Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Gathering of Tomatoes, Olives and Harvest Songs in a Little Corner of Tuscany

The sad and abandoned tomato patch was enduring the last few warm days of the year. Tomatoes were hanging on, with little hope, as the house had been closed for the season. Thanks to the olive harvest it was briefly re-opened to feed and shelter the scant army of olive pickers, of which I was one. After four days of visiting wineries in Piemonte and gorging ourselves on white truffles, these few days under the sun in Tuscany’s hilly Maremma area would be a good way to balance the life. The olives were ready to become oil, but what of the tomatoes?

Federico, one of our band of brothers in the olive harvest went out to the patch and rescued the survivors. “I will make a nice tomato sauce for lunch,” he declared. And so it was, the life of the tomatoes in that scrawny little patch would not be for naught.

Over a plate of the simplest fare, pasta with Federico’s improvised tomato sauce I asked him if we were to have wine. “Why wouldn’t we?” was his oh-so-Italian response. Why not indeed. So it was that I challenged him to stick with the tried and true Tuscan red on the table or to take a leap and try a different red from Piemonte, an Albarossa. Federica chose the Albarossa.

The Albarossa grape is a cross between Nebbiolo di Dronero and Barbera grapes obtained in the late 1930’s by a certain Professor Dalmasso and rediscovered and replanted in the last ten years. In short, a "Barbera di Nebbiolo". The wine is soft and mellow, easy sipper, not a lot of acidity. Perfect for lunch.

After a short coffee we got ourselves back to the business of the day, olives. We had a weekend and sunny weather to gather all we could from the 20 or so trees on the property. There was an appointment at the olive mill on Monday. Tuesday we were heading back home. No time to waste.

The area around Pomarance is rich with geothermal activity. A significant portion of the earth’s geothermal energy that is capturable is found in this area. Dante has written about the place, relegating it to one of his levels of Hell. But on this day, it was pure Paradise.

Picking olives isn’t terribly difficult, but it can be tedious. I was constantly thinking of the Italian work songs that Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella gathered and recorded. For some reason I wanted to sing one of them. Here I was in the hills surrounded by sheep and Sardinians, and my old genetic roots were leaching out. I was content to sing inside, little quiet folk songs. Better that way for my co-workers.

After several days and 900 pounds, the harvest was complete. One last tree was a challenge as it housed an insufferable tribe of stinging super wasps, Calabrone. We managed to get the olives without the wrath of the fierce creatures.

All these years following the wine harvest, I had never really known what went into the olive gathering. For several days we gathered, gathered, gathered. Humankind has survived by gathering. Modern man still gathers, although much of it now is useless information. Still, we cannot break the habit of gathering. It is built into our survival mechanism. In this case, the reward is significant – wonderful green, pungent, spicy olive oil. I brought home a 5 liter tin in the suitcase. We should be all set for the winter now.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

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1 comment:

naplesfrank3 said...

Very nice blog. I would love to take part in an olive or grape harvest.

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