Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 8: Working in the Vineyards & Fields with my Father

In our village each family had some land to cultivate. My mother and father owned land passed down to them by the respective parents. Most of the land we owned was from my grandmother Carmela on my mother’s side.

This included specific fields of chestnut trees in the upper hills of San Romano and cultivable land called “luoghi” near the village.

This cultivable land and vineyards was our main staple for much of our daily food supply. It included olive trees, grape vines, pear and apple trees and some fig trees. The rest of the land was used to plant the seasonal staple food such as potatoes, wheat grain, corn, and in smaller areas the full garden type vegetables including tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, onions, etc…

Since most of the land surrounding the village is on hills, all of the usable cultivable land was arranged in step-up layers.

This type of step-farming is seen throughout Italy and Europe.

A sloping earth wall would be built at a considerable angle called: “poggio”, then a flat area called: “porca” would be the usable cultivating land, then a: “poggio” then a: “porca” and so on up the hill to the top or the end of a specific property.

Each poggio would be finished with grass to prevent erosion and at the very top of the poggio we would plant grape vines. Looking up at our hilly property we would see rows and rows of grapevines at the edge of each poggio.  In the spring, this would be a beautiful site with all of the grape vines in full bloom completely dressing up the entire hill. I remember this site from my bedroom window and loved looking out at it.

Working these fields was a huge job that my father managed on a daily basis. Ever since I can remember, as a very young boy, I would always be there by his side helping with whatever he would have me do.

This type of father-son relationship was most likely the best first-hand teaching I could ever have received and most likely shaped my entire future into the person that I am today.

The main job that took the most time was preparing the fields (porche) by plowing.

Plowing was done by the two of us simply by hand and foot. We used a shovel called: “vanga”. The “vanga” had a long wood handle and immediately above the attachment of the handle was a steel flat bar about 6 inches long. This bar was parallel to the ground and securely attached to the handle by a looped section. Since I was left-footed, my “vanga” had the flat foot bar on the left and my father had his on the right.

The shovel part of the vanga was probably 12 to 14 inches long.

My father would take me to the first “porca” and we would start hand-plowing at the very beginning of the field. With our foot we would push hard into the dirt to penetrate the “vanga” all the way into the ground, we then would lift the vanga by holding the long wood handle under our arm, and with the help of our knee, turn over the soil with one smooth motion.

This process was repeated over and over while advancing backward toward the end of the specific porca. It took me awhile to learn how to turn over the soil so that on each turn the field (porca) would remain perfectly flat. This was an art my father knew well.

During this process we would plow side by side talking about anything and everything. I have never forgotten those times with my father.

Sometimes we would find old Roman coins while plowing and it was an adventure to speculate the value or the origin. We accumulated quite a few coins and kept them for a collection. I remember a man that was dating one of the village women, his name was Nicola, and he was from Rome. On one occasion my father told him about our Roman coins; he became very interested and wanted to see them. After carefully looking at the coins, he convinced my father to let him have the coins and take them to Rome to establish the true value and possibly sell them.

We never saw the coins again. I think my father was disappointed, but not really upset over this.  I never did trust Nicola after that. He ended up marrying the woman he was seeing and since she was our second cousin, we never brought up the coins again.

Working the fields with my father was also educational; he would teach me everything I needed to know on how to plant, fertilize and then harvest the various crops.

If there was a job that I hated, it would have to be fertilizing. This was done mainly for the grape vines and it consisted of the following:

We would dig holes near the base of each vine all along the top of each “poggio”.

At home, under the outer stairs was our septic tank. My father had a very large wood barrel with a loop handle and he also owned a very long handle wood ladle. He would dip it into the septic tank and fill the wood barrel with “fertilizer”.

It would then be up to me and him to carry this out to the fields. We used a very long wooden pole, place the wood barrel in the middle, place the end of the pole on our shoulders and carried the barrel out to the fields. This was approximately ¼ mile trip and we had to be careful not to spill any of the fertilizer on the cobblestone road used by everybody. We never filled the barrel to the top, but only about half way in order to control it from spilling. Once at the edge of the “poggio” my father would dump a bit of fertilizer in each hole and cover it with soil.

At the end of this process, I could not run home fast enough and wash each and every part of my body. Washing was not a simple thing since we had no running water nor a shower or tub. I would fill a large aluminum bucket with warm water; we always kept a large steel pot over the fire place or on our wood burning stove for warm water.

If fertilizing was the worse job, planting was probably the best. Here it depended on what was to be planted. In planting potatoes, we would use a “marrello, a type of a hoe, to dig rows into the soft turned soil and then place half cut potatoes at about 6 to 8 inches apart, and then cover each and every row. Wheat grain would be placed by simply spreading the seeds, beans would be placed the same way as potatoes, but not as deep in the soil.

I also had my own small “porca” and here I could plant whatever I wanted. I always planted strawberries because I loved them.

The harvest time was fun, but it was the most work since all of the fields had to be harvested at basically the same time.

With potatoes we dug the soil with our “marrello” and placed the new potatoes in burlap sacks. These would be stored at home in the “cantina”, the lower section of the house, in order to keep them in a cool place.

Wheat grain was another story. Here we would harvest the grain by cutting it with a scythe and making small piles all throughout the field.

There were two types of scythe, the long wooden handle one used while standing and a curved one with a short handle used in a squatted position.

For me, the most important part of all this, as a young boy, was the belt hook. The hook kept the short scythe in position while not in use. Here a steel hook with a very narrow gap just a bit wider than the actual scythe blade was threaded in my leather belt so that it would hang exactly on my back. The scythe would then slide exactly inside this hook holding it in place. This reminded me of cowboys and Indians and to me the scythe was my pistol.

I would practice pulling out the scythe as if in a duel. Having this as my own scythe was like a passage to adulthood.

Once while cutting wheat I swung the scythe a bit too hard and hooked it in my lower calf placing quite a large cut. I remember placing a handkerchief around it and going home. My mother wanted to take me to the doctor to get it stitched, but I would have none of that. Today I still have this nice scar there reminding me of my stupidity of that day.

Once the wheat was dry and inside the “capanna”, we would make an appointment with Mario. Mario was the village entrepreneur. He was the one that ran the only store; he was the one that owned the machine used to clean out the wheat grain from the stem. He was the one that would make special purchase deliveries and so on.

On the appointed day Mario would bring over his machine and set up the entire operation. We would ask our cousins and other family members to come and help and get the job done in one day.

I have a picture of this operation; you can view it on the page about Serafino. Here you see Mario at the top; I am standing in the middle leaning against the machine. To the right of the machine are my aunt Fosca and her husband Raffaello. To the left are my cousin Laura, second cousin Michele and his girlfriend, from Milan, I don’t remember her name.

Once the wheat grain was removed from the stem, it would be placed in burlap bags and then taken to the nearest grinding establishment outside the village to grind it into flour.

This flour would be used year-round for making bread, pastry, pizza and other items for our family.

A special note should be made regarding plowing the fields when I was about 12 years old.

That year my father got hurt and cut his thumb really badly. He was in the hospital for almost a month and I was responsible in getting the fields, “porche” ready for planting.

I remember working very hard by myself trying to finish a huge job. After it was over and my father was able to come and examine the work, I remember his great laugh in looking at the very first “porca”. I had started the plowing right in the middle of this field leaving a long V ditch open across it. This was a very big sign of inexperience, but my father never said a negative word. He only made a big laugh and moved on to the next field.

Many years later and even now, if we talk about it, he will take the time to thank me for all that work I had to do by myself at such a young age.

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