I first went to Italy when sharecropping had been only abolished a few years earlier and contracts still had to run their legal course. It was a way of cultivating the countryside, I was told, that had lasted unbroken since Roman times, so for nearly twenty-one centuries. It seemed almost a form of economic slavery. If you were born into a family of peasants, you existed in a barter economy. Vegetables you cultivated on the patch of land around your cottage. There was always a plum, tree, often an apricot one, and a venerable walnut tree. Higher up the valley were sweet chestnut trees. Their crop of chestnuts in autumn were ground into a sort of ‘polenta’ or porridge, sweetish in taste and not everyone’s favourite flavour. More enterprising peasants had beehives, and all had a poultry yard. Until recent times there would have been a pig. Huge hunks of ham hung from the rafters of the kitchen on the floor above the stables reached by an outside staircase. Local unsalted Tuscan bread was baked once a week on Mondays. The kitchen was at the centre of the house, usually reached from an outside staircase, with a bedroom off it at either end. Below the animals munched. A cow for milk and cheese. An ox to pull the cart. Few country folk could afford cars but used ingenious little open vans behind Vespas. Sometimes, probably illegally, instead of goods or vegetables, a wife or children sat in the little trailer that attached to their Vespa.
The tracks had deep ruts. Occasionally there was a petition from those who lived along them and the local Council – the Commune – would send a couple of truckloads of gravel, to be spread by the inhabitants who had requested it. Some of these tracks ran through fords. Life was slow, labour hard and schooling obligatory to eleven years, though children were often taken off lessons to take the pigs to forage in the woods or collect dandelion leaves to feed the rabbits in cages by the poultry yard. They knew when to pick blackberries, where to find wild strawberries or mushrooms after the late summer storms, and all country children were taught how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous ones.
Guido, the first person we knew from this valley, was born in a house near the top of the hill, now restored by foreigners. It was a long walk for him to reach school down by the church at the foot of the valley and he stopped going long before he reached eleven. Italian is a phonetic language, and he did recall enough to write down lists, but reading and writing hardly slipped into his adult life. Instead, he could find wild asparagus and strawberries as well as many plants for salad. He knew that in summer kindling wood should be gathered into bundles and stored for winter. Bigger branches were cut into logs by the men, but often carried or wheeled to the cottages by children like Guido.
Wild boar had been hunted to extinction long before we arrived in this valley, but a generation ago they were reintroduced. In hot summers they wander lower down the mountains in search of water and fresh grass or tender roots. Stories abound of females crossing tracks near us, followed by ten piglets. Another countryman, with a property off the main road, has told me that at night they even come down his drive to invade his orchard and kitchen garden! These animals are not stupid. He has fenced the property in and keeps the gate closed. Wild boar meat is now inevitably an established part of the local cuisine.