Blueberries and Grapes, Hunting and Gathering

There is nothing better for a little female solidarity than a blueberry patch. My mother raised me on New England blueberry picking. Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. If there was a blueberry patch, my Mom would find it. Of course her blueberry afternoons were followed by blueberry evenings with scrumptious, gooey, messy, purply blueberry pies.

Whenever she could, my Mom would spend summer holidays nestled in a blueberry patch, reaching down between the small leaves to pluck off those juicy blue morsels. There is enormous satisfaction to the berry coming off easily into one’s hand, plopping it into the pail and reaching out for more as the pail gets steadily heavier.

I think Robert McCloskey described it best in his classic children’s book “Blueberries for Sal.” Little Sal goes to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries with her mother, and Little Bear goes to get blueberries on Blueberry Hill with her mother and everything gets all mixed up. But it is definitely all about doing the gathering thing with Mamma, even if the Mammas get mixed up.

Drawing from Robert McCloskey's book "Blueberries for Sal"

The most important part of blueberry picking is the conversation between women– mothers, daughters, sisters, grand-daughters, aunts and friends –the gentle back and forth of chatting as one slowly moves through the blueberry bushes.

My mother always said blueberry picking is something primal and instinctive that must go back to the cave men and women. She says that men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. Spending hours picking berries while talking is satisfying for women, men get bored, they want action. No chatting over berries, they would rather go out and kill something for dinner.

This summer my sister and I managed to tackle all sorts of complicated topics– difficulties with children, work tension, marital crisis, financial questions, parents’ health, goals and dreams, all while working over a gigantic blueberry patch in Bridgton, Maine. That night she made a spectacular blueberry pie, overflowing with all the berries we had picked.

At dawn on the next day, my sister Gwen went out to pick some more for some blueberry pancakes. But when Gwen sallied forth she nearly stumbled over a great, big porcupine. (Porca Miseria! An Italian would say. See Post and Post Comments on Exclamation in Italian) My father – never a great blueberry gatherer– swung into hunter mode and captured the porcupine in garbage can and drove him deep into the forest and released him. I think the porcupine must have left a Hansel and Gretel style blueberry trail because he showed up again a week later.

The Blueberry Patch porcupine. Photo by Gwen Thomas

The summer ended and my family made our way back across the Atlantic Ocean to our home in Rome, Italy. So what could I do to satisfy my gatherer needs? You got it– the “Vendemmia” — the annual grape harvest.

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View From Casanova Farm in Chianti. Photo by Trisha Thomas

This past week, I was invited by some friends to help with the Vendemmia at the Casanova Farm in Chianti. I brought along my two daughters and my friend and web designer Nicolee Drake (she is the superstar designer/photographer who has designed this website).

 

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Chiara showing her just-clipped grape bunch. Photo by Trisha Thomas

 

During the “vendemmia” workers move up and down the rows of grape vines with a pair of clippers, cutting off bunches of grapes and dropping them into crates.

 

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Vines laden with grapes on the Casanova Farm in Chianti

The crates are then put on a tractor and hauled off the field and over to a machine. The machine sorts through the grapes and spits out the stems. The grapes then are pushed through a tube to another machine that spins them until they are de-skinned. Actually, it is all rather complicated and too long to go into for a blog post.

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Men on tractor gathering up crates filled with bunches of grapes. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Poor Nicolee, her first vendemmia turned into a painful experience. As we all rushed into the vineyard together we stirred up an angry wasp who immediately bit Nicolee on her upper arm. Being a tough-it-out, no-whining allowed American– she tried to clip away at the grape vines as her arm swelled up, turned red and hot and she became ghostly pale.

Nicolee Drake clipping grapes just after being bitten by a wasp. Photo By Trisha Thomas

I was too busy to pay any attention. As soon as I had those clippers in my hands I was happy. Clip, clip, clip is not exactly the same as pick, pick pick, but there is that calm, repetitive feeling to it that mesmerizes me. You also need to have lots of people doing the “vendemmia”, moving down the rows one on each side. This can lead to good conversation.

 

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Trisha clipping grape bunches off the vines. Photo by Nicolee Drake

I did notice some of the leather-skinned Tuscan workers were not wasting much time on the chatting as they cruised their way clipping down the rows. For them it is a job and they deserve my respect.

My younger daughter Chiara (11) – seems to have the inherited the “gatherer” gene and was pleased to clip away.

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Chiara clipping grape bunches. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But my older daughter Caterina (13) clearly did not inherit the gene. She was bored, hot and sticky after about 15 minutes.

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Caterina Clipping Grapes. Photo by Nicolee Drake

To my surprise (and in the end pleasure) the landowner Emilio Festa announced he had about enough of the Vendemmia and was going to take Caterina and his favorite hunting dog out to hunt some wild quail. So off they went.

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Caterina goes out hunting for quail with Emilio. Photo by Nicolee Drake

Hunters and gatherers, workers and wounded, all 34 of us, came together later at one long table for a spectacular Tuscan feast– lasagna, foccaccia, roasted potatoes, beef, pork, chicken, rabbit, crostata, torta di pera e mela, and lots of homemade red wine.

If you want to see and read about a similar meal, check out this post by Elizabeth Minchilli.

After all that food and wine, one needs something else, a “pisolino”. (That means a little snooze– a future post will explain the Italian use of “ino”, “accio”, “one” to change the meaning of words).

I’ve begged the generous Festa family of the Casanova Farm in Quercia Grosso (Big Oak) in Chianti to invite us back for the olive picking in November. For the olive picking they will also need tree-climbers. And Emilio says he may take Caterina out to hunt some wild boars next time.

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Daniela and Trisha walking through the Festa's olive grove. Photo by Nicolee Drake

 

Post in: Italiano

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Liz Cameron
    2011/09/27

    totally fabulous post. did you see any luscious-legged mozzarella mammas over in the vineyard? would they deign to descend there? or do we have a distinction between the Roman and countryside mammas? thoughts?

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Josh First
    2011/09/27

    Trish, your blog is really fun and entertaining. I’m a hunter-gatherer myself and enjoyed both the writing and the photos a lot. Especially including the shotgun – way to go! So many anti-gun people refuse to even acknowledge guns as tools. In Italy that gun is like a white collar person’s pen in the shirt pocket. Love it. Thank you.
    Josh

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/27

      Josh, I am glad you enjoyed the blog post. I thought it was very interesting that my daughter much preferred the hunting to gathering. Hunting is very popular in Tuscany. Caterina is telling me that I should have also mentioned that the special hunting dog was named ARGO. Trisha

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Sheryl Dominic
    2011/09/27

    Dear Trish, I was just introduced to your website by my friend Lega Medcalf. I am currently enrolled in an Italian conversation class in Portland Maine and just last evening we were discussing the vendemmia. It was wonderful to see the colorful pictures of you and your family engaged in the grape harvest. I will make sure that all of the students in class are familiar with your site. Also, I too spent a summer afternoon picking blueberries in Maine, In Vasalboro. I had no idea that you spend your summers so close by. Grazie, Sheryl Dominic

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/27

      Sheryl– I am thrilled that you enjoyed my blueberry blog post and are sharing the website with your class. There will be lots of posts on language issues because I have gotten caught up in all the linguistic traps. Hope to meet you some day, perhaps in a blueberry patch in Maine! Trisha
      p.s. tell everyone to subscribe. I need to build up my subscriber list to convince someone to publish my book.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Anne and Dick Simmons
    2011/09/27

    I printed out your last Blogs but will just enjoy the pictures and memories this one elicits. As you know, we have picked blue berries in Maine and on the Cape and have visited vineyards in Italy and Argentina. What a rich and wonderful life we are living.

    Anne and Dick

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Wilma Stonestreet
    2011/09/28

    You have introduced us to the wonderful world of blogs and to your interesting life. All the girls (women,too) are beautiful. Another gift from blueberry and grape picking? Serendipitously, i just returned from purchasing a blueberry pie at Whole Foods. Probably it will not come close to a fresh-made one by the queen of all things blueberry. How do you say grandmother in Italian? of course, Don likes the hunting part best. Love to all, Wilma

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/09/28

      Thanks for your comment Wilma. In response to your question– and for anyone else who might be interested in a mini Italian vocabulary lesson, here are some words:
      For the women
      Nonna – Grandmother
      Vendemmia- Grape Harvest
      Uva- Grape
      Mirtilli- Blueberries

      For Don, and others interested in hunting:
      Caccia – the hunt
      Cacciatore– the hunter
      Faggiani — Quail
      Cinghiale – Wild boar

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    diane braun
    2011/10/05

    I’ll come for the olive harvest!! Please!!
    The blueberry pie was beautiful. This weekend I made a raspberry gelatin pie to rave reviews. Baci, diana

    Reply

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