Next stop, Toscana. The train ride along the Ligurian coast was beautiful; forests of pines bordering a craggy coastline. I stepped off the train in Cecina, a small city near my next WWOOFing farm.
My host, Enrico, met me outside the station. He had gray hair balding in the middle, little round glasses and a substantial mustache. He instantly made my feel at ease, free to relax, joke, ask questions and be myself. He had to run a few errands on the way home, and as we waited for the mechanic to fix the trailer, we chatted about WWOOFers past. He was quick to bring up Rachel, a Bostonian he’d hosted last year:
“She TALKED LIKE THIS,” he told me, doing his best Donald Duck impression. I’d soon discover that Enrico’s imitations of all Americans sounded like Donald Duck, the Boston one was just a bit louder and slightly more grotesque than the rest.
After a detour to check out the beach, we drove into the hills of Riparbella, a tiny town with a center of two roads and one bar. Enrico was like a personal tour guide, telling me about the history of the roads, the region and the special salt extracted directly from the sea without salt beds. It was clear that my cultural education and Italy experience were of interest to him, which is the X factor that separates a great WWOOF host from the rest.
Le Serre, Enrico’s olivetto (olive vineyard), farmhouse and agritourism, was home to some 1,200 olivi (olive trees), along with a couple of donkeys, Ugo e Pino, a couple of pigs, Gustavo Uno e Gustavo Due (Gustavo also means “I savored,” so their names translate roughly to Yummy One and Yummy Two) and a few dogs, including the beloved Molla. It’s common to meet farmers, wine and olive oil makers who inherited their land from their family; this was not the case for Enrico and his wife, Luisiana. They met in Milan, where they’d worked for the same IT company and later ran a bar together. They decided to escape the city about twenty years ago, and after lots of land-searching settled on their oasis near Cecina. Situated on Tuscany’s coastline, it’s a good environment for tourism, quality olivi and overall quality of life.
Luisiana was a petite woman who was as friendly as she could be without speaking much English. She often wore a t-shirt that read “White Trash,” hinting at an acute sense of irony, though there’s a chance she neither knew nor cared what it meant. She had a kind, calm disposition and an uncanny ability to make exactly the right amount of pasta for 12 people to overeat just enough. Diego, their sixteen year-old son, was incredibly shy; despite my mealtime efforts, it was hard to get much out of him. What I can tell you is he had long, well-kempt hair and an affinity for comics.
Five other WWOOFers were there to greet me: Gabe and Kristy, two Minnesotan rugby gals; Keren and Daniel, an Israeli couple who had just made a early escape from a crazy farm near Siena; and Mary, a Swedish chef who, like all the Swedes I’ve met, spoke impeccable English. Also working the harvest were Federico, who spends each autumn and winter harvesting olives and pruning the trees at Le Serre and each spring and summer living in his camper on the coast, working at a beach resort and surfing; Marco, Enrico’s lovely older brother who visits Le Serre from Milan for a month every harvest; Marco’s brother-in-law Lino, a softspoken man with a penchant for cigarettes, gambling and climbing up olive trees; and Rafael, a smiley friend of Federico who occasionally came to help from Cecina.
WWOOFers slept in the agritourism rooms, and I was lucky enough to snag my own private bedroom, sharing a bathroom with Gabe and Kristy. Each morning, we’d walk a few steps along the terrace to the dining room/living room for breakfast around 8. After growing accustomed to 7am reveille, the late breakfast felt like quite a luxury. We’d stuff ourselves with kiwi, apples, bananas, yogurt, cereal and toast with jam or the occasional Novi crème (like Nutella minus some additives) and head out to pick olives in one of the vineyards surrounding the house by 9. After a good four hours of work, it was time for lunch.
Lunch was always a feast (as was dinner) – plates piled with pasta, hearty soup and/or meat, plus a platter of fresh veggies from which you make-your-own-salad, a platter of cheese and the occasional platter of sliced meats.
Every day was a lesson in cheese, as we sampled everything from talleggio, gorgonzola, and mozzarella, to parmigiano, pecorino and a neighbor’s fresh cow’s milk cheese. Enrico and Luisiana were of the muca party, maintaining that cow’s milk cheese is superior to sheep’s milk cheese. This is a dangerous claim to make Lazio, home of pecorino romano (pecora are sheep…who knew?). Grana padana is defined by the grain, or grana, that they feed the cows, and is generally considered Parmesan’s Grade B cousin. Still, you can get some very high quality GP and I certainly enjoyed it. Marco used to work as a scientist for the government’s dairy association, and actually helped develop the enzyme that prevents holes from forming in grana padana.
Enrico was always sharing tidbits about how something was produced and how to best enjoy it (hint: the answer is usually add olive oil). I learned, for instance, that the fuller, meatier mouthfeel of much Italian pasta is due not only to its being prepared al dente, but also to the fact that it’s made of grano duro, a hard grain.
There were always two types of Extra Virgin Olive Oil on the table: bottles from the 2009 harvest and bottles from current harvest. Both were incredible, but the new one, a vibrant green, really packed a punch with a bit more tanginess than the 2009. There was also always wine, unlabeled bottles from their friends nearby.
There was a consistent pattern in these lunches: too much food + too much wine = too tired to move + coffee + some healthy sweets + some unhealthy sweets = still too tired and full but ready to work. Once we all hit our food coma walls, Enrico would announce, “Who doesn’t want coffee?!” (a crowdpleaser every time). Generally, one person would raise their hand and quickly retract after thirty seconds’ thought. Moka is Italy’s steel stovetop wunderkind. Each machine has its own idiosyncrasies, and every Italian has their own strong opinion on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Some press the grounds; some don’t. Some fill the filter just to its rim; others pile it into a cone “volcano style.” Enrico makes his with 2 or so teaspoons of Orzo (a caffeine-free barley drink) and 3 or so of coffee. I quite liked the Le Serre café; enough espresso for a good buzz, plus the Orzo cutting through the bitterness, softening it a bit like milk.
Enrico and Luisiana’s generosity and attentiveness were stunning. Once the homegrown produce is done, some hosts might leave WWOOFers with bread, more bread and pasta. Don’t get me wrong; Italian pasta’s great, but the body wants some color. If ever we were short on tomatoes, bananas, kiwi, yogurt or juice, the next day it would be replenished as if by magic (or a trip to the omnipresent COOP).
Most Saturday afternoons, Sundays and rainy days were free days, some spent more ambitiously than others. We took a trip to thermal baths, to explore villages nearby, walks in the countryside and a slightly painful bike ride (I was on one of what Enrico called the ‘Chinese bikes’) to the sea. There were also plenty of afternoons hanging around Le Serre, playing cards and reading, Internet trips to the local library and COOP and my own special trip to the Sony repair center in the port city of Livorno.
During my stay at Le Serre, I said goodbye to one group of WWOOFers and welcomed a new group of Swedes and a fellow Bostonian to the farm. In 2+ weeks, I had become the veteran WWOOFer, and it really started to feel like home. As I said my very difficult goodbyes, I was already daydreaming about next year’s harvest…or maybe learning how to prune.
**Thanks Daniel and Annie for sharing your pics!**