Yesterday, 10.15 a.m., reading on my tablet online the latest insult to democracy from the Republican nominee, words uttered hours earlier across the sea, and the phone rings. It’s the Principessa Zaramella asking if we can be ready in ten minutes to drive out to the country for the recolta, the annual olive-picking at a friend’s estate. I cannot refuse. The harvest happens at the last minute every year on a date which can’t be predicted, when family and friends are summoned to the orchards for a decidedly ancient experience rendered in real time. It’s a one-hour ride into a forgotten age, leaving the industrial neighbourhoods which surround Vicenza, venturing into the rolling landscapes and alluvial valleys nestled between extinct volcanoes, rambling through mediĂŠval villages and vineyards of orange and purple leaves, into the zone of two-lane roads and ill-marked switchbacks until all we see are storybook vistas punctuated by red roofs and the occasional lofty campanile. A hard left onto a gravel road, up a wooded hill and we find ourselves surrounded by terraces of olive trees thick with ripe black fruit, an excellent harvest this year.
Nets have been spread below the trees and people of all ages are releasing the olives from the trees, picking by hand, or raking the boughs, green and yellow and black projectiles raining down on us, the pleasurable thud-thud-thud. The Italian language surrounds usâthere’s no rushing the process, and people take the time to converse, opine, joke as bins are filled.
Unlike berry-picking, you can’t eat what you retrieve. One is made to wait: the olives won’t be pressed today, though in a month the principessa will call us (no doubt at the last minute) to say that a litre of the production is waiting for us when we can come fetch it. For the moment we exist in the present, outside the bounds of our hand-held devices, breathing the fresh air, communing with the branches, listening to the children singing folk songs among the trees.
At no particular moment comes the call ‘A mangiare!’ Everyone drops what they are doing and trudges up the hill, where a table has been set with everything delectable in the world: local cheeses, breads, pomegranates and mandarins and apples in baskets, sausages, bottles of Nero d’Avola and Cannonau di Sardegna and wine I dare not touch from the local production in unlabelled bottles which will surely deliver the Hangover of the Century to the uninitiated. This followed by huge plates of food, pasta fagioli garlanded with fresh olive oil, an enormous salad of garden greens, pepperoncinis, radicchio di Terviso tarte, fritelli of Mozzarella, penne al sugo. The children retire to the chairs on the lawn, while the adults repair to impromptu seating under the arbor, which delivers a view of the pristine valley below. Cross-talk, teasing, the constant discussion of food, familiar faces coming and going, the casual discovery that some of these people actually speak English, at least a tolerable version of it peppered with como-se-dices and the occasional attempt at French. There is no attendant traffic noise, no recorded music, no phone sounds, no sirens, no voices of madness or conflict, only the murmur of conversation, mostly about food. Thence the dessert. Local rosegota, a hard hand-made flat cake, rum-laced crema di mascarpone, apricot tart, local thick cakes with fluffy insides, chocolate biscotti, after which a tray of espresso appears. A kind of drunken dizziness surrounds us, visions of shepherds napping under trees or vague trysts among the vines. But our host knows the rhythms need to return and with a sharp ‘A lavoro!’ we are back to the trees, back to our rakes and bins, for more time with the harvest. The light fades, we decelerate, and a languid pace for the last hours among the trees.
Paulina, who chauffeured us out to the recolta, mentions that Arqua is not far away, a perfectly preserved mediĂŠval village where Petrarch lived out his last days. Would we like to visit on our way home, see his house? A half-hour later we find ourselves wandering the ancient hillside streets, happening upon the Casa del Petrarca, then taking coffees at a typical enoteca. It is night when we exit the cafe and climb the old lanes back to the car. A night ride to Vicenza, back to the flat.
As I close my eyes at home last night, I dream of the Greeks and their amphorĂŠ, of the Romans at the harvest, and of Petrarch. I dream of compelling Donald Trump to pick olives for an afternoon, away from his Twitter feed and the screaming masses. I make him listen to other people’s conversations, rake the boughs and collect the olives and I tell him he must wait a month for his litre of olive oil.âStanley Moss, Travel Editor