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Wine Harvest at San Colombano 06/07/2011

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c. 1905

Passing through the village of San Colombano, we drove along pretty country lanes, the hedges aglow with the scarlet berries of the orange thorn, and the trees clothed in vines, towards Lastra a Signa. At one farm they had begun the vintage; men, women, and children were busily occupied, the men on ladders cut down the pendice (two vine canes twisted carefully together in the early spring, with the eyes turned outwards), while the women picked off the leaves, which serve as fodder for the cattle. The finest pendice are hung up inside the loggia which almost invariably adorns a Tuscan farmhouse, in order to dry the grapes gradually for colouring and strengthening the wine after the first fermentation. The stately white oxen were chewing the cud, and the red ox-cart with a large vat tied on, and the wooden bigoncia, all stained with the red vine juice, looked most Bacchanalian. A handsome young contadino came along at a swinging pace with a bigoncia poised on one shoulder, in which purple and yellow grapes were piled high, and emptied the contents with a thud and a splash into the vat, which, when full, went slowly home to the tinaia, where the grapes were transferred to the larger vats after being well crushed…

There is nothing remarkable in the village, save a picturesque loggia, still bearing traces of lavish decoration, which was part of the hospital for pilgrims once existing inside the walls. It has been barbarously maltreated; part is now a theatre, the rest is carpenters’ shops. The population is squalid and miserable enough, and do not bear a good name; they are mostly employed in plaiting, sewing, and ironing straw hats, and the clatter of the hopper used for sorting the straw is incessant. The so-called Leghorn hats are all plaited in the lower Val d’Arno, and before the introduction of the cheap Japanese reed hats the women earned so much that the men did not think it worth while to work, and spent their time in gambling and loitering. Straw hats have diminished so much in price that a woman barely earns twopence a day, unless she is very expert, and can do the finest plait with fifteen or more straws, or is clever enough to invent a new pattern.

Aristocrats Selling Wine 19/03/2011

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c. 1825

It is held no disgrace however in Tuscany for gentlemen to make a merchandize of their wines. Travellers always mention their surprize. at seeing flasks hung up for signs at some of the greatest palaces. The signs are not always a proof that a gentleman has any thing to do with them; for many of these palaces are let out in lodgings to very humble persons. But the flask is undoubtedly to be found at little side-windows in very great houses; and the steward of the house looks after the business. It is a remnant of the old mercantile spirit which rendered Florence what it is, and sent forth thousands of coronets and princely families from behind the counter.

A Tipple at Lunch 17/03/2011

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c. 1825

The vines of the south [i.e. Italy] seem as if they were meant to supply the waste of animal spirits occasioned by the vivacity of the natives. Tuscany is one huge vineyard and olive ground. What would be fields and common hedges in England, are here a mass of orchards producing wine and oily so that the sight becomes tiresome in its very beauty. You want meadows, and a more pastoral rusticity. About noon, all the labourers, peasantry, and small shopkeepers in Tuscany, may be imagined taking their flask of wine. You see them all about Florence, fetching it under their arms. The effect is perceptible ‘after dinner’; though no disorder ensues; the wine being only just strong enough to move the brain pleasantly without intoxication; a man can get drunk with it, if he pleases; but drunkenness is thought as great a vice here, as gallantry is with us. It is a pity that these wines are not brought into England, for they certainly could be. Some of them can be made as strong as port, for those who want a ‘hot intoxicating liquor’; and the rest might serve to give this universal fillip to northern topers, which the Abbe du Bos says is already perceptible in a partial degree since the introduction of burgundy and champagne.

First Home in Florence 23/01/2011

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c. 1910

We made our first home in Florence with our good friend Signora V. and her daughter. Our rooms were on the second piano, which meant three flights of uncompromising stone stairs, but once at the top our windows overlooked the piazza on one side, a pretty garden on the other, and gave us plenty of sunshine; moreover, we had a loggia, a very different matter from a balcony or gallery both in name and character, and from which we got charming views of the distant hills. Within was every creature comfort – not luxury, perhaps, but cleanliness, order, refinement, and an excellent table with two servants, merry-faced Dina and kindly Annunziatina, to serve and pet us, to identify our wants and interests as their most pleasurable duty, and teach us to say that Tuscan cookery and Tuscan servants, at their best, cannot be equaled the world over. The relation between the Italian family and servants is in many cases almost ideal: there is complete understanding and freedom of speech; the mistress talks and consults with the maid, and she, in turn, depends on her mistress as on a mother, and yet neither forgets her place or dignity.

As for food, where will one find such sweet, tender vegetables, such crisp salads, and macaroni served in a dozen different ways, each better than the other? For the first month every dish brought to the table was a mystery and delightful surprise. How could one have lived half a century and never known fritto misto, or the changes that may be rung on rice or corn meal? What a far different object the pomidoro is in Tuscany from the tomato of commerce in Boston! Then, who ever can measure the capacities of chestnuts? As for meats, if variety is limited, certainly the methods of cooking are legion, and one never seems cloyed with the Tuscan chicken; oil and cheese are delicious. For tea Italians care nothing, and their coffee leaves much to be desired; but who would drink either, or even the questionable water of Val d’Arno, when pure wine may be had for the asking? Tuscan wine certainly ‘needs no bush’, but there are so many degrees, even of the boasted Chianti, that only the wise may be sure of the best. At our signora’s we had the most delicious wine, both white and red, and, mark you, without extra charge. ‘

Wine-making in 1874 29/12/2010

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In this pleasant and picturesque old mansion were assembled a joyous company, mixed Italian and English, for the vintage of 1874. To the advent of the forestieri was ascribed by the courteous contadini the splendid yield of grapes, better than they had seen for twenty-six years. [Note here in the text: That is to say, since the outbreak of the iodium. To give some idea of the virulence of the disease, the farms on this estate, though two less in number, used to produce at least two thousand barile of wine ; and in this, an exceptional year, the yield was only one thousand one hundred. One year, when the disease was at its height, they had five barile of stuff resembling mud! A barile holds fifty litres.]

On a fine September morning we started, Italian and English, men and women, masters and mistresses, and servants laden with innumerable baskets, big and little, each armed with a rough pair of scissors, and our padrona leading the way, with her guitar, pouring out as she went an endless flow of stornelli, rispetti, and canzoni, in which Tuscany is as rich as in any of the country products, maize or figs, pumpkins or tomatoes, oil or wine, or grain, the Italians amongst us improvising words to the well-known airs.

The vintage is always a happy time; everyone works with a will, and is contented and light-hearted. As Modesto, one of our men, said, ‘Buon vino fa buon sangue’ (Good wine makes good blood).

The old fattore (bailiff), who had retired from all active work on the estate, except the management of his especial pets, the vineyards alla francese (vines cut low in the French fashion, and not allowed to straggle from tree to tree as is the Tuscan usage), was very great on this occasion. He pointed out trees he had planted, and works he had done, fifty years ago, before the padrone was born. The dear old man was now seventy-eight, and as brisk and alert as any of us; with an eye still bright, and his keen, humorous face as full of vivacity as the youngest. He was full of old proverbs and wise sayings, like all peasants of the Casentino, his native region, about twenty miles south-west of Florence; and looked sharply after all our workmen to see that each duly did the picking of his row of vines. He was struck with great admiration at the way in which Englishmen, and women too, worked, and quite concerned for the repeated drenchings in perspiration of a strenuous old gentleman of the party, remarking gravely, ‘Questo povero Signor Antonio! ma suda troppo!’ (‘This poor Mr. Tom, he sweats too much’). He chuckled when we got hot and red under the burning sun, gracefully putting it to the ladies, ‘Il sole di Italia vi ha baciato’ (‘the sun of Italy has kissed you’).

By eleven we were thoroughly tired, and went to rest under the scanty shade of the olives and fig trees with our guitar. One of the young peasants had lost his grandfather in Russia with Napoleon I, and we called him up, and told him to sing about the great general. He sung to a favourite stornello air:

‘Guarda, Napoleon, quello che fai ;

La meglio giovcntu tutta la vuoi,

E le ragazze te le friggerai.’

‘Napoleon, fa le cose giuste,

Falla la coscrizion delle ragazze,

Piglia le belle, e lasciar star le brutte.’

‘Napoleon, te ne pentirai!

La meglio gioventu tutta la vuoi;

Della vecchiaia, che te ne farai.’

‘Napoleon, non ti stimar guerriero

A Mosca lo troveresti l’osso duro,

All’ isola dell’ Elba prigioniero.’

(‘While you go our youths collecting, All our pretty girls neglecting, Pause, Napoleon, and beware. Deal more justly with all classes, Make conscription of the lasses, Leave the plain and choose the fair. Napoleon, if with ruthless hand, Of its flower you mow the land: In old age you’ll pay it dear. Boast not, tyrant, of your glory, Moscow’s plains were grim and gory, Elba was a prison drear.’)

Twelve o’clock brought a welcome arrival – lunch from the villa. Grape-picking is a capital sharpener of the appetite. We were soon reclining – sub tegmine fagi – round a steaming dish of risotto con funghi, and a knightly sirloin of roast beef, which would have done honour to old England. A big fiasco (a large bottle bound round with reeds or straw, and holding three ordinary bottles) of last year’s red wine was soon emptied, well tempered, I should say, with water from the neighbouring well. At a little distance the labourers in the vineyard were enjoying the unwonted luxury of a big wooden bowl full of white beans crowned with polpette, little sausages of minced meat and rice.

We first gathered all the white grapes. These were transferred from our small baskets to big ones, placed at the end of each row of vines. These bigger baskets were then carried on men’s backs to the villa, where the grapes were laid out to dry in one of the towers, on stoie, great trays made of canes. Here they are exposed to sun and air for some weeks, when they are used for making the vin’ santo. After the white grapes were gathered, we fell to on the black, of the choice kinds, the San Giovese, the Aleatico, the Colorino, and the Occhio di Pernice.

These also were destined to be exposed on stoie in the same manner. They are used as governo, that is to say, when the new wine is racked for the first time these choice black grapes are put in, so as to cause another fermentation, they at once deepen the colour of the wine and make it clear.

How melancholy the vines looked stripped of their grapes! The glorious white and golden, and pink and deep red bunches had given a beauty to the landscape which one did not realise until they were gone, and the poor vines stood bare.

In our discussions about the progress of our work, the time of day often came in question. The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening. He had, doubtless, a settled conviction that we were little better than heathens, but was too polite to say so. We explained that we had abundance of both big clocks and little watches; but he answered, ‘Ma che’  (with a horizontal wave of the hand), ‘I have a watch too. I set it by the Ave Maria and hardly ever use it. At midday, when the Ave Maria rings, we know we are to eat; and when we hear it at sundown, twenty-four o’clock, as we say here, we leave off work; and at one o’clock of night (an hour after sunset) it rings again so that we may remember our dead and say an Ave for them.’ All our arguments to prove that clocks and watches might be good substitutes for the Ave Maria were useless, and he remained stanch to his idea that England must be a wretched place without the Ave Maria ‘Si deve star male in Inghilterra senza Ave Maria.’

At last the beautiful great white oxen, with their large, soft, black eyes, tassels of red and yellow worsted dangling about the roots of their horns and over their cool moist noses, came to the edge of the vineyard drawing a large vat (tino) fixed on the cart. Into this all the remaining grapes were thrown. A handsome lad of sixteen, after tucking up his trousers and washing his feet in a bucket of water drawn from the well close by, jumped atop of the vat and lustily stamped down the contents, singing as he plied his purple-stained feet: ‘Bella bellina, chi vi ha fatto gli occhi? Che ve gli ha fatti tanto innamorati? Da letto levereste gli ammalati, Di sotto terra levereste i morti. Tanto valore e tanta valoranza! Vostri begli occhi son la mia speranza.’ (‘My lovely charmer, who hath made thine eyes, That fill our bosoms with such ecstasies? Their glance would draw the sick man from his bed, Or haply pierce the tomb and raise the dead. Oh! my sweet love, thy beauty and thy worth, Are all my hope and all my joy on earth.’)

Of such tender sentiment and musical sound are the songs of the Tuscan ‘roughs’. These songs are most of them the composition, both words and airs, of the peasants and artisans who sing them. The hills round Pistoia and the streets of Florence ring with an ever-renewed outpour of such sweet and simple song.

The padrone prides himself much on his fine breed of oxen, and told us the old Tuscan proverb, ‘Chi ha carro e buoi,fa bene i fatti suoi’ (‘Whoso has cart and oxen does good business’).

When the last load of grapes was carted off we returned to the villa, where we found all hands busy in the great courtyard of the fattoria on one side of the villa, emptying the grapes and must out of the vats with wooden bigoncie, high wooden pails without handles. These are carried on men’s shoulders, and their contents poured into immense vats (tino) ranged all round the courtyard under covered arcades. In our wine-shed (tinaia) there are about fifty of these, containing from five to fifty butts each, besides three large square reservoirs of stone each holding three hundred barrels. The bubbling and boiling of the fermenting wine fills the air, and the smell is almost strong enough to get drunk upon. The men often do get tipsy, if they remain too long treading the grapes, or drawing off the new wine.

But here it is an article of faith that the perfume of the must is the best medicine, and people bring weakly children to tread the grapes and remain in the tinaia to breathe the fume-laden air and eat of the fresh fruit; for at vintage-time no peasant or padrone refuses grapes to anyone who asks. They say that il buon Dio has given them plenty, and why should they in their turn not give to those who have nothing?

I suppose this universal readiness to give is one reason why there is so little stealing here. You see vines full of fruit close to the roads, and quite unprotected by any sort of fence, and yet no one of the country-side ever takes them. There are, it is true, certain malfamati villages, whose inhabitants have the reputation of thieves, and against these, and pilferers from the large towns, the vineyards are guarded by men armed with guns, with which they keep popping the night through. At times you see twenty or thirty poor people standing quietly looking on, until called up to receive their dole of grapes, with which they go away happy, with their graceful ‘Dio ve ne renda merito’. At home they will mix water with the must they squeeze out of their basket or apronful of such ungrudged gifts, and make mezzo vino, or acquavello (water and wine fermented together), for the winter.

The same thing is done on a large scale at many fattorie. This mixture of wine and water is distributed to the poor in winter, and is the common drink of the workmen about the villa. After the first good wine is drawn off from the vats, the vinaccia (skins, grape-stones, and stalks) is put into the press, and the second wine pressed out. This is good, but considerably rougher, from the larger amount of tannin, due to the skins and stalks, than that which is drawn off from the vats after fermentation without any agency of the press. After passing through the press, the clots of vinaccia are again put into the vats, and water is poured upon them. In eight or ten days a fresh fermentation takes place, and the vinaccia is once more pressed in the wine-press. This gives mezzo vino, or acquarello (half-wine), not at all bad, but of course of insufficient body to keep through the summer. For this there is no want of demand at the villa. Besides the rations of the workpeople, there are the poveri del buon Dio.

In Tuscany there are no almshouses or poorhouses, save in the chief towns. Most villas have one or two days in the week when alms are distributed to all who come and ask. Here the gathering of poor occurs every Monday and Thursday, at ten in the morning. A hunch of bread, a glass of half-wine, and five centimes are doled out to every applicant, and on Christmas Day anyone who brings a fiasco has it filled with mezzo-vino, and gets half a loaf of bread and a half a pound of uncooked meat. Such has been the custom, I am told, for many hundred years.

Our happy holiday vintaging lasted for five days, and then we went to help the vintaging of one of the contadini of the padrone, a family that had been on the estate for two hundred and eighty years. All their vines were trained Tuscan fashion on maples, and we had the help of ladders and steps to gather the grapes. Half the grapes, and indeed half of all the produce of the land – grain, pumpkins, flax, fruit, or wine – belongs to the padrone, who pays all the taxes and buys the cattle. The contadino pays no rent for his house, which the padrone keeps in repair. The peasant gives the labour, and the master finds the capital. This is, in rough outline, the system of mezzeria, or half-and-half tenure, still universal in Tuscany. Like all human things, it has two sides, and may be condemned as the most backward, or defended as the most patriarchal and wholesome of systems, binding landlord and tenant in the bond of an obviously common interest, and encouraging the closest and most familiar relations between the two. When the landlord is intelligent, active, and judicious, he may become a centre of enlightenment and improvement to his tenantry; but all his attempts must be made with the most cautious discretion, or he will infallibly frighten, and perhaps alienate, his tenantry, who are thorough Conservatives, and love stare super antiques vias. Thus the best commentary on the Georgics is still agriculture in action in Tuscany, a passing peep into one of whose most pleasing chapters has been attempted in this paper.