After my quick stop in Torino, I spent two weeks in Varenna, a magical little village on Lake Como. They say Lake Como is like a man, divided into a main body and two legs, Como sitting near the foot of one of those legs. Varenna’s right in the middle, on the Signore Como’s left hip. Technically, I was living in Perledo, an even tinier village just up the hill from Varenna. This place is unreal. Everywhere you turn is a picture; stone houses framing narrow cobblestone streets, hilltop churches, silhouettes of mountains across the lake with splashes of yellow, coral, white and pink marking villages. On clear days, you can even see the peaks of the Alps.
The whole town is one big hill, with pedestrian paths and the roads weaving between forests and plots of land to create many small plots. Gigi (short for Luigi) and Sandra’s land is dispersed across several areas. Outside the house, they have a kiwi-roofed terrace, a grape-lined fence, a small greenhouse and a garden with about twenty beehives, and nearby, a bit of forest with five chestnut trees, plus land with a chicken coop, fig, walnut and olive trees (including the northernmost olive tree in Italy!), and a beautiful garden lined with fruit trees and veggies.
My main job was harvesting chestnuts. Gigi and I left the house at 7am on my first morning, making the five-minute drive to the chestnut trees in the dark. I asked him why he started so early, and anticipated an answer involving the biology of chestnuts and angle of the sun or some biodynamic theory about the moon and fruit and nut picking days.
“We have to go before everyone wakes up, or the tourists take all the chestnuts.”
“Ah…people like me?” I was getting into a dangerous habit of picking up and trying any edible looking thing I happened upon, identifiable or mystery.
“No. It’s the tourists from Milan usually. They just pick up chestnuts from the street like they belong to no one.”
The nerve. It’s like they think chestnuts grow on…wait a minute….
Chestnuts grow inside little green and brown porcupine spheres, with anywhere from one to three chestnuts inside each ball. I really never knew what chestnuts looked like “at birth.” Working in agriculture has made me realize just how removed I am from so many of the things I eat. Most of the time, I have little to no idea how animals were kept, milked, killed when I consume them and their byproducts. Perhaps a lesser offense, when I picture something like a nut, I imagine exactly what I buy and eat, or a dapper man with an eyeglass, top hat and cane. So, when I finally met chestnuts in the flesh, I was struck by their resemblance to Sonic. A clever packaged candy company also seems to have picked up on the similitude.
The nuts fall from the treetops, so the harvest is basically just picking them up from the ground. Most chestnuts roll naturally from their spiky outer-shell, but you have to poke them with a stick (or hands; an amateur move) to be certain. If it’s full, you loosen and extract the nuts by stepping on the skin. The first day, the temptation to poke around with my hands meant lots of painful pricks in spite of my working gloves. It’s simple work, but requires Dove Wally? (yes, Martin Hancock has spread his empire all the way to Italy) eyesight, as you’re constantly scanning the ground for chestnuts. The raccolta di castagne was much quieter work than the vendemmia. The first week, it was just me and Gigi; the second week, once I was a seasoned harvester and the chestnuts were fewer, it was just me. I’d take a peaceful pedestrian path through the forest, past a little waterfall, fill up a big backpack of chestnuts, and walk back home in a couple of hours.
Each day, we’d fill a big barrel with the new chestnuts, cover them with water and remove any floaters. If a chestnut floats, it means it’s hollow or has a hole with a grub or some other critter inside. They continually soaked each batch of chestnuts with fresh water for nine days before letting them dry in the sun, a technique that enables them retain their moisture.
Gigi told me about the different types of chestnuts, encouraging me to pick up every last marrone. Marroni are the real deal; the big, shiny-skinned, plump ones Sandra and Gigi would sell at the market. Marroni are omnipresent in Italy in the winter; you’ll find them roasted by vendors on the corner of any respectable city thoroughfare, in every respectable patiscerria boiled with simple syrup into a sweet, gelatin-like luxury called marron glace that’s also a seasonal flavor in every respectable gelateria.
Castagne salvatica, wild chestnuts, are smaller and spikier than their royal cousins. Sandra would use these ones for marmalade, first letting them dry out for a few months so their skins were easier to remove. They’re also used to bake castagnaccio, a savory-sweet dessert made from chestnut flour. I’d have labeled it a bread, but it’s actually considered cake. Castagniacco has a soft, thin consistency akin to the cookie-cake, with slightly more crumble. It’s an ideal combo of salty and sweet; the one I tried was dotted with pine nuts, walnuts, raisins, rosemary and a nice dose of sugar and salt.
You can learn a lot about the way your mind works when you’re working for a long time outside, completing a simple task in silence. Apparently, mine works like that of a hyperactive five year old. We would always collect nuts from the road first thing in the morning, “before they become marmelatta,” as Gigi says. I started to think Pixar, like Chicken Run but about the trials and triumphs of hedgehog-like chestnuts. Us humans seemed at first their heroes, saving them from oncoming traffic, but then we brought them to their final destination, the fireplace or grinder. The marroni were old and proud of their heritage, ready to sacrifice themselves to be the ultimate Christmas treat. The salvatica were the anarchists, young punks looking to spike the hand that collects them and escape their fête fate. Cute and clever happy ending TBD.
Varenna was a completely different experience than Novi; just me and a family. For Gigi and Sandra, agricultural work is their full time job. Gigi is in charge of things like the harvesting, mowing and beekeeping and Sandra making marmalade and preserves from nuts, fruits and veggies, along with honey, simple syrups, juices and seasoning mixes. Each of their children does his/her own thing. There’s the fourteen year old daughter with sweet and sour spells typical of a high school freshman, a twenty year old son who drums and helps out Gigi with the farming here and there, a twenty-five year old son works in an archaeology lab and a twenty-eight year old son who works as a falconer at Vezia castle, the area’s highest viewpoint and key sightseeing spot.
My time was all solo and with the family, save for a few random shopkeepers. I worked 5 full days, with a half day on Saturdays and a day off on Sundays, which I used to explore Varenna and take the ferry to a few other lake towns. After lunch and siesta, I’d spend a couple of hours helping out with whatever was needed. The work varied from picking figs and grapes, to cleaning walnuts, separating mint leaves from their stems in preparation for Sandra’s delicious mint simple syrup (I used it in my tea, but they say it’s great in granita), to feeding the six crazy hens and their big pet rabbit, Mr. Wilson. Whatever the task, their friendly (read: needy) cats would accompany me. As I climbed the branches of a fichi tree, using a special wooden cane to bend the branches closer to me, and gently picking the figs and placing them into a fig leaf-lined wooden basket, the cats would jump on each of my limbs to test my balance. When I cleaned the mint, the curious kitten sniffed the box of herbs in search of something appetizing, finally diving in and rising victorious with green worm in paw.
After work, I’d steal away to wander the paths up and down through town and munch on uve Americana, delectably sweet grapes that I’ve never come across in America. The rest of my days were calm…dinner with the family, generally with the kids joining Sandra, Gigi and me in various shifts and the Italian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in the background, followed by an hour with Italy’s favorite talk show host, Fabio Fazio, a sort of cross between Ryan Seacrest and Matt Lauer, with pull comparable to Larry King. I generally womanned all cleaning (come on kids, help your tired Mom. She heated up dinner three times. Wash your dish) with Sandra and was out cold by 11pm.
Working with Gigi made me aware of the incredible balance of stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities that a true farmer must have. On one hand, there’s the strength to carry, pull, push and chop and the fortitude to remain unwavering in the face of rain, wind and aggressive and/or smelly animals; on the other hand is a soft touch, intuitiveness and great patience.
Whether we were picking grapes, figs and olives, Gigi’s advice was always the same: be gentle. He was always sensitive to the nuances in appearance and behavior of his animals and bees, in tune with their health and stress level. To appraise how well the organic pest-killer was working in each of some twenty boxes of bees and which needed another dose, we would remove a tray from the bottom of each box and count the dead pests, numbering from a mere five to over 1,000. When he treated the hives, he’d be there for hours, always conscientious and careful. Both were tedious tasks, but he never seemed exasperated.
I suppose spending your days in such a beautiful setting helps make heavy work a bit lighter, simple jobs more exhilarating and long days easier to savor from sunrise to sunset.