When I first lived in Italy, I had a very romantic idea of what the annual vendemmia, the grape harvest, must be like, and when people spoke of it, I imagined a pleasant outing under blue skies, shears in hand, going through vineyards in the company of picturesque peasants, snipping bunches of luscious grapes from the vines. I thought it would be a delightful lark.
In 1973, I got to take part in this annual ritual when I rented a farmhouse, Casa Sant’Alessandro, on the property of my Florentine friends, Simonetta and Eugenio Biliotti, near Volterra. I was there to finish in peace and quiet a student guidebook to Italy that I had been commissioned to write. The stone house was about a mile from the main villa where Simonetta and Eugenio spent time when they were not in Florence. The casa had running water and electricity and a great deal of charm, and in those days that was all that I required. I was there, off and on, from spring through autumn, and except for a few weeks when a shepherd and his sheep occupied the ground floor of the house, it was very peaceful and very quiet.
I had no telephone, no television; my only connection to the outside world was a Grundig shortwave radio that gave me news and music. My main way of communicating with the villa was by tying messages to the collar of “Brie,” a friendly hound that had nothing better to do than wander back and forth between the little house and the large one. Sometimes messages arrived within minutes; sometimes they took hours. That summer, the big news story from the U.S. was the investigation for fraud of Vice President Spiro Agnew. When I heard early one morning that he had resigned, I looked outside and saw Brie on my doorstep. I wrote the news on a piece of paper, attached it to her collar, and told her: “Vai alla villa!” She wagged her tail and eventually ambled off. Simonetta and Eugenio had a houseguest: Terry Hughes, a correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Terry, who usually was in the middle of breaking news stories, was sitting on the steps of the villa having his first cup of coffee when Brie arrived, and was amazed to learn this important information from a scrap of paper delivered by a dog.
Terry was back for another visit in autumn when it was time for the vendemmia and was as enthusiastic as I was about taking part in it. In fact, he had brought Mickey Mouse T-shirts for Simonetta’s several guests to wear while harvesting the grapes…why, I am not sure. The peasants, for whom the vendemmia was serious business, were not exactly welcoming to us amateurs, and the image of Mickey on our chests did nothing to win them over. Once the harvesting began, we understood why. It was not easy work, and we were mostly in the way. But we stumbled along the rows of vines, clipping as best we could the clusters of grapes and dropping them into the plastic bins we dragged behind us. Finally when the sun was about to set, we put down our shears and, exhausted, hiked back to the villa…and that is when the magic began. Eugenio and Simonetta had put up a long table in the hall of the villa and suddenly large platters of steaming lasagna and bottles of red wine, made with grapes from a previous harvest, were served and everyone who had been laboring in the fields sat down and drank and feasted. We were all ravenous and it was, by far, the most delicious lasagna I had ever tasted.
Eugenio, who over the years has developed from a very good cook to a superb and dedicated cook, says he does not remember what kind of lasagna he made on that occasion, but here is the recipe he prepared for us when last October we stayed with him and Simonetta in their 16th century villa in Grassina, just outside of Florence. It is probably even more delicious than the one I remember so fondly.
Eugenio uses RANA pre-cooked lasagna noodles, which may be difficult to find. If you must use dry pasta, de Cecco is a good brand to use. You may prepare the lasagna pasta while the sauce is cooking:
1 lb of dry lasagna sheets
Bring 6 quarts of water with one teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of olive oil to a vigorous boil, and cook for the time recommended on the package. Stir them often to prevent them from sticking to each other. When the sheets are al dente, drain in a colander and place the sheets in a pan of cool water to keep them from drying out until you are ready for them.
For the sauce:
1 lb and 1 ounce of ground beef
¾ lb of good pork sausage, taken out of its skin
1 medium red onion, minced
1 stalk of celery, minced
1 small carrot, minced
½ teaspoon of chopped rosemary
1 cupful of dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated with hot water
1 large can of peeled tomatoes
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 cup of dry red wine
1 teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
½ cup of chicken broth
1 cup of grated very good Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Six extra pats of butter to be added later
Heat the olive oil in a large pot and sauté over a low flame, the onion, celery and carrot until they have softened ( about 2 minutes), then add the ground beef and sausage, stirring frequently until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in salt & pepper, and, before the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add the wine and keep stirring until it is almost all evaporated. Add the chopped rosemary and after 20 seconds the peeled tomatoes and the chicken broth. Cover the pot and let simmer over a very low flame for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
For the Béchamel:
5 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
4 cups of milk
2 teaspoons of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan. Add the flour and stir until it is smooth.
Increase heat to medium and, continuing to stir, cook until the mixture turns a light golden color (6 to 7 minutes).
Heat the milk in a separate pan over medium-low heat until it is almost at a boil, then whisk in the hot milk a cup at a time to the butter mixture until it is very smooth. Cook for another 10 minutes while stirring constantly, then remove from heat and stir in salt and nutmeg. If the sauce is too dense, stir in a little more heated milk.
Smear the bottom of a large, flat baking dish with butter. Then place a sheet of the pasta in the dish, cover with spoonfuls of the sauce, then the Béchamel, then the cheese, then another sheet of the pasta, and sauce and Béchamel and cheese, repeating these layers until you have filled the pan.
Place in 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Serves 8