Living Light in Liguria: Life at the House of the Sun

(This story, which I wrote for BootsnAll, sums up much of my experience at my last — for now — WWOOFing farm in Italy)

“Oh Baba!” Massimo sighed as he lugged a heavy load of firewood into the house. Twenty-five years a farmer and fifteen a yogi, Massimo cried out to his guru in the moments of struggle most of us express through less inspired four letter words.

I was lying on my bedroom floor like a corpse, covered by one of the six wool blankets I slept with. My room was on the shady side of the house, and without the wood stove burning, it was too chilly to lie down in single layer yoga wear. This was my ten-minute savasana, the resting time after our morning asanas. Massimo, my current WWOOF host and yoga instructor, insisted that this was the most important part of the practice (though he was too busy this morning to relax for the full ten minutes). He also suggested that I refrain from touching water by washing or drinking for fifteen minutes. He explained that the exercises, mostly stretches and gyrations, activated glands throughout the body which released oils that did wonders for the skin. I didn’t quite get it, but my mind was open and my 7:30am body still sleepy, so I gleefully sank into my savasana.


With the energy and impulsiveness of a 17 year old and the insights and wisdom of 70 year old; bare feet that never got cold, tan skin, bright eyes and gray hair, Massimo seemed ageless. From the moment he picked me up at the Chiavari train station, he had shared his musings in English-speckled Italian. I’d probe him with questions, curious about his philosophy on communal living (it’s the ultimate lifestyle he is striving to create at his home, Casa del Sole) and healthy eating (one of the bigger ideas is that different foods feed different Chakras; one of the smaller ideas is that garlic is a medicine, not a food). Sitting without worrying isn’t my strong suit, but I’d try to quiet my mind for evening meditation. Hearing, “You are but a drop of water in the ocean,” is particularly soothing when it’s raining outside and the words are in Italian.

The 17 year old bellowed for the “Americana” to come outside, and as I joined him by the potatoes, the older man pushed him out of the way to poke fun at me by singing ‘50s Neapolitan star Renato Corosone’s “Tu vuò fa l’ Americano.Tucked deep in the lush mountains of Liguria, Casa del Sole was isolated save for the neighbors across the valley. The terraced land burst with a thousand shades of green, broken only by plots of soil and stonewalls. We planted five rows of potatoes, Massimo digging up soil and me following behind, placing small potatoes from last harvest roots face up.

We followed the grassy footpath the next terrace down. To our left were arugula, leeks and chard and to our right, a forest of olive trees. With a small stream of water running between the trees and a tenacious streak of sun pushing through the clouds to light the morning dew, the grove looked nothing short of enchanted. All was silent except for the water trickling, birds chirping, roosters crowing and Massimo’s constant crooning – a mash up of his mantra and classic Italian love songs. I gave an impressed ”Bravo!” and he bellowed louder. “This is why I must live in the mountains.”

Using a knobby olive branch staff as a pointer, Massimo identified everything around us. “Cicoria,” he poked the ground where I was about to step, “is delicious fresh.” I walked more lightly with each step as Massimo revealed the food all around me. It wasn’t just under the soil where the carrots grew, or in the plots of broccoli and spinach. It was in the paths between crops, and in the soil between the stones of terrace walls.

With enlightened eyesight, I saw that the walls were thriving organisms, crawling with life. “Pimpinella,” Massimo stuck his knife between two stones and cut a cluster by its hairlike roots, “is like melon.” I nibbled the clover-like leaves and, to my shock, tasted honeydew. These herbs weren’t just edible; they were nuanced. There was a reddish, bristly, bitter cousin to the fern and a rounded, lime green leaf with hints of hazelnut. Had I just discovered detox’s answer to winetasting?

We filled three baskets with nothing but wild herbs; two for the farmers market in Genoa and one for us. I felt energized and at ease. Maybe it was the asanas, maybe it was the mountains, or maybe it was the fact that these three days were the longest I’d gone in months of Italian countryside life without wine twice daily. I’ll go with a combination of the first two (I like my lunchtime wine). After much snipping, soaking, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of Casa del Sole olive oil, our primo piatto of wild herbs was ready. Between the hunting, gathering, cleaning and chopping, I’d spent more time preparing a simple plate of raw greens than I’d ever spent cooking a whole dinner in New York.  And oh Baba, was it good.

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Cuccìa for Lucia

I walked in for a morning cannolo (or, as the Sicilians would say, cannolu). There was nothing special about this particular pastry shop, and it was a bit early to be actively seeking out such indulgences, but this was my last day in Sicily. I had a vital list of almond-and-ricotta-infused goodbyes to make and no time for playing games. I tried to keep my eye on the prize, but something else was calling in my glass-cased periphery.

As I waited for the man in the kitchen to fill my cannolo, I shifted to get a better look at this milky mystery. Rows of small cups held a yogurty substance, some white, some brown, strewn with…were those chickpeas? “Che cosa è questo?” I’d asked “What is this?” enough to sound like I could really speak Italian, though I rarely understood the answers with such fluency. “Oggi, è Santa Lucia.”  In my pre-espresso haze, I understood her answer to imply that this dessert’s rotating name honored local celebrities. Today, it was the Santa Lucia special. A woman came in and ordered twelve cups of the darker one, il cioccolato. My hands were full with my cannolo, but my interest was piqued.

An arancino con ragù, gelato, marzipan and second cannolo later, I returned to Nonna’s apartment. (You may be thinking two cannoli in one day is unnecessary, overboard, gluttonous in the bad, Jerry Springer Show with a crane intervention kind of way, but hear me out. I stumbled upon Fratelli Rosciglione, a cannoli factory. What was I supposed to do – walk away? There were people rolling pastry shells by hand right before my eyes! Sadly, I had a camera battery fail, so no photos…this time. This guy, on the other hand, remembered his.)

This was my second time crashing at Nonna’s. The mother of my WWOOF host, she lived a minute’s walk from the train station and opened her home to me to make it easier to catch my early airport shuttle. A sweet scent seeped out in to the hallway. As Nonna opened the door, she asked if I wanted to try something special. Something Sicilians made just once a year, to celebrate Santa Lucia’s Day. Aha. Today, it is Santa Lucia!

Nonna

Needless to say, my answer was “Sì.” Nonna set a tray in front of me with a slice of panettone (good for dipping) and a generous bowl of what appeared to be the light-colored, thin pudding I’d seen that morning, only four times the size, dotted with bright pieces of candied fruit and topped with chocolate sprinkles.

I tried a spoonful. It was milky; strangely delicious. The pieces of grain added a depth of texture to the sugary liquid, creating a subtly addictive sweetness akin to that of tapioca or bubble tea latte. Every bite in a while, I’d sink my teeth into a piece of candied fruit. Normally, gelified fruit doesn’t do it for me, but the liquid cut the cloying out of the sweet, like vanilla ice cream on pecan pie. What was this odd enchantment, and why eat it only once a year? It was cuccìa.

A sweet dinner for Santa Lucia

Nonna, Luigi and Mimma each told me some version of the same legend: During the great Sicilian famine of 1582, the residents of Palermo prayed to Santa Lucia to end their hunger. As they prayed, a ship full of grains miraculously appeared in the harbor on December 13. (Many sources tell of this miracle occurring in Palermo; others claim it was in Siracusa.) Too ravenous to bother grinding the grains into flour, they ate them as they had arrived (most say they at least boiled them first). Since then, Sicilians commemorate Santa Lucia on December 13 by abstaining from eating any source of wheat other than boiled wheat…and maybe panettone. These grains, and the dishes made from them, are called cuccìa. Sicily’s history of Arab rule is manifest in many aspects of Sicilian culture, not least of them its cuisine. The word “cuccìa” was derived from the Arabic kiskiya, meaning both grain and the earthenware that holds the grain.

Over time, the Sicilians devised numerous savory and sweet recipes that transform bland wheat berries into flavorful treats. Of the many sweet cuccìa recipes, some have a chocolate or honey base, and most, like Nonna’s cool dessert soup, contain a ricotta as a star ingredient.

Once aptly bloated, I asked Nonna for the recipe. Looking back at my notes, all I jotted down was “ricotta, sugar, milk, candied cherries, grain and 3 1/2″ hours boil.” Upon searching for cuccìa recipes that fit this bill, I kept coming across ones that were either ricotta based with a more solid finished product, or cream based but ricotta-free. Finally, I decided to combine a few recipes that seemed just about right, relying primarily on one from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy.

I believe the milk-ricotta combination was Nonna’s personal touch. If, after following the recipe below and if you’d like it to be a bit less thick and more soupy alla Nonna, stir in milk until the consistency is to your liking.

Cuccìa alla Ricotta

Makes 10-12 servings

Ingredients:

1 pound 2 ounces (500 grams) of soft white wheat berries

Pinch of salt

1 cup (200 gr) sugar

2 lbs 2 ounces (1 kg) of fresh whole milk ricotta, made without gelatin or stabilizers

1 package/50g of candied cherries, candied pumpkin, candied orange or citron peel or combination of your choice, cut into small pieces

Handful of dark chocolate chips, pieces or sprinkles

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

1-2 cups milk (optional)

Preparation:

Place grains in a bowl, cover them with water and leave to soak for about three days. Change water twice a day. On fourth day, drain the grains. Set grains in a large pot and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to boil and simmer for 3 ½ hours or until wheat is nearly bursting and soft, but still chewy. Let stand at room temperature for 6-8 hours.

Meanwhile, press ricotta through sieve into a mixing bowl and stir it well. Add sugar and vanilla, if using, and beat until creamy.  Let ricotta cream sit for at least 2 hours and press through sieve a second time. Drain berries well and stir into ricotta cream along with candied fruit. Serve in small cups or bowls and garnish with chocolate chips, pieces or sprinkles.

Don’t be afraid to tweak it to your liking. Want more chocolate in every bite? Mix in a cup of chocolate chips alongside the grains and candied fruit. Chocolate cream? Melt the chocolate before mixing. A hint of spice? Top with cinnamon.

Can’t wait until December to celebrate Santa Lucia? I’m sure she won’t mind if you have an unseasonal bowl of cuccìa in her (and Nonna’s) honor.

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Pasties, Pumpkin ‘n’ Pie

I’ve been doing the unthinkable and writing far back in retrospect. Blogger faux pas? Perhaps, but I felt wrong leaving a significant chunk of my journey unrecorded.  Alas, here’s a look back at December.

After far too much deliberating over whether or not to abide by the pesky Schengen Area regulations (90 days in the region per 180 day period), I decided to play it safe and spend sometime in England and Croatia.

I spent a few weeks with friends and families of friends in London, with a wee bit of Couchsurfing in Brighton and Canterbury (chose the latter as a base for a day in Dover, home to the famed White Cliffs). I’m going to leave my England entry brief, just a few lasting impressions and (mostly edible) visual highlights:

- Dreary weather and gray skies made me want to be lazy and eat cookies and drink mulled wine and hot alchy cider all day….which on some days is exactly what I did.

- The coffee is crap and the pub culture is impressive. The same great older male character watching you can easily find at coffee shops in Italy (and Croatia for that matter), you get sitting in a pub at lunchtime in England.

- Pub food is surprisingly good.

- Everything is disgustingly overpriced.

- Lots of doughy things, but a pasty is tasty.

- Camden Markets are a trip: vendors selling cheap eats yelling for your attention and tons of fun, generally negotiable, shopping in the markets and down the road.

- Walking along the grassy expanse atop the White Cliffs of Dover is a beautiful, peaceful (at least in the off season) experience.

- People are very polite and quiet on the tube, even during rush hour. The amount of discomfort this caused me made me realize just how much of a New Yorker I’ve become.

- Jamie Oliver owns that country. He is inescapable.

- London, Brighton and I’m sure plenty of other towns have tons of fantastic (albeit many overpriced) thrift shops.

- Lots of visually stimulating candy shops.

- Oxford Street around the holidays is quite possibly more overwhelming than Times Square.

- Big parks and the Thames make for a nice walking city.

- Hot alcoholic drinks are everywhere through the holiday season. They are sugary, comforting and slightly addictive.

- Changing of the guards is largely an overcrowded yawn. The royal band plays for a while which boosts the excitement, but it’s mostly you taking pictures of iphones taking pictures of iphones taking pictures.

-  Brighton is sweet! Small seaside town with kitschy pier, alternative bent and plenty of quaintness to boot.

Covent Garden

mince pies

pretty, pretty big meringues

West Cornwall Pasty Co.

XMas Fair in Hyde Park

Mr. Simms, Purveyor of Finest Confectionery

Why yes, thats exactly what a Tiffanys pop-up shop would look like.

Borough Market

Brighton

Couchsurfing hosts street

tea and whole wheat scone at Mock Turtle. hands down best (and biggest) scone i had in England.

Pumpkin soup at farmers market Farm Kitchen

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Up in the Valley

Light-skinned and clean-suited, Luigi looked more businessman than farmer and was, in fact, more businessman than farmer. A retired engineer, he’d moved back to Sicily from Bologna to take over the family land after his father passed away. Sitting in the passenger’s seat was his girlfriend Mimma. She’d moved to the country with Luigi, but clearly missed the city life and fashion design career she’d left behind. Petite, buoyant and squeaky-voiced, Mimma kept creatively stimulated by painting and taking sculpting and Spanish writing classes in the city. I could tell right away that it would be her energy keeping things lively around the house.

Half an hour from Palermo, we came to the town of Altavilla. Then, we wound up through dark, rocky hills for fifteen minutes, the wind picking up along the way. The wind didn’t just whistle or howl; it whistled with the gusto of a howl. There was something unsettling about this Dorothy Gale force wind welcoming me to Randino, my new home in the valley. I couldn’t see much outside, but liked what I saw inside. Mimma’s abstracts and small bronze sculptures gave the open house an artistic edge, while weathered wooden doors and furniture reminded you it was a farmhouse.

I was working with another WWOOF couple, Else and Damian (or Damiano as she had taken to calling him). I could tell we’d get along right when I saw Else’s bright smile and Damian’s (he’s the first video) overgrown, curlyish hair. Else is from Norway and Damian’s an Englishman-cum-Irishman. Damian lives alone the forest by the Buddhist monastery he called home for several years. He was more humorous than hermit-reticent, kind of like an old man and a little boy wrapped in one. A drug counselor and certified yoga teacher, Else was warmhearted, calming, intuitive and had immense trouble remembering and pronouncing Italian names.

The description of Randino mentioned olive trees, a garden, fruit trees and lots of land. The land was there, but the olives had been harvested and the vegetables picked. We’d be weeding the oregano. Vincenzo, a gruff but friendly man in his forties, managed the farm. My first morning, he walked us down to 15 endless rows of oregano. Of us three WWOOFers, I was charged with the communication. However, Vincenzo spoke only Sicilian through a cigarette butt. Interpreting Sicilian is not like a New Englander deciphering a Mississippi accent. Even for someone fluent in Italian, Sicilian is like a whole other language. Hand motions would have to do most the talking. He picked up a trowel and dug out a bunch of weeds surrounding the oregano at an impressive pace. We gave him the “okay,” and he left us to work while he tilled the soil in the barley fields and looked over the free-range pigs and cows.

This was by far the most physically taxing job of all my WWOOFing. It was the hard on the back and the first serious arm workout I’d had in months outside of luggage carrying. Most of my farm work required moments of carrying heavy crates, but this was four hours of consistently intense work. Luigi was laid back, so we worked hard on our own volition and would break for the occasional midmorning tea and snack.

The landscape was strange but spectacular; brown cows grazing through miles and miles of rocky, green hills, with the sea off on the horizon. We’d usually have a long, late lunch, often some combination of homegrown pumpkin and pig. On rainy days, Mimma taught us recipes like pumpkin gnocchi and eggplant Parmesan. After lunch, we’d either work a bit more or wander into the hills. It was very serene, except for when that eerie wind returned. Or perhaps it was the neighbor that made things eerie….

I soon learned that Luigi’s meetings in Palermo had been with his lawyer. I had gone from one neighborhood war to another. Luigi’s grandfather had started Randino, buying many hectares of land and running a now-defunct wine vineyard with hundreds of employees. He gave one employee a piece of land to settle and work on, and this man’s son had turned out to be a total loon. The son, though seventy years old and presumably retired, is set on proving that he is entitled to part of Luigi’s land, which Luigi denies. These sorts of disputes happen a lot in the country. Family histories can blur the lines, and there are laws that give those who work a piece of land for a certain number of years ownership of that land.

However, this went way beyond an innocent dispute. It got Fatal Attraction creepy. The neighbor, who we dubbed Asino (donkey) Man, had taken to cutting the fences Luigi built to prevent neighbors’ cows from eating his crops. Last year, he earned his moniker when he murdered Luigi’s fifteen donkeys after they’d wandered onto his property. Yep. Crazy. He put up gates that blocked access to public roads, and took down others built to keep cattle from grazing on public land. And somehow, he got away with it. Mimma and Luigi blamed corruption from the mafia for the lack of response to Asino Man’s transgressions.

When Luigi’s much-anticipated donkey court date was delayed, he didn’t even seem surprised. “Justice in Italy is slow,” he sighed. In his words, I sensed the same sort of I love the kid, but she makes it really difficult to love her when you live with her sentiment I’d gotten from Chiara and Marco.

On the lighter side, Mimma shared tidbits about food, art, fashion and family history. She had a lot to say, but only in Italian (and Spanish), which I appreciated – good practice. One of the first questions she asked me was “If you could be an animal in your next life, which animal would you be?”  I loved her curveball of answer. Most people go for a bird (men love eagles), lion, dolphin or whale. Mimma chose the cow for its peacefulness and tranquility.

Those were the kind of conversations that made these workstays so great. With only oregano to weed and garages to clean, I didn’t learn as much about agriculture at Randino as I’d hoped to. Yet once I accepted that it wouldn’t meet all of my expectations, I had a lovely time. That’s the thing with WWOOFing; part of the fun is the element of surprise. Even if you read the listings carefully and ask questions, no farm will be exactly what you imagine. So, you need to size up the situation and decide if the farm’s a “fit” for you. If the shortcomings bother you enough that you’d rather pack your bags and come up with a Plan B, no one’s stopping you. But if you decide to stay, it’s essential to just roll with it and appreciate your new home for all its quirks.

Randino

"Randino Vecchio"

free form pumpkin gnocchi

Mimma, Luigi and pumpkin gnocchi

pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds

pig roast

eggplant parm

Damiano in Trapani

Vincenzo

Else and the big red van

oregano masters

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The Center of the Universe

Sicilia! An island where the oranges are sweet and the ricotta is sweeter; where the dialect is incomprehensible and elderly men rule the street corners and voluntarily pose for my photos. It’s my kind of island to get lost in.

Before heading to the next farm, I decided to spend a few days somewhere else nearby. Without much research or reason aside from its proximity to Palermo, I chose Sciacca. I’d come across the Mazzotta brothers as hosts on the WWOOF, Couchsurfing and HelpExchange sites. One of the brothers is the arborist and the other the chemist. They produce a modest amount of olive oil for consumption and olive-based skin and beauty products. Fabio, the arborist, had recently relocated to a 300 person-populated island off the coast of Sicily, and invited me through HelpExchange to help with gardening there. I was already set to WWOOF at a farm near Palermo, but intrigued by these omnipresent brothers. Fabio’s island was too far and expensive for a weekend jaunt, so I set up a Couchsurfing/WWOOFing weekend in Sciacca with Alessandro.

Sciacca is a cute, seaside town without a ton to offer in terms of sightseeing.  Aside from barhopping with Alessandro’s friends, hanging by the fireplace and walking through town (including Italy’s narrowest street), most of my time with Alessandro was spent at his grandmother’s apartment in the center of town. His mother lives in a separate apartment in the same building, but comes down to join nonna for lunch and dinner. Judging by the pattern of our weekend and his empty fridge, I think it’s safe to say that Alessandro also takes his meals there.

Lucky for me, Alessandro’s mom was entertaining her friends at the grandmother’s place that night. The apartment had this old-style regality, with a big dining room table where we set up the food and a parlour room with floor-to-ceiling windows where everyone would eventually settle among a set of small tables to smoke and play cards.

We dropped by midday (for lunch and) to help make a ricotta-artichoke pastry appetizer. This was one of a myriad of delights Alessandro and I would enjoy that night and the rest of the weekend. Among the mom’s tour de force was a crispy rice and porcini casserole, local sardines, a simple salad of potatoes, gamberetti (baby shrimp) and marinated polpetti (little octopi) and, the undisputed champion, the caponata. A mix of eggplant, capers, nuts and, her nontraditional touch, sausage, in an ever-so-slightly sweet tomato-vinegar based sauce. Surprisingly, the sausage wasn’t at all overpowering. It was delectable.

In addition to the dried dates and never-ending bowl of kiwis, oranges and mandarins, was my first love affair with gelatin. I always opt for the canned cranberry sauce over the homemade Jello-cranberry mold at Thanksgiving; I’ve never been much of a Jello girl. This was a different story. There were two gelatin desserts: a Sicilian lemon one with sliced kiwi and banana, and a watermelon-hibiscus one with a dark chocolate shell. Washed down with a bit of homemade limoncello and herb-I-forget infusion, it was, in Alessandro’s words “Il ottimo!” ( “The optimum! The best!”)

Alessandro often spoke in superlatives. He was a ball of energy, manifest in random outbursts of joy. As we neared his home ten minutes into the countryside from the center of town, he slowed near a neighbor’s olive grove.  We stared at the centuries-old tree trunks. They were thick, gnarly and sage-like.

“You see that?” I saw it. “This is it. Those trees understand life. That is life!”

That evening, we drove to the beach and caught a brilliant sunset. “You can see Tunisia on the horizon. Not a bad place to be.  Sicilia! The center of the universe!”

Laughter on both ends. “Vero, the center of the universe?”

“Yes…Sicilia…Sciacca…the center of the universe!”

Guess I chose the right place to Couchsurf.

 

View from Nonna Mazzotta's

She was always watching, quick to critique his form

Sicily in December = ceramic nativity ornaments

 

What was once the caponata...you know it's good when I'm too distracted to take a pre-destruction shot

Potatoes, shrimp, octopus, capers, parsley...

An aggressive crowd. Note the men still huddle by the TV.


——-

Soon enough, I was in another grandmother’s apartment.

Alessandro had a meeting of chemists to attend in Palermo, so we took a bus there together on Monday. There, I met Luigi, my next WWOOF host. Luigi had meetings of an undisclosed purpose in the city all afternoon, so I had the day to explore.

We went to his mother’s place to drop off my bags. She lived in an apartment right by the station with a plant-filled terrace and incredible views of the city. There was something I instantly loved about this woman (I can’t remember her name cause she was always referred to as Nonna). She was friendly and welcoming without being overbearing, and she spoke slowly and loudly enough for me to converse with her. Once a piano teacher at the nearby consortium, she now taught from home.

“Palermo’s beautiful but it’s just too noisy,” Luigi said as he pointed out points of interest on a city map, “Just try to imagine it without sound when you’re walking.”

It was indeed noisy, though not unbearably so, and beautiful. Like all Sicilian cities, Palermo has a wholly different flavor than northern Italian cities. For starters, it felt more diverse. You could feel the Arabian influence in the archways of Norman-Arab architecture, the markets filled with colorful food and fabrics and districts of little Arabian restaurants to be found between windows of almond sweets and fried rice balls (more on those to come).

Palermo’s many stucco apartment buildings and ancient white and brown stone palaces and churches are nestled between green mountains to the east and west, the sea to the north, and an oddly stunning landscape of rocky hills to the south.

That evening, we headed about 25 km east along the coastline, to my new home in Altavilla.

View from the bus

Nonna's view

Nonna's terrazza

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Country Mouse, Citta Mouse

While I was at Pulicaro, I took a weekend trip to Firenze. It was even more beautiful than I remembered from my brief afternoon there about six years ago. I stayed with Federico’s friends Marianna and Enrico, a beautiful, free-spirited Italian couple who met while living in Portugal, and Marianna’s adorable seven year-old, Niam. With bright orange highlighting the walls, natural elements integrated into the décor, a yellow parakeet Enrico mysteriously encountered on the shore near Cecina and a steady soundtrack of African and atmospheric music, they managed to bring an island vibe to a small apartment smack in the middle of the city. They live in a market district, so I’d wake to the sounds of leather goods, scarf and trinket salesmen setting up shop below.

It was a weekend of little sleep, lots of wine, wandering and dancing. Mixed in there was a lunch with my grandfather, who was in Firenze for an afternoon of a Mediterranean cruise (you know, Floridians), a random Tricky concert, an incredible meal at the vegetarian restaurant where Marianna works – a colorful oasis tucked behind a health food store in the city outskirts, a 24-hour lawn in front of the Duomo and a very tired trip to the Uffizi.

And, I mustn’t forget, Gelataria Vivoli, easily one of my top five gelato experiences. A rarity, I wasn’t actually hungry or yearning for gelato when I went there, but since Marco and Chiara (Chiara of previously mentioned gelato heritage) said it was the country’s best, I was on a mission. A charming shop with cursive neon signage out front, it was bustling yet not overrun by tourists. Vivoli nails both the classic and innovative flavors. After considering a myriad of options from my safety, nocciolo, to caramelized pear, I selected a special flavor called festina lente, vanilla-based with ginger, alongside rice and millefiore (honey from “a thousand” types of flowers), a honey-infused flavor interspersed with flaky saltine bits.

Chef Marianna

I made a few more city stops after leaving Pulicaro. In Siena, I Couchsurfed with a houseful of anthropology students ten kilometers from Siena. Riccardo, Davide, Marta, plus a few others, live in an old farmhouse up a long, vineyard-bound road, so I felt right at home. My body felt like it was shutting down, so I let myself stay an extra night and spend more time in little Siena than big Rome. When the housemates’ cars were all in use and we missed the bus, we’d hitchhike to town (yes Mom, but just twice) and get dropped off outside the city walls. The concept of a walled city is visually and generally fascinating, and gives Siena a distinctly old world feel. The Sienese are all about the Panforte, or “strong bread.” More of a cake than a bread, this dense and chewy confection contains just a bit of flour, generally along with honey, spices, nuts and dried fruit, topped with powdered sugar. Most shops carry the classic Margherita, along with the Panpepato, similar to the Margherita but with more warm spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, Panforte Cioccolato and other flavor combinations like Noce e Ficchi (walnut and fig). I splurged on one pricey slice from Siena mainstay Nannini – a special flavor made with a layer of marzipan. It was worth the extra couple of Euros; a small cover charge for the party in my mouth.

Riccardo e Davide
Excellent name-what-you-want plate lunch at the tiny Grattacielo (“Skyscraper”)
Today, Porchetta

Rome was Rome: big, busy and beautiful with a constantly stimulating contrast of new and ancient everywhere you turn. I can picture myself happy as a clam living there. My two days there were a whirlwind. Sometimes in the places that have the most, you end up seeing the least destination-wise because walking in circles is the most exciting part. That said, I know I walked through still-being-uncovered ruins, went to my first Couchsurfing bar night, ate chestnuts by the Trevi fountain, ate gelato at Giolitti (yes, just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday) and gawked for my second time at the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. I knew I’d be back, so I didn’t feel pressured to see everything at once.

Rainbow by the Colosseum!
Gallery of Maps, Apostolic Palace

Before heading to Sicily, I decided to spend an afternoon in Napoli and catch the night ferry from there. This was an excellent decision. Americans and Italians alike warned me about Naples: It was city gone wrong. I’d be mugged and left for the mafia within ten minutes of arrival, and using my camera in public was sudden death. Well, if Napoli is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Sure, there was a little trash piled up in front of the station and I got the vibe (albeit no major incidents to confirm said vibe) as I walked back to the station after sunset that maybe it’s not the best city wander solo after dark. But it’s alive. Alive with people who wanted to talk to me but didn’t speak English and who wanted to make sure I consumed what was quintessential Naples before I left.

I drank a delicious chocolate coffee shakerato of sorts at Caffè Mexico, served by a man in a cute diner style hat who let me photograph him with a smile and no mugging. Then I wandered into a church drowned in toothbrushes. A Scandinavian artist had filled it with sculptures made entirely from toothbrushes, including a sea of blue toothbrushes which wooden swimmer figures were diving into. I made my way to L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, a Napoli institution since 1870 and, as boasted in posters around the restaurant, the one where Julia Roberts ate in Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve heard that people wait for an hour outside during high season. When I asked for a number, the white-coated Antonio, one of the two brothers who run the shop their father founded, told me to stay inside by him and he’d find me a seat shortly. In ten minutes, he had me seated at a table with three 40 something Neapolitan sisters.

Like many of the world’s best eateries, Da Michele keeps it simple. The menu is such: Marinara (sans cheese) normal, medio and maxi; Margherita normal, medio and doppio. The increase for the Margherita isn’t so much in size as it is fior di latte cheese. The sisters ordered a normal Margherita  and Marinara. I generally like a heavy tomato:cheese ratio, but I followed the waiter’s advice and went for the medio. I wasn’t going to take any chances skimping in the home of Margherita. The pizza was, no surprise, divine – the cheese warm, creamy goodness that was just runny enough; the tomatoes fresh and just sweet enough; and the dough thin of course, but notably softer than the prevailing thin crust pizza in America. By American standards, the cheese wasn’t too much, but if I lived close enough to be a regular, I think Margherita normal (con birra) would be my personal order. The sisters welcomed me into their crew, insisting we take a few photos together. They too, did not mug me; in fact, one sister insisted on paying for my pizza and beer. When I tried to refuse, the others literally pushed me out the door. “I love Napoli,” was all I could think.

I sauntered off my personal pizza along the city’s narrow market streets. It was amazing, especially with the holidays coming up. It was like I’d died and gone to kitsch/nativity scene heaven. I walked in a happy stupor, staring at the overcrowded store windows and stopping to pick up a few tchotchkes and the requisite sfogliatelle (hard, pleated crescent shell shaped pastry filled with light, sweet ricotta) and yes, gelato.  Later, I dropped into another Caffè Mexico for espresso, this time helped by a bubbly girl who wanted to practice her English and ask me about the big homes are in Florida (her chosen subject for a school paper). An aggressive afternoon for the stomach, sure, but if I was in Napoli for only a day, this was my Last Supper.

Feeling chubby, cheerful and tired, I boarded the ferry to Sicily…

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Pulicaro

From Le Serre, I headed inland and south to Torre Alfina, a village in the plains of northern Lazio. My next two-week home was Pulicaro, a farm and agritourism run by a young couple, Marco and Chiara. The half-hour ride with Chiara from the train station in Orvieto to Torre Alfina was an unexpected introduction to her and Marco’s personal challenges and the more generally fraught relationship Italians have with their government.

She informed me that Marco would be in Rome for the day tomorrow for a meeting. The meeting was actually a court date. For nearly all of Marco and Chiara’s six years at Pulicaro, they’ve been entangled in legal battles with an industrial neighbor. This neighbor excavates basalt, apparently far more than he’s legally entitled to. Outraged by the liberties he’d taken with the land and the threat he poses to the area’s natural landscape, Marco turned to the law. As the head of their local agriculture group, he was the natural leader for the fight, and soon the object of libel charges from said neighbor.

The government has been slow to react to Marco’s cries for justice. Chiara sighed, “Sometimes I think of going somewhere life would be easier…” She explained that she loves her land and her country dearly, but the government and its corruption make it a hard place to work and live.

From that first evening, it was clear that Chiara and Marco are sweet, down to earth and very real (though not of the hippie persuasion). Chiara grew up in Milan and Marco, Rome. Neither come from agricultural families, though Chiara’s family used to run a gelato shop in Milan and her dad is now president of the country’s gelato association. Seriously. This means that regional “best of” flavor competitions among other dreamy duties fall under his jurisdiction. If I’d only met Chiara before going to Milan, I’d have insisted on meeting my new idol. Marco and Chiara bought Pulicaro as newly married twenty somethings, renovated the old farmhouse into a beautiful B&B and planted a small olive grove on their own.

They have 26 hectares of land, much of which is woodland and roaming room for their animals: some two hundred chickens, ducks and geese, a few turkeys, about fifteen rabbits, three cats, six kittens, five goats (just for fun), five big white Shepard dogs and two silly house beagle mutts. Marco is largely engrossed in the basalt battle, but when he does work on the land, he rocks amazing red-suspendered denim overalls. Chiara’s focus is growing and running the agritourism business. Meanwhile, Marco’s younger cousin and new Torre Alfina resident, Pasquale, runs the day-to-day farming tasks. Fiora, a chatty woman from town who spent twenty-three years working at a designer jeans factory, runs the jam and sauce production and does housework for the agritourism.

I worked mostly with Pasquale, Fiora and Siggis and Agne, a young Lithuanian WWOOFer couple who were at Pulicaro for half my time there. They were all lovely company, but the weather made it one of the more challenging stretches of my travels.  It was either raining or about to rain nearly all of my time there. I expected to be working a lot with the olives, but we ended up harvesting their “rented” trees only one day and they harvested their own smaller trees over the weekend I went to Firenze. The first week was consumed by cutting up giant pumpkins of various shapes and colors, making sweet pumpkin jam and a pumpkin risotto sauce, carrying wood logs to the oven and running out to feed the animals and clean their cages whenever there was a dry spell.

When Siggis and Agne were with me, Siggis would handle the chickens and bigger animals, while Agne and I fed the chicks, cats and rabbits. The chicks were stinky and wild (too many animals in a small space, but Pasquale keeps them there for a little while because they need the heat when they’re young) and the rabbits alternately friendly and shy. During Week Two, I managed all the animals on my own, though thankfully, Pasquale was kind of enough to man the chick refuse for me. It was impossible not to smile when passing the goats with their noisy little bells. There were two baby goats, and the little white guy with the start of a fantastic beard was nameless. Pasquale let me have the honor of naming him, and I quickly settled on Rumpelstiltskin.

Feeding the chickens was an adventure in and of itself. Even when there was still food in the containers from the last feeding, they would swarm me, eager for a new batch of grain. Plus, there was Nagasaki. Pasquale warned me about Nagasaki on my first day with the chickens, “He’ll try to fight you every time.” Sure enough, when we entered Nagasaki’s domain, one chicken separated from the rest and approached us confidently. An attractive lunatic, Nagasaki was recognizable by his golden feathers, green-black tail and cocky strut. He  puffed up the feathers around his neck and went in for the kill. Pasquale blocked him with the wheelbarrow and with a plastic scooper tapped the possessed chicken on its tail. Nagasaki subsided and backed away. “Once you hit his ass, you’ve won.”  Pasquale offered no further explanation. When I was in charge of feeding, I’d fill a wheelbarrow with grain from a silo a few meters dowhnhill from the rest of the farm. The wheelbarrow itself was a bit heavy going uphill; paired with the slippery, muddy ground and Nagasaki on the attack, it was like an episode of Italian Gladiators: Countryside Special.

I became buddies with the rabbits, so it was a sad morning for me when Pasqaule took a few of them from their cages as I was feeding them. He brought them down to two old country women there to get the job done with old school expertise. I’m sure they did it in the most painless and cleanest way possible, but I could hear the rabbits crying as I stood only twenty meters away feeding the kittens. It was an awful, stirring experience.

An avid food lover and discoverer, I’ve long had incompatible desires to try every type of food from every culture I encounter and to swear off meat. As I’m inundated with amazing homecooked meals and surrounded by farm animals, many of whom actually seem very content and free to wander, these conflicting feelings are top of mind. We should know where our food comes from in a much more real, visceral way than we do when we buy it at the supermarket or order it for dinner. If I can’t be around animals dying, let alone slaughter an animal, who am I to eat meat?

No sooner had I thought the word “vegetarian,” than Pasquale invited me to a hunters’ feast at our neighbor’s restaurant. They were having a massive dinner provided by their recently hunted cinghiale (wild boar). When in the country…

Pasquale is the youngest member of Torre Alfina’s local hunting club. Until a large family showed up late, I was the only girl at the feast. It was me, Pasquale and a room full of jovial, some rough, some slick, mostly 60+ men.  There were easily fifty diners. We had five courses, two of which were cinghiale: one with pappardelle and the other a simply-presented plate with chunks of tender meat. The boars get to run free their whole lives, not like the poor rabbits who are stuck in cages, I rationalized. (Note: Pasquale, Chiara and Marco do care about the treatment of their animals. They go out of their way to feed them organic food and are still learning and experimenting with ways to make the animals as free as possible. Unlike the bunnies, the chickens, ducks, etc. have some room to roam). There was of course plenty of wine to go around, so I was glad the ride home was just down one long driveway and up another.

Pulicaro’s stone farmhouse was truly lovely, and the tree-filled plains in the winter was like some sort of beautiful, bizarro New England. Still, I found myself longing for the water. Something about knowing the sea is only a few kilometers away, even if it’s too cold to go swimming and I can only see the water in the horizon, makes me feel invigorated and at ease. It was interesting to stay with such a young couple as they faced the very real challenges of making organic farming profitable. Marco hopes to focus on doing a few things really well (like eggs and olive oil) and working through GAS’s, their version of CSA’s. While I was there, they developed a new relationship with one GAS that will hopefully give them the stability they need to keep investing in their animals, fruits and vegetables. It’s a rewarding lifestyle, but only for those with immense patience, passion and dedication.

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