It’s easy to be romantic about rural life. In the UK we have the Victorians to thank for the cutesy rural images which adorn greetings cards showing young girls standing outside thatched cottages carrying beautiful wicker baskets overflowing with flowers and produce. This was far from the reality of the tough rural existence which prompted so many to abandon their fields and head for the city.
To a certain extent the Italians are far more pragmatic and that’s probably because so many people still live a rural or semi-rural existence in part of Italy and understand the harsher elements of this way of life. They also preserve their heritage and traditions which are still significant today.
However, with Europe facing economic problems of the like it has not seen for many years, more people are returning to the landscape left behind when seeking their fortune during the last mass exodus.
Should you choose to travel about the Italian countryside this year you will notice land, which up until recently had been abandoned, is now being put back into cultivation everywhere.
Vita Contadina requires a different outlook and an acceptance that urbanites have long since rejected. The year is punctuated by tasks and foods and one is dictated in every way by the weather and the ceaseless agricultural calendar. You bear the gluts and crop failures with fortitude and arrange your working life accordingly. Wherever you are it is easy to tell what month it is as the ritual of olive and grape pruning, haymaking, harvesting and planting once again rolls round predictably.
Evidence of this way of life is all over Tuscany, Sicily and Umbria. Should you choose to take a Flavours holiday in any of these regions you will soon learn rural understanding eclipses the industrial know how of more urban centres in Italy.
In fact, many Flavours’ guests take the opportunity to meet rural artisans who take great pride in their products and the traditional methods of production which have often remained unchanged through history.
The earth is the dominant one and must be tended like a demanding lover, to yield enough for every family. Without power, light, air conditioning or central heating, lives of rural workers would have revolved around the rising and setting of the sun and the wood fire which would be kept burning throughout the winter and was the main source of heat for cooking.
The art of making a haystack, washing and shearing sheep, when to prune and how to use every part of a slaughtered animal was handed down from one generation to the next. Knowledge about fungal forays, viticulture, cheese and bread making were what made the Vita Contadina such a complete experience. Every peasant was more or less self-sufficient; you might have found a solitary village shop which would have only sold things that really couldn’t have been made from local raw materials.
A baker might rent space in an oven, a local tailor would both weave and make special garments. Yet no one wore clogs in Sicily beyond March and the summer would see peasant feet growing more and more calloused as they walked barefoot across the dusty lands. You cannot imagine this being reinstated today.
Wooden wheeled carts pulled by buffalo, hand milking to make cheese typified a community which would only produce what it needed and many are being forced into reconsidering just what is necessary in life and returning to family plots and derelict properties in the hope they can begin a new life away from the dominant hegemony of the consumer culture.
You might say those who work the land are free. There is an Italian saying (il vento e la pioggia possono entrare nella mia casa, ma non il re d'Inghilterra). The rain and wind can enter my house but not the king of England. It’s unlikely anyone could truly return to that way of thinking but maybe there is something to learn from the Italian culture.
But for many the thought of returning to the land in a vita contadina is too far from what they know and for lots of us, an annual glimpse of a different existence is what intrigues the traveller before returning to the comfort of a contemporary existence.
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