City Girl on a Small Farm in Tuscany
Farm in the hills
Piero’s face turned scarlet and his big feet shuffled in the dirt as I went on and on about how much I enjoyed the wild birds he had sent over for dinner the night before. He’s a big, shy kind of guy who speaks no English. My Italian was somewhat limited and I hoped he understood that I was thrilled with his generosity in providing Claudio and I with an assortment of birds from his catch of the day.
Claudio was living in an old restored farmhouse tucked away in the hills just outside Lucca, Italy. His apartment was in the middle, with farmer Piero and his wife on one end and Piero’s parents on the other. When Claudio invited me for a visit, my imagination conjured up a small villa with totally modern conveniences. I was in for a big surprise.
I envisioned myself in pretty sundresses, draped over a colorful lounge chair on the veranda, sipping something tall and cool, surrounded by cascading flowers and maybe even a tinkling fountain. I fantasized that we would take our meals out on the terrace and sit long into the summer nights listening to music and star gazing as we discussed love, life and dreams. Oh yes, I was thinking of something rustic but beautifully pulled together.
You can imagine my surprise when I arrived to find a very crude, broken-down farm and not the charming villa of my dreams. Claudio pulled into the yard and right up to the front door of his apartment. There was no verandah in sight. No garden either. Just some dusty farm equipment, a couple of trees and a few pots of flowers randomly placed. No brightly colored lounge chairs or cascading beds of flowers in sight. I had a sinking feeling that my fantasy about the place was indeed just that – pure fantasy.
The apartment was tall and narrow, with two bedrooms up a steep staircase and the bathroom downstairs directly off the kitchen. Not very convenient for middle-of-the-night usage. Because the building is considered historical, Italian law forbids changing anything to the outside of the building. What one does inside is up to personal whimsy.
Claudio cooking Ucelli
The state-of-the-art country kitchen I had visualized Chef Claudio preparing delicious meals in, turned out to be more like a cellar. It had a small cook stove in one corner and sink in another.
However, I soon got used to the rhythm of country life. We didn’t take our meals outside because there were too many flying insects and mosquitoes for that. Instead Claudio would prepare exquisite foods and serve them on the big round table in the kitchen. Sometimes we would take our wine (and insect repellant) outside to enjoy the soft evening air. We did sit for hours talking about life, love and dreams. In the darkness I never noticed that we were not in a flower lush garden. The stars were beautiful and the air smelled of growing things: ripening grapes, sweet grasses and grains and the little pots of petunias.
Early one morning the sounds of laughing voices and barking dogs pulled me from sleep. Running to the window I saw a lively scene in the yard below. Vendemmia, the grape harvest, had begun.
I jumped into my clothes, pulled on a pair of Claudio’s giant rubber boots, bounded down the stairs and out into the golden September sunshine.
Piero handed me a pair of sharp grape cutters, and a giant tub, and sent me into the vines. The grapes were lusciousï¿½deep blue/red and bulging with sweet juice. Claudio laughed as he popped grape after grape into my hungry mouth. The harvest was plentiful and by early afternoon the small holding tanks were full and the picking stopped.
That night we dined on Uccelli, the wild birds. Claudio stuffed them with fragrant flowers, aromatic herbs and homemade sausage. I had always thought Italians were heartless to eat songbirds. I eyed them suspiciously as he stirred them around in the pan. However, my squeamishness totally disappeared with the first taste. I almost hated to confess they were delicious, especially paired with the dark red wine from last year’s harvest.
Piero with the catch
These birds are a delicacy in Tuscany and can be hunted only for a short period in September and I wanted to thank Piero. I waxed poetic about how tasty they were, how succulent, how juicy, how sweet the flesh and on and on. The more I said the redder in the face he became. As I said, my Italian was very basic, but I thought I was expressing myself very well.
Later, Claudio asked me what I said to Piero that caused such a reaction.
I replied that I was telling him how much I enjoyed his Uccello.
“Oh Jacqueline, Jacqueline, you didn’t say Uccello did you? Cara, the little birds are Uccelli – with an “i” on the end. Uccello is a Tuscan slang word for penis!”
Jacqueline is a featured writer in the anthology, Wild Writing Women: Stories of World Travel.