A Wayfarer’s Series: Lessons in Italian Cherries
Words by Austin Sailsbury Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald Music by La Liberte
The best journeys are full of unexpected lessons. Our writer heads to Italy and learns about homespun hospitality and treasure in the form of fresh Italian cherries.
It is often true that the best journeys are those full of the unexpected—the surprising and delightful lessons that can only happen because, whether by accident or will, we find ourselves outside the control of our “normal” circumstances. These lessons, these treasures found along the traveler’s road, can come to the wayfarer in innumerable forms: in the pages of a secondhand paperback, through a spontaneous jump into a jade-green lake, in the words of a rediscovered friend, or—in the most extraordinary of cases—treasure can be found in the bright red skin and manifold pleasures of fresh Italian cherries.
The first time I traveled through Italy, I was a 21-year-old student: a newly lit match, consuming the old world in a flash of independence and with an unquenchable boyish hunger for all the ancient sweetness of la dolce vita. I traveled light, I traveled rough and I traveled happily alone. And though that fiery first trip will always hold a special place in my memory, it was thankfully not my last, or even the best, of my journeys into Italy. It was my most recent trip there—a 10-day saunter south from Switzerland to Rome—that has become, unquestionably, the most memorable to me. It was the first trip abroad shared with my wife: a belated European honeymoon navigated with newlywed optimism, a dodgy GPS and more than our fair share of espresso. This time around I was no longer a backpack-toting, train-jumping hostel dweller but, just as I had hoped, the journey together was a sweeter one because the memories made, the friends encountered and the lessons learned were shared.
It was after two in the morning when we arrived at the agriturismo I Due Ghiri, and we knew almost immediately that we had stumbled into something wonderful. An agriturismo, in very general terms, is a working farm that takes in travelers as guests. No two are the same. Each has its own charming idiosyncrasies: rustic architecture, livestock roaming freely about and always the smell of something fresh being baked. Mix in the uncertainty that your hosts will speak English, the treacherous mountain roads to get there, and the relative lack of other tourists in sight, and an agriturismo becomes about as “real” of an Italian experience as a traveler could hope for.
With a smile on his face and an enthusiastically broken brand of English, Stefano—the farmer and owner of I Due Ghiri, who had been waiting up for us to arrive—greeted us. Though it was deep in the night, Stefano met us brightly, and introduced us to our room before bidding us a good evening, just a few hours before he would wake again to begin his work. “In the morning,” Stefano promised, “the grand tour, and hot coffee and a fine breakfast,” whenever we decided to wake. Falling into bed like stones, we dissolved into sleep talking about the kindness of our host and how he seemed genuinely glad to meet us—to know us and to have us as guests.
It wasn’t until morning that we got a full view of the farm’s many splendors and the depth of our host’s goodness. Over the next days we learned how much Stefano and his family really did care for all their guests: travelers from the US and Canada, Europe and Asia. The family, like the farm, was an open door for all; we were instantly befriended and invited inside one of the greatest of all human traditions—the working family farm. On day one, we were tutored in grapes and olives, lectured on coffee and grappa, and most importantly, given a full course on Italian cherries—their varieties, temperament and proper place in cuisine. I was embarrassed by my ignorance about all things cherry, but Stefano clapped me on the back. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you will learn many new things in Italy, but we will start with the cherries.” We moved through the sun-kissed grove, examining the hanging blood-red droplets—sampling often as we studied—picking and filling baskets to be pitted the same day for jams and desserts. Never before had we taken such pleasure in produce, never before had we walked and talked with and learned from someone so connected to the land. That week we ate cherries, sour and sweet, with breakfast and from our daypacks and with every meal—cherries we had picked and cleaned ourselves, cherries we had received as gifts from Stefano and the generous earth.
Each night at I Due Ghiri we gathered under the low-arched roof of “the cave” to share a family style dinner with Stefano, his children and an assortment of other guests staying at the farm. We drank local wines; we ate fresh pasta and roasted chicken, brick-oven bread and tortelli shaped by the farmer’s talented wife. All of us talked with our hands and toasted our hosts and ate far more than we needed. There, in that cool stone grotto, our motley group became something special—something like a family reunion—newfound friends forgetting, if only for a few hours, that we were strangers.
After dinner, on our last night at I Due Ghiri, Stefano beckoned us out of the cave and onto the terrace for a glass of grappa before bed. Pouring for and “salud-ing” us all, he gestured out over the hillside and into the valley. “Look there my friends,” he said, inviting our attention away from the house, “the stars up above us and the stars down below.” As our eyes adjusted to the night we were amazed to see Stefano’s two planes of stars—the familiar constellations above and, down below, millions of fireflies illuminating the valley. In that twinkling silence, looking over the terraced hillside of olive and cherry trees, I suddenly remembered a college professor who used to say, “All cultures are built on agriculture—it is the source of all our potential.” What he meant was, that in our common need to be nourished, each of us is connected with one another over the vast spectrum of time—existing somewhere between our grandparents and our grandchildren, we are stewards of the present tense. It is a bond of eternal dependence on the land and the sky and the careful husbandry of seeds and trees and the great living seas. Between the stars above us and the stars below we are but wayfarers all, mere moments in the grand journey of time. We stood there quietly for a long time, drinking the strong fruit, watching a valley full of insects try to compete with the universe, or, at the very least, to get its attention.
It occurred to me, as we said our goodbyes the next morning and I shook Stefano’s hand a final time, that there is, perhaps, something enlightened in the squinting eyes and the calloused skin of those that work intimately with the land—that they somehow understand the world and their place in it more completely because they have planted and tended and harvested the things that sustain them. In a flashing moment of romance I envied Stefano, his muddy boots, the spade in his hand and his friendship with the olives and the apples and the bottles of wine that he helped to conceive.
As we drove away, down the dusty grade and through the old farm gate, we took with us baskets of cherries, glowing red in the morning light, but also, a new reverence for the many fine things born in the rich Italian soil and by the sweat of good men and women: another unexpected treasure from the journey, but a treasure all the same.
Parker Fitzgerald shot this story using a Leica M3 and Kodak Professional Portra 160 Film.