“Giugno, la falce in pugno” (“June, the scythe in the fist”), says an old Italian proverb, re-echoing the days of scything hay manually. Times have changed: at Peppe and Gentile’s farm two weeks ago, fifteen hundred bales of hay in the hayshed – with fifteen hundred to go, Peppe told me. He’s haying all alone – his tractor, his only companion. With this heat, he’s out in the fields before daylight. Amazingly, he’s back on the tractor after a short post-lunch pennichella (“nap”). It’s now July so the hay is in: time for the wheat, oats, barley.
When we farmed in the late 70’s, haying was a group venture, all of us rotating from farm to farm throughout June, til everyone’s hay was in. There was some mechanization but in our hilly area, the smaller hand scythe, la falce, and the ominous looking grim-reaper type scythe, la falce fienaia (literally, “hay scythe”) were used to cut that hay along ditches, on hillsides, and around trees which escaped the motorized falciatrice.
Why not just let those insignificant hay patches go? Most of our farm neighbors were mezzadri (‘share-croppers”) able to live – barely – on what they grew on their landowner’s small farm. Little to no cash income in their kitchen drawers.
Rabbits, oxen, sheep would all need hay in the winter: every hay strand counted.
Each wisp was scythed.
Certainly, I still remember that irritating, sweaty itch of hay on the skin as we scythed but I remember, too, the pungent erbaceous perfume of freshly-cut hay, spread out over the fields to dry out before it was forked onto farm carts – or onto la treggia (see photo) – for transport to the farmyard. An inimitable – and gone – touch of bucholic bliss.
Scything started before dawn and under the shade of the leafiest oak tree, cafe’ and la roccia (a simple coffee cake) energized the workers for the labor ahead.
At about 8 30, la colazione: often, tasty fave beans simmered with tomato, garlic – and perhaps some barbozza (pork cheek), if mouths to feed were not too many – along with bread and red wine, recharged all. Two hours later, the hosting contadina served il pranzetto (“little lunch”). Peppa’s mother often used to make la torta di formaggio for this meal, “ma leggera”, Peppa reminded me. As we recently reminisced about past haying days, she told me, “in those days, we never had much cheese in the house to use….”
At 12 30, there was a pause for pranzo, usually just one dish to fill hungry stomachs: abundant pasta with a meat sauce of perhaps duck, maybe goose, or even chicken. Bread baked in the outdoor wood oven satisfied those still hungry. There might be salad. Maybe. Wine was never missing.
Scything continued til la merenda (“snack”) at 5 30: coniglio alla cacciatora or fried codfish with green bean/cold potato salad from the farm garden might be served. Affettate (“the sliced”) was often passed around: salami, capocollo, prosciutto (any or all three).
It always seemed to me that the farmwomen carried the load at scything time (as always!): out in the fields with the men, swinging those falce fienaie with force – and then helping the hosting contadina serve the meals, clean up….while the men napped under a tree.
Mechanization has facilitated life for all those working the land, – no doubt about it – yet our farm neighbors still talk with nostalgia about those times of la miseria when they had nothing – but they had much: above all, that sense of community. The working together on each other’s farms, those meals shared under the oak trees, the singing in rounds as the scythes flew.
Peppe is a coltivatore diretto (owner of his farm) and nearly eighty. He does his haying alone now – and the threshing of wheat, oats and barley, too.
As Gentile and I chatted, Peppe’s tractor rumbled into the farmyard, a load of hay bales piled high on the trailer behind the tractor.
Sunburnt, sweaty, dusty but satisfied with the day’s labors, he climbed down and invited me into the kitchen for pane, prosciutto e vino rosso.
The savory meals of those bygone falciatura days – eaten together under oak tree shade – are no more.
But the incomparable flavors of Peppe and Gentile’s prosciutto, pane e vino rosso – shared together in their farm kitchen – link me to the good years of our life on the land.
Peppe carries on – one of the last.
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Click here for many more insights on our rural friends
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Click here to read about – and see – why rural visits offer “unforgettable moments”
Click here to read about “memorable rural moments”