Idle in Tuscany

Tuscan holiday fills the gaps

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Fabio working a small area of his family farm beneath the hilltop town of Montepulciano preparing it for a summer crop.

Fabio working a small area of his family farm beneath the hilltop town of Montepulciano preparing it for a summer crop.

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A sojourn among the vines and olives restores a sense of purpose for enjoying life, writes The Land's Wagga Wagga journalist Stephen Burns.

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Chiania cuts on display in a restaurant window. Pride was shown in the native breed producing meat with flavour and fat cover.

Chiania cuts on display in a restaurant window. Pride was shown in the native breed producing meat with flavour and fat cover.

We had read the books, we had watched the films, we had seen the happy snaps and the postcards and listened to the anecdotes.

But nothing quite prepared my wife and I for the beauty and sensual feeling of Tuscany like actually being there!

Sitting among the budding vines and the olive groves with our picnic of red wine, cheese and bread we were prepared to let the good life float right above and all around us.

There is something essentially civilising about vineyards in leaf: a sense of calm against the wild world, the encouragement to actually sit down and be hedonistic for a short while, to contemplate the possibilities of the epicurean delights of grapes slowly ripening under the Tuscan sun.

Before we got to Tuscany, we spent three days in Rome at the start of our holidays, visiting the well-known historical sites and pushing our way through the crowds, also eager to take in the history.

Our flat was in an old part of Rome, just around the corner from the Colosseum, which we walked past on our way to the Forum and other architectural restorations featuring the time of Caesar, Augustus and Brutus and the other Roman emperors we learnt about at school.

Personally we avoided the Colosseum, as we couldn't abide the reason for it's existence, but we did enjoy the statues and columns giving some feeling of ancient Rome.

We trod the usual path through Rome and thought the Pantheon the most amazing structure, considering its age and purpose, and were pleased to get on the road and out into the countryside.

Once we were away from the settled areas, the country unfolded ever more beautiful, it seemed: around every corner was a photo opportunity more scenic than the one before, with folded vales covered in vines and olive groves and apparently recently restored farmhouses.

Incredible as it may seem, with all of the publicity given to living the good life in a Tuscan restoration, there were renovators delights resting against and under gaunt trees.

We stayed in a restored and self-contained farmhouse in the centre of a small farm producing olive oil, wine and vegetables.

Fabio was the patriarch of the family, the third generation to work this small farm, perhaps no more than 50 hectares, the boundaries defined by a row of trees, a dip in the ground, or a graveled track.

The top photo shows Fabio working the ground for the summer vegetable crop, and incredibly the heavy clay soil that was devoid of organic matter after centuries of cultivation must suit the production of wine and olive oil, for we were surrounded by small farms intensively worked and still productive.

There always seemed to be a lot of work to be done, as we saw Fabio and his assistant in the fields everyday; and no doubt with grape and olive harvest it would entail many hours of manual labour, the fields being too steep or too small for mechanical harvesting.

As can also be seen from the above photo, we were within a 15 minute walk into Montepulciano, a hilltop town celebrated for its beauty and obviously only one of many across Tuscany.

We woke early to the call of a rooster, a dog barking, or the peal of bells rung in the Chiesa di San Biagio, a church dating from the 1500s and still in amazing condition.

A wedding was in progress during our time there. We had lunch among the vines, a glass of vino nobile red, for which the area is known, some bread and cheese and wild boar.

No better pleasure can be known, and dinner was equally simple, with the addition of some pasta or pizza.

We avoided the fast food chains: indeed there was a noticeable absence in the hilltop towns and if a quick meal was desired there were plenty of restaurants offering 'home-made' meals at reasonable cost.

It was the sensual delight we were seeking, eating local food and overhearing conversation untainted by English.

Indeed, we were fascinated by the conversations around the restaurant tables ... voluble and expressive, it appeared as they were all engaged in argument, but were probably only gossiping and making fun of the very quiet couple sitting at the adjoining table.

We were equally fascinated by the size of the Tuscan cuts, prominently displayed in restaurant windows and served 50 centimetres thick, with plenty of fat and too big for a plate. Bought to the table they were carved as one would a roast, and the guests then fought over the bone!

Travel was relatively easy, but when we went to book a train ticket to Sienna on a Sunday we were told 'no trains' and learnt that because it was not a school day, neither buses nor trains ran.

Reflecting on the Italian agriculture, it is obviously intensive with small fields on the sides of hills and surrounded by endless forests of trees.

We didn't see any canola crops, but the occasional plant had emerged along the road verges or popped up in cereal crops and pasture. The few flocks of sheep seen were woolly, straggly and milked to make cheese.

  • Stephen Burns travelled to Italy during his recent annual leave.
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