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On the Land in Umbria - Harvest Time Past

Anne Robichaud

This July heat brings back itching memories of harvest time in the late 1970s. "Itching" because of the remembered scratch of the straw on sweaty skin. I recall that July day in 1976 when about 15 of us helped with the wheat harvest up at Primo di Pompeo's farm. I worked in the fields part of the morning and then helped the women in the kitchen.

The rented combine rumbled through the fields, cutting the wheat and binding it into gregni ("bunches" in Umbrian dialect). Groups of us followed the harvester and piled these gregni, into cavalletti (piles of about 30 bunches). We piled them in such way that rain would run off if a storm should come before the threshing, which would take place 10 days or more later, giving the cut wheat time to dry out.

The combine harvested on the level parts of the fields but hand scythes were used to harvest the wheat which covered the hillsides. In those days of mezzadria (sharecropping) farming, a farmer like Primo di Pompeo, who had to sustain a family on 53% of the yield of only 18 acres of rolling hillside land, seeded the wheat even on hilly outcroppings!

Harvest day friends. Anne Robichaud.

Harvest day, 1976. The strange effect on the face of the man on the
lower left is because this is an old photo that was bent!

The men and women scything by hand worked rhythmically to their folk songs, cantarecchia. A row of men would sing out a verse to which the row of women responded, creating the rispetto e dispetto so characteristic of Umbrian folk music. This is a disappearing musical genre because agriculture is now fully mechanized and voices don't blend with the rumble of the tractors. Besides, one or two men alone can handle 18 acres if the farm is fully mechanized. Long gone are the days of andare a opere, where neighboring farmers worked together for the harvesting on each farm (work rotation farm-to-farm).

Like all the women, I wore a cotton headscarf knotted behind my neck, hefty work boots and a cotton shift-type dress (we'd buy our sinalini at the Friday market). The scarf served for drying off the sweat. In that July, my husband Pino and I arrived to start the harvest on the late side - about 7:00am. Work had started around 4:00am, launched with cups of hot milk and slices of bread.

Around 8:00am, morning breakfast-time approached and I went into the kitchen to help out there. How good it was to wash with the icy cold water at the fountain outside and take a pause from the heat and the itch of the harvesting!

Pompeo's wife Amalia was in charge of the morning breakfast. The kitchen was hot in spite of the thick stone walls which usually kept it cool because before dawn the woodstove had been lit to cook the red speckled borlotti beans. They had soaked all night in cold water and had been bubbling away on the woodstove most of the early morning hours. Amalia was preparing the sughetto for the beans (see the recipe at the bottom of the page) while Chiarina, a neighbor woman, was busy cutting thick slices of Amalia's bread, baked in her outdoor bread oven.

Elvira, Amalia's mother, had trekked over the hill from her farm to help out, bringing with her a plastic bucket of fat tomatoes and cucumbers from her garden. They were sliced up in a large cracked and yellowed bowl, then doused with olive oil (their own oil, logicamente).

Like all Umbrian farm families, Primo and Amalia had slaughtered a pig the winter before, so their homemade prosciutto, salami, and capocollo was served with the beans and bread, as was their pecorino (sheep's milk) cheese. Another neighbor, Eva, was piling everything into one big wicker basket: tablecloth, plates, cutlery, glasses. And into another basket, bottles of wine and water.

This typical Umbrian harvest breakfast of bread, beans, meats, cheese, and vegetables is a perfect example of Mediterranean diet cuisine and the best of "rural gourmet" or cucina genuina, as we like to call it.

Harvest Breakfast, 1976. Anne Robichaud.

Harvest Breakfast, 1976. I am pouring water and wine.
The food will be brought out of the house in minutes.

When we heard the harvester engine cut, Chiarina and Eva hefted the baskets on their heads and went down the kitchen steps to the farmyard. They spread the tablecloth on the ground and set out the dishes on a rickety old table. Amalia followed with the big pot of fagioli. Elvira and I carried down the vegetables, bread and sliced meats, cheese. All our neighbors/field workers were washing up at the outdoor wash basin where Amalia often did the family laundry. Amalia had left worn but clean towels nearby. There was no bathroom; the oxen stall was there if needed!

Ravenous appetites made quick work of the borlotti beans and bread, sliced meats and cheese, and the family red wine. The water and wine bottles accompanied everyone back to the fields: the ubiquitous accompaniments for all farm labor. I don't remember seeing anyone showing the effects of all this wine. They say that the sugar in the wine energizes and the alcohol is sweated away!

A few of us women helped clean up and then we headed back to the fields. Some women remained in the kitchen to prepare the bigger meal to be served a few hours later - lunch. The outdoor wood burning oven already held the roast goose (basted with olive oil, garlic, rosemary, wild fennel) surrounded by mounds of roast potatoes. The meat sauce for the pasta was bubbling away on the woodstove and the watermelon was chilling in the fridge. Amalia and Elvira were cleaning the green beans - just picked - which would be served seasoned with olive oil, a bit of the family vinegar and chopped garlic.

Harvest day friends, 1976. Anne Robichaud.

Harvest day friends, 1976. The man on the left is "gesturing" for the camera!

Harvest time lunch generally concluded the day at about 2:00pm. Often, one or two of the men dozed under the trees while the women washed up in the kitchen upstairs.

Everyone trudged home to feed and care for their own animals, working on their own farms until dark.

Recipe for Umbrian Harvest-Time Beans

  • 1-1/2 lbs of dried beans, soaked overnight in abundant cold water
  • 1 white onion
  • celery - 1 or 2 stalks
  • parsley (optional)
  • 5 or 6 very ripe tomatoes or about 1 c. of canned tomatoes
  • olive oil

Boil the beans until tender in salted water.

For sauce (sughetto):

Saute finely-chopped white onion with finely chopped celery. Add finely-chopped parsley if desired. When onion is golden, add tomatoes and cook briefly until tomatoes blend in with chopped vegetables.

Stir beans into sauce, adding olive oil if needed. Add salt and pepper to taste. This dish is often used with fava beans.

Note: The farm women have not ever seen a recipe written down! They cook by watching and then helping out when young. I suggest trying out this dish via experimentation.


Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of Anne's photos on our photo gallery.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2005. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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