Monday, 28 September 2009

Cunning Old Benedict

My hands are stained and nicked. They look like I´ve murdered someone, but so do everyone else´s. We are cut and bruised and aching in the riñones, but we´re smiling, too. It is late September, and the grapes are ripe, ready for picking. Every extra hand is needed to get them all in on time.

I thought we had enough work of our own to do. We were already worn-out from the roofing project, the long hike over the mountains, framing-up a new book, and wrangling with the health insurance company that will not let me go. The stresses of living far from the homeland and family seem to pile up this time of year.

This afternoon Kathy and I sat together in the cool darkness of our bodega-cave, tasting a Bierzo reserva that´s right at its peak. She leaves us tomorrow, after two weeks of good company and great help; we were setting up for a nice Girls´ Afternoon in the Wine Cellar, the last for who knows how long?

But Brian rolled up with a wheelbarrow. We poured him a cup of vino, and we started plotting our next project: We´re building a chimney on top the bodega, so wandering pilgrims do not fall down the ventilation hole and die in there. (We have no light or electricity at the cave, and all the materials and tools for the chimney will have to be hauled up a very steep hillside that´s pocked with other chimney-holes and collapsed bodega-roofs. We like challenges here.)

And while we considered, and sipped our lovely vintage, a figure darkened the doorway.
It was Milagros, always a character to be reckoned with, a knife in one hand and a bucket in the other. It´s vendimia time, she said. Come on over to the vineyard and help out!

Brian once helped with a grape harvest in Italy, and Kathy was game for a bit of rural diversion: it seemed like a much better plan than anything we´d imagined for the afternoon! So we locked up the bodega, gathered up some knives and buckets and dogs, and headed over to the Promised Land, a vast stretch of fields on the other side of the autopista. Over there Esteban and Milagros and Leandra and Carlos keep their long-suffering vines of red Mencia and white Muscat grapes.

Two by two you take a row, and cut the vine from near the root, where the fattest, sweetest grapes grow. The harvest isn´t heavy this year, Esteban said, but other vines in the district, picked last week, provided an exceptionally sweet and mellow mosto -- the fresh-pressed juice that turns, in time, to wine.

Milagros said dogs like to eat fresh grapes. We gave Tim and Una a few, which they politely tasted, but they seemed more interested in chasing critters. We tucked into the job, and spent a good two hours out there in the cool breeze, filling great buckets with grapes and emptying them into a huge trailer behind the John Deere.

We stooped under the sun, doing work with a visible outcome, toward a final product we can taste right now, or wait a few months and taste in another form altogether. The dogs dug for field mice. Brian sang his great big rendition of "Blowin´ In the Wind."

I thought of St. Benedict, whose Rule pretty much codifed monastic life as we know it. He very wisely fitted periods of hard physical work into the monks´ everyday rhythm of prayer, study, eating, and sleeping. "Idleness is the enemy of the soul," he wrote, sometime back in the 6th century. "Therefore, at fixed times each day, the brothers are to be occupied in manual labor." So even the priests and theologians had their turn hoeing the garden, at least in the early days.

Can´t argue with that. And I know that picking grapes clears out the mind almost as well as a long walk does. The worries of the past week went into the bucket with the fruit.


Laura said...

You make life in a small Spanish village sound so peaceful and full. Of course there is often an easier pleasure found in reading about the experiences of another rather than living the day-to-day life. But then that is why your book will be such a success! You mentioned Una - how is she doing?

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

I am intrigued by how low to the ground the vines are. I am doing a short course on the Gospel of John- surprising as that might sound for a heretic!- and we had some photos today that showed how low the vines in Palestine were. (I am the Vine, you are the branches...) I remember many places where I walked through vineyards in both France and Spain, but didn't remember seeing any in Moratinos. Maybe that is because they are so low to the ground!!! I am going to print off some of your photos to show the class tomorrow! said...

Margaret: In well-cared-for vineyards of France and Spain, the vines are kept trimmed and staked up onto long lines. These vines of Moratinos are rather neglected, and they grow "naturally" along the ground. A lot of the fruit then rots, and is wasted that way. But when a small family has three acres in vines, it´s just too much for them. They harvest what they can, and let "the little foxes" have the rest.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Reb, What we learned today was slightly different then. They deliberately pruned the vines and kept them low to the ground in Palestine, as there wasn't much moisture around, and they wanted what moisture there was to produce grapes rather than too much in the way of leaves etc. They used stones to raise the short vines off the ground in wet weather to stop rotting. They used the pruned twigs for fuel for the fire, more 'useful', and not as punitive a destruction as we tend to think about when we hear about the pruning. said...

as dry as it is here right now, I´d go with your Palestinian explanation. Except that we have lots of other, more "modern" vineyards around here that are staked up!

The vine trimmings make incredible firewood for lamb-roasts, btw. No flavor quite like it!

(Una, btw, is back to her scoundrelly self. Not as much energy, but very much Una. Amazing what pain can do to one´s character. We hadn´t realized how much joy had gone from her. Thank goodness for good vet care, finally.)

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Glad to hear that Una is on the mend and her liveliness will still be there to gladden your hearts a while longer.

Ryan said...

Catching up on all my blog reading - and I feel like such a sod for having come to this one so late! Wonderful photos, and sounds like a great time. I love Mencía - and as you know it was a bottle that got me writing. I can't wait to be back and tasting my way down the Camino. :-)