Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 4: Chickens, Rabbits, & Figs

In the village most families had chickens and rabbits. We lived at the end of the small piazza and our main living quarters were on the second floor. To get there, we used the outer stairs from the side garden. Under the stairs my father had built several large cages for housing rabbits. These rabbits would be raised strictly for food for the family. At the end of the stairs was the entry balcony and below the balcony was a large brick oven. My mother Maria and grandmother Carmela would use this large dome-like oven for cooking our weekly bread, pizza, cakes, and other items. The oven was also used for cooking the various delicacies that included chicken and or rabbit.

 Since we lived in a 12th century condominium, the utilities for the home were very primitive. No running water, no furnace system, thus no heat or air conditioning, a deep hole collecting sewer for the only toilet in the house; of course, no bathtub and shower nor telephone or TV.

We did have electricity and a radio. We however had no refrigerator in the kitchen and all of our food was from our vegetable garden and our constant tenure of chickens and rabbits. As a young boy, I waited eagerly for a big catholic feast, and there were many; here my mother would go all out with specialty food and cakes.

The kitchen table was unique and served as the main instrument for cooking preparation. The table was approximately six feet long by 4 feet wide and it was built with an eight inch apron all around it. The apron had the top base that served as the table and it also had a bottom base at the bottom of the apron. The top base was on hinges and could be opened vertically like a piano hinge. It had one bracket on each end that unfolded and would keep the top base open.

Inside the table were all of the things needed to prepare baked goods. They were placed on the bottom base of the table and when closed, they were out of sight. This was quite a great idea since all baking took place at this table. I would sit for hours watching my mother and grandmother knead the flour and then place it in the cake containers. I would always clean up the pots with my fingers, tasting the various types of ingredients such as Almonds, Chocolate, Rice, Apple, Pear, or whatever cake was been prepared.

To the left of the stairs was our yard. The yard consisted of a large chicken coop, an open area in front of the coop and a magnificent fig tree. The chicken coop was built using the outer stone wall of my grandfather’s house at the outer left of the property, and the rest was built with chicken wire. Inside the coop was a covered shed with spaces for each chicken. Here they would lay their eggs. One of my jobs was to collect the eggs on a daily basis and give them to my mother.

The fig tree was very large and its branches extended over the yard and over the chicken coop. The figs were the white variety and the size of large pears. I loved eating those figs. I waited patiently for them to ripe and then I would climb the tree and treat myself to several of the ripest ones.

This would be a routine that would go on until all of the figs were gone. On one occasion, I had climbed the tree as high as possible, figs were getting scarce. Looking to find the best and ripest was now a challenge. I saw a great fig out on a branch over the coop and proceeded to move very slowly toward my prize. Fig trees have very large leaves and are naturally composed of very soft wood. Venturing out on a branch I knew could be dangerous so I held on to the branch above me and slowly moved forward. Suddenly the branch I was standing on gave way with a roar and I immediately realized I was going to fall. The weight of my body was too much for the branch. Suddenly I panicked, but to my surprise, I drifted downward as if held by a parachute; and landed in the middle of the chicken coop scaring the chickens all around. I landed standing up; I was amazed, and relieved. I told the story to my father when he got home and remember his great laugh to this day.

My father was in charge of the rabbits and when the request came for a rabbit dinner, he would be the one required to provide it cleaned and ready for cooking. He would always involve me in this job and I absolutely hated it. I helped as required, but never looked at the work been done.

Both my brother and I hated eating rabbit, but our mom would always tell us it was chicken. Of course I knew better since I was involved in the preparation many times.

One day my father heard a ruckus in the rabbit cage. We went to look and a stray cat had gotten in the cage, trying to catch a rabbit. My father told me he would teach this cat a lesson. He took a stick and went into the cage trying to get the cat. Within seconds, that cat became a fur ball and started bouncing around the cage like a ping-pong ball at full speed. My father had to run for his life. Right after this, dad set me aside and admonished me to never, never be inside a cage with a loose cat. I could not stop laughing. I forget how we finally got that cat out of the cage; my memory here is fixed on my poor scared dad been defeated by a crazy cat.

Caring for the chicken was my grandmother’s job. She would feed them daily and make sure all of the eggs were collected on a regular basis. Each morning my job was to go in the coop. Here I would collect all of the eggs. Sometimes chickens were still sitting on them and I would move them out to get the eggs still warm. Usually we got two eggs per chicken. We owned around a dozen chickens and a couple of roosters. Each spring grandmother Carmela would add several baby chicks to preserve the chicken count. Chickens were also rotated out for food and again it was my father’s job to provide the product ready for cooking.

Eggs were used for many things, but one particular use sticks in my mind. My mother insisted that eggs were good for my memory and she wanted me to do well in school so occasionally, she would place me on an egg regiment each morning. Once I collected the eggs, I would be given one to eat. The egg was to be eaten raw. I would place two small holes in the egg, one at the top and the other directly opposite at the bottom, and then I would suck out the content. The white part of the egg was not to my tasting at all, but the yoke tasted very good.

If I stop and think even today, I can hear the roosters with their morning calls; my bedroom window looked directly into the yard and I woke up each day to their call. Across I could see the hills lined with grape vines. To the left was our property and “capanna”, here my father and I spent many days tending to all of the fruit trees and his beloved grape vines.

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