If you live in the Italian countryside, you’d better not be in a hurry to return home when you leave your house on any September morning. At some point in the day, you’ll likely find yourself stuck behind a tractor bursting with ripe grapes, carrying its buzzing load to the closest winery. So arm yourself with patience and let yourself be mesmerized by the dull sound of the tractor engine and the twitching bunches of grapes, impatient to become wine …
The time has come: It is harvest season.
There are so many traditions and legends related to this moment of the year. It touches every region of Italy, from North to South, each with special recipes that call for grapes as a key ingredient.
For me, it also evokes memories of my first paid job: one that required rubber boots, old tattered clothes, thick gloves, a sun hat, and pruning scissors, so stiff that at first I needed two hands to open and close them.
Rite of Passage
As soon as I finished my final exams at high school, I went to a local winery, a few miles from home, and asked to be enrolled as a grape-picker for a month. This was a rite of passage for many young Italian students, a sticky September between the rigor of high school and the chaos of our first months of university, when everything is new and confusing.
I spent the first week in silence, hidden behind the leaves of the grapevines, cutting grapes and listening to the old men working with me. They seemed frail, but they could easily lift two of my baskets crammed with grapes and bring them, whistling, to the tractor. I would come home and cry over the unusual tiredness, from a kind of work I was not used to. I still had the hands of a high school student: pale, soft, more accustomed to writing than harvesting grapes.
After the first week, everything changed. I entered the convivial atmosphere of the harvest, finally managing to find in my experience traces of my grandma’s stories of her youth. Laughter and friendships developed among the grapevines, and the old men revealed themselves to be bards and masters of life. We would share a bottle of water, passed among the rows, all cursed by the same relentless thirst.
In those days, I learned a very important lesson: never, ever eat the wine grapes during the harvest, hoping that they might quench your thirst. You’ll feel better for a few minutes, and then you’ll find yourself again with a dry mouth and thick voice.
It’s a shame that it is increasingly difficult to find wineries willing to hire young students for the harvest; now, the machines do most of the work. There was something epic in that experience: our descent through the vineyard rows in the early morning, when the fog was still tangled among the grapevines and the sun was just coming out from the clouds.
In one month, we gained an idea of what a real job is: with times to be respected and hierarchies written and unwritten. We started the harvest when the countryside was still thirsty from the August sun, and finished picking the grapes in autumn, when we could already smell the subtle scents of the forest, and the anxiety of the first university courses that would soon begin.
We gained a clear perception of nature’s rhythms and the passage of time, through the gradual yellowing of the vine leaves.
Schiacciata con L’uva (Grape Focaccia)
When September comes and the grape harvest begins, you’ll find schiacciata con l’uva, a sticky-sweet and doughy focaccia studded with wine grapes, in every bakery around Tuscany. It is a seasonal ritual and one of my favorite treats, something that screams, “Welcome back, Autumn, you dear one!”
Makes one 7-by-11-inch flatbread
- 3 1/3 cups (14 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 (1/4-ounce) packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 3/4 to 1 cup water, as needed
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
- 1 1/2 pounds Concord or black grapes
- 3/4 cup sugar
First, make the dough for the schiacciata.
Sift the flour onto a wooden surface and make a well in the center. Dissolve the yeast in a few tablespoons of warm water and pour it into the well, along with 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
Knead together the dough, adding the remaining water a few tablespoons at time, until you have an elastic and not sticky dough. Transfer to a bowl greased with olive oil, cover with a damp towel, and leave to rise for about 1 1/2 hour, until it doubles in size.
Generously grease a deep 7-by-11-inch baking pan with olive oil.
Now, knead the remaining tablespoon of olive oil into the dough. Halve the dough and flatten one half into the prepared baking pan. Sprinkle half of the grapes over the top and press them into the dough. Sprinkle generously with half of the sugar. Cover with the remaining dough, flattening it and sealing it all around the edges. Sprinkle with the remaining grapes and sugar, and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil to grease the surface. Cover with a damp towel and set aside to rise again for about one hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the schiacciata for about 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is glossy and golden. Serve warm or cold.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com. This article was adapted with permission from JulsKitchen.com