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      Profumo di mosto: the end of a tradition?

      Oct. 4, 2012

      Se fa belo a San Gorgòn la vendemìa la va benon.
      (If the weather is nice on September 9, the grape harvest will be fine.)

      Thinking about the Fall in Italy means filling one’s lungs with the smells, fragrances and aromas that permeates this season: among others, the comforting scent of roasted chestnuts and the fragrances full of promise of wine making.

      Of these, the latest is the most iconic activity of an Italian Fall. Weeks of intense labour, bending over heavy branches that offer their clusters of full grapes to quick hands and fast scissors. In the more traditional wineries wooden boxes have never been replaced by plastic ones; they move along the row, following the progress of the grapes harvesters.

      Despite the many innovations that have been introduced in the vendemmia, this moment of communal work and sociality is still a central component of Italian farming life. There are wineries where the work has been carried out the same way for decades, hiring the same people, using the same tools, dividing the work the same way. Workers arrive at dawn, receive directions and instructions, and with scissors in hands, venture towards the first rows to be harvested. The silence that first filled the fields soon lifts, like the fog and mist that have welcomed the workers’ arrival, and is replaced by voices talking, gossiping, laughing, teasing, and singing.

      While the body is busy working, the mind wanders to the kitchen where the woman of the house is busy preparing the meals. The food needs to be filling and provide energy, as there are no breaks in the afternoon and people work until sunset. The meals are different every day for the duration of the vendemmia and require a lot of planning and organizing. They usually consist of several dishes. Sometimes there are appetizers of cold cuts, cheese and bread, un primo di pasta, un secondo di carne, usually a spezzatino (stew) with polenta and mushrooms or peas with prosciutto cotto and roasted potatoes. Salads are always on the table where there is also plenty of bread for those who like to far scarpetta, to clean the plate with a piece of bread in order to soak up even the tiniest, yet full of flavour crumb that was on the plate. The meal usually ends with dessert and coffee, spiced up with a bit of grappa, to help digest and give some more energy.

      For the woman of the house these meals are very important as they give her the opportunity to showcase her ability and knowledge as a cook in her own kitchen. It is up to her to decide the menu and to make sure she has all the necessary ingredients. With time certain households have become very famous for the meals prepared and offered to the grape harvesters. Some menus even showcase extremely fancy dishes such as, for example, pasticcio con funghi porcini, roasted stuffed guinea fowl, or roasted duck.

      The concept of far bella figura plays an extremely important role during the vendemmia. You do not want to displease your workers, as they might not want to come back the following year. Recruiting seasonal workers have become increasingly difficult and many wineries have resorted to first hiring immigrants and then using a machine that, going over each row, sucks the grapes and does the work in a very short period of time. The machine was introduced a few years ago and was used mostly by big wineries that could afford its high price and have their vineyards on flat soil, as the machine does not work well on hilly land. However, in the past few years the use of the machine has increased; owners of small wineries rent it in groups to share the cost. The work that is usually done in weeks is done in mere days… but is it better?

      It is certainly faster, but the machine has been accused of sucking everything, not only grapes, but also bugs, leaves and small branches that inevitably end up in the wine making process. Rumours have it that some wine cooperatives do not accept grapes harvested with the machine and refuse to process the grapes gathered that way.

      The introduction of the machine has also an effect on the way the vendemmia is traditionally perceived: it is no longer a moment of coming together, of communal work. It is no longer a ritual, but a mere mechanical job like many others.

      It may take years – even decades – for this tradition to be completely and forever changed, but the memories will remain: memories of hard work, sticky hands, juice dripping down one’s arms, bees flying around, voices that can be heard from afar, and the fragrances and smells of an incredible meal that is awaiting the hungry workers.

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