The late 1800's were a time of economic crisis for peasant farmers in the Italian countryside. Improvements in agriculture had lowered food prices and persuaded the larger landowners to move into more profitable and less labour intensive production. Many British Italian families can trace their arrival in England or Scotland to this date. Many of the older generation were illiterate, In England, they taught themselves to read and write.
In 1889 a traveller wrote of the region:-
Agriculture in this upland country is in its most primitive state. The soil is thin, and in many places exists only in patches, by huge rocks. That which is tillable is planted in grapes and olive orchards, the intervening spaces being cultivated with various products, among which wheat predominates. Everything is done by hand, even to the threshing and winnowing of the grain. It is afterward spread upon sheets to dry, and children are placed as sentinels for its protection from hungry fowls. The final process is that of picking out the had grains. This portion of the labour is performed by girls, who sit in the doorways or upon the broken steps of narrow and inclined streets for hours at a time, each one holding on her lap a large wooden tray, to facilitate the search.
The living of the Ciociari is at best but a meagre fare. The principal articles of food are not available are a rough cake made from corn meal, called polenta, beans and an occasional roll of wheaten bread, not too white in colour, accompanied with a bottle of wine.
After his parents retirement to Picinisco, Giacinto De Marco and his brother would send or take food and clothing to their relatives in Italy and occasionally, in return would receive a parcel back. A large wicker basket complete with handle would arrive, it's contents of cheese and preserved meat kept in place by sewing a piece of rough linen with cord to the rim of the basket. This was then sealed with black sealing wax and the address roughly written on the fabric with black ink. I can't imagine what customs thought of these strange parcels. Inside, apart from the picorino, there would be a slab of Prosciutto, darker and heavier than the usual kind and two sorts of sausage, a semi-dried pork sausage, dark and spicy and a hard gnarled black sausage made with pigs blood. All had an intensely strong flavour, characteristic of the food from Picinisco.
In Agostino's house in Italy, there was no fridge. Everything was eaten fresh or preserved. One of the large room opposite the kitchen, the coolest in the house, was used as a store and smelt strongly of preserved meat. There was a shelf of large jars containing sausages preserved in oil, some salamis hung from the ceiling. All this was reserved for special occasions. Their daily diet was simple, pasta or polenta, eggs from their chickens, chickpeas and fruit from their garden and tomatoes for sauce (and no sign at all of sun dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar!). The local wholemeal bread was a large round flavoursome disk with huge holes in the dough. The bread lasted several days gradually becoming more chewy as it aged. A slice with an egg was a feast. The local oil was dark green and unfiltered you could hardly see through the bottle and the wine was, to be polite, unsophisticated.
There was no fresh cows milk at all, bottles of sterilised milk were sold in the shop but I never saw one bought. Once a week, a lady came round the house selling tiny amounts of goats milk. Agostino got the habit of having afternoon tea in England, supplies of tea and biscuits were regularly sent to him. Chickens could be bought fresh in Atina, they were sold still live often hanging up tied by their legs.
One day the kitchen was filled with women carrying large baskets of bright red tomatoes. The cauldron hanging by it's chain over the fire was busy all day reducing the tomatoes to pulp, they were bottled in large jars for the winter.
In the autumn, several nearby villages had their feast day. You could always tell, as the place in question would let off thunderflashes at regular intervals . The largest feast was that of Picinisco which lasted 3 days. On the first day, family groups would begin to arrive in the village on foot, some of the women carried suitcases on their heads. Occasionally, a large group would be led by their priest. The village square was crowded, there were stalls selling religious articles, entertainers and the same beggars who attended all the local feasts. Every half-hour, a band played patriotic songs and the inevitable excerpts from Verdi. The next day, there was a pilgrimage to a shrine in the maintains, and on the third day the feast ended with a magnificent display of fireworks.