to get the jeans clean when scrubbing them outdoors in the winter with bars of laundry soap (no washing machine in the beginning).
He taught Pino how to slaughter the animals we raised, how to prune our vineyard and how to make wine – and he “taught” me (unbeknownst to me: I just mimicked, eager to pick up all of the Italian I could) “earthy” farm language in Umbrian dialect! (Blush)
She wasn’t our grandmother, but Peppe’s mother Emilia was always “Nonna” to us. She taught me how to split the firewood for our woodstove. I was never as strong as she was, though: she’d grab their heavy axe in one hand, fling it back over her shoulder and then down with one fell swoop, splitting the log ready on the chopping block. Blow, after blow after blow – and soon a pile of split logs was in a heap at her feet.
She taught me to make pasta: using the stenderello (the Umbrian name for the long rolling pin used for making pasta), I had to roll the ball of pasta we’d made (just flour and eggs and lots of kneading) out on the marble-top table until I could see the marble top through the sfoglia, so transparent it had to be. After about thirty minutes of attempts, I had rolled the dough out into a nicely rounded, quite transparent (I thought) sfoglia. Not up to Chiarina standards. “Avanti” (“keep going”). I kept rolling. The sfoglia got bigger and spread out; then it tore slightly. I looked at Chiarina and asked her if we could patch. “Hrmpf” was the stern reply. She balled it all up and smacked it back on the table. “Di nuovo“. So I started again.
It took me an hour to make my first sfoglia which would be dried (by spreading it out on a tablecloth laid on a bed), folded and cut into fettucine.
Chiarina’s husband, Marino, and his father, Genuino, trekked over the fields from their farmhouse at 2 a.m one cold February in 1982 in answer to my call for help: my favorite ewe was writhing in agony down in the stall, unable to give birth to her lamb. (I was on my own this time: Pino had had a minor accident and was in the hospital). After a successful lamb delivery, grappa all around! The next morning at 6 a.m when I went down to the stall to feed all the animals, I found the two of them once again in our sheep stall, holding the newborn weak lamb up to her mother to suckle. They showed up at regular intervals for the next few days to help the weak lamb feed, telling me “you have your children and all your animals to care for and Pino is in the hospital: non ti preoccupare, we’ll take care of the lamb”.
Antonia, Chiarina’s mother, used to come to our house at pig slaugher time with Adamo, her husband, who was the norcino (pig butcher) for everyone in our area.
Antonia taught me to rinse out the pig’s intestines with vinegar to get them ready for use as the casing for the salami and sausages. Of all our neighbors, she was probably the one most out of touch with today’s world (most of our farm neighbors had stopped school at third grade to help on the farm – but many were very bright inspite of limited schooling).
For Antonia, the world did not extend much farther than perhaps 6 kilometers from her farm (the distance “to town”, i.e, Assisi). I remember my mother’s first visit to us in 1976. We stopped in at Antonia and Adamo’s farm. I was talking to my mother and noticed Antonia looking at me dumbfounded and in awe: she could NOT figure out how I could understand the language my mother was speaking, while understanding her, too!
She would have taught me to spin our sheep’s wool to knit for the family’s socks – as she always did. But our sheep’s wool was simply used to stuff pillows and the quilt for our bed. I remember Ottavia, Chiarinia’s mother-in-law, as we sat around the fire up at their farmhouse on winter nights. Ottavia would spin or knit and then fall asleep. Her head would drop and she’d start snoring. A nudge in the ribs and an “O, Ottav!” from her husband Genuino, sitting next to her, would startle her awake. She’d sit up abruptly, knit a few more rows and drowse again, chin on chest, snoring.
What has Peppa taught me? To paraphrase a greater writer: “How to count the ways..?” Just the other night at dinner with other farm friends, she taught me how to take off the malocchio (“evil eye”) by noting the form taken by olive oil drops (three, only three) as they spread out on a shallow plate of water. Now the trick is to learn WHEN someone has put the malocchio on me!