You say “olivi,” I say “ulivi” (or we all just say “olives”)

The Harvest

Picking grapes and chestnuts was a fairly simple process from the picker’s perspective: clip or pick up and drop in little container, when container is full, empty into larger container, repeat.

Things get a bit more interesting with olives. The exact method for olive growing and harvesting of course varies depending on the size of the olivi/ulivi* (olive trees) and the owner’s preference. For starters, Le Serre is biologico aka organic, which means no scary chemicals are used on the olives. All trees need to be pruned, or clipped down a bit, in the winter. Snipping away a few branches actually helps keep the plants healthy and their olive yield and quality high (if you know how to prune properly; something I’m interested to learn more about).

*I heard and read “olive words” starting with both ‘o’s and ‘u’s in Italy. When I asked people, I always got different answers. Upon further research, it seems that indeed both forms are used today and both correct.

Enrico explained that it’s best to pick when the olives are just ripening, so we started to harvest when most of the olives were turning from green to brown. We’d place large nets beneath the trees, clipping the nets to each other and making sure they hugged the tree trunks leaving no gaps for the olives to fall through. Enrico’s not big on killing all the plants around the trees, so there were lots of weeds to navigate our way around with the nets.

We used a ladder only for one very tall tree. For the rest of them, one or two of us would duck under the leaves and climb up on the trunk to pick the inner ulivi/olivi. Most of us would pick by hand or using a little yellow comb that always made me think of a dinglehopper.  Meanwhile, a couple of people would use machines resembling motorized, vibrating rakes to shake most the olives from the trees and reach the highest ones.

After all the trees above a net were picked, we’d unclip, gather the olives, pick out any big branches or leaves, pour the olives into a cassetta, move the nets and re-clip. When a lot of people are working quickly, there’s almost a constant need to be gathering olives and moving nets. Like many, I preferred picking. It was fun, therapeutic even, to pick while chatting, humming or basking in a moment of silence with a view the sea in the distance. To go for the low-hanging fruit, I’d sometimes sit beneath the tree, hidden in my own little canopy of leaves, olives and branches. The harvest is really a beautiful balance between physical work, socializing and having your own private peace.

Tooltime! Keren, Kristy, Daniel and Gabe

Louise hanging in the trees

Side Note: It’s a pretty tame job, but naturally, I made good on any potential dangers involved…

1) Falling out of trees: One morning, I got a bit overzealous in the tree and slipped off the branch, falling onto another on my way down. It hurt a bit, but my ego was far more bruised than my bum; I felt a slight breeze and realized I’d actually managed to rip a few holes in the back of my pants during the fall.

2) Leaf Eye: If you stand near the guys with the auto-rakes, it basically rains olives on your head, an experience I didn’t mind. A greater hazard than the olives themselves are the leaves. Olive leaves are constantly flying off the tree and snapped your way when your neighbor releases a branch. I got a leaf in the eye on one of my first mornings at Le Serre. It stung a bit, but I threw on a pair of inappropriately-large-for-manual-labor sunglasses and figured I’d get over it. That night, conditions worsened. It burned to open my eye all the way and the skin around it was red and swollen. Despite criticism, I continued to don oversized glasses at dinner. By morning, I couldn’t open my eye. This alongside the cold and stomach bug I was quietly fighting made for a painful combination. With one nostril curiously stuffed and one eye watering, I was looking pretty pathetic. It was Sunday, and all the WWOOFers had planned to visit nearby thermal springs for the day. Enrico took me to the nearby pharmacy (run by COOP!) on the way to the station. There, the pharmacist understood that I’d spliced my eye with a piece of paper (foglio) rather than a leaf (foglia) and insisted I go to the emergency room. Eventually, I convinced her to let me first buy some eye drops. The eye drops and the fresh water helped immensely, and I was back in the oliveto/uliveto (olive grove), armed with protective sunglasses, the next day.

From Graft to Glass

Enrico’s olives are a mix of frantoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino. He prefers to mix them all up, producing a well-balanced oil with hints of fruit and spice. I’ve talked to others who prefer to stick to one type of olive, many claiming the flavorful frantoio is the best.

Most of the trees at Le Serre are about twenty years old; big enough to hold a couple of grown male climbers, but without the gnarly, thick trunks of 200-year old trees. It takes about eight years for a new olive tree to bear a significant amount of fruit, though there’s not as strong a correlation between age and quality with olive trees as there is with vines. Likewise, olive oil doesn’t grow better with age; it softens up a bit after the first few months when the oil is bright green and tastes as spunky as it looks, and is best consumed within a year of bottling.

Many things surprised me about the ways of olive and their trees. Here are just a few:

1. All wild olive trees produce small fruit or none at all, and you can’t grow the cultivated varieties by seed. They must be “grafted” or “budded.” Federico told us a thing or two about grafting, the process of fusing the bark of one (cultivated) tree with that of another (wild) tree. Apparently, there are just a few pro-grafters in Italy. By keeping their methods secret, they keep grafting a high-paying gig.

2. There’s a natural cycle with olive trees by which a tree produces a lot of fruit every two years. I found that this can help keep a positive attitude, as each tree that had only a few olives this year was just a promise for more olives next year. Pruning can help to maintain a balance and avoid the alternate bearing effect.

3. Fresh olives are rancid. This is probably not a surprise to most of you, but I had no idea exactly how bitter olives are before they’re pressed, cured or otherwise processed. By the time I’d been in Varenna for a week, I’d developed a dangerous habit of picking and eating fruits familiar and foreign. It seemed natural to pluck an olive off the tree in the backyard and test it out. After all, no pesticides, no problem, right? Wrong. I spat it out, scraped my tongue and gargled some water. I wondered if maybe Sandra and Gigi were organic with everything except their olives, which they sprayed with poison. After experiencing no symptoms of impending death, I asked them about table olive prep. Table olives need to be fermented or cured before consumption. There are lots of methods for curing; like most people I met, Sandra and Gigi, soak the olives in brine (a salt-water solution) for at least one month, changing the water about every ten days.

Once you make it through the perils of picking, it’s time to take the olives to the frantoio (Note: frantoio is both a type of olive and the olive oil “factory” or press). Enrico would take the olives to the frantoio within 24 hours of picking, usually sooner. For top quality oil, it’s important to limit both the time and distance between picking and processing. The longer you wait, the more the olives oxidize immediately, increasing their acidity. The farther you go, the more likely you are to bump and bruise the delicate olives. The frantoio charges the oil makers by kilo of olives, not the actual oil produced. I heard tales of less discriminating producers who would leave their olives out to dry for a week before taking them to the press to lighten the bill.

Enrico let me tag along on a trip to the frantoio. The first thing that struck me when I entered the frantoio was THAT SMELL. It was so incredible I thought I might pass out. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say the air was thick with oil, and when I inhaled it was like being cocooned by olive oil. There’s nothing like a powerful scent coming from fresh vegetables, fruits or herbs that are simply releasing their essence without any cooking involved. It’s something so earthy it’s feels…unearthly?

Olives arrive at the frantoio in a covered loading dock, where they’re poured into a machine that weeds out leaves and other unwanted debris. This carries them into the main room, where they are first washed and then crushed into an aromatic paste. A rotation device known as a decanter crushes the olives and mixes the paste for a half hour or longer. The centrifugal rotation encourages droplets of oil to form, preparing the olives for the next phase: separation. The pulp and oil go to another decanter, where another clever centrifugal system separates oil, pulp and water. The oil comes out of a pipe popping bright green, poured immediately into barrels. The pulp is sucked into a tube and sent to a big pile outside, where Enrico claims passerbys flick their cigarettes and animals do their thing. This is the stuff your dirty, un-virgin olive oil is extracted from.

All the while, a few old men stand there watching. They seem to do nothing except give visitors and the young workers knowing looks that you’d steal a few barrels if at any moment unmonitored. Enrico located his barrels and checked out his stats: 14% oil yield. He was relatively pleased. I’ve read that a low yield is 10% and a very high yield 20%, but 10-15% seems more realistic based on my conversations around Italy. I took in a last whiff of olio air (Olio2?) and the silent guards watched as Enrico and I loaded up the tractor with fresh oil ready for bottling…and dinner.

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Green Olio and Ham

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.

Ugo chilling out

with Marco


love at first sniff

Celebrating Halloween with "Enrico-Lantern"

The man behind the pumpkin

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.


clearly eager for my pasta

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.


pretty little town nearby

Pensive aka exhausted after biking to the sea

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.

I believe the cue was "Look cheesy."

**Thanks Daniel and Annie for sharing your pics!**

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Milano Due

I made another quick stop in Milan en route to my next WWOOFing farm in Toscana. I stayed at Philippe’s again, where I’d left a few of my warmer clothes to lighten my painfully and embarrassingly heavy load. My just-bought-for-Italy-early-birthday-present digital camera had broken right before I left Varenna, so I wasted an afternoon trekking out to the outskirts of town to a Sony repair center. When I got there, they were still in the middle of their two-hour lunch break. (When do people get all their errands done?) Knowing only one way to kill time, I wandered until I found a legit looking artisanal gelato shop. I got marron glaces and, on the owner’s recommendation, chocolate fondente. I rarely, if ever, order chocolate based flavors at home, but this is the real deal….pure, dark chocolate and a texture that’s 90% gelato 10% sorbet. The owner gave me a frequent buyer card, which I gifted Philippe. Turns out I’d stumbled across the one place in that neighborhood his friends had raved to him about. He’d thought of recommending it to me, but couldn’t remember its exact name or location. Perhaps I’ve discovered my sixth sense?

Thank goodness I found that gelato shop (can’t remember the name), because Sony repair was a bust. They reconfirmed my knowledge that yes, it was not a problem with the battery and yes, it was definitely broken. They needed at least a week to fix it, so I decided to go to a shop near my next WWOOFing farm instead. That would be a painful camera-free 2+ week ordeal, so I depended on other WWOOFers for my pics from Le Serre in Tuscany.

The spectacular Duomo and Teatro alla Scala alone made up for all the camera drama. This time, I climbed up to the top of the Duomo and I was blown away. It’s really astonishing to see such intricate detail on such a truly massive scale, and you see this phenomenon on a whole other level from the roof.

Milan’s opera house, Teatro alla Scala (‘the steps’), is another masterpiece. With a bit of patience and determination, we managed to snag a couple of seats through the theater’s last minute reservation system. Our seats were as high as you can go…so high that to see, I had to stand up from my seat and lean against a column on the side of our little “box” (imagine a thousand little sections of six seats forming a scalloped border  around the ground floor at each level). I had a pretty active viewing process, alternating between standing to watch the performers and leaning over to read the screen in front of my seat for the translation, but I was too excited to be there to mind. The show was Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a lighthearted romantic comedy about a scammer who comes to town and sells a lustful lad a bottle of wine disguised as “love potion.” It’s a cute show, replete with the money-hungry, gossipy, gullible townspeople, aloof object of affection who only wants what she can’t have and a thickheaded, but sympathetic protagonist.

A walk around Milan’s fashion district, a prettier, more pedestrian-friendly 5th Avenue, made me nearly forget any “the simple life is all you need” notions from my time on the farms. Drawn inside by the neon-feather adorned mannequins, I indulged myself in trying on just one thing: a fabulous off-white coat at the fabulous Krizia, rippled collar and slightly bubbled body forming one soft piece of perfection. It looked like a wool-cashmere blend, but was actually 100% silk and over $1000 Euros. I told the kind saleslady thank you, but it’s a bit too large, and called it a day.

Milano was nice, but there were too many pushy people, angry drivers and crowded buses making my head throb and giving me flashbacks to New York. I was ready to get back to the country, this time in Toscana.

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Como See Lake Como

I took advantage of a free Sunday during my time in Varenna to see a few villages around the central lake – Bellagio, Menaggio, Tremezzo and Cadenabbio. I was poised at all times for my G.Clooney run-in, resigned to the fact that I might have to settle for third wheel and borrow some nicer clothes from Elisabetta if I stayed for dinner. George must’ve been hiding from the rain back on his side of the lake. Nevertheless, highlights:

– The beautiful ride across the lake. My days off always fell on the rainy, foggy grey days, but Lake Como in dreary weather is just another type of stunning: layers of mountains forming bluish grey silhouettes, with colorful villages growing clear through the mist as we approached each port.

– Palace gardens. These guys didn’t make gardens; they made full on parks, forests, jungles. The Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio remains a manicured park open to the public to this day; Tremezzo’s Palazzo Carlotta’s epic gardens are the main draw of the ticketed palace museum. One of the Princes was a well-read botanist and brought plants from around the world to create the Epcot Center of backyards. My surprise favorite was the Valley of the Ferns, a misty, forested area with footbridges crossing a waterfall immersed in ferns.

– Pierangelo Masciadri’s Arte e Moda in Bellagio. This silk clothing and accessory designer’s daughters work at his two stores in Bellagio and Venice. Oddly enough, his much-touted street cred is that Bill Clinton, George W. and Bill Gates are all fans of his ties. I love that each of his collections is inspired by art, science and history. One is based on Egyptian figures, another on Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical art, and several are regional studies of Italy, like a collection of horse-centric ceramic designs from Tuscany.

– Wandering around Menaggio, a beautiful village that’s just big and small enough to get safely lost wandering up the cobblestone streets.

– Trying mascia, a typical dessert of Lake Como, in Menaggio. Like many classic northern Italian dishes (polenta, little salty fish, risotto…) it comes from making something comforting and delicious with what little was available. Made from stale bread, pine nuts and dried fruits soaked and plumped up, mascia is like a mix between bread pudding and a cake or breakfast bread. It’s just solid enough to retain its shape, but so moist that I felt like a guilty kid sneaking bites of raw cookie dough.

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Al Bicerin

One of my favorite spots in Turin was Caffé Al Bicerin.

Right in the historic Piazza della Consolata, Al Bicerin has the regal, old-school charm of The Plaza, sans stuffiness and with a bit more intimacy. One room houses a small café where walls of wood and mirror are lined with dark red velvet banquettes and marble tabletops. Next door at the Bicerin chocolate shop, the owners sell local and homemade specialties. No pointy-mustached servers behind these counters; it’s Bicerin creed to employ only women.

The café’s namesake is its signature beverage or, technically, the glass it’s served in. Bicchiere is the Italian word for glass, while bicerin is a special glass, like a deep, wide-mouthed wine or ice cream sundae glass, traditionally with a metal handle. Served in bicerin since the nineteenth century, Turin’s liquid remedy of hot chocolate, coffee and cream became synonymous with its glass.

I ordered a bicerin and one piece of Gianduiotto DOC, a heavenly, creamy mix of ground hazelnuts, soft sweet cocoa, sugar and cocoa butter paste. Like many of Italy’s best, the recipe for Gianduiotto was born out of a period of hard times, but was so good it stuck. When Piemonte was under the control of French troops, the English fleets often blocked imports, creating intermittent cocoa shortages. You might assume intermittent shortages mean intermittent cocoa consumption. Not if you’re Italian. Clever chocolate makers found a way to eat well in the face of uncertainty. They limited cocoa consumption by mixing it with ground hazelnuts into the beloved Giandiotto.

The bicerin arrived on it’s own little dish, with a bit of chocolate syrup decorating a perfect head of frothed cream. The server informed me I could mix it into the beverage, but not to mix too much so as to destroy the foam. I heeded her instructions with great care, and dove in. Rich, dark chocolate and a nice hit of espresso flooded my mouth, the strength and sweetness cut perfectly by the filter of cream.  The bicerin is probably too much for an everyday drink, but it’s the perfect “something special,” or weekly, treat and was just the comfort I needed from the rainy day outside.

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Pickin’ Chestnuts on Lago di Como

The Setting

After my quick stop in Torino, I spent two weeks in Varenna, a magical little village on Lake Como. They say Lake Como is like a man, divided into a main body and two legs, Como sitting near the foot of one of those legs. Varenna’s right in the middle, on the Signore Como’s left hip. Technically, I was living in Perledo, an even tinier village just up the hill from Varenna. This place is unreal. Everywhere you turn is a picture; stone houses framing narrow cobblestone streets, hilltop churches, silhouettes of mountains across the lake with splashes of yellow, coral, white and pink marking villages. On clear days, you can even see the peaks of the Alps.

The whole town is one big hill, with pedestrian paths and the roads weaving between forests and plots of land to create many small plots. Gigi (short for Luigi) and Sandra’s land is dispersed across several areas. Outside the house, they have a kiwi-roofed terrace, a grape-lined fence, a small greenhouse and a garden with about twenty beehives, and nearby, a bit of forest with five chestnut trees, plus land with a chicken coop, fig, walnut and olive trees (including the northernmost olive tree in Italy!), and a beautiful garden lined with fruit trees and veggies.

The Chestnuts

My main job was harvesting chestnuts. Gigi and I left the house at 7am on my first morning, making the five-minute drive to the chestnut trees in the dark. I asked him why he started so early, and anticipated an answer involving the biology of chestnuts and angle of the sun or some biodynamic theory about the moon and fruit and nut picking days.

“We have to go before everyone wakes up, or the tourists take all the chestnuts.”

“Ah…people like me?” I was getting into a dangerous habit of picking up and trying any edible looking thing I happened upon, identifiable or mystery.

“No. It’s the tourists from Milan usually. They just pick up chestnuts from the street like they belong to no one.”

The nerve. It’s like they think chestnuts grow on…wait a minute….

Chestnuts grow inside little green and brown porcupine spheres, with anywhere from one to three chestnuts inside each ball. I really never knew what chestnuts looked like “at birth.” Working in agriculture has made me realize just how removed I am from so many of the things I eat. Most of the time, I have little to no idea how animals were kept, milked, killed when I consume them and their byproducts. Perhaps a lesser offense, when I picture something like a nut, I imagine exactly what I buy and eat, or a dapper man with an eyeglass, top hat and cane. So, when I finally met chestnuts in the flesh, I was struck by their resemblance to Sonic. A clever packaged candy company also seems to have picked up on the similitude.

The nuts fall from the treetops, so the harvest is basically just picking them up from the ground. Most chestnuts roll naturally from their spiky outer-shell, but you have to poke them with a stick (or hands; an amateur move) to be certain. If it’s full, you loosen and extract the nuts by stepping on the skin. The first day, the temptation to poke around with my hands meant lots of painful pricks in spite of my working gloves. It’s simple work, but requires Dove Wally? (yes, Martin Hancock has spread his empire all the way to Italy) eyesight, as you’re constantly scanning the ground for chestnuts. The raccolta di castagne was much quieter work than the vendemmia. The first week, it was just me and Gigi; the second week, once I was a seasoned harvester and the chestnuts were fewer, it was just me. I’d take a peaceful pedestrian path through the forest, past a little waterfall, fill up a big backpack of chestnuts, and walk back home in a couple of hours.

Each day, we’d fill a big barrel with the new chestnuts, cover them with water and remove any floaters. If a chestnut floats, it means it’s hollow or has a hole with a grub or some other critter inside. They continually soaked each batch of chestnuts with fresh water for nine days before letting them dry in the sun, a technique that enables them retain their moisture.

Gigi told me about the different types of chestnuts, encouraging me to pick up every last marrone. Marroni are the real deal; the big, shiny-skinned, plump ones Sandra and Gigi would sell at the market. Marroni are omnipresent in Italy in the winter; you’ll find them roasted by vendors on the corner of any respectable city thoroughfare, in every respectable patiscerria boiled with simple syrup into a sweet, gelatin-like luxury called marron glace that’s also a seasonal flavor in every respectable gelateria.

Castagne salvatica, wild chestnuts, are smaller and spikier than their royal cousins. Sandra would use these ones for marmalade, first letting them dry out for a few months so their skins were easier to remove. They’re also used to bake castagnaccio, a savory-sweet dessert made from chestnut flour. I’d have labeled it a bread, but it’s actually considered cake. Castagniacco has a soft, thin consistency akin to the cookie-cake, with slightly more crumble. It’s an ideal combo of salty and sweet; the one I tried was dotted with pine nuts, walnuts, raisins, rosemary and a nice dose of sugar and salt.

You can learn a lot about the way your mind works when you’re working for a long time outside, completing a simple task in silence. Apparently, mine works like that of a hyperactive five year old. We would always collect nuts from the road first thing in the morning, “before they become marmelatta,” as Gigi says. I started to think Pixar, like Chicken Run but about the trials  and triumphs of hedgehog-like chestnuts. Us humans seemed at first their heroes, saving them from oncoming traffic, but then we brought them to their final destination, the fireplace or grinder. The marroni were old and proud of their heritage, ready to sacrifice themselves to be the ultimate Christmas treat.  The salvatica were the anarchists, young punks looking to spike the hand that collects them and escape their fête fate. Cute and clever happy ending TBD.

The Life

Varenna was a completely different experience than Novi; just me and a family. For Gigi and Sandra, agricultural work is their full time job. Gigi is in charge of things like the harvesting, mowing and beekeeping and Sandra making marmalade and preserves from nuts, fruits and veggies, along with honey, simple syrups, juices and seasoning mixes. Each of their children does his/her own thing. There’s the fourteen year old daughter with sweet and sour spells typical of a high school freshman, a twenty year old son who drums and helps out Gigi with the farming here and there, a twenty-five year old son works in an archaeology lab and a twenty-eight year old son who works as a falconer at Vezia castle, the area’s highest viewpoint and key sightseeing spot.

My time was all solo and with the family, save for a few random shopkeepers. I worked 5 full days, with a half day on Saturdays and a day off on Sundays, which I used to explore Varenna and take the ferry to a few other lake towns. After lunch and siesta, I’d spend a couple of hours helping out with whatever was needed. The work varied from picking figs and grapes, to cleaning walnuts, separating mint leaves from their stems in preparation for Sandra’s delicious mint simple syrup (I used it in my tea, but they say it’s great in granita), to feeding the six crazy hens and their big pet rabbit, Mr. Wilson. Whatever the task, their friendly (read: needy) cats would accompany me. As I climbed the branches of a fichi tree, using a special wooden cane to bend the branches closer to me, and gently picking the figs and placing them into a fig leaf-lined wooden basket, the cats would jump on each of my limbs to test my balance. When I cleaned the mint, the curious kitten sniffed the box of herbs in search of something appetizing, finally diving in and rising victorious with green worm in paw.

After work, I’d steal away to wander the paths up and down through town and munch on uve Americana, delectably sweet grapes that I’ve never come across in America. The rest of my days were calm…dinner with the family, generally with the kids joining Sandra, Gigi and me in various shifts and the Italian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in the background, followed by an hour with Italy’s favorite talk show host, Fabio Fazio, a sort of cross between Ryan Seacrest and Matt Lauer, with pull comparable to Larry King. I generally womanned all cleaning (come on kids, help your tired Mom. She heated up dinner three times. Wash your dish) with Sandra and was out cold by 11pm.

Working with Gigi made me aware of the incredible balance of stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities that a true farmer must have. On one hand, there’s the strength to carry, pull, push and chop and the fortitude to remain unwavering in the face of rain, wind and aggressive and/or smelly animals; on the other hand is a soft touch, intuitiveness and great patience.

Whether we were picking grapes, figs and olives, Gigi’s advice was always the same: be gentle. He was always sensitive to the nuances in appearance and behavior of his animals and bees, in tune with their health and stress level. To appraise how well the organic pest-killer was working in each of some twenty boxes of bees and which needed another dose, we would remove a tray from the bottom of each box and count the dead pests, numbering from a mere five to over 1,000. When he treated the hives, he’d be there for hours, always conscientious and careful. Both were tedious tasks, but he never seemed exasperated.

I suppose spending your days in such a beautiful setting helps make heavy work a bit lighter, simple jobs more exhilarating and long days easier to savor from sunrise to sunset.

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Il Toro

I took a detour to Torino before my next WWOOFing stop. Here I couchsurfed with the delightful Manu. Manu’s half Peruvian, half Italian and all Torino (Torinian?). Having grown up in the city and worked there (most recently at the omnipresent Fiat), he knows the city inside out and wherever we went, he had plenty of historical trivia to share. He was also full of stories about Italy’s contentious politics and cultural anomalies, like the politics of sports. He’s part of a fan group for Torino’s futbol team, but apparently, just supporting the same team doesn’t necessarily make you part of the same club. Other things, like political beliefs, would determine who you root with.

My first day was a bit of a challenge. All day it was drizzling or pouring out, and, being a Monday, all the museums were closed. Still, I managed just fine. In the morning, Manu drove and walked me around a few neighborhoods, like the French deco-adorned Liberty district where he grew up. Then I wandered through town, losing myself in the countless palace-bordered piazzas.

Manu and his vintage bug

little birdie on pretty statue

Not quite sure...but clearly, this warranted a photo

rainy days can't stop this girl

In the afternoon I wandered into something that looked old, palatial and open. Turns out it was Palazzo Barolo, one of the more “off the beaten royal path” museums. I visited several incredible palaces and villas during my few days in Torino, but oddly enough, this turned out to be one of my most interesting stops. In the scheme of Italian palaces, the rooms here weren’t the grandest or most ornate; but in the scheme of Italian palace tours, it was tops. After learning that there was no English signage anywhere and noting just a couple of rooms with old furniture in sight, I thanked the attendants and thought I’d sit this one out.

“You’re not going to see?” they asked me. They assured me one of the man with grey hair could share some information in English and the next thing I knew, I had a private tour guide. He didn’t really speak English, but had a special staff printout of the palace’s history in English that he tried to relay and eventually let me sit down and read. In very slow Italian, he explained the allegories painted on the ceilings, the history of the palace and the Barolo lineage to me, going to great lengths to describe words I didn’t know through hand gestures and the few Italian words I did know. He even drew pictures on the back of the English printouts (which he secretly gifted me at the end of our tour) and let me check out the rooms blocked off for renovation.

The story of the palace was surprisingly depressing. Elena Matilde was the daughter of Monsu’ di Druent (Counte Druent), the first man of the house. Druent married Elena to Gerolamo IV Gabriele Falletti, one of the Barolo (yep, like the wine) descendants. They were married, had three sons and all was going swimmingly…until the Counte lost control. Turns out Druent liked to gamble, a lot. He blew through his daughter’s dowry, which meant married life for Elena was finito (though how great could a marriage so utterly dependent on dowry really have been?). Gerolamo and the kids stayed out in the country, leaving poor Elena to her own accord in the city palace. Left distraught, alone and longing for the company of her children, she jumped out the window onto the streets of Torino…and legend has it her ghost haunts the palace. Later, over pizza a la 20-something Italian boy  (think homemade dough with canned olives, tuna and veggies fired on the stovetop) Manu and his friends informed me that the palace was often closed for renovation, and they’d never heard of anyone touring it.


my favorite fresco on the ceiling of Palazzo Barolo: morning, noon, afternoon and night

To lighten things up, I found a great spot for apperetivo (a magical time before dinner when bars provide free food to anyone who buys a drink…the quality varies from peanuts, frozen pizza and oversalted olives to freshly cooked hot dishes either served buffet style or to your personal table) while I killed time before meeting up with Manu. I wandered into the swanky part of town across the River Po, and spotted a lit up VINI sign, a neon oasis in the rainy, dreary evening. It was a sweet, casual little wine bar and shop with a table full of quality reads like the Italian version of Idiana Jones and Danielle Steele style English novels. There was a teeny toilette to match the teeny bar; by far the smallest I’ve experienced in Italy so far. It one of those special standing/pee into the floor toilets, and there was still barely enough room to walk in and stand. I cracked my first joke in Italian to the bartender, noting that he had the biggest bathroom in all of Italy. Okay, not stand up material, but it got a good laugh. The fact that he understood me at all was enough to make me smile.

Manu made me feel totally at ease from the minute I met him, so I decided to stay an extra day so I’d have time to check out a few museums and other essentials like the original Italian food mecca, Eataly. A nice chunk of what I think was a grana padana (more on g.p. to come) and a few slices of proscuitto di parma made for a pretty ideal picnic train lunch.

From the ceramics collection in PalazzoMadama’s  Museum of Ancient Art. “I’m a little teapot…”

Just another afternoon in the garden….Reggia di Venaria (the royal summer residence outside the city center):








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