“June, scythe in fist” says the old Italian proverb, re-echoing the days of scything hay manually. Times have changed… at Peppe and Gentile’s farm last week, fifteen hundred bales of hay were stacked in the hayshed – with fifteen hundred more to go. He’s haying all alone – his tractor, his only companion. With this heat, he’s up before the sun and out in the fields. Amazingly, he’s back on the tractor after lunch and a short pennichella (“nap”).
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 falce fienaia (hay scythe) were used to cut that hay along ditches, on hillsides, and around trees which the motorized falciatrice would miss.
Why not just let those insignificant hay patches go? Farms were small and most of our farm neighbors were mezzadri (lit. “halfsies”, i.e. share-croppers) able to live – barely – on what they grew. (48% to the land-owner, 52% for them.) There was little to no cash 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 herbaceous perfume of freshly-cut hay, spread out over the fields to dry out before it was forked onto farm carts for transport to the farmyard. Inimitable – and gone – bucolic 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 said, “as, logicamente, we didn’t have a lot of cheese 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. Affettati (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 others’ 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. 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.