Comforting Autumnal Rhythms in Southern Italy

I’m rooting around in one of my cantinas looking for my harvest clothes. We have three of these rock-built rooms that were essentially wine cellars. One we still use for that purpose, a just-the-right-temperature space with brick ceilings and bottle racks to hold our vino. Another, below the terrace, is our woodshed. But this one, the most finished and largest, is our storage room. And I know my clothes are somewhere in a box, waiting for the annual grape harvest outing.

Our first foray into picking grapes was in New Mexico, when friends invited us with an enticing “It’s fun, and there’s good food.” We wrangled with the Riesling grapes that seemed determined to stay affixed to the vines, sweated in the intense sun, and turned into human sandpaper when a dust storm blew up the dry soil and cemented it onto our sweaty limbs. By the time the food was served we wanted only a shower and a nap. The “fun” part was definitely subjective.

Our first fall here in Basilicata, Italy, brought an invite that we almost turned down, with that New Mexico harvest memory still lingering. But these friends had helped us assimilate and given us so much help that we knew we couldn’t refuse. We were glad we didn’t. It was a perfect autumn day, it really was a good time (with LOTS of good food), and we got to know the whole extended family, giving us close ties in a town that wasn’t our own.

We’ve labored alongside them nearly every year since. It has become an annual ritual, which in itself helps us feel more rooted here. Knowing you’re being counted on to help with the harvest definitely proves we’ve “gone local” and become a part of the community.

Honestly, I always love the vendemmia, but this year especially it seems particularly welcome. After the roller coaster ride that 2020 has taken us on, these rhythms are even more heartily embraced here. I’ve seen it since late August, when the tomato sauce started bubbling all around town.

Now mind you, my village has always kept these annual rites, but I’ve noticed that this year, it’s more pronounced. Some friends who had been letting it slide, taking the easy route of store-bought salsa di pomodoro, were eagerly at the kettles with their mothers and sisters and daughters, stirring and stirring, jarring and bottling in the hodge-podge of glass containers that I frequently see. Sterilized beer bottles are popular; the barista sets them aside for months to dole out to first-comers who ask for them. Otherwise, it’s old jars, sauce bottles from years past; whatever people have to hand. I, too, was stirring a cauldron with friends, each of us at our properly distanced stations doing our part. I was stirring with a big, long pole.

Walking around town in September was like seeing it festooned for a party: streamers of figs were strung out to dry, along with festive clusters of red peppers, and large screens laid out with halved tomatoes to shrivel in the southern sun. Another tradition of the region is to preserve peppers by boiling them in white wine vinegar and water, then jarring them in the cooking marinade, so for a couple of weeks we smelled the acidic vinegar fragrance on the air as we strolled to the piazza.

Everyone admits they’re looking to these timeless traditions for comfort, for reassurance. For confirmation that though this year has wrought so much agony and brought so many uncertainties, the essentials of life here remain unchanged. It is one of the things that enthralled us 10 years ago, and now our townspeople see why it drew us in. What they sometimes took for granted, they now appreciate all the more. Gathering the family together, to work together, to provide for the next seasons, together.

And so, the grape harvest is upon us. This area is later than many parts of Italy; the region’s Aglianico grape is among the latest to be picked, needing more time on the vine to concentrate the sugars, I’m told. It’s good news, though, as it gives everyone time for all those other autumnal chores.

I have my clippers and my work jeans and “harvest layers” for the day’s work, and look forward to the early breakfast of caffè and fig crostata, and then the vineyard lunch of rafanata, a horseradish-spiked frittata, ricotta-stuffed pizza rustica, and who-knows-what fresh vegetables, and pasta that will be prepared for us while we snip great clusters of grapes into the bins.

The sun will warm us as the morning draws on, and we’ll unpeel some layers. And we’ll call out among the rows of vines as we work, voices that will be heard by neighboring gardeners who will shout out their two-cents’ worth, too. Then makeshift tables get set up wherever there is room, and the food is served.

I’m so thankful to be here…especially this year.

That’s the rhythm. Every year. And I’m so thankful to be here, and to be a part of this timeless, comforting ritual. Especially this year.

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