Anne's Blog

Our Farm Friends: Givers of the Greatest Gifts

Date: December 15, 2010 - categories: , - 10 Comments

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 enlarge
Mandina 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).

peppe1He 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)

nonnaShe 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.

chiarinaShe 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.

marinoChiarina’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”.

antoniaAntonia, 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!

ottaviaShe 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.

peppa-1What 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!

Live Umbria, live the “rural life revisited”


  • Judy Litner says:

    Dear Anne,

    I love the way you write. It makes me feel envious of the life you have in Italy, my favorite country. I wish that I knew all of those people that shaped your life in Umbria.


  • Pat Gubbins says:

    Anne, my husband, his sister, and I visited your home for lunch after you gave us a tour of Assisi back in 2000. The food was superb, your home was delightful, and we’ve always been so glad we did it. In reading your blog, I am convinced that you have the makings of a fine book here, if ever you can take the time to write it. And I think you will, especially since you have the urge to write. The world would welcome knowing about Umbrian country life and its people, as experienced by an American ex-pat. Your writing style is delightful, and I know I’d stand in line for a long time for an autographed copy of your book.
    Warmest wishes for a successful winter tour and future best-seller.

  • Kevin says:

    I just loved this. I remember the first time meeting the Mandina, Peppe, Nonna and Evelio (sp) on my way to finding your place way back when. I do have some wonderful old pictures that I need to get to you.

  • Dear Annie- Good to hear from you and visit, even vicariously! As usual, most interesting stories and writing.. Today it has snowed in Bracciano and, I undestand, all around the Rome area. Most unusual- but I love it- makes Christmas more “Christmasy”! I’m having my usual Open House on January 1st- lentils, wine, eggnog and mincemeat tarts–Stop by if you’re anywhere near- Love, Mrs. Harris. ps- Merry Christmas!

  • Guy says:

    I have been reading your posts on Italian note book and I was unusually
    moved by a recent post about your farm house neighbors and about the
    ultimate gift of self that they have given to you and your husband over
    the years. I am of Italian and Irish descent and this particular post called up some deep remembrance of my old Italian-American family.

    I try to visit Italy at least once every two years, or as much as time
    and circumstance and money will allow. I miss it desperately at times,
    because it makes me feel so much at home and at peace in a way that is
    everlasting to me, and unexplainable to those who do not suffer the same

    Thank you Anne for the time and attention you bring to your writing the the effort of your blog and Italian Note book contributions.

  • THanks, Guy, for your note and come visit me in UMBRIA..will take you to visit all our neighbors!

  • Grace HInrichs says:

    So touching, all these stories of country people, the gifts they give and the traditions they pass along to others. It all makes me nostalgic for the time I spent in southern Italy, in Puglia, and in Greece, many years ago when times were simpler and I was lucky to live among wonderful people like your neighbors, Anne. My five-year-old daughter was with me (this was in the 1950?s) and in Greece where I was teaching English on the island of Samos, we lived with a yia-yia’ (nonna) who taught my daughter how to make bread.

    I’m about to take my daughter and granddaughter to Rome and Florence for Easter, something they very much wanted to do, but after that, back to the country – thinking now UMBRIA! I go!

  • Mary Jo batbato says:

    We can’t say enough About our recent farm tour with Anne! We met Pepe, Chiara, Rosanna and Moreno. Our meal was beyond words but the best was learning about and talking to the Italian people. They welcomed us in their homes as family! Thank you Anne!!

  • Joy Auville says:

    Anne, thank you so much for sharing your stories of your colorful life. Your Farm Tour was my favorite experience in Italy. They are such genuine, kind people. We need more of them in this world. You are so blessed to be their friends. I hope to return to Italy again and tour with you.

  • Mary Scott says:

    My mother Virginia and I loved the stories that you told us of the dear country friends, learning country ways of living when you married Pino.

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