For Roosevelt, a “fireside chat” denoted intimate dialogue with the people. The fireside chat – called “veglia” (“vigil”) – was always an intimate moment of life in central Italy’s rural culture. I miss those years of the “andare alla veglia” (“going to keep the vigil”) at our neighbors’ farmhouses on winter evenings, where so much rural lore and rural wisdom was passionately shared by our farm friends around the fireplace.
In the years we farmed, long and tedious, muscle-aching hours of farm labor ended earlier in the winter: dinner was usually no later than 7 pm. After dinner, Pino and I often put on our heaviest coats and sturdy rubber boots (fields were often muddy, rain-soaked in the winter), grabbed the flashlight and headed uphill across the fields to the farmhouse of our nearest neighbors, the Picas. We all gathered around the huge open fireplace (open hearths allowed more people to sit near the farmhouse heat source) and talked for hours.
The grandfather in the family, Genuino, would occasionally blow on the embers through a steel pipe (with holes at both ends), teasing the embers into a brief flame, bringing out a flash of heat. The Pica family – like most of our farm neighbors – were “mezzadri” or tenant farmers. They worked the land for landowners, living in the simple farmhouse given to them by their “padroni” (“masters”): bedrooms, a large open kitchen, and a storeroom were upstairs. The animals lived in the stalls below – oxen, sheep, rabbits, pigs, fowl. The bathroom? Farm families used a corner of the oxen stall. Living room? None: no time to rest. The Picas worked the surrounding eighteen acres of land, receiving 52% of the yield of the land, the landowner receiving 48%. Fields were given over to oats, wheat, barley, alfalfa, or sunflowers – in rotation. Every farm had a vineyard, olive groves and woods.
Farmers cut down the trees and chopped the wood, large logs for the huge open-hearthed fireplace and smaller ones for the wood-burning stoves on which the farmwomen cooked. The trees’ kindling was used to feed the outdoors stone breadovens where the women baked the bread, roasted the geese, ducks and chickens – and at Easter, the lambs. Wood was a precious commodity, frugally conserved. The fire in the Pica fireplace never roared: only a few embers twinkled in the ashes. As we sat around it, we kept our coats on. Our hands and feet were warm, but not our backs. Marino, Genuino’s son, passed around glasses of their red wine as his father blew on the embers.
Some nights at “veglia“, we helped the Picas husk the summer corn crop, getting the corn ready for the mill where it would be ground for animal feed – in part – or for polenta flour. Other nights at veglia, Genuino and his son Marino repaired the handles of their tools as we all talked: hoes, axes, shovels, scythes. Some nights they sharpened the blades of their tools. Other nights, they wove the baskets – made of willow – which would be used for the October grape harvests and November olive harvests. They made brooms for the cleaning of the stalls, binding together the dried branches of the ginestra (broom) cut on the hills in late summer.
On some nights, Ottavia, Genuino’s wife, spun their sheep’s wool on a hand spindle. On other nights, she knitted the family socks with that wool. Often she fell asleep at work, chin dropping on her chest, heaving rythmically as she snored. Husband Genuino would impatiently nudge her with a loud “Ottav!” She’d then bolt upright, open her eyes, busily knit a few more rows …until she dropped off once again. Her daughter-in-law Chiarina sometimes had a cauldron of boiling stew simmering over the embers. She’d stir it now and then with a long copper ladle. Sometimes other farm neighbors dropped in, too. It was always a treat when chestnuts were roasted in a pan on the embers, popping as they blistered. Roasted chestnuts paired with the the Pica family robust red wine took the chill off cold winter nights.
Veglia has almost disappeared, alas. Mechanization of labor means no more corn to husk, ax handles to carve, tools to sharpen, wool to spin in company with others. On winter evenings now, most farm families are alone – in front of the T.V. We yearn, though, for the days of “veglia“, the sharing of memories and rural wisdom. We took our farm friend Peppa to veglia just the other night at the home of farm neighbors Peppe and his wife Gentile. We arrived early, just after dinnertime, as Peppe is up at 5 to feed his cattle.
The fire was crackling in the fireplace, prosciutti hanging overhead nearby so that a smoky tang would infuse as they aged. Hugs all around and then Peppe poured their red wine into glasses for us all. We talked nostalgically for hours about the old days of la miseria ( when there was “misery”, ie, poverty), about the new breed of cattle they are raising, about Gentile’s desire to cut back on the number of fowl and rabbits she has to care for, and about how we should all gather for “la veglia” more often! Gentile brought out pecorino cheese, made from the milk of their sheep. Peppe put slices of their salami on the bread Gentile had baked as laughter and chatter filled their farmhouse kitchen. La veglia lives on.
Meet our farm friends, givers of the greatest gifts
Read about – and see – our first years on the land in Umbria
Read more about treasured rural friends
Read more about indefatigable Peppe
Click here to read more on Peppe’s wondrous olive oil
You really can’t miss a rural banquet cooked by Chiarina
Read about the “regal welcome” Chiarina and Marino give to their guests
Read about our rural friends – and their “green gold,” olive oil
Read about why a visit with our rural friends makes any Umbrian stay unforgettable
Click here to see how a visit to rural friends can make your stay “the experience of a lifetime”
Click here for many more insights on our rural friends
Read about Chiarina and Marino – and the use of broom
Read about making wine with Peppa
Click here to read about – and see – why rural visits offer “unforgettable moments”
Click here to read about “memorable rural moments”
Live Umbria, live the “rural life revisited”