The Wheat Harvest: Hard work, good food and allegria!
Another fun week of stories from living in the countryside in Tuscany -- this time around the yearly wheat threshing festivals. You worked hard together, but then were always rewarded with an amazing meal -- on tables set up in the middle of the fields.
This week's menu is the one that the Chef ate all those years ago in the fields after a long day's work with her neighboring farmers.
It’s easy to take it for granted. Bread is always there, and the several types of flour needed at the restaurant for our baking and pasta making are always readily available. Most people don’t give it a second thought. Most people don’t think about where flour comes from. Most people don’t even know about the spaghetti tree harvest this year!
What? Spaghetti tree harvest? Click this link (https://youtu.be/tVo_wkxH9dU) and see how much of 1957 Britain fell for the BBC’s hoax and was easily convinced that spaghetti grew on trees!
For the Tuscan farmer, on the other hand, the wheat harvest was enormously important as the family’s economy depended on it. There was a deep correlation between the life stages of the wheat plant and the state of mind of the farmer. The harvest was emotional, it was reaching a goal and closing the loop.
Threshing (battitura) separates the straw from the wheat that the farmers’ would then store in large bags in their hay barn (granaio) until it was time to bring it to the local mill to be ground into flour. It was the moment in which the hard work in the fields started becoming the bread of the coming winter. Because the local farmers would come to help each other on the threshing day, it was transformed into a celebration of family and neighbors with abundant food and allegria.
This is what I remember: the presence of many farmers who helped each other and the women dedicated to feeding them throughout the day. It was hard, hot, dirty work, but everyone was genuinely happy to be together. The table was laid out under the loggia and consisted of a long series of mis-matched table and chairs. The housewives met the day before the threshing to begin cooking. It is important to note that these were not wealthy people, though they wanted to make a good impression and serve the very best they could. This usually meant the ingredients came directly from the farm. Homemade cured meats and cheeses, fresh pastas, vegetables from the garden accompanied by either roasted goose, rabbit, or lamb. Served, of course, with plentiful freshly baked bread and rivers of red wine. At the end of the meal, the women would bring out a variety of their homemade desserts before the men lit up their dark Toscano cigars.
The threshing feast was almost invariable and our Food Club menu this week take inspiration from it. Antipasto Toscano is the ever-present introduction. There is always prosciutto and finocchiona, Tuscany’s renowned fennel salame, with a variety of other meats and garnishes. Our giardiniera is a mixture of sott’aceti or homemade pickled vegetables served with Tuscan olive crostini.
Tortelli di Patate are favorites in the area just north of Florence. A noteworthy example of “cucina povera,” they are rustic parcels of fresh homemade pasta filled with a savory mixture of potato, beef and parmesan. Sugo finto, or “fake sauce” is basically the poor man’s version of traditional meat sauce but with no meat. Inevitably, when these tortelli were served at a threshing dinner a competition would ensue of who could eat the most. If memory serves me correctly, Francesco devoured 87 of them, though I don’t think he was the winner!
Insalata Estiva dell’Orto is a version of the very simple salad of mixed greens, tomatoes and whatever other vegetables might be growing in the garden. It is served at the end of the meal as it is intended to cleanse the palate and aid in digestion. It is dressed very simply with extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. The acidity of the vinegar and the fresh lettuces refresh the mouth and taste buds (in anticipation of dessert.)
Torta d’Olio d’Oliva is an example of desserts in Tuscany – simple, no frills, but flavorful. Ours is very moist due to the presence of olive oil in the place of butter. The strawberries are slow roasted with sugar to intensify the flavor.
This week’s wine selection comes from the iconic Tuscan wine-making family, Mazzei. Thomas Jefferson befriended Filippo Mazzei, and invited him to introduce vine growing in Monticello, Virginia. It is also well acknowledged that Filippo inspired Jefferson with the idea, “all men are created equal,” later included in our Declaration of Independence. Its Poggio Badiola is an “everyday” Super Tuscan with the freshness and elegance of Sangiovese and the soft structure of Merlot.
Local Tuscan farmers no longer grow and harvest their own wheat. Most of their houses have been sold and transformed into villas with swimming pools surrounded by manicured gardens. How fortunate was I to take part in this ritual of wheat harvesting. This glimpse into Tuscany’s farming culture underscored for me early in my life the importance of coming together to eat and celebrate the passing of the seasons.