was a deep sense of conviction that brought me to Italy,
although I couldn't pinpoint one exact reason for being drawn
here. Perhaps it was my family roots in Sicily, or a vivid
childhood memory of a postcard with a Tuscan landscape my
Nana always displayed. Or it could be my passion for real
food and simple country living. Whatever the reason, I felt
instantly at home. I've fallen in love with a country bursting
with lessons on how to live life to the fullest while keeping
your heart grounded home.
On the fork between two dirt roads on a hill in the Val D’Orcia
Valley of Tuscany, I'm blessed with an expansive view: winding
roads lined with cypress trees, distant farms and hills that
melt into forever. Fluttering wings of roused pheasants in
the olive groves echo through my ears as my eyes scan from
the medieval village of Pienza to the dormant volcano of Monte
Amiata, passing rolls of farmland with ancient homes scattered
in the folds. The thick early fog rests between the thighs
of each hill giving the landscape a surreal feeling of elevation,
as though each farm is a castle nestled in clouds.
By the time the fog rises from the valley, morning greetings
of “Buongiorno!” are heard across the
piazza like the solid ringing of bells. Words roll off Italian
tongues reminding me of dewdrops beading down twisted grape
vines. I can listen to their unstoppable and beautiful language
forever, regardless of how little I comprehend. The old, cranky
widow threatening with her cane at the street dog could be
spitting profanities, and still I drink up her melodious words.
Terracotta pots overflow with bright red geraniums.
Children dressed in plaid skip by on their way
to school. Bicycle bells chime. There is much
to smile about this morning.
Walking becomes exploring as I gingerly watch each step on
the uneven cobblestones winding down the narrow streets. Aged
wooden benches seem reserved for the equally historic elders,
soaking up the early morning rays, who momentarily turn from
the sun to send me a welcoming grin. Terracotta pots overflow
with bright-red geraniums. Children dressed in plaid skip
by on their way to school. Bicycle bells chime. There is much
to smile about this morning. Above me, antique wooden shutters
are thrown open as the women of Italy welcome another sunrise,
and with it the warm Mediterranean air.
“Buongiorno!” The words echo through
my head as I step inside the humid, thickly sweet air of the
local bakery. My inability to fluently speak Italian is of
no consequence. The baker can easily comprehend the joy spread
across my face as I “read” all the rows of freshly
baked sweets and breads. Every mouth-watering pastry calls
to me – the freshly-filled canollis with ricotta oozing
over the lips of their perfect shells, the almond-and-honey
paneforte with glaze that makes flirtatious winks, and the
mysteriously moist lemon, rice and ricotta pie I have been
unable to walk away from the past two mornings. If only the
void in my stomach was as limitless as the million taste buds
dancing in anticipation.
Customers bustle in and out of the bakery knowing precisely
what they will order the second their bellies hit the bar.
“Scusi, scusi.” The patrons excuse themselves
as they swim through each other on a mission to the counter.
I’m struck by how the faces reflect the pastries: each
one uniquely striking. Refocusing, I admit defeat to the ricotta
pie and return the baker’s smile as he reaches for my
piece. As he recites the total, I am lost in the aromas and
sounds of bakery bustle and a comforting sense of peace.
From soil springs family
I spend the majority of my time with Vilmo,
a farmer who lives in the same home in which
he was born. He shares this home with his 73-year-old
mother and his son—three generations under
Although the thrills of village life never subside, my preference
is the Tuscan countryside brimming with uncontaminated smells,
sights and sounds. I spend the majority of my time with Vilmo,
a farmer who lives in the same home in which he was born.
He shares this home with his 73-year-old mother and his son—three
generations under one roof. During the olive and grape harvests,
additional hands appear from other familial houses in the
valley, making what could be a daunting task a family celebration
peppered with laughter and, of course, bountiful meals deserving
two complete hours.
I pick my way up the dirt driveway leading from the stone
dwelling where I sleep to the main farmhouse. The copper buzzer
feels cool under my fingers as I press down to alert Vilmo’s
mother that I am waiting to be let in for breakfast. Lea’s
old, worn slippers slowly slide down the stairs as she comes
to open the heavy wooden door.
“Mangia! Mangia! Va bene?
Always the same lines spoken with such earnest and sincerity.
I desperately want to learn the language if only to communicate
better with the matron of the family, knowing full well she
would never consider learning English. The only sign of Lea's
73 years is her significant hunchback and crop of bushy gray
hair. Her gentle, brown eyes view me with the same tenderness
I've seen in my own Nana's face, and her ageless smile exudes
the comfort and warmth of a fireplace.
She continues her rambling Italian on our way to the kitchen—words
endlessly flooding over like a pot of forgotten boiling pasta.
My head, still trapped in the sluggishness of morning, tries
to sift through the torrent of expressions and find at least
one recognizable word. She is on her usual mission regardless
of my dumbfounded expression. Back bent almost doubly, turquoise-blue
apron tightly tied and sleeves rolled high, Lea is never resting.
There is always something to sweep, a flower to deadhead,
basil to harvest or a son to scold. I patiently wait for an
appropriate moment to lend a hand, wondering what sort of
feast she will create today. A tantalizing meal always seems
to appear like magic from the few simple ingredients living
in the kitchen.
A tantalizing meal always seems to appear like
magic from the few simple ingredients living
in the kitchen. Italians eat from their own
sea and soil, meaning the food on the table
changes with the seasons.
Italians eat from their own sea and soil, meaning the food
on the table changes with the seasons. Meals often consist
of hand-rolled pici—pasta made from wheat grown
in the field—freshly pressed olive oil and wheels of
pecorino cheese from shepherds in the valley. My personal
favorite is zuppa de ceci—chickpea soup filled
with fresh garden vegetables—and bread from the morning
Vilmo’s connection with the land has resulted in a
deep knowledge of how to consistently obtain local food, like
hunting for wild boar and wild mushrooms, collecting herbs,
making fruit preserves, harvesting and pressing olives and
raising vegetables. Many foods ripen just when certain nutrients
contained in the plant are needed in the human diet. For example,
the high concentration of Vitamin C and E in fresh-pressed
olive oil arrives with the onset of winter when immune systems
benefit from consuming such huge quantities of these nutrients.
Vilmo is reminded daily of the continuing toils faced by
farmers. By living on the family farm, he is never far from
childhood memories of his father tilling the land with cattle-drawn
plows while struggling to keep the family fed. Most crops
have stayed exactly the same: barley, chickpeas, lentils and
wheat. The only change is they are now certified as organic,
assuring his customers pesticide-free products grown adhering
to biological principles.
Today he is also proud to own a successful agriturismo,
offering apartments in the farmhouse for tourists from around
the world. He is often confused by their “need”
to travel and with furrowed brows curiously wonders what tourists
search for. Vilmo says he hopes they find whatever they are
looking for, as most tourists he meets seem tight-jawed, perplexed
The steady rumbling of the tractor’s engine roars over
the otherwise tranquil land. It’s the fifth day of hauling
stones out of the field in preparation for planting the crops.
The crust of the earth is exposed and cracked in rivulets
and waves, making it difficult to walk steady in my mucky
boots while searching for the enemy: rocks, boulders and stones.
Every year Vilmo devotes days to this backbreaking and time-consuming
labor of love. This love of the land provided for his father,
now provides for him and will someday provide for his son
Suddenly the tractor stops and Vilmo is waving his arms for
me to follow him while shouting jumbled words of magnificent
Italian. I piece the phrases together to understand we are
looking for fragments of Etruscan ruins dating from 280 A.D.
Roof tiles, broken pieces of urns and vases, even the remains
of the ancient street are all easily identified by Vilmo,
who eagerly anticipates this annual archeological "find"
almost as much as planting his crops each season. Rubbing
the scratchy red clay pieces between my dirt-encrusted fingers,
I look closely to see the fading colors he describes as paint.
I am amazed at the history buried deep within this land.
Returning to the rock hunt, I quickly tune out the tractor’s
hum and begin meditating to the rhythmic pattern of tossing,
digging, stumbling, fully enjoying the ache of my working
body. Despite a sore back, growling stomach and sweaty brow,
it’s impossible to complain. All I have to do is lift
my face from the ground and there in front of me are the rolling
fields, medieval hill towns and scattered stone farmhouses
to which I feel intimately connected.
Blood is thicker than olive oil
How can this many individual
fruits be collected by such a small group of
people before the inevitable autumn rains? I
quickly learn this is not a task but a time-honored
When the day arrives to harvest olives, Vilmo proudly shares
how olive oil has, “…il colore e il valore
dell’oro…” the color and value of gold,
and also a place in the farmer’s heart. The production
of olive oil is a treasured ritual commencing when the first
olive ripens and lasting until every label is tightly pressed
around shining glass bottles.
I pull an olive branch closer, squinting against the Tuscan
sun, and examine the colors of each fruit—purples fusing
into greens speckling into black, all sprinkled with a dust
of pale yellow dots. I hug the tree trunk while craning my
neck to see bowing branches laden with the rainbow assortment
of olives. They are enticing to touch, but the temptation
to eat one quickly turns to surprise once I bite into the
meaty flesh. I rush to spit out the bitter fruit. My deepest
respects go to whoever discovered you could press delicious
oil out of such a taste!
Glancing at the fields around me, the task of harvesting
hundreds of olive trees seems overwhelming, if not impossible.
How can this many individual fruits be collected by such a
small group of people before the inevitable autumn rains?
But as is often the case, the assumptions I have carried over
from America lead me astray. I quickly learn this is not a
task but a time-honored privilege.
Jovial laughter and streams of Italian phrases float through
the trees as another day of harvesting begins. Uncles, aunts
and friends arrive. My favorite of the bunch, the 74-year-old
Alfiero, has endearingly nicknamed me scoiattolini
or little squirrel. I spread the tattered, green catch net
around the waist of the tree, double checking for holes through
which cherished olives might slip. Once satisfied, I clutch
the small plastic hand-rake and climb into the heart of Italy:
the olive tree. The net catches every fruit as they fly off
the branches and sail through the air. I am combing the precious
hair of an Italian goddess. When all her knots are brushed
away, a bounty of nutrition will await the frantoio
or oil mill.
Each farm produces its own unique flavor of oil due to differences
in soil, humidity, olive varieties, tree age, storage conditions,
the length of time from harvest to press and the material
used for the press. Farmers are alerted by telephone when
their olives are entering the mill. You can see them frantically,
almost comically, drop whatever they were doing and rush to
the frantoio to see their precious fruits through
I can close my eyes and still see the shapes
and colors of olives and their delicate leaves
dancing against my lids.
The bright green of Vilmo’s pure oil flowing from a
spigot at the mill instantly captures my attention and appetite.
I crave bread to soak it up. With the fresh, wholesome oil
safely home, we can finally appreciate this year’s flavor.
I drink in the rich, earthy aroma and feel the smooth trickle
on the tip of my tongue, until, finally, the spicy taste rolls
down my throat. Smiles and words of praise surround the kitchen
table as more hands reach for fennel and red peppers to dip
greedily into the green pool of olive oil.
Wandering at night, I can close my eyes and still see the
shapes and colors of olives and their delicate leaves dancing
against my lids. I can't help but admire how Italians faithfully
respect their "sense of place." So much rests on
these few words. To truly know a land—its people, weather,
animals, seasonal cycles, history, daily pulses, geology—and
be emotionally anchored is a gift many people never receive.
America is presented with a unique situation. As a melting
pot of every nationality, we are everywhere and yet nowhere,
faced with the questions, “What do I do with my life,”
and equally, “Where does my life belong?” If home
is where the heart is, than perhaps the people's deeply rooted
passion for "their place" is ultimately the real
beauty of Tuscany. Whether taking a morning pastry stroll,
gathering stones in the field or harvesting olives, each precious
hour I've spent echoes with the valley's tolling church bell.
Now I better understand the meaning of campanilismo,
an enchanting word reserved for Italians who spend their entire
lives within the sound of their own village bell.
Vilmo Barbi's farm,
Azienda Agricola Barbi, is located
1 km from Monticchiello, Pienza (in the Siena
region). He grows chickpeas, barley, lentis, wheat,
grapes and olives commercially, in addition to
keeping a small vegetable garden for family consuption.
He was the first person in Italy to sell pici—thick
spaghetti-like pasta typical to Tuscany—made
from his own wheat, and the first farm in the
region to open for agritourism. Vilmo's father
purchased the 33-hectare farm in 1975. Vilmo took
over in 1990 and transitioned to organic production
in 1997. For more information on Azienda Agicola
Barbi, visit their website at www.agriturismobarbi.it.