The Tuscan hilltown of Cortona was forever changed by Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun. Inspired by the book or film and determined to claim their own piece of the Tuscan dream, wealthy Europeans, Americans, Japanese and Russians have been buying up tracts of land and pumping up house prices in the area for a good couple of decades, making this one of Italy's most expensive regions. Still, a bit of careful exploration can reveal places like Ristonchia, where Walter Rossteuscher has lived since the early 1980s, creating a life of quiet serenity, surrounded by natural beauty, without the need for excess millions.
Ristonchia is a hamlet which has been almost completely abandoned, about 500m in the hills between Cortona and Castiglion Fiorentino. Once home to over a hundred people, only 5 households are currently inhabited. The gradual abandonment of Ristonchia both enabled – through cheap land prices - and benefited from Walter's stewardship of the surrounding land. Starting small after moving to Tuscany from Munich, Walter initially harvested some local olives and grapes and raised sheep. As more land his become available, Walter's agricultural activities have expanded to encompass 500 olive trees (some over 500 years old, on ancient terraces possibly built by Greek settlers during the Minoan period), a vineyard, chestnut grove, woodland for foraging, as well as chickens, guinea fowl, goats, donkeys and a horse. Walter also keeps bees and produces his own honey, and maintains a small organic vegetable garden. Walter is not completely self-sufficient, nor does he claim to be. His production and exchange of basic foodstuffs, however, have hugely reduced his dependency on market-rate products. For instance, goats love to graze on the leaves of olive trees, so the annual pruning of the groves provides ample food for the animals at no cost. Food waste from Walter's house also goes to the goats, who definitely live up to their omnivorous image. Heavier limbs from the olive trees are cut into firewood that will eventually find its way into Walter's stufa, or stove, which heats not only the kitchen but also the house's water supply and the radiators in other rooms. Manure, of course, is returned to the land as fertiliser. Nature has a value in places like Ristonchia that is seldom recognised in less remote parts – nothing is wasted, and a use can be found for nearly anything the land offers. This kind of mixed farming is, as Walter says, almost a closed circle. That is, it maintains a self-supporting ecological cycle with an in-built economy that generates value and disincentivises waste.
Walter is a veteran of the many left-wing experiments in communal living that occurred during the 1970s, and has kept many contacts with some of the more successful ones. He's also been active in several organic and small farmers' networks, including WWOOF, ASCI and a group he helped to found, APE. Products are regularly traded between farms, so that growers can fulfill their needs in exchange for an excess of their own products. This isn't a completely perfect system, and many farmers in the area will produce the same commodity crops, resulting in gluts and shortages. Small producers often find themselves with a glut of olive oil, for instance. They produce more than enough for their own use, but so do many of their friends and neighbours. For direct sales in small quantities, the cost of bottling and labeling oil for the retail market is rarely justified by the profits on the oil, leaving growers with more than they can sell and depressed wholesale prices. Walter, however, has been relatively fortunate in this regard. A small organic processing firm, a few hundred metres above Ristonchia in the Apennines, has been buying a couple hundred litres of oil from Walter for the past couple years to use in their products. His work with bees has been less successful recently; colony collapse syndrome has affected his honey production over the last two years, and he has had to resume buying a product that he once produced in abundance.
The degree of self-sufficiency that he's achieved – while not nearly complete – is more of a relaxed, simplified way of life than the strained asceticism that marks some experiments in self-reliance. Winters can be tough in Ristonchia, where the stone houses are several hundred years old, but Walter's lifestyle is characterised by good food and wine, all produced with high-quality ingredients, usually from local organic farmers. Staying with Walter doesn't feel like some kind of self-imposed exile to prove a point or score some ideological gain. The slow, quiet simplicity of Ristonchia feels more like a wise and creative choice than an angry rejection of consumer society. Nonetheless, it's a revelation to see a way of life so independent of the kind of consumerism normally taken for granted, and to see it work so successfully. And it doesn't cost the millions that the Tuscan Sun crowd seem to think is appropriate for an old farmhouse and some olive trees.