For much of human history, the practice of domesticating and growing plants has been a crucial part of survival. Around the world, there are many harvest time traditions. In Italy, the harvest is an important time of the year: the literal fruits of labor are ready for the picking – then prepared and stored for the winter ahead. As we approach the upcoming full Harvest Moon, we explore the culinary traditions of Italy’s harvest season.
The Roots of Italian Harvest Tradition
Ancient Roman traditions of the harvest can be traced back to Bacchus, who was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine. Beginning with the legends of Bacchus, the history of the grape harvest has popped in many different ways throughout Italian culture. In the 13th century, St. Michael’s Day celebrated the picking of grapes – but only picking! On St. Michael’s Day, it was forbidden to sell and buy grapes.
The tradition of pigiatura is closely linked with the grape harvest. You’ll recognize this tradition as the one where people harvest grapes, collect them in huge tubs, and press on them with their feet! Certain areas of Italy still continue this practice today.
Traditionally, harvest time is a particularly magical time, as growing plants have been exposed throughout the spring and summer to various threats – frost, heavy rain, pests and animals, heat, and so on. Plants have survived these adversities to fruition and as autumn arrives, it is time to celebrate.
Agricultural Produce of Italy
Italy is surrounded by water, which keeps temperatures mild and soil fertile for planting. Agricultural produce varies throughout the country, with wheat and other grains, olives, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and of course, grapes.
For many, harvest time begins in the late summer when tomatoes are harvested. As one of Italy’s most important products, tomatoes come in diverse varietals and are harvested well into autumn. Pommarola, the Italian tradition of canning tomatoes, serves both as a way to store for winter ahead and also to ensure that the huge amount of fresh tomatoes at harvest do not go to waste.
By September into October, Italians begin vendemmia, the grape harvest. Across Italy, there are 20 regions that specialize in growing grapes, with approximately one million vineyards. These grapes are transformed into some of the finest wines, made for domestic and international consumption. This is also a high tourist season, as many come to enjoy the pigiatura.
November brings the olive harvest, as well as the final harvest of vegetables from gardens. Thousands upon thousands of olives are harvested during this time, and transformed into olive oil or cured for winter storage. Vegetables are also pickled and saved for cooler days.
Another famous harvest tradition is that of the truffle, the enigmatic and treasured mushroom. In northern and central Italy, truffle hunters release their dogs to hunt sniff their ways to finding this delicacy, hidden in the undergrowth of the woods.
As winter approaches, the final harvests are of citrus fruits: oranges, tangerines, clementines, etc. These bright fruits capture and hold sunshine for the dark winter months ahead.
Culinary Traditions at Harvest Time
The harvest is undoubtedly tied to culinary traditions in Italy. Even today, there are many food festivals to celebrate the bounty of the harvest. Across the country, there are fairs that focus on specific specialty foods, such as truffles, as well as competitions for handmade pastas. All through autumn, foods such as roasted chestnuts, cheesy crepes, sundried tomatoes with focaccia, brined olives, and high-quality extra virgin olive oils are showcased.
Here at Cucina Toscana, we love to celebrate the coming of autumn with our traditional Italian fare. On our menu, you’ll find flavors that transition from the brightness of summer into the cornucopia for autumnal foods. Come visit us to celebrate the season of harvest!