Thursday, July 14, 2011

Under My Own Tuscan Sun

After Firenze, I went about 50 minutes east by train to my next WWOOF farm. This one was a fruit farm, producing raspberries, blueberries, black and red currant, apricots, plums, and figs, and processing them into juices and jams. It is an agroturismo that alternates hosting guests and volunteers. It is owned and operated by an Italian couple in their early 50's who have been living on that property for over 25 years. The WWOOFers stayed in the guest house with our own bedrooms and bathroom which was really nice. There were 2 other volunteers around my age- a woman from Quebec and one from Florida.
Like the farm in Piedmont, I had an absolutely wonderful time here too. This one was a bit more mellow though. One the first farm there were more volunteers, plus a 4 year-old boy, and 5 Brazilian cousins that came to visit, so it was very lively, and we worked more (with a mid-day siesta). But here the days were quieter and more meditative. We did a lot of raspberry weeding and helping in the laboratory where the fruit is processed. We canned juices and helped put labels on jars and fill orders.
We also harvested currants, which I know I've tried in the past but had never eaten much of. They mostly grow red currant, but some black and white currant as well. The black currant makes a really good juice that we would often have at breakfast along with homemade bread and lots of fruit spreads.
Sometimes we worked after lunch, but more often than not they gave us the afternoon off. They said it was too hot to work and we should just relax. This gave plenty of time for reading, sunbathing, and hiking around the area.

As Americans, we think of 'Tuscany' as one region, but what I quickly learned here is that there are many different regions within Tuscany. This region was Mugello, a hilly area that produces a lot of olive oil and wine. There were trails through the hills right from the property, so I would often go jogging or hiking in the later afternoon after it cooled off a bit.
Besides work and hiking, I also did, of course, a lot of eating. Both the farmers were great cooks, and aside from the simple continental breakfast, lunch and dinner were thoughtful, multi-course affairs. There was usually pasta, but as just one course, not the entree. It was sometimes fresh, sometimes dried, ranging from spaghetti to a regional potato-filled tortellini. There was usually always bread and local cheese which you could help yourself to at any point during the meal. At the end we usually ate salad, assembled to our individual liking with garden cucumbers, greens (often intense radicchio), tomatoes, basil, red onion, and olive oil and vinegar from just a few kilometers away. Some examples of other dishes we ate are baby octopus with tomato and onion; mini clams in butter, lemon, and parsley; rabbit stewed in rosemary; blanched green beans doused with olive oil; pasta with a capers, goat cheese, tomato, and basil sauce; spicy seafood rice; bell pepper caponata; grilled polenta squares; melted tomino per cuoche cheese; roasted chicken; lamb and potatoes; and this savory zucchini ricotta tart. What I was struck by over and over was how simple the food was, but how incredibly good. This tart for instance, was just a simple pastry crust with sauteed garden zucchini, onions, and local ricotta, but it was so insanely good.
We had one dish that was not simple at all, and was probably my favorite of my entire trip. It was bacala, which is cod in Italian, and the name of the dish was something like Stoccafisso alla Vicentina. You get a Norwegian wind-dried cod from Venice, which is supposedly the only city in Italy that imports it. Then you soak it in water for 2 days to rehydrate it, changing the water several times a day. Then you stuff it with butter, Parmesan, parsley, and a little salt and pepper and tie it closed. Then you brown each side in a garlic butter-oil, and add a bunch of milk and let it all simmer for 2 hours. It sounds weird, cooking fish in milk, but the result was something incredible unique and delicious. Served over polenta it was one of the most stop-you-in-your-tracks flavors I experienced... one of those meals where you spend the first half of all your bites in disbelief over how amazing it is.
One thing that stands out for me about this part of Tuscany was how many pollinators there were ALL the time. I've never been anywhere in the world that was so alive with bees, butterflies, moths, and insects. You could look out to any bush at any time and see dozens of winged creatures buzzing about. It felt abundant and vital.
The other thing that I really treasure about this farm was that it was the place where I learned the most Italian. Both the farmers spoke French as a second language, but virtually no English. My Spanish was mostly understandable to them, so in the beginning I spoke in Spanish and they answered in Italian. As I picked up more and more words (you learn quick when you have to!) I could speak a very rudimentary Italian with the gaps filled in in Spanish. This worked well for most of the days activities, though occasionally the conversations got a little too complicated for my Italian level, especially around the dinner table. Then the farmers would say it in French to the French Canadian woman, and she would translate for me into English, and I would confirm my understanding in Spanish. So four languages around the table was not uncommon! It was so nice to have this time to wade through language, and to work hard to get little ideas across. We would often break out the huge Italian-English dictionary at the end of the night, remembering words we wanted to look up during the day, and sharing an earnestness and joy to come to an understanding.

1 comment:

Cynthia said...

Loved reading about a place with many pollinators and simple but insanely good food! Right here in Bellingham, we have had a wonderful crop of red currants from one bush in our front yard this summer, so I feel a tiny thread connecting our home and the farm where you worked.