Autunno - Harvest Season In ItalyDon't you just love autumn? During the third season of the year, when plentiful crops and fruits are gathered and brown leaves fall, the first showers replenish the soil and I am comforted by the thought that I'll be soon feasting on porcini mushrooms, truffles, hearty soups, ruby red wine and cloudy green, freshly pressed olive oil. In the Northern hemisphere the Italian countryside will soon be ablaze with color, and tables laden with gorgeous foods.
The first item on the autumn agenda is the annual appointment with la vendemmia, the grape harvest. The earliest frost peeks out and the first woolly jumpers appear, still itchy against remnants of tanned skin. Wellington boots afoot and crisp morning air tickling nostrils, the shearing begins. Whites first, then onto burgundy clusters which fall into crates ready for the press. Although the folkloristic image of Italian peasants stomping grapes with their bare feet is charming, the wine-making procedure here is professional, environmentally sane and clean.
The meal that usually follows the hard day's grape picking work (and subsequent turning them into must) is always a gargantuan pot-luck banquet: chicken liver crostini, pasta e ceci and typical Tuscan ribollita soups, roasted meats, fagioli all'uccelletto, sausage, 700 side dishes and as many homemade desserts. Washed down by the previous year's vintage and lazy nibbling of aged Pecorino, honey and vin santo with cantucci to finish off the repast. Rosy cheeks, protruding bellies and shiny red noses, we all—expert vineyard tenders and untrained out-of-towners—exchange double-sided kisses and say our mutual arrivederci 'til next year's harvest.
Next on the fall calendar is the Frantoio, the oil pressing days. The extraction of oil is a fascinating procedure. My friends in Tuscany whom I always spend the month of August with, own and manage an oil press, serving their small rural community. Olive growers from all over the area migrate to my friends’ estate in late fall with their precious load of olives and go back home with demijohns filled with ambrosia after exhaustive all-night pressing marathons. The mill works incessantly day and night for six intense weeks. The family takes turns at working the machinery, cleaning the hardware, keeping track of production, sales, bureaucratic paperwork, public relations and entertaining guests.
The oil press here is of the traditional kind, where oil is obtained by grinding the olives. Green olives produce bitter oil, and overripe olives give a bigger yield, but produce rancid oil, so huge care is taken to make sure the olives are picked when perfectly ripened. First the olives are ground into paste using huge millstones. The olive paste generally stays under the stones for 30–40 minutes. After grinding, the olive paste is spread on large 2ft woven fiber disks, which are stacked on top of each other, then placed into the press. Pressure is then applied onto the disks to separate the oil from the paste. The oil collected during this part of the process is the virgin oil. Further pressing of the paste produces a lower grade of oil.
Image courtesy of Florablog
The first drops of cold-pressed oil to spout out of the press on opening night are welcomed with a round of applause and a festive food and wine extravaganza. Considering jobs and other daytime duties on the farm, oil pressing is usually a sensual evening to late-night activity. Upon retiring to bed, drained of all energy and satiated by the heavenly fumes and spectacular food, I close my eyes cradled by the rumble of the machinery working away in the mill several floors beneath my bedroom. The entire villa vibrates and is a living part of the magical operation. I always return home laden with gallons (actually oil is measured in weight units, so kilos) of oil that I stock up for the entire year and also distribute as Christmas gifts.
The last food-fest rendezvous before winter is the joyous celebratory event held for friends and aficionados at the official closing of the summer season at Positano's glorious Buca di Bacco Hotel and Restaurant. My family has sojourned at La Buca ever since I can remember. I must have been my son's age when my grandparents first took me there with my mother. Over the years our unfailing loyalty to the place and the solid friendships formed with the owners and staff have made our stays at Buca di Bacco more of a family gathering than a vacation. All our beach paraphernalia, towels, bathing suits and my son's shovels and toys are stowed in the hotel's storage room, ready for next year's summer vacation in one of the many domed rooms overlooking the crystal Mediterranean waters.
The yearly end of autumn seasonal closure for winter event has since the last ten years been a steadfast yearly appointment with the gorgeous coastal location and the wonders of the Buca di Bacco's fantastical kitchen. This year, our California trip substituted the usual summer Positano vacation, so this year's closing Festa di Fine Stagione is an absolute must. I am craving the smell of cascading wisteria and trumpet-shaped datura flowers, the glimmering sunlight on the wind-ruffled sea surface at noon, and the amazing taste of Buca di Bacco's cuisine.
The summer I could not afford to pay for my room, I worked in the kitchen as commis chef. It was a wonderful experience and the cooking knowledge and expert tricks I learned that summer are equal only to the weight I gained. I just had to taste everything we made!
Like every year, my family and I will not be trick-or-treating or carving jack-o-lanterns. On October 31st this year we'll be here, like every Halloween, feasting on delightful seafood, marvelous wines and laughing among friends.