I have been in Italy for the past week doing early preparations for the harvest: we have become very close to a local family who farm land not so far from us. The grandfather, Ercolino, was out to help me in the field. I needed to disconnect the "trinciatutto" (the eat anything) from the tractor and fit an agricultural trailer to the back of the tractor to collect the cuttings and for this task I needed help, which Ercolino kindly offered to provide. This family is so generous with their time that I am at times overwhelmed. They have so little in any conventional sense but I often think that what they have brings more value and happiness to their lives than more modern economies, and what little they do have they share so willingly.
Ercolino lived through a time in Italy's history that interests me and has left its legacy on rural life. I have a passing understanding about these changes which were driven by the existence of a form of feudal landholding that dominated agricultural life until the 70's, and how this drove millions to seek a new life, mainly in the Americas. But I had never spoken to anyone who had lived through it and I ask Ercolino about his past. Born in 1945, now 71, he has been a farmer (a Contadino) all his life. He grew up when Italy was still feudal under a system call the Mezzadria that so influenced the rural economy of much of Italy and the cause of such mass emigration. The word comes from Latin, literally, with whom you divide in half. I knew that the system was common in more northerly regions of Italy – in Le Marche, Umbria and Tuscany but is seems from my conversation with Ercolino that it was maybe as common also in Abruzzo.
Land at the turn of the century was held by wealthy "Padrone". They would let out smallholdings to "Mezzadro" who would work the land and in return for this privilege were obliged to give half their production to the Padrone. This was the cause of often extreme poverty, a poverty that drove many from the land to seek work in the cities or emigrate to the Americas from the 1930s to the 1950s and beyond. This system continued until the 70s when it was finally abolished, but in truth it started changing some time earlier as more and more Mezzadro left the countryside, and the land, to become fallow – they simply could no longer sustain a family on a smallholding of some half a dozen hectares when you were left with only half of what you produced. It was this poverty and the attraction of emigration that ultimately led to the demise of the mezzadria.
Ercolino's family were not wealthy by any means but they were owners of their own small farm of 22 hectares. Half they let to a Mezzadro and half Ercolino's family farmed themselves. Their Mezzadro lived on half the produce from his 11 hectares of land whilst Ercolino's family had the benefit of half his produce plus what they produced themselves. It was still a hard life that Ercolino described. What they produced they ate. If they didn’t produce they went hungry. They had no need for money and only used it to pay the small local property taxes that were due every two months. There was little mechanical farming and the work was hard physical labour. They had no car and if they needed to travel it was by horse and cart. Ercolino told me of his daily journey to school by foot of some 5 kilometres each way.
The mezzadrone had 4 children. Two emigrated and two stayed on to farm the land. Ercolino described a relationship that was close between their two families and quite unlike feudal lord and serf. I suspect this was unusual. In 1970 they came to a deal for the mezzadro to sell their land on an interest free loan from Ercolino's father. But he tells that at this time the Government was also giving support to the mezzadro, presumably to get them to stay on the land, with a 30 year loan. He tells me that about half the farms before the 70s were owned by Padrone. So in the first half of this century feudal farms were large but subdivided into smallholding, farmed by the mezzadro. As the mezzadro gradually bought out their smallholdings Italy was left with farms that were small and fragmented. The legacy has many attractions to me in terms of the quality of produce but I worry about how sustainable it is.
Ercolino's family eventually sold their farm and moved a little closer to the medieval town of Penne where the only local secondary school was situated. Ercolino still farms the same land. This is a picture of Ercolino and his wife Filomena. They are like family to us now – particularly their son, Elio, who we recently hosted on trip to the UK. Another story………..
Interestingly many of the farmers who left the land in the 40s and 50s returned a few decades later and with money they saved in the Americas they returned to their native country, bought back land from the Padrone. The land upon which we have built our house was sold to us by just such a farmer who left for Argentina in the 50s and returned 20 years later, bought 6 hectares of land, which he farmed until his retirement 10 years ago.
My passion is food and all this interests me because it shapes not only the culture but the continued closeness of the local population to the land and its produce. Families here all have close ties to the land; even if they are not farmers themselves someone in their family will be, and every year they are as likely as not to go to help with the olive or grape harvest, they will bottle their own tomatoes, shop in the local market where fresh produce is sold direct by farmers. I have no idea if this can last – or if it should, and whether I am just being a romantic. But whilst it does I love it and I love the time I spend with Ercolino and the knowledge that they are passing to me about how to farm our own land.
In the evening I do what I suspect might be a travesty of everything that I have just described. Marion and I indulge our love of food by going to what the locals would regard as a very high end restaurant, Ritrovo D'Abruzzo. Local restaurants cook what is regional. They almost never depart from this. There are a few restaurants – a very few indeed – that take the same ingredients and are more inventive. Ritrovo D'Abruzzo is one of these. We have the "Baccala" menu: everything except the dessert contains baccala, or salt cod, a local speciality. Delicious. It sets us back 35 euros a head – a considerable sum here and quite a departure from the more normal cost of 10-15 euros that we would expect in a more traditional establishment. Locals, by the way eat out a lot and I guess at those prices they can afford to. Elio, Ercolino's son tells me that they will typically eat out 2/3 times a week, but dinning out is part of their life, a sociable affair, built around the family. They would never dream of going out alone – if they go out their kids go too, and as likely as not with an assortment of friends and family around a large table. The meals can go on for some time…………….
The food was spectacular:. "pane cotta baccala arrosto e burrata" followed by ravioli stuffed with baccala in a sauce of peas and wild mushrooms, then roast baccala for the main course and finally their own special version of tiramisu.