Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXIII

Nice, December 19, 1764.

SIR — In my last, I gave you a succinct account of the silkworm, and the management of that curious insect in this country. I shall now proceed to describe the methods of making wine and oil.

The vintage begins in September. The grapes being chosen and carefully picked, are put into a large vat, where they are pressed by a man’s naked feet, and the juices drawn off by a cock below. When no more is procured by this operation, the bruised grapes are put into the press, and yield still more liquor. The juice obtained by this double pressure, being put in casks, with their bungs open, begins to ferment and discharge its impurities at the openings. The waste occasioned by this discharge, is constantly supplied with fresh wine, so that the casks are always full. The fermentation continues for twelve, fifteen, or twenty days, according to the strength and vigour of the grape. In about a month, the wine is fit for drinking. When the grapes are of a bad, meagre kind, the wine dealers mix the juice with pigeons’-dung or quick-lime, in order to give it a spirit which nature has denied: but this is a very mischievous adulteration.

The process for oil-making is equally simple. The best olives are those that grow wild; but the quantity of them is very inconsiderable. Olives begin to ripen and drop in the beginning of November: but some remain on the trees till February, and even till April, and these are counted the most valuable. When the olives are gathered, they must be manufactured immediately, before they fade and grow wrinkled, otherwise they will produce bad oil. They are first of all ground into a paste by a mill-stone set edge-ways in a circular stone-trough, the wheel being turned by water.

This paste is put into trails or circular cases made of grass woven, having a round hole at top and bottom; when filled they resemble in shape our Cheshire cheeses. A number of these placed one upon another, are put in a press, and being squeezed, the oil with all its impurities, runs into a receptacle below fixed in the ground. From hence it is laded into a wooden vat, half filled with water. The sordes or dirt falls to the bottom; the oil swims a-top; and being skimmed off, is barrelled up in small oblong casks. What remains in the vat, is thrown into a large stone cistern with water, and after being often stirred, and standing twelve or fourteen days, yields a coarser oil used for lamps and manufactures. After these processes, they extract an oil still more coarse and fetid from the refuse of the whole. Sometimes, in order to make the olives grind the more easily into a paste, and part with more oil, they are mixed with a little hot water: but the oil thus procured is apt to grow rancid. The very finest, called virgin oil, is made chiefly of green olives, and sold at a very high price, because a great quantity is required to produce a very little oil. Even the stuff that is left after all these operations, consisting of the dried pulp, is sold for fuel, and used in brasieres for warming apartments which have no chimney.

I have now specified all the manufactures of Nice which are worth mentioning. True it is, there is some coarse paper made in this neighbourhood; there are also people here who dress skins and make leather for the use of the inhabitants: but this business is very ill performed: the gloves and shoes are generally rotten as they come from the hands of the maker. Carpenter’s, joiner’s, and blacksmith’s work is very coarsely and clumsily done. There are no chairs to be had at Nice, but crazy things made of a few sticks, with rush bottoms, which are sold for twelve livres a dozen. Nothing can be more contemptible than the hard-ware made in this place, such as knives, scissors, and candle-snuffers. All utensils in brass and copper are very ill made and finished. The silver-smiths make nothing but spoons, forks, paultry rings, and crosses for the necks of the women.

The houses are built of a ragged stone dug from the mountains, and the interstices are filled with rubble; so that the walls would appear very ugly, if they were not covered with plaister, which has a good effect. They generally consist of three stories, and are covered with tiles. The apartments of the better sort are large and lofty, the floors paved with brick, the roofs covered with a thick coat of stucco, and the walls whitewashed. People of distinction hang their chambers with damask, striped silk, painted cloths, tapestry, or printed linnen. All the doors, as well as the windows, consist of folding leaves. As there is no wainscot in the rooms, which are divided by stone partitions and the floors and cieling are covered with brick and stucco, fires are of much less dreadful consequence here than in our country. Wainscot would afford harbour for bugs: besides, white walls have a better effect in this hot climate. The beds commonly used in this place, and all over Italy, consist of a paillasse, with one or two mattrasses, laid upon planks, supported by two wooden benches. Instead of curtains there is a couziniere or mosquito net, made of a kind of gauze, that opens and contracts occasionally, and incloses the place where you lie: persons of condition, however, have also bedsteads and curtains; but these last are never used in the summer.

In these countries, people of all ranks dine exactly at noon; and this is the time I seize in winter, for making my daily tour of the streets and ramparts, which at all other hours of the day are crowded with men, women, children and beasts of burthen. The rampart is the common road for carriages of all kinds. I think there are two private coaches in Nice, besides that of the commandant: but there are sedan chairs, which may be had at a reasonable rate. When I bathed in the summer, I paid thirty sols, equal to eighteen-pence, for being carried to and from the bathing place, which was a mile from my own house.

Now I am speaking of bathing, it may not be amiss to inform you that though there is a fine open beach, extending several miles to the westward of Nice, those who cannot swim ought to bathe with great precaution, as the sea is very deep, and the descent very abrupt from within a yard or two of the water’s edge. The people here were much surprised when I began to bathe in the beginning of May. They thought it very strange, that a man seemingly consumptive should plunge into the sea, especially when the weather was so cold; and some of the doctors prognosticated immediate death. But, when it was perceived that I grew better in consequence of the bath, some of the Swiss officers tried the same experiment, and in a few days, our example was followed by several inhabitants of Nice. There is, however, no convenience for this operation, from the benefit of which the fair sex must be intirely excluded, unless they lay aside all regard to decorum; for the shore is always lined with fishing-boats, and crouded with people. If a lady should be at the expence of having a tent pitched on the beach where she might put on and of her bathing-dress, she could not pretend to go into the sea without proper attendants; nor could she possibly plunge headlong into the water, which is the most effectual, and least dangerous way of bathing. All that she can do is to have the sea-water brought into her house, and make use of a bathing-tub, which may be made according to her own, or physician’s direction.

What further I have to say of this climate and country, you shall have in my next; and then you will be released from a subject, which I am afraid has been but too circumstantially handled by — Sir, Your very humble servant.

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