There is something reassuring about the seasons coming and going bringing their fruits and celebrations. As Cortona is surrounded by lands used for agriculture it is easy to be aware of the changes in the landscape, the colors and sounds. The swallows screech with joy when they arrive, there is rhythmic cooing of pigeons as they nest in the rooftops, the cicadas' frantic ,humming chirps fill hot summer nights.
Quince, peach, cherry and almond blossoms explode on bare branches as winter draws to a close, the yellow puffball flowers of mimosa are the symbol of March 8th, international Women's Day and are followed by the bright magenta blooms of the red bud trees, or albero di Giuda (Judas trees) which announce the arrival of Easter. At this time when driving along the roads, one can find people carefully picking through the grasses in the olive orchards or along the sides of the road hunting for insalata del campo, wild salad greens, to be gathered for the Easter luncheon perhaps, or the first tender wild borage to be mixed with fresh spring ricotta for homemade ravioli stuffing. Next come the purple flowers, the iris, the lupines, the borrage, then the yellow and white flowers, camomile daisies, mustard greens, dandelions, Queen Anne's lace. The photographically famous bright red poppies bloom in May and June amongst the wheat fields, exploding crimson in the fields left to rest from grain cultivation that year.
Wheat fields shimmer with the summer breeze, first green, then gold and as they undergo this transformation, sunflowers climb toward the blue skies turning golden faces towards the sunrise. When summer lingers on and their proud heads heavy with seeds droop, the wheat fields have been reaped leaving great spools of hay dotting the stubble while the grapevines are heavy with plump clusters and olives swell on silvery green boughs. As the seasons change the crazy quilt of fields on the hills change in dazzling color and texture.
Autumn is probably one of the most satisfying times from a gastronomic point of view in our corner of Italy. The new oil to be sampled on slices of toasted, saltless Tuscan bread, the real bruschetta being merely garlic rubbed on the bread before a drenching of the green-gold, piccant new oil and a pinch of salt. I have always been amused by the line-up at the olive mill with farmers who jealously guard their personally pampered olives to be sure that no inferior olive slips into their lot nor a drop of their oil stolen as they wait for their turn at the mill. As each wait on line he will politely accept a piece of bread soaked with their neighbors oil as it pours forth from the press, certain that none will be as good as his own when it his turn.
During grape harvest, I always try to find someone with a vineyard who will give me a cluster or two of wine grapes to make the traditional ciaccia con l'uva, a sweet foccacia bread. This treat is unusual and simple, but appreciated on our breakfast buffet.
Chestnuts harvested from Mount Sant'Egidio can be roasted and savored with new wine or vin santo. The new wine is ready for tasting in November many times accompanied by roast chestnuts on San Martino's feastday of November 11th..
However, the best reason take to the woods in the Fall is to search for many of the wild mushrooms which abound in this season. Besides the well known porcini and it's lesser edible cousins of the boletus family, there are many other tasty treats only to be found in this season. There are also truffles to be found by carefully trained truffle dogs and their owners. The prized Tartufo Bianco delle Crete Senesi being the king of truffles in this season is celebrated at nearby San Giovanni d'Asso, in the Val d'Orcia.
Traditionally, this is the time when pigs meet their maker and are transformed into delicious sausage, salame, capocollo, prosciutti, pancetta, testa fredda, sanguinaccio blood sausage. It really is true that nearly everything except the "oink" is used and nothing wasted. This waste not want not approach just seems to give their demise a little more sense.
All Saints Day start off the rounds of holiday sweets with the "Bones of the Dead" almond cookies, followed in quick succession of panettone, torroni, panforte, ricciarelli, pan d'oro and cavalucci (a spice cookie with walnuts and candied fruits typical of the area).
Christmas celebrations are still relegated to December here, although it seems that every year a few more merchants are trying to jump the gun and amplify their season. Traditionally ornaments are put up on December 8th, the Assumption Day of the Madonna and the streets and store windows come to life with lights and displays. This time of year is a sort of "Homecoming" time. So many Cortoneses have immigrated over the decades to find fortune in other places, especially in the 1960's and 1970's. All Saint's Day , November 1, is the traditional day for families to visit the cemetary, clean up the grave sites and spend a day together. The 8th of December through the 6th of January are considered le "Feste" the holiday season during which time family split up their luncheon duties to celebrate on the 8th, the 24th, the 25th, the 26th and 31st of December, all holidays, and the 1st and 6th of January.
The strings of lights which twinkle along Via Nazionale , Via Guelfa, Via Roma, Via Dardano and Via Benedetti (brought to you by the local merchants as I learned the first year we opened the B&B) illuminate the roads to the cathedral to Piazza Signorelli and Piazza della Repubblica-the square of the townhall which becomes the backdrop for the light and music show which livens New Year's Eve. The country houses that dot the valley and hillsides are adorned with colored lights on their railings and windows, on the trees in the garden. The Valdichiana countryside lights up at midnight with fireworks as families and friends in the valley welcome in the new year.
January plods toward February, life in the countryside deceptively seems inert, preparations are being made for the new harvests and finishing touches put on some of the old. The lands rest, but farmers do not. Vines and trees to be pruned and fertilized, brush to be gathered, burned, The scents of wood smoke filter up the hill from the fields and chimneys. Finer wine is coaxed along to develop the best flavor in the large Slovenian oak or smaller French barrique barrels; tasted, consolidated, moved to different sizes and types of barrels before bottling. February marks the debut 4 or 5 years after their harvest of some of the important wines of the area like Brunello of Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Free time can be dedicated to hunting, a tradition in this area which put some extra food on the table in the winter. Pheasant, wild boar, wild hare, partridge, venison, are now delicacies, but at one time were accessible sources of protein to even the poorest in the areas.
As planting season approaches, the clay rich soil will be plowed with long tined plows to pull up large chunks of earth, left to dry and plowed again with wheel disks to break up the soil and prepare for seeding of wheat, oats, corn, sunflowers.. When the first shoots start to sprout from the vines it will be time to return to the vineyard to tie and train them to encourage the best quality grapes, clear away the grass and fertize the vines .All in anticipation of April and May's natural irrigation . There are roses, hydrangeas to be pruned, plants to be re-potted, all rituals that tie one closer to the earth.
At times it seems the year is a merry go round, revolving faster and faster. I remember a conversation with my grandmother, in her nineties at the time at her fruit orchards in California . "The older you get the faster the years go" she said . As I grow older in Tuscany, I know she was right and it seems comforting in many ways to know that no matter what trouble tries to distract or stall me, there is a force always pushing me forward - life goes on and so must I for that is the force of nature.