Giugno, la falce in pugno…

July 10, 2012 / Local Interest
Assisi, Umbria
“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.

Grazie, Peppe.

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An Umbrian tour guide in Italy most of the year, Anne also teaches Umbrian rural cuisine in private homes in the U.S. in February and March (see www.annesitaly.com/united-states-events/u-s-cooking-classes)… and lectures.
Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s and rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for Anne. She writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. See www.annesitaly.com for more on her tours, cooking classes, lectures – and her blog! Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out!

26 Responses to “Giugno, la falce in pugno…”

  1. Rosemary

    Lovely story Anne! How fortunate that you were able to be a part of a way of life that has changed so much in such a short period of time.

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  2. Linda Boccia

    I would imagine that there are tradeoffs for a sense of community in mutually helping each other and reaping those benefits of commoraderie, and the back breaking efforts of sore muscles. All over the world there are many changes in how people live, and would we give up some of our conveninences for those days or not? A simple shot of penicillin would have saved my grandfather, who died before it was discovered, from a mastoid infection. It had not yet been discovered.

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  3. Gary Hoffman

    Beautifully done…as with all fine writing the reader gets the sense of actually being there, the descriptions are so vivid. Not to mention the evocative, living photography.
    Kudos to you, Anne!

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  4. Evanne

    Thank you, Anne, for another poignant story. Here in tiny Mugnano in Teverina, life is about the same, but with one farmer on his trattore doing all his work. So “Falciatura” continues with another Peppe, Fosci, this time, in the fields below our village. It’s another reminder to cherish the old stories, and sit with your older relatives and neighbors to preserve their memories for newer generations. Bless you!

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  5. Anne, thanks for (as always) showing us the people behind the stories. While I barely scratched the surface of a non-urbanized life in Scheggino, I loved what I experienced. One of my favorite stories from the trip (after the one about getting delicious mountain water from the town pump) is riding the local bus from Spoleto to Scheggino. It was a small bus, I’m guessing 20 passengers at most, and it stopped at every tiny frazione on the way. I knew what “cinque minute” meant, and the driver kept assuring me (over the course of about an hour) we’d be in Scheggino in that short time, but my stomach threatened to betray me every km of the way. Small curvy roads, many of which were traversed more than once) and lurching bus … well, I conjured up (from the depths of my primitive Italian vocabulary) a pathetic whimpering, “Mal d’auto!!!” at which the passengers either clucked sympathetically, or discreetly smiled. When I finally arrived in Scheggino I saw with dismay a much larger city-style bus pulling in that clearly took (HAD to take!) a straighter road with fewer stops. Aaaaack, I had no way of knowing. I had to sit down and get past being queasy before introducing myself to the fine folk in the town.

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  6. Roberta

    Thanks again, Ann, for a glimpse at another way of life. They were strong in so many ways. Wasted nothing!

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  7. A lovely story, Anne, of simple, hardworking people. Much appreciated!

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  8. Gian Banchero

    Except for the ox the people of the photos can still be found in much of Italy, especially in the south and Sicily. The portrayed gentry and their environs are now the only reason I return to Italy. Though I do appreciate the finery and erudition of the big cities, the true attraction for me is the ancient civility and gravitas of the country folk; I realized a long time ago that the contadino has historically been the matrix for the creativity Italy has historically been famous for.
    The photos also reminded me of my Piemontese grandmother–Nonna Lena Gaviglio–who was very proud of her peasant roots and worked her 1/2 acre garden here in California most of her 99 years. She would always state that in the fields of Italy she labored harder than the men and that her stomach was so strong she could digest nails, until her final days her blessed hands were rough as sandpaper.
    Though she preferred being out in fresh air she kept a hospital-clean house and daily cooked dishes that are still legend, thankfully over the years I wrote down all her recipes, as such I have a vast collection that most “foodies” would give their eye-teeth for… Yes, there was the Miseria but there were also good memories, in Italy she enjoyed the companionship of other women whereas here in the States she lamented that no one had time to talk, that everyone was in a hurry… I found out years ago what she meant when I lived in one of my ancestral Italian villages and when I went shopping every morning that even though the store was thirty feet from my door the jaunt would usually take about an hour being it was an imperative to speak to all people encountered.
    Thanks so much for the article and photos, Anne.

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  9. Colleen Simpson

    Grazie Mille for an evocative and beautifully written note! You take us right into the land with the people that you love so much. My neighbors still talk about “la miseria” with poignant nostalgia. The women, yes the women always did the heavy work out in the field and in feeding all the farm hands. You are so fortunate to have experienced this before all became mechanized. Bravo Ann! We must meet in person soon.

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  10. John Perides

    I just love reading Annie’s stories in Italian Notebook. I along with my wife and four friends traveled through Umbria with Annie and her friends in 2010. Italian Notebook and especially Annie’s notes are a constant renewal of those good times. Thank you for continuing to grace us with your talent.

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  11. umberto levrini

    thanks for the memories Ann-what happened to Angellina and Pitrino,and toto,mangerancina-Vito-in-gaullu and Sarafina their all gone now gone and the days of the smell of fresh bread cooking in the ovens,the taste of fresh cheese, bread and wine—that’what i love about Italian notebook-the writers as yourself and the memories that u bring back to those who have lived it and to those who have never experienced it–buona fortuna to u Ann and to all the fine people who keep italian notebook alive!

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  12. Barbara Goldfield

    What a wonderful window on a time when a large part of Italian society could scrape together a living through farming and find relevance in the seasons, nature and the community itself. Now farmers are offered so little for their crops it is hardly worth picking the fruit off the trees!

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  13. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks so much to all of you for your notes.
    Another brief reflection: due to the heating up of the climate over the past 50 yrs (just read about it in today’s paper – seems that each yr that passes sets new records), I realize that scything by hand as we did for hours in July of past yrs, could NEVER be done now – in fact, farmers are working at night on tractors and yes, tractors with AC in many cases, too! (many of you who wrote above live in Italy – and imagine the situation the same all over…)
    We paused for roast goose lunches (AFTER the pasta!) while sitting under oak trees in summers of 1970’s: impossible now (to heat up the stone ovens – but also to even BE outdoors at lunchtime!)

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  14. Domemic Piccolomini

    Thank You Anne,
    For this very nice note about Peppe who is just one of the many hard working people of Bella Umbria!
    Domenic

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  15. Grace Hinrichs

    Wow. Another winner,Anne. I was primed to say a lot of the same things others have already said here about the quality of your writing and the richness of your personal experiences with these people in this part of Italy. All that’s left to say is that whenever I go to this Notebook I hope it’s one of your articles!

    Interesting your comment that these days it would be impossible to be outside working in the fields at midday. I did wonder about that.Even here on the coast of Maine, USA,where I am it would be tough these days and that’s saying a lot.

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  16. Genny Cesario

    Anne, I loved your story and loved,loved the pictures. Some of the people in them could be my relatives. I am so looking forward to returning to Italy.

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  17. Thank you. Lovely photos. Echos of the Mugello, which is the Italy I know and love

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  18. Hi Annie,
    Of course, I recognized you (very beautful!)and Pino(the perennial Hippie!) Thanks for the insights.
    Joan

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  19. Frank and Brit

    Annie, you should write a book. Thanks for another great story.

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  20. Lovely article, Anne. Loved the pictures of you in particular, although you don’t look much different these days. Hard to believe it’s been so many years.

    So . . . when will you write that book? Grace

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  21. Pate Cardel

    this story was so typical Even today my husband is using the sythe that his father used when he came over from Italy and had a small farm. My husband loves to connect with his father in this way since his father has passed away. There is so much we can learn from the past. Thanks for the wonderful story.

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  22. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to each of you for your comments. Grace, you know the problem with me and the book: unlike YOU – who did it! – I’m not taking the time now to sit down and follow through in a disciplined way. But for now, certainly will continue writing the memories as a tribute to our neighbors who taught us about the land / and about living ( as they will not be recording the past: those my age only went to school til age 8, approx)
    Pate / the notes are a tribute, too, to people like your father-in-law who carried the “old ways” with them as they emigrated..

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  23. Paula G. Feldman

    Terrific information. Hope to meet you in Tuscany, if possible. Staying at La Foce in Val D’Orcia beginning September 21, 2012

    Paula- California

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  24. John Perides

    Paula-California,

    Oh my, what a wonderful location you have chosen for your Italian adventure. Since you will be in Tuscany on the southern border of Chianti Country you will undoubtedly go north to Florence for a visit, either up the A1 Autostrade or up the Raccordo Autostradale. On your way home you have the rare opportunity to stop at one of two restaurants. You must try at least one of these during your stay. Becattini is a family run local cuisine restaurant with beautiful views on the mountaintop at Via del Crocino, 41 in Pogge Alla Croce (Greve Region)and 15 minutes off the A1 Autostrada. Officina della Bistecca is one of the most incredible beef dining experiences in Italy with reknown butcher Dario Cecchini and is located at Via XX Luglio, 11, Panzano in Chianti (Greve Region). Panzano is only 20 minutes off the Raccordo Autostradale coming south from Florence. Either place will give you “house” wine which is from the surrounding Chianti hills – magnificent!

    Good luck,
    John Perides

    Raccordo Autostradale

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