Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.
The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.
When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.
The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.
The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.
A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.
The red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.
The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.
“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.
Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.
Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!
Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?
A yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?
After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.
The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.