I wrote this description of my Tuscany in autumn three years ago today….and thought I would repost with a few photos. Nothing much has changed…
‘My bikini-clad body had not yet left the most private terrace of my villa when the sound of guns started. Have they no respect for a body catching the last rays of what has been an absolutely beautiful summer? But no, the Italians have been intent on stocking up on their military fatigues (or replicas thereof) in the local village street markets to head into the hills for their all time favourite activity, hunting!
Every year there are reports of dead hunters in spite of the half-hearted attempts to get them to wear orange baseball caps so they may at least be partially visible in the thickly wooded forests which hide the wild boar that are their prey in this season, now that Licenses have been issued for their demise. But I guess they think it is part of the game, which involves very nasty looking dogs which are heard howling in the wee small hours of the morning and late at night, disrupting the otherwise tranquil nature of life in the hills.
Normally the only sounds one hears are the church bells and the farm machinery. Now there are also the sounds of chain saws as the seasons change and their unbelievably neat piles of firewood for the winter take shape. Not a log out of place; all cut to the same length and stacked as if there is a prize for the best. It is part of their bella figura mentality I think: everything has to look good, even if it’s not. It’s why they polish their brass doorknobs daily and sweep the front steps: it’s why the girls buy a new pair of jeans every three months and it is why there are no second hand clothing stores around. But I lie. I have seen two in recent years. One recycled clothing store in a tiny town called Montefegatesi, where the inhabitants went to New York after the war. No doubt they brought the custom back. And last year I discovered a very up-market shop in Sarzana where the offerings were mink coats and designer evening dresses!
So autunno is here. The heat of summer is over, but not entirely. There is plenty of time to sit on the terrace and read and work on the tan just a little bit. But the evenings are getting cool and the activities in the hills are changing.
One of the things I so love about being here is the seasonality of life in rural Tuscany. I think, in Australia, we have lost the ability to live in the seasons. We want mangoes all the year, we want strawberries and pineapples and summer stuff in winter….even when it tastes like cardboard because it is out of season. Here you live in the season you are in. If its summer you eat the delicious stone fruit freshly off the trees without its stick-on label and you are happy to eat apples that are not perfect looking but are also not coated with wax and have not lived for months ripening in a cool store. You eat out of the next field or the next village.
So now there are different offerings in the shops and we see huge pumpkins lying among cracked leaves in veggie gardens up and down the valley. The last of the zucchini flowers are coming off the vines, and the zucchini are left for sale, flowerless in the markets and shops. And my staple diet has changed from summer salads to heart warming thick vegetable soups and my home-made bread.
My neighbour Vittorio, who was one of the 17 owners of my property (and that’s another story!) has the largest veggie garden around. Around 70, he is out there beavering away morning, noon and night and I am constantly in awe of the variety and quality of beautiful produce that sometimes comes my way via a wooden box kindly left on my doorstep. Vittorio also owns the local cows. Like all Italian cows, they used to live in his barn but over the years he saw such comings and goings of visitors to my villa that he turned his cows out to pasture at the top of the village and turned his cowshed into an agritourismo, attracting guests for a few days at a time. I don’t think it’s been hugely lucrative, but he is the “capo” of the village, with the local store, his veggie garden and the license to sell bottled gas for our stoves, so methinks he lives a pretty good life!
One of the great hazards to the hunters is the porcini gatherer. These people, of whom my neighbour and dear friend Anna is very much one, turn into secretive, mysterious, tight-lipped avoidance freaks when the weather is right. A heavy downpour or two followed by some good strong sunshine and they are out; specially designed wicker baskets on their backs and a sharp knife, they head for the hills, avoiding conversation, avoiding others and either trying to hide their car or parking some distance from where they have been watching for signs of fungi life for some days. They know the hills backwards, and they are fiercely secretive. What is theirs is theirs! Their secretiveness however provides in itself a great hazard: what with them and the hunters in the hills, they have to be incredibly vigilant or else they will end up, not with a wicker basket of prized porcini, but inside a salami of wild boar and local herbs.
The only other non-Italian in my vicinity is a girl from the UK with a Jamaican mother and a father who hailed from this area or vice versa who has one of the very few cottages left in the old village that preceded mine, which was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1920. Her warnings to me about the dangers of the porcini have fallen on deaf ears. She reckons they are susceptible to the fallout from Chernobyl but I don’t think so. When I question Anna, my expert foodie, she says well it would also affect our apples and pears, our lettuces, tomatoes and zucchini and everything else we grow. And I agree, reminding her of the death of our neighbour last year on her way to 107 good long healthy years.
I’ve hosted my 10 day Women of Wisdom event which was a huge success and then spent some time in two lovely local towns Montecarlo (for wine) and Montecatini (for the spa), then to Parma and Fidenza arriving just as the first shop we saw full of beautiful clothes was closing when my friend remarked “if they’d known we were coming, the shops would have stayed open”. It is STILL annoying that shops shut for several hours at lunchtime, and mostly all of them do.
No wonder the Italian economy is in such a diabolical situation. My bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, supposedly the oldest bank in the world, recently needed to be propped up to the tune of $1 billion. Press reports laughed at the smallness of the amount, how trivial they said, and how ridiculous when in fact the deficit was due to the enormous amount of money that the Monte dei Paschi had lent the government! Robbing Peter to pay Paul methinks! The Italians have a pathological hatred of the banking system. In all the years I have been here (now 25) I cannot get a cheque book that contains more than 12 cheques! They don’t exist. Furthermore, when I used to pay my manager with cheques, it would cost her about 40 Euros a cheque to go into her account. Now, I do what most Italians do, pay with cash. And so add to the economic woes of the country.
When Italy changed over to Euros on 1 January 2002 there were fears that all the Lire in trunks under beds and in garden sheds would hit the banks and they would not have enough Euros to pay for them. But I think they eked them out, bunch after bunch of crumpled old notes, not wanting too many questions to be asked. Even today they grumble when you want more than a couple of thousand Euros from the bank and I have been told not to pay people in cash. Sorry, Mr Bank, none of your business! And in my local supermarket, they have a machine that puts even a 10 euro note through it to make sure it is legal tender before they accept it to pay for your groceries.
Their debt situation is critical and probably a no-win. The bodies that are trying to fix the problem suggest they go after all the high flying industrialists and tax them properly. These guys are mega billionaires who have enormous yachts, properties all over Europe and the ability to hide their money just as well as some notable Australians who paid or pay little tax. I think they should tax the Church: the wealthiest landholders in the country, and receiving the most benefit from the taxpayers and contributing little. Some would say nothing. I am not so unkind as to agree but I similarly do not endorse the greed and fear of the churches that is endemic in this country. But that is for another time.
Meanwhile, I sit in the sun in my new office in the villa and write, and sit in what’s left of the sun in my new outdoor furniture and read. Now that I have claimed this place as my official residence (and finally been given resident status again) I have done a huge cleanup in the villa, the shed, the stables, the cantina…you name it. Stuff that has not seen the light of day for a long time has been removed to the little roadside deposit where the Comune collects it once a fortnight, and dust that has accumulated for a decade has been swept away. I have a list of jobs for next season including new barbecues and new gardens and I have ordered two beautiful sofas for the sitting room in the villa. Having tidied up everything I can, I am preparing to leave this haven for the winter.
But not before the vendemmia; the annual grape harvesting, which happens this weekend at the vineyard of Toty, my yard man who makes delicious wine. This is a first for me and I understand that the men are the pickers of the grapes and the women are in charge of the food and wine. So it all sounds good and I shall report on it next time.
Until next time, with heart