There was a period when we used to go for weekends to the Nuccis' country home in Tuscany all year long. My favorite times were for traditional events such as gathering chestnuts or the harvesting and crushing of the grapes, followed not too long after by the vendemmia. We very seldom knew what our hosts, Piero and Grazia, had in store for us until we arrived on Friday evening.
Thus, one chilly October week, about fifteen of us drove up from Rome, got the fireplaces going, made dinner and, before we could sit around chit-chatting and drinking wine as we usually did, were hurried off to bed by Piero. We had to be up bright and early, he informed us with a secretive smile. Saturday was going to be "something very special."
About eight, having been awakened by voices and laughter coming from down the hall, I stumbled bleary-eyed and curious in the direction of the noise, looking desperately for coffee. I pushed open the door to the huge country kitchen and stumbled into a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The place was filled with Tuscan farmers, their wives and children, all busily working away at... My mouth fell open in dismay as I discovered that piggy porky things were being concocted in every part of the room. Two enormous hogs had been butchered the day before and now lay in pieces all over the kitchen. The Tuscans had divided into small groups, some doing the prosciuttos, others cutting up pieces of pork and feeding it into a hand-cranked machine that spat out what seemed like miles of sausage links and salamis. As they worked, they called out jokes making everyone laugh and hoot. Two ladies were at the open fire putting all sorts of unpleasant-looking things into a gigantic cast iron pot, including pigs' heads; all to be boiled down and eventually formed into a highly-prized sandwich meat called capocollo. Two kids tended a grate set on hot embers, toasting pane casareccio and passing the thick pieces of peasant bread over to a couple of my Roman friends who sat casually amongst all the pork, sipping coffee and munching away on the hot toast dripping with butter and jam.
How can they sit there like that, I moaned to myself as I nodded faintly to my friends' offered greetings. I poured myself an espresso and staggered outside to the gardens.
The Tuscans worked all day long, barely stopping. In the evening around eight, they cleaned up all their pots and pans and equipment and hung the prosciuttos and sausages and salamis from the wooden ceiling beams. We all crowded into the kitchen and, as tradition dictated, a huge cauldron of polenta was made and pieces of fresh pork were roasted over the open fire. The scorching hot meat was pulled off the grates, placed atop thick slabs of pane casareccio and bit into with much smacking of the lips. The wine flowed and the toasts were many, mostly to the farmers for a job well done.
As the evening wore on, they began telling stories in their soft Tuscan accents and I was surprised that some were rather risque. Old white-headed Oreste, he was really something, regaling us all with one tale after another until we couldn't stop laughing. When we applauded him, his cheeks flushed pink and he ducked his head shyly. I just loved him. Sitting amidst all that smokey clamor, beneath the hanging hams and links and salamis, I looked around at the shining eyes, the flushed cheeks, the bright strong smiles and thought of how these people and their generations before them had been putting this same traditional finish to hog butchering day for hundreds of years, this sitting down at the padrone's table and breaking bread with him and his friends. It was really quite wonderful. Looking back now, those times are gone, just as is old Oreste, but they are a treasured part of remembering Italy.