Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 10: Picking Blueberries & Other Fruits

As a young boy in San Romano, I was always trying to come up with ways to earn extra money.

Money was very scarce and working and actually getting paid was a great incentive. Working the fields with my father was always part of my responsibilities so money needed to be earned in other ways.

We had a few ways at our disposal to make some money. One was to pick blueberries and then sell them to a vendor outside the village, another profitable way was to pick Porcini mushrooms and sell them to an outside vendor. Working for specific labor outside the village or for a specific job was also another way to earn money.

When the wild blueberries were ripe, I organized a team to go pick as many as possible. This team consisted of my very best friend and cousin Donato, his brother Egidio and my brother Sergio.

We knew the hills and mountains above the village very well and we knew where the blueberries grew wild and produced an abundance of fruits.

We never really worried about competition because the work was incredibly tedious and the pay was incredibly small. I don’t remember other young men or women going out to pick blueberries; it was something I had organized because I found a vendor that was willing to buy them from us by the kilogram.

So for about three days, we tramped the hills and mountains around San Romano looking for ripe blueberries.

Blueberries grow wild along the hills of our village where the ground was covered with what we called: “muschio”or moss. This muschio was green in color and attached to the ground similar to groundcover found in gardens. The muschio was very porous and it was actually made up of thousands of small vines all intertwined together creating the groundcover effect.

This was similar to what we find on the North side of large trees always in shade, with the exception of the consistency. The moss found around trees has a much denser consistency, the “muschio” where blueberries shrubs grew was very sponge like and moldable.

Here on these hills the blueberries shrubs grew to about eighteen inches or less loaded with blueberries.

The four of us would collect each blueberry individually and place it in a round bucket that we would carry with us. This was a job requiring dexterity, patience, agility to climb hills all day long, and determination.

I remember our picking days well; we all knew the locations and would venture starting at the bottom of a hill and systematically advance upward to the top. By spreading our base to a visual distance from each other, we would insure to collect all of the blueberries without missing areas as we moved upward.

Of course one of the benefits was eating the blueberries, but after a while we would simply move forward.

There was always one main concern; we picked blueberries in areas that were not set up and cleaned as we did for chestnuts, here in the wild hillsides, there was always the chance of running into a snake, or worse, a venomous viper.

Vipers were the most feared snakes in and around the village because if bitten, one could easily die. My father had always told me to never be around in the hills without a wooden stick. All of us carried a wooden stick and before starting to pick a specific shrub, we would pat down the ground with our stick to make sure it was clear and no viper was hiding nearby.

These sticks were usually made ahead of time and picked especially for our use. I remember looking very carefully for a stick to use and make it my own.

The best sticks would be made from the olive tree. The olive tree is very strong, but also moldable. I would look for days for the right branch. Most olive tree branches are very curvy and intricate; it is hard to find a section that is fairly straight and can be shaped into a walking stick.

Once I got my fairly straight branch, I used my “pennato” to cut it and took the branch home. Here I carved out a shape of a snake head at the very top and cleaned it along the sides with a piece of glass held on its edge. We used pieces of broken glass to clean and really shape the branch into a nice smooth stick.

Can you imagine the trouble we would get into with our parents in today’s world if we did this dangerous task? Using pieces of broken glass to clean branches of wood was like shaving Parmigiano cheese from a large piece to sprinkle on a salad or specialty dish.

The four of us would be picking until all of our containers were full, then come back the next day.

Within three full days, we had picked approximately twenty kilograms of blueberries.

We were now ready to sell our crop and that job was mine.

As explained in my first chapter, San Romano is approximately five miles from the nearest drivable road. The cobble stone and dirt road leading down to the “autostrada” was in many sections steep and serpentine.

All of the blueberries were placed in two large aluminum buckets with handles and covers, and I was to carry them down to the “autostrada” where the vendor was waiting at a set specific time, no phones to communicate then.

The cobblestone roadway started at the village right next to the main church piazza. From here the first leg downward was very steep and it lead down to the bottom of the first hill, then turning toward our vineyards for quite a long flat stretch and then turning down again in a serpentine all the way down to the autostrada.

My cousin Donato, his brother Egidio, Sergio and my father Arturo, where all at the church main piazza, and my father told me exactly what to do and what to ask for the blueberries. I cannot remember why I would be the only one going down without any help, but that was the case.

With the two large containers held by the handles on each arm, I happily started the walk down this steep section of cobblestone road. For whatever reason, maybe I looked back to say good –bye, or was distracted by something else, I tripped on one of the cobblestone and fell forward hard.

The two large buckets fell forward and opened with a thud. All I saw around me and in front of me was a sea of blueberries trickling down the steep roadway, filling each and every stone crevice with many berries actually opening and squirting out some of the delicious juices.

For a moment I lay there frozen, writing this brings that memory back so clearly. Looking down in front of me, I saw the two buckets lying open and empty, I remember slowly getting up, I was not hurt, turning around and without a word, walking back home.

I don’t remember what my cousins, brother and father said, if anything. I simply remember just going home and not even picking up the two buckets.

Later that day, my father recounted to my mother and grandmother what had happened unable to contain his huge laugh. It made them laugh and it made me laugh.

Donato, Egidio, and Sergio never once mentioned the incident nor ever asked to go and pick blueberries again. What was to be maybe a 200 lire gain for the four of us; roughly the equivalent of a nickel each was forever forgotten.  In the early sixties, $1 was equivalent to 1000 lire, so 200 lire was equivalent to twenty cents.

This was to be the only time I ever picked blueberries for money. From that time forward, all wild blueberries were only picked simply to be eaten on the spot. Looking back at the experience, I quickly learned that we must make the best in each and every situation thrown at us in life.

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