Here in Piedmont, we agricultural and winegrowing families have a unique word that immediately conveys a very precise meaning, a word that doesn’t exist in the rest of the world. It might not mean much outside our regional boundaries, but inside my head it conjures up the sound of the voices of my grandparents and parents.
That’s what we say here in the Langhe. In the Monferrato area they say casot, but it’s just a different name for the same thing.
For those who don’t speak Piedmontese dialect, a ciabot or casot is a tiny little house set in the middle of the vineyards, almost as though to protect them or to watch over the grapes. In actual fact, the ciabot has always fulfilled a much less poetic purpose than it might seem from the outside: it was merely a glorified tool shed, used to store the equipment used in the vineyard, inhabited by spiders, insects, the occasional field mouse and all kinds of birds.
The ciabot was created to meet the daily needs of those who worked in the fields every day and needed to take their tools with them every day, or as a place to take shelter from a sudden summer storm while they were working in the vineyards.
The natural solution was a little brick building that could also be used to store drinking water and food, as well as providing shelter for people.
Some of my childhood memories are of hot spring or summer days, running around barefoot and carefree among the vines, and then sitting down at the table of the ciabot to eat bread and jam, bread and sugar, or fruit. Those tables were also used at the end of the days during the grape harvest, when everyone would have dinner together in the vineyard, tired and dirty, but happy about the grapes that had been harvested to give birth to a new wine.
You can find ciabots everywhere in the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato.
Every vineyard has its own brick guardian which, if only it could speak, would have an endless stream of stories of generations of family to tell. Happy stories and sad ones, stories of arrivals and departures, of good harvests and bad ones, of drought, of years of hardship but also years that were sunny and serene, of children’s voices and the memories of the elderly.
And the ciabot has become UNESCO World Heritage.
Something that we’ve always had right under our noses has become a treasure, precious not only to us but to everyone. Things of simple beauty that tell the tale of a time when man’s pace matched that of nature, the two entwining in a strong and crazy love story.
Ciabots are so important to the people of Piedmont that a project called “Banca del Fare” (The Bank of Doing) has been created by the non-profit organisation Parco Culturale Alta Langa, to teach people the theory and practical techniques for the conservation of Piedmont’s heritage of stone buildings. A manual and tangible project to reconstruct the ciabots and restore the social dimension that characterised them in the past.
That’s just the way we Piedmontese are: we keep our heads down and work hard, concentrating on the fruits of our land, while building or work with invaluable treasures, like our ciabots, tiny houses full of life and the energy of the vineyards.
If you have the chance to pop in to see me, I’ll take you for a walk in the vineyards to learn about the ciabots of the Langa!
Ph credits: Franco Bello Fotografie