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.