I am re-reading a book. This will be my third reading. There are only one or two books I have re-read in my life. This one is entitled “The Tuscan Year – life and food in an Italian valley” by Elizabeth Romer. It was written in 1984. It is still in print. I first read it a number of years before we even thought of moving here. I brought my copy along when we moved and re-read it after moving. It was only then that I realized I now live within just a few miles of where this takes place. The book is divided into the months of the year and chronicles the lives of a family of land owners in Tuscany. This farm was just near the border with Umbria. The way of life would have been the same in both regions. They were self sufficient. They grew all they needed, cured their own prosciutto, made their own pecorino cheese, raised wheat and milled it, and made bread in a communal oven, once a week. The life fascinates me.
“The only animal whose death the old Tuscan people really mourned was the ox, the beautiful white beast that drew the plough; they were mourned almost as if they were human because they too need nine months in the womb before they are ready to be born.” from the book.
The author was an Egyptologist, British, and wanted a place between England and Egypt. She rented a house on the farm of the Cerottis. She made friends with Silvana, the wife and matriarch. By doing so she could sit and observe their way of life. There are recipes at the end of each chapter. For a cook and Italianophile it is a wonderful read.
The first chapter, January, is all about the dead of winter; the chores that are done in this month – the butchering of the pigs and the making of prosciutti, salami and sausages. It is about how they cooked and were nourished when there was no garden to speak of. These were the bitter months when they didn’t work in the fields. The book says during this time their lives were very like their ancestors. These forbears would have spent the time making and repairing baskets for collection of olives and grapes. They would have made wooden sleds and carts to be drawn by the oxen. The women would have spun woolen cloth and embroidered their trousseaus. They decorated all their linen sheets and nightgowns with lace and embroidery. Nowadays the men repair farm equipment and tools. Silvana knits socks and shawls, using wool from their sheep. The book said she used two intertwined wools, one light, one dark so she could see in the firelight.
As I said there are many recipes in each chapter. This particular passage I loved:
“The Scottiglia is made with a mixture of meats and cooked with the odori, carrot, celery, and onion, then served on a slice of bread that has been toasted and rubbed with garlic. The dish originated in harder times when there was not much meat to be eaten and all the neighbors would crowd into one house for the evening, bringing with them whatever piece of meat they could obtain: a piece of rabbit or prosciutto, some chicken, a little veal or maybe some tripe, very often game of some description. Then the meat would all be cooked up together in the large cauldron and flavored with the usual vegetables and wine. The oldest recipes for this dish specify that absolutely no oil was to be used in the preparation of the stew, maybe because the meat was fattier in those times. While the meat was cooking what is known as the veglia would take place: the people, usually all from a small hamlet…would sit around the fire and give recitations of Dante and verses that the men had made up themselves. These would very often contain veiled references to the girl who had caught their eye, and in this way the cold evenings passed in a pleasant manner.”
The Scottiglia is served in a bowl with a toasted piece of bread on the bottom, rubbed with garlic. Juice is ladled on the bread and then a helping of meat.
I think I may include an excerpt now and then, in this journal. This January chapter is so evocative of times gone by and cold, dark winters which we still endure but I am reminded it is nothing like they had to endure back then. Then, death was very near and if you weren’t prepared, you could die.
Hi Carlo. I’m glad you found the book – costoso. The recipes are very free form. Silvana didn’t measure . . . She just knew. Even now, just out in the fields behind us, each house has their own garden as well as the larger fields for the big crops. The “kitchen” garden has a couple rows of grapes from which they make the wine they drink all year. And their poultry coop with different kinds of birds for eggs and meat. Then the vegetables which they can in summer to use all winter. Some have small olive groves for the oil. They are very frugal folk and live by the old ways still. I like it.
I found the book at ThriftBooks.com very inexpensively. I also came across Frances Mayes’ award winning 2020 book “Always Italy,” illustrated with National Geographic photography — also discounted. I’m looking forward to the “The Tuscan Year” recipes. Your portrayal of family life reminded me of my Calabrian grandparents and their extensive backyard garden and chicken coop. Thank you, Nancy.
Maybe I’ll do one each month, the recipes are very seasonal – also fluid as Silvana didn’t measure, she jus knew. It was in her genes!
Cool! I look her up on google. I think she and he were a sort of team. Have you read her book?
Further disclosures from this book? We wait, salivating copiously.
Hi Nancy, Elizabeth Romer’s husband is the famous Egyptologist, John Romer, who produced an excellent series about Egypt back in the 80’s called Ancient Lives. A wonderful program.
Happy you liked it Rebecca!
Hi Sharon, I’ve done a lot of google map searches and I think I know where it is, approximately. One day I’ll go in search. I see there is an Agriturismo with the name Cerotti.
Thank you, yet again.
Yes, I have her book and read it many times, I’m determined to explore , I know a neighbor of this family, so maybe
It is! I’m glad you’re getting it Nina. The recipes are kinda free flowing because Silvana didn’t measure…she just knew. But I’ve made them with success. Even if you don’t, the way of life is fascinating. It’s mostly died out but I’m betting up in that valley and the surrounding ones life still remains much like this. Umbria and rural Tuscany is still very old fashioned and traditional.
Ha!! Never more than I want to know… Thanks!
Thanks, Nancy! I just ordered a copy. Looks so interesting!
Hi Matt, that sounds like one of those great experiences you kinda fall into. Nice memory. Interestingly there are many white breeds here – Chianina, Marchigiana a native breed from le Marche, Maremmana, from southwest Tuscany, live in the marshes and has longer horns much like an American longhorn, Romagnola, and Piedmontese cattle. I read the Chianina is not numerous enough to keep up with demand so much of it you get in restaurants isn’t actually Chianina. All of these animals were raised as draft animals but also gave some milk and were eaten. They are super gentle and enormous. Probably more than you wanted to know!
It’s on Amazon. I bought copies for some friends and family.
Hi Nancy – I was just hoping for another post when your notification showed up. The white cow looks like a Chianina. We saw them while driving from Arezzo to Pisa. We got lost and ended up stopping for lunch in a tiny mountain town called Civitella in Val di Chiana. They have a sala di memoria there, recounting their sufferings and heroism during WW2. It turned out to be one of my most unforgettable experiences in Italy. Thanks for posting again!!
Hi Nancy, I’m so happy to learn of this book. It sounds like a delight. I’m looking for it today!!