Living in Italy: Life on the Farm

Day 1:
I arrived here at the farm about midday and I was soon greeted by the entire family. The Acetia Malagoli Daniele, named after the father Daniele Malagoli, is a small family run business managed by their eldest daughter Sofia. The family of four and their grandmother live in a beautiful yellow house in the countryside along with a herd of donkeys, several sheep, an army of chickens, a cow named Rosa and a few peacocks. They greeted me with open arms and showed me to my room for the next two weeks.

I met with the other volunteers at the farm, Sabine and Floris from the Netherlands and Anna from Australia, they promised to show me the farm tomorrow along with how to feed the animals and some other daily work. Tonight, however, Daniele had asked us to pick cherries at a nearby farm so that Barbara, his wife, could make some jam and cherry liquor. So off we went, the five of us packed into the back of an old car equally entertained and terrified as Danielle drove about 80 mph down country roads while singing opera in his deep baritone voice. We did survive and returned home with about 75 pounds of cherries. (This is not an exaggeration, we later had to pit all of them and it took several hours over the course of two days.)

Though I have only been here a day I can already see how much the Italians value their food, not just the recipes but also the ingredients. We all eat dinner together, with the ten of us seated around a table piled high in pasta and fresh vegetables. We talked about the differences in cherry names and what you use each kind for, today we picked large sweet cherries that are best for eating raw or cooking down into jam.

Day 2-5 The art of faccina and more cherries:
The past few days have been a whirlwind, I learned how to feed and water all the animals on the farm, how to pit a couple thousand cherries (by hand) and the ‘art’ of faccina. Now what is faccina you might wonder? Several days before I arrived the other workers helped to trim the vineyard, after feeding the leaves to the goats the remaining sticks were loaded onto a bigger pile of sticks and that where our new job starts. In the mornings before the temperatures climb into the 90’s we break the sticks down into usable sizes and then bundle them. In all seriousness faccina, or creating bundles of sticks, is an important part of making balsamic vinegar. The sticks help create the fire that the grape juice is cooked over eventually turning it into a thick sugary liquid that is then aged into vinegar. The work is quite monotonous but it has been good to spend time getting to know the other workers, talking about international politics and why we all decided to work here.

Flo (Floris) and Sabine, are taking a few months off work to travel. They have spent the last few months in Southeast Asia and decided to spend their last month away from work volunteering and learning some new skills on the farm. Anna, a graphic designer, just finished her work in Germany for Adidas and wanted to take a break from normal city life while she looked for new work. They are a really great group of people all with different strengths and experiences working and traveling abroad.

Today was also the final day of pitting the cherries and I am really happy it’s over. Tomorrow Barbara, Danielle’s wife, will start making the jam and other sweets. Now we will start preparing for a large tour of cyclists coming on Saturday. The Acetia offers a tours to a variety of different groups. Sofia manages all of the public relations for the family, and has really turned her family’s passion for vinegar into a business. The family used to make balsamic vinegar as a hobby and give what they made away to friends and family. (This sounds a little crazy when you realize that the family has at any given moment about 700 barrels of balsamic vinegar.). Sofia decided to turn the family hobby into a business and has since expanded their product to several different countries. Barbara however does the majority of the work. She is the one in charge of making the vinegar, bottling the vinegar and maintaining a high quality product. She is incredible.

Day 6
The cyclists came today, what we expected to be around 200 people ended up being closer to 50 because of the heat. The next few weeks are going to be hot as a huge heat wave moves through Southern Europe. It was a little disappointing not having a big turn out but it was never the less a good event. In the morning we helped set up tables, prepared food and cleaned the yard. It was also the first day I got to go into the acetia.

The acetia is actually located right above my apartment (thankfully my apartment doesn’t smell like vinegar). Walking into it you get hit with this overwhelming smell of vinegar, it’s not bad but it definitely grabs your attention. Inside all the walls and floor space is filled with vinegar barrels, some of them almost 200 years old. The sizes range from wine barrel to bread loaf. In the process of aging the vinegar you move the vinegar from largest to smallest barrel, the smallest barrels are at least 25 years old and contain the most expensive vinegar. While in the acetia Sofia gave the cyclists a tour and I aided in passing out samples. She talked about the aging and production processes and the importance of following the traditional method of balsamic vinegar production. In Italy balsamic vinegar that follows a strict traditional production method is labeled with D.O.P., meaning it is only made with cooked grape juice grown in a specific region in Italy and aged in wood barrels without any artificial additives. Vinegars with the D.O.P label are considered to be some of the best in the world.

Day 7-12
The last few days have been hot, really, really hot. We moved an old bathtub into the yard and have been using it as a swimming pool. Whenever it’s too hot to work we fill it with the hose and sit in it for a few hours. Beyond that things are going well (with the exception of the peacocks who decide to sit outside my window and scream for all hours of the night. If we get to choose what animals get eaten next I’m choosing peacock). In the mornings we feed the animals and over the last few days have done quite a few odd jobs. Moving hay bales, moving chickens, finding new chickens and putting them in the incubator, stoning about 50 lbs of peaches, and splitting giant logs are a few of the most memorable. Today Anna found several newly hatched and abandoned ducklings (we think a fox got onto the farm the other night because several of the birds abandoned their nests, these eggs hatched from the heat. It’s really hot here). Anna has since adopted the ducklings, they have imprinted on her and now accompany her in our daily chores.

We have moved into the vineyard and have started to prune more of the grape vines. It’s fun work and very rewarding when you finish a row. I am feeling very thankful to have been given the opportunity to travel and to find myself in the company of so many talented and kind people, not to mention this beautiful landscape. I am really enjoying staying with the Malagoli family, all of them are very kind and personable people. Barbara has been teaching us about traditional Italian cuisine and showed me how to roll tortelloni, Danielle has been helping us to finish some of the wood cutting. We actually managed to break an industrial wood cutter that Danielle designed because the wood was so hard. Taisia their youngest daughter has been hanging out with us a little between studying for her final exams next week. It feels like I am part of the family.

One very memorable thing that happened the other day was that I met an Oscar winner, Roger Ross Williams. About three days ago Flo was whisked off by Sofia to accompany her on some ‘errands,’ so he got to go and tour cheese and meat factories with the Oscar winner for best documentary. All of us working at the farm were invited to go and see a screening of his movie Life, Animated, in Bologna. So the four of us hopped into Flo and Sabine’s car, drove to Bologna and then met Roger at the movie theater with his friend and guide Lucas Tabareli, a local pasta maker and entrepreneur. I highly recommend Life, Animated, it was a beautiful and touching story that I won’t go into detail about here, but you should watch it. Afterward Roger took us out to the film festivals after party as his ‘official entourage.’

Day 13
Today was weird. A good weird but I’m still working out the details in my mind. So the morning was as usual, fed the animals drank some espresso, nothing too crazy. But then Sofia mentioned that there was a street party in a nearby town and all of us were invited to go. We decided that it would be fun and agreed. Then Danielle asked us if we wanted to go to his friends BBQ and we agreed to that too. So come about 7 at night we arrive at Danielle’s friend’s house which was in a beautiful and kind of secluded, forestry area. Things are good, everyone is socializing, eating and then they lighted a large bonfire. Apparently we agreed to go to a pagan summer solstice celebration and before I knew what was going on I was covered in sage smoke and jumping over a fire and rolling dice to help me decide what I would accomplish in the next year.

Then we went to the street party at about midnight. It was a completely different world from the solstice festival. Loud music, people dancing, strobe lights and some really crazy outfits. We hung out for a few hours and then made out way back to the house. Upon arriving home we were scared by a peacock hanging out in a tree above us like a ghost from a horror movie. Like I said, it was a strange day.

Day 14
Today is my last day here and I am sorry to go, it has been such a great experience getting to learn about agriculture in such a small and intimate setting. I feel like I have learned a lot about Italian culture, food and various international perspectives on farming, politics and what it means to be connected to one’s cultural roots. On my last day here Anna and I headed out into the vineyard with her ducklings to trim some of the plants and then had a great lunch with the family. I have a new appreciation for traditional food products and quality food. I have always loved cooking but being in Italy has taught me about the history behind their food and why it is important to keep alive these century old traditions. Food is the glue that holds Italian families together, everyone is involved in either cooking, eating, cleaning, shopping or making something that contributes to the meal.

I am incredibly thankful for the Malagoli family for this experience. Now I leave for Spain to do a month long course in Spanish in Almeria, Spain. Thanks again to everyone I met in their past month, you all taught me so much!

 

Decompressing: a reflection on my time in Greece

It has been a whirlwind these last few weeks.  Literally and physically my mind is half a world away from school and finally the repetitive cycle of class and homework has been broken. Though, out of habit, I do find myself checking my email for homework updates.  I have not posted before this because it would have been a disservice to the places I’ve visited and the people I have met to write about my experiences before letting my surroundings and sink in and letting my mind quite from the semester before.  For those of you who do not know me (or neglected to fully read the title of this article) I am in Greece, a country that  is beautiful as it is gritty, an insoluble mixture of history, catastrophe and perseverance.  In total I am here for a little under a month, the focus of my experience is on agriculture and sustainability in the developed world.  I have traveled to Nicaragua and I have seen the efforts of farmers and conservation activist there.  It is hard work in developing nations to balance a respect for the natural world while trying to make a living.  I wanted to see what is was like in heavily developed countries.

My trip will bring me to three different countries in Southern Europe, Greece, Italy and finally Spain where I will be attending the University of Almeria for a month.  So armed with only my backpack I started off in Athens.  I spent the first few days exploring the city and doing some cite seeing.  It is incredible to be surrounded by that kind of history, the remains of those structures are still awe inspiring hundreds of years later.  But outside of the tourist attractions something else grabs your attention in Athens.  The city is dirty, covered in graffiti, historical buildings are crumbling due to neglect and though it could be considered an ugly city it is still quite beautiful in its modern decay.  Flying into Athens reminded me of looking at a black and white photos of the favelas in Brazil.

I quickly learned that there is no logical way to travel though the streets of Athens.  I would say that I spent about 90% of my time in that city lost but it was a great city to be lost in.  In hopes of gaining better bearings and to learn more about the food culture of Athens I took a tour.  A group of about eight of us met in the central square across the street from the Greek grave of the unknown solider.  The tour took about four hours, took us to several different neighborhoods and provided us with some good information about the history of Athens.  Greeks are big espresso drinkers and the tour started out with their ‘national’ coffee beverage, Greek coffee.  Greek coffee is more of less exactly the same as Turkish coffee but due to conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the 1900’s (and before) all things that that were ‘Turkish’ became “Greek’ about thirty year ago.  Without going into a play by play of what I saw, I would say that Greek food, though diverse, follows a few guidelines: authenticity, craftsmanship and local production.

People care about where their olive oil comes from and if their neighbors canned their tomatoes.  Athens contains about half the population of Greece and most people that live in Athens have immigrated to the city from another part of the country.  Our guide promoted this idea that Greeks wanted to be reminded of their homes  when they cooked and because many don’t have the opourtunity to visit their families often.  Food becomes their connection back to their villages and roots.  Apart from home cooking we also learned about several unique products that Greece manufactures.  One particular product is called metexa, it is sap collected from a bush that grows only on one island in Greece.   You can consume it in many ways the most popular are either chewing it as a gum or drinking the liquor they create out of it.  It tastes like pine needles smell, not unpleasant and it has been shown to have a variety of oral and digestive benefits.

Finally one of my favorite parts of the food tour was an explaination of a curious Greek street staple.  Athens is not a very green city, it does not have many plants with the exception of citrus trees.   There are orange trees (and other orange citrus fruits) everywhere.  They all produce fruit, though I can’t say I tried any of it.  It would be like walking through New York and having an apple tree in place of every street lamp.  Our guide explained that in the past during difficult times people would grow orange and other fruit trees in the streets to feed themselves and provide supplemental nutrition to their families.

My time in Athens was short, five busy days went by very quickly.  Next I headed to Crete, starting in the east and moving west I met many great people and visited a few farms.   That however is a story for a later post.  Athens is the great mixing pot of Grecce, bringing together all the food and cultural traditions from the surrounding areas.