As Silvana often observes, if you want to eat genuine food then you must work hard to make it. The Cerottis come from old farming stock and they run their estate and live their lives in a traditional manner. Years ago it was common for the contadini to be turned out of their homes and off the land that they may have toiled over for years by the whim of an absentee landlord; today the workers are better protected. The Tuscans are a sober and even severe group of people, or so it is said in other parts of Italy. However, the children of the contadini drift away to the towns and the sons who stay on the farms have difficulty in finding girls who are willing to marry them and share the drudgery and discomfort of the draughty stone houses and the everlasting toil of the farmyard. Roman columns powdered with snow lie like fallen trees in its grounds.
Those neat piles of brushwood and logs that have been conscientiously gathered and stacked throughout the warmer months lie near the kitchen door so they are handy for quick forays to replenish the fire. And the food: do not read while on a diet! The crickets, disturbed by our footsteps, leapt before us as we walked through the meadows. Tuscans are also partial to beans, which they eat seasoned with their best olive oil. There was Silvana Cerotti with an enormous bowl of pasta in her arms serving food to the work people, about twenty or so they must have been. Each part of Italy has its traditional staple: in the south it is pasta, in the north rice and polenta, but in Tuscany the basis of many country meals has always been bread. Life in this Tuscan valley is a continum of centuries past.
From the chain hangs a copper cauldron which holds about ten litres of boiling water. From the market or garden to the table great attention and concentration are applied to the choice of the ingredients and the preparation of the dishes. It is not a conventional cookery book, but it is about real food. This is not a story of an agricultural estate in irreversable decline, although the family has cut back on some farm resources such as the herd of pigs. Romer, a Brit, wrote this account fearing that one day prosciutto would be bought from the store, not made in the family tradition and that the knowledge handed down from mother to daughter would be lost. Tuscany is not one of them.
It is at this bend in the road at the head of the valley, where the mountains rise steeply, that the Cerotti fattoria lies, placed on a small hill with the fields spread like skirts about it. The house is very large and square with a classic aspect, built of finely cut stone, the façades decorated with pilasters. There are precious few culinary tips in the recipes and all are written in a narrative fashion, with no neat lists of ingredients and careful quantities, well-defined prep instructions, and numbered steps in the preparation. Past the last farmhouse adorned by a madonnina standing in a crumbling baroque niche the valley grows narrower. The Tuscan Year recounts the daily life and food preparation of a family living on a farm in Tuscany.
Today, we look for authenticity in our food and pay handsomly for it. The two regions that meet in the valley — famed for their art, architecture, traditions, cuisine and landscape — are the cradle of the classic image of Italian culture. Rather than maintaining 100 swine, the family buys a pig each year and has it slaughtered and butchered by a professional travelling butcher. Neither book impressed me as giving a genuine picture of life in Tuscany, especially as it was before EuroAmerican homogenization took over. Like most Italian cooks, she gives vague answers to most questions about quantities in any given dish: as much as is needed, a handful, a bunch, un pò — a little. The family is extended as in Roman times from father, mother and the children to dependent workers and other relatives. Here, she introduces the Cerotti family who farm one section of the valley, and vividly describes, month by month, the Tuscan year.
In some years, for example, a cold wet spring might delay sowing and planting. She does not slavishly weigh out ingredients according to recipes, but has learnt by example from her elders, her mother and grandmother, then embroidered upon this education with her own experience and taste. The space around the house is paved with grey flags, now coated with treacherous black ice, and a breccia strewn drive leads up from the road to the front door with its sentinel pine trees, then circles around the house. Those who dwell here live in mediaeval houses, pray before altarpieces painted by Renaissance masters and prepare their food with the grace and balance instilled into them by hundreds of years of measured civilization. Opposite the fireplace, below the window with its view down the valley, there is a new gas stove with an electric oven, an expensive efficient model. Elizabeth Romer documents the reasons the Tuscans -- and their predecessors -- eat like they do, plant like they do and live like they do. Orlando takes care of sausage making with the butcher.
Vast logs burn brightly all day and no one willingly leaves the warm kitchen for the icy chill of the upper rooms. . The roof has a shallow pitch and under the deep eaves there are small round holes cut in the stone for swallows to nest in. I picked this book up in the Rome airport on my way home from ten days in Italy, thinking this would be a good diversion for the plane ride home. Each month has special dishes appropriate to the season; produce is grown, gathered and stored to provide variety in the kitchen throughout the year. Then I realized that this old fashioned life could change: perhaps the next generation of country women would forget how to make cheese, maybe the prosciutto would be bought from the store and the old skills would be gradually forgotten. Their property is extensive, stretching over 400 hectares, and includes acres of forest and arable land, streams, vineyards, many small houses and their own imposing fattoria with its surrounding walled kitchen garden, olive groves, chapel and outbuildings.
They use recipes handed down from mother to daughter, based on home-produced ingredients. They have one remaining young son, Sauro, the elder, Pietro, having been killed in a farming accident some years ago at the age of sixteen. Scattered throughout this lovely calendar are recipes—fresh bread and olive oil, grilled mushrooms, broad beans with ham, trout with fresh tomatoes and basil, chicken grilled with fresh sage and garlic, and apples baked with butter, sugar, and lemon peel, among many others. Although the Cerottis have been highly successful in a modern world, their values are rooted firmly in the country traditions of a past age. In the heart of the Cerotti household wonderful meals are prepared using fresh and simple ingredients, governed by the rhythms of the changing seasons. She also tends the domestic animals, which she feeds — walking miles to gather the best fresh herbiage — fattens, and finally kills.