Italians are getting back in touch with agricultural roots by reviving grape stomping, but instead of hard work for sturdy peasants it’s now fall festival activity for kids.
For five weekends, kids will frolic in vats of black grapes during the harvest festival at Castello di Gropparello ; it’s one of many country fetes involving grapes around Italy this time of year.
A couple of years back, I wrote about a small town near Naples where 600 kids showed up for a “grape-stomping workshop” meant to get the little ones in touch with farming traditions of yore.
Since then, dozens of would-be stompers outside Italy have emailed asking me where they might get their shins stained.
As a foreigner, I know these earthy traditions have an appeal as Italian as supple leather or too much aftershave on a Carabiniere, but understanding which ones to sign up for is key as the autumn harvest season arrives.
Truth is, there’s not much fun in reprising the drudgery one’s ancestors suffered in hopes that somewhere down the line their offspring would have pretty, unmarked office-worker hands.
So I say from experience: stay away from the grapes. I’ve never tried to repeat Lucille Ball’s mucking about in the must but I did spend one harrowing morning at a friend’s vineyard in Tuscany during la vendemmia.
Much like Lucy, the outsider inevitably confuses costume with labor: I imagined a jaunty headscarf and prettily rolled-up jeans would see me through the harvest. It was a bad assumption. The vineyard was steep and terraced — not for people with office physiques — and I spent a few hours waving heavy shears at the biting flies beckoned by the grapes and waiting (in vain) for a big spaghetti lunch.
Having also endured exactly one day of olive picking — equally difficult and similarly unrewarding, though somewhat mitigated by lunch — and tried my hand at gathering mushrooms, or truffle hunting — dangerous and clammy — I have one suggestion to make.
Chestnuts, people. Think chestnuts. Depending on the region, the fruits start hitting the ground in mid-October, which is a pleasant time — not hot as it usually is for grapes or damp for mushrooms — nicely placed before skiing season starts.
Gathering entails moderate walking and bending down and the goods can be easily consumed by oven roasting, boiling or for the slightly more skilled, a flat cake called castagnaccio. If the hard-core approach appeals, the only real option is to get it out of your system by toiling at an Italian organic farm.