Final Reflections

Leaving Alberto’s farm was certainly bittersweet. Even his sister, whom I had only exchanged a few smiles and words with prior, came by the day before I left to say bye and to thank me for helping. Her English was very limited and you could tell she was nervous to speak, but I cannot say how much it meant to have her go out of her comfort zone to bid me farewell. And of course, saying Ciao to Mama Grosoli was quite sad indeed. Gosh, I wish I could speak Italian just so I could communicate with her! Alberto said that she is the type of person that doesn’t understand that speaking louder in Italian won’t solve the communication issue that someone like myself simply just doesn’t speak Italian. But judging by her gestures, she is quite the fun and interesting lady.

Sure there were plenty of times when my back hurt from hoeing or when my knees cracked from kneeling on the hard clay ground and I questioned why I put myself through such a physically demanding summer when I could have studied a similar topic by taking a class about sustainable agriculture at the University of Rome instead. But at the same time, this experience turned into so much more than just about me being a volunteer worker on a farm or about looking for a way to expand my knowledge of the food and sustainability industries. Because WWOOF is not associated with any school/student organization, it attracts people from all over the world and from all different ages. Alberto has hosted WWOOFers upwards of 50 years old before! Because I was not automatically labeled as the “American student studying abroad in Italy” I feel that I was looked at and treated more like an adult and was able to connect with a wider demographic of people than I would have been had I studied through a school program. I am coming back to the States with a confidence that I can carry and represent myself genuinely even in uncomfortable situations where I do not have much in common with those around me. Not to mention also a new confidence and spark to travel and explore solo!

With that, I think I can bring this WWOOFing blog to a close. After I left the farm at the end of last week, I spent a few days with my Zio and Zia (Uncle and Aunt) in Padova where I was able to do a little bit of sight-seeing and touring before heading home. We made it out to Milan to see the World Expo, which was ever so conveniently about world food systems! It was quite possibly the perfect cumulative day to tie everything I had learned at the farm together. I will continue to narrate via pictures, but I have touched on what I think the important topics that cannot be expressed in a single frame are. So for now…Arrivederci! Ciao! And Grazie for keeping up with my crazy shenanigans on this wild ride! I don’t know what the next adventure will be, but I can guarantee that it will involve more yummy food and foreign soil.

Salute!

Sierra

never thought I would eat an entire beet raw, but when they are so fresh and sweet all they need is some lemon and a pinch of salt!
never thought I would eat an entire beet raw, but when they are so fresh and sweet all they need is some lemon and a pinch of salt!
Beehives on the farm!  Alberto was kind enough to send me home with a jar of the delicious honey! It's amazing the complexity that honey can take when it's not the store bought stuff.
Beehives on the farm! Alberto was kind enough to send me home with a jar of the delicious honey! It’s amazing the complexity that honey can take when it’s not the store bought stuff.
In the final week the fruits started to ripen!!! My last run ended with a frolick through the fruit trees snacking on these yummy plums
In the final week the fruits started to ripen!!! My last run ended with a frolick through the fruit trees snacking on these yummy plums
ever seen a fresh red onion?
ever seen a fresh red onion?
First (purple) bean harvest!
First (purple) bean harvest!
What is that you say?  Why it is fresh garlic!!!!
What is that you say? Why it is fresh garlic!!!!
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The Final Week on the Farm

One week before my departure from the farm, Lara returned. Lara is a WWOOFer from Italy (only about an hour east of Modena) who is staying for an entire year so she can get a more complete understanding of how organic farming works from season to season. She arrived in October, but went home these past two weeks for her sister’s wedding.

I had heard much about Lara from Alberto and Agnes. They both described her as a “very curious person” meaning she always has questions to ask and experiments to act on. The famous story about Lara is the marmalade di fragola (strawberry jam) story. The week before I arrived, the farm had loads of strawberries that weren’t “perfect” (recall from a previous post that we can only sell the “perfect” strawberries), so Lara decided to make jam with the rejects. Alberto’s mother gave Lara her tried-and-true ratio of strawberries, sugar, and pectin to make the perfect jam. Well, Lara being the curious one she is, wondered if there was a better ratio. So Lara decided to test not one, not two, not three, but four different ratios for strawberry jam. The result? Over 30 jars each labeled ‘fragola II,’ ‘fragola III,’ ‘fragola IV,” or no label (= fragola I). IV was too thick. I was not thick enough. III was too sweet and some were not sweet enough. To Alberto, Mama Alberto, and Agnes, this seemed extremely excessive; but, when I heard about Lara’s inquisitive nature, I could completely relate to it and I could not be more eager to meet her.

Gosh, I wish I had more time with Lara! There was never a dull moment with her. If she was not hitting me with rapid fire questions, she was either singing or humming or talking to Axel (the dog). Lara brought a wonderful fresh energy to the farm, Alberto, and myself. She asked questions about my personal life and my background that sometimes seemed a bit out of context, but made me really think about what I really know (and what I don’t know!) about myself.

One more reason why Lara and I got along so well was because she loves food. For such a tiny woman she can eat! Though she normally does all the cooking for the farm, Alberto talked so much about my cooking that she wanted to taste my food while I was still on the farm. We came to somewhat of an unspoken agreement that I would finish work 30 minutes earlier so I could prepare lunch or dinner, which I happily obliged to. By the end of my stay, the two of them were quite attached to my cooking. Lara is keen on finishing every bite of food that was prepared, so she would always scoop the last portion of pasta or whatever dish it was onto Alberto’s plate while she took a chunk of bread and sopped up the last of the sauce in the pot for herself (an act known as scarpetta), often licking the unwieldy serving scoop as well.

As for me, for my final meal on the farm, I did not want pasta, nor did I want risotto or another traditional Italian dish. All I wanted was to have one last big, fresh, garden salad where I could savor the pure flavor of every ingredient. From the vegetables to the olive oil to the drops of syrupy balsamic vinegar, those are the things that are special to me. I could go home and remake a pasta dish with garlic, olive oil, and a few other similar ingredients, but I am never going to come into such direct contact with the bounty of vegetables as I had on the farm.

I am leaving the farm with of course an enormous amount of newfound knowledge about organic and sustainable agriculture as well as information about Italian culture that I did not expect to encounter, but in terms of what I will take away from this experience from a culinary standpoint, I think it is safe to say that I have truly gained an appreciation for simplicity. It sounds cliché, but it really is something special and worth celebrating when you have ingredients that are so deep in flavor that they can standalone. I am thinking specifically of the peas that I spent so much time harvesting. When I popped open the first pod out in the field, I could not believe how sweet the peas were. Then as I ate more (a few kilos of perfect peas probably didn’t make it to the market…not sorry about that) I realized that they had an almost vanilla-like quality to them! This is just one example of the nuances you can pick up on from these fresh organic vegetables, but these flavors cannot be appreciated (or even noticed) when you throw the peas in a soup and cook them down till they are mush or when you smother them in a casserole with cream and salt. Friends and family, in the future you can expect to find a shift in my cooking style. One that is perhaps less driven by specific cravings or flipping through a recipe book and is instead inspired by showcasing a specific ingredient or two. Again, I am reminded of Chef Fiorelli and how he derives inspiration from the local markets to create his dishes.

The last Monday on the farm was Alberto's niece's first birthday.  The entire family came over to celebrate.  She kept throwing her presents on the ground, silly girl.
The last Monday on the farm was Alberto’s niece’s first birthday. The entire family came over to celebrate. She kept throwing her presents on the ground, silly girl.
In the last week we also did the task of extracting the balsamic from the acetaia (name for where you make balsamic).  This only happens once a year so I am very lucky to have witnessed it.
In the last week we also did the task of extracting the balsamic from the acetaia (name for where you make balsamic). This only happens once a year so I am very lucky to have witnessed it.
Now see how thick and syrupy that is?  That's what real balsamic vinegar is supposed to look like.  Only ingredient is cooked grape must.  No added red wine vinegar and no caramel coloring.
Now see how thick and syrupy that is? That’s what real balsamic vinegar is supposed to look like. Only ingredient is cooked grape must. No added red wine vinegar and no caramel coloring.
The 5 liters that need to last an entire year.
The 5 liters that need to last an entire year.
Oh hey there Axel!  View from the acetaia.
Oh hey there Axel! View from the acetaia.
On the last Tuesday, Alberto and I went to a new market in Piumasso.  It was very small, but we both agreed it had a great atmosphere.  The people were friendly, the products are varied, and most importantly, the business was great!
On the last Tuesday, Alberto and I went to a new market in Piumasso. It was very small, but we both agreed it had a great atmosphere. The people were friendly, the products are varied, and most importantly, the business was great!
Close up of some of our goods.
Close up of some of our goods.
Our menu for the day at the Tuesday market.  I am still blown away by the prices.  In the States it would cost twice as much to receive organic produce, straight from a small, local farm.  Keep in mind that 1 kilo = 2.2 pounds!!!
Our menu for the day at the Tuesday market. I am still blown away by the prices. In the States it would cost twice as much to receive organic produce, straight from a small, local farm. Keep in mind that 1 kilo = 2.2 pounds!!!
The new Tuesday market also sells food!
The new Tuesday market also sells food!
On the last day I finally got to spend time in the vineyards!  We actually spent all day in them, pruning and cutting the grass.  Wine making is a labor of love for sure.
On the last day I finally got to spend time in the vineyards! We actually spent all day in them, pruning and cutting the grass. Wine making is a labor of love for sure.
Grapes.  Not ripe now.
Grapes. Not ripe now.
Preparing zucchini plugs! This soil is peat, a soil found at the bottom of bodies of water, so it is extremely high in nutrients and a great way to start seedlings.
Preparing zucchini plugs! This soil is peat, a soil found at the bottom of bodies of water, so it is extremely high in nutrients and a great way to start seedlings.
Fresh baked loaf of bread that Lara made.
Fresh baked loaf of bread that Lara made.
Last meal on the farm, Alberto whipped out the good stuff: Parmigiano Reggiano with 50 year old balsamic carefully dripped on top.
Last meal on the farm, Alberto whipped out the good stuff: Parmigiano Reggiano with 50 year old balsamic carefully dripped on top.
The best part about traveling alone: the people you meet.  This is Francesca, my tour guide from the balsamic tour!  On my way to Padova I stopped in Bologna to meet up with her!  She took me on a couple beautiful hikes just outside the main part of the city.
The best part about traveling alone: the people you meet. This is Francesca, my tour guide from the balsamic tour! On my way to Padova I stopped in Bologna to meet up with her! She took me on a couple beautiful hikes just outside the main part of the city.
Bologna is home to the longest stretch of porticos (covered archways) in the world.  The entire stretch was about 3.3 km, but the inclined portion was a little over 1 mile.
Bologna is home to the longest stretch of porticos (covered archways) in the world. The entire stretch was about 3.3 km, but the inclined portion was a little over 1 mile.
View from the top of the hike to San Luca
View from the top of the hike to San Luca
A much earned gelato at the end of our hiking.
A much earned gelato at the end of our hiking.
Every summer Bologna sets up this outdoor theater in the main piazza.  They show all sorts of movies and they are all free!
Every summer Bologna sets up this outdoor theater in the main piazza. They show all sorts of movies and they are all free!

A quick post about last weekend in Florence and Siena

(written a week ago, but not posted until a week later…my apologies)

Coming into this trip, I had very little planned. I knew I was going to be on the farm for 4 weeks and I knew I was going spend time with my relatives in Padova. Aside from that, I planned to leave my weekends open for whatever serendipitous events may come my way. Well, last weekend was quite the pleasant surprise. I saw on Facebook that one of my teammates from Davidson is studying in Rome for the summer and (to make a long story short) a few Facebook messages later, we realized that we could meet in Florence for the weekend!

We arrived in Florence Friday morning and spent all day Friday and Saturday doing just about every touristy thing you can do in Florence. Morgan also came with two friends from her program, so in total there were four of us. It was a lovely time and Florence in a lovely city, but I must say that I was not prepared for the incredibly large number of tourist in the city. It was quite overwhelming being surrounded by so many tour groups and people trying to reach the same destinations. Sunday we went to Siena, which was mellower and less overwhelming, but let’s just say that by the time I returned to the farm Sunday night, I was happy to be back in the quiet countryside where I wouldn’t have to pay 4.50 for a cappuccino.

Fun story: Saturday in Florence I broke away from our crew to go do my own food adventure. While on my own I stumbled on a group of Chinese tourists who were clearly lost and could speak no English or Italian – at all. I stopped to try to help them find their way, but the only problem was that they were telling me the Chinese name of the place they were trying to find and I did not know the English or Italian name of said place. In the end, it was a valiant effort on my part to try to put my Chinese to good use, but unfortunately I was unable to help them. Fortunately, however, because there are so many tourists in Florence, a Chinese tour group came our way and were able to help them out.

Look who I found!  It's Morgan from Davidson Cross Country!  On top of the Duomo in Florence
Look who I found! It’s Morgan from Davidson Cross Country! On top of the Duomo in Florence
View out our window in Florence.  We stayed in an awesome apartment being rented out through Air BnB by a total hippie.
View out our window in Florence. We stayed in an awesome apartment being rented out through Air BnB by a total hippie.
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge).  It's famous because it is covered with expensive jewelry stores.
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). It’s famous because it is covered with expensive jewelry stores.
While on my solo food adventure in Florence I stumbled on a street food vendor selling tripe.  Tripe is the stomach lining of...cows? or pigs?  Anyway, for two euros I got to taste this delicacy stewed with tomatoes and spices.  It was one of the best things I had the whole trip.  Imagine strips of fatty pork stewed in a chili like sauce.  Yum.
While on my solo food adventure in Florence I stumbled on a street food vendor selling tripe. Tripe is the stomach lining of…cows? or pigs? Anyway, for two euros I got to taste this delicacy stewed with tomatoes and spices. It was one of the best things I had the whole trip. Imagine strips of fatty pork stewed in a chili like sauce. Yum.
Doesn't it look delicious?  It's a pistachio trifle.  But wait for it...there's goat cheese in it! Surprise!  Delicious for most people, but for me, goat cheese is one of the few foods I prefer not to eat.  Darn, it looked so good.
Doesn’t it look delicious? It’s a pistachio trifle. But wait for it…there’s goat cheese in it! Surprise! Delicious for most people, but for me, goat cheese is one of the few foods I prefer not to eat. Darn, it looked so good.
Artsy photoof some dogs that I took on a bridge in Florence at sunset.
Artsy photoof some dogs that I took on a bridge in Florence at sunset.
View of Florence at night from Piazzalle Michelangelo.  Had took take a taxi back from this one.  We had already walked 13 km that day and we felt no desire to walk more.
View of Florence at night from Piazzalle Michelangelo. Had took take a taxi back from this one. We had already walked 13 km that day and we felt no desire to walk more.
Siena Duomo sideview
Siena Duomo sideview
Front of the Siena Duomo
Front of the Siena Duomo
Siena View
Siena View with Dylan (from Morgan’s program)

Backing It Up A Bit

Oh goodness I have a lot to get caught up on! Before I post about this past weekend (Florence and Siena) I am going to rewind to last Wednesday.

Circa June 17, 2015…

One of Alberto’s best friends is Maria. Maria is also a farmer and owns an incredible farm in Vignola (a nearby town against the mountains) that cultivates an unbelievable bounty of fruit. At the first market she had a good 30 boxes filled with cherries, but now we are moving into stone fruit season so she is selling peaches and apricots. Maria is possibly one of the funniest ladies I have met here. She is about 5 feet tall and probably in her early 60s, but is not to be messed with. At the markets on Fridays she rolls up in a tiny Italian car packed to the brim with boxes of fruit, then unloads them so quickly that the next thing I know she has her table and handwritten sign out with several stacks of boxes taller than herself sitting right behind her. No matter how much I stare at the multitude of delicious boxes of fruit thinking there will be some left for me at the end of the market, I am left disappointed because Maria ALWAYS sells out.

Maria also is a prominent figure in the local organic market scene. She has helped organize weekly markets in Modena, Bologna, and her most recent addition is a Wednesday market at her own farm! This past Wednesday Alberto and I decided to go check it out. Turns out, we were also able to sell some beets and our first crop of tomatoes while we were at it!

The market at Maria’s farm is not like most markets these days. I would describe it more as a weekly time for members of a community to come together for a cultural/social gathering than an actual market. There is just one or two produce vendors, someone selling soaps, a honey table, and a woman who cooks and sells fresh plates of homemade food. But the best part of the evening gathering is the entertainment. Every week there is a different “cultural activity” set up in the center of the market. Some weeks it is live music while other weeks it might be a cooking demonstration. Regardless of the platform, the topic always revolves in some way around food’s influence in our lives. Tonight’s cultural activity was poetry. Specifically, poetry about hens. Gosh, I wish I got a picture of it. There were about 5 people (Maria included) who wore hats with printed pictures of chickens paper clipped to them and read poems about hens. The poems were of course in Italian, so unfortunately I cannot tell you what exactly they were about, but I did hear something about a hen philosopher…there was a lot of laughter from the audience so I assume the poems were humorous.

In addition to being able to see this cultural market, I also had the opportunity to see the town of Vignola! The market was 3 hours long so for the first half I wandered around Vignola. One of the main things Vignola is known for is La Rocca di Vignola (the Castle of Vignola). The castle is incredible because it is almost all still in tact. Some parts have been restored, but for the most part, the three towers are original and still in good condition. I felt like a kid in a play-area. Everywhere I turned there was a new tunnel or room to climb into. On the bottom floor are several rooms covered in frescoes, but my personal favorites were the towers. From the top of the highest of the three towers (I forget the name) you could see everything in and around Vignola.

After visiting the castle I thought I would head straight back to the market, but on my way back a small (or so I thought) park caught my attention. I decided to go see what it was. Well when I entered, I realized that it was not nearly as small as I thought. It was actually the entrance to dozens of hiking trails, some of which went for over 15 km! I think it was some sort of regional park. I followed the trail titled “The Cherry Walk” which led through groves of (privately owned) cherry trees. There was one tree that hung over the fence into the walkway and you better believe that that poor branch was picked clean of cherries

We ended up not leaving Maria’s farm until after 10pm, but all in all, it was a nice spontaneous surprise to see another town on a Wednesday. 🙂

Maria's Hand-Made sign for the market.
Maria’s Hand-Made sign for the market.
First tomato harvest!!!
First tomato harvest!!!
Aren't they beautiful?  Alberto explained how tomatoes are supposed to ripen from the top of the vine down, but that commercial growers add an  enzyme that makes them all ripen together so they can sell them together on one vine.  Now, next time you look at a vine of seemingly perfectly ripened tomatoes at the grocery store, you can be in  the know.
Aren’t they beautiful? Alberto explained how tomatoes are supposed to ripen from the top of the vine down, but that commercial growers add an enzyme that makes them all ripen together so they can sell them together on one vine. Now, next time you look at a vine of seemingly perfectly ripened tomatoes at the grocery store, you can be in the know.
Me: "Maria, why do you have a donkey?" Maria (in Italian accent pointing to butt): "For its shit."
Me: “Maria, why do you have a donkey?”
Maria (in Italian accent pointing to butt): “For its shit.”
Dinner at Maria's market.  Farro with a side salad, sausage, and eggplant dip
Dinner at Maria’s market. Farro with a side salad, sausage, and eggplant dip
View from the top of the castle tower.
View from the top of the castle tower.
"Women's Tower: Built at the beginning of the 15th century, this tower owes its name to a prison where women charged with any misdemeanor were locked."  Creepy...
“Women’s Tower: Built at the beginning of the 15th century, this tower owes its name to a prison where women charged with any misdemeanor were locked.” Creepy…
Another view from the tower overlooking to town of Vignola.
Another view from the tower overlooking to town of Vignola.
The cherry tree in the walking path.  Hard to see, but the branch on the right has no cherries on it.  I wonder why...
The cherry tree in the walking path. Hard to see, but the branch on the right has no cherries on it. I wonder why…
Did I find a friend to take a picture of me or am I just a pro selfie-taker?  The Panaro River runs from Maria's farm all the way to our farm.  Technically, we could take a canoe or boat of some sort to her farm.
Did I find a friend to take a picture of me or am I just a pro selfie-taker?
The Panaro River runs from Maria’s farm all the way to our farm. Technically, we could take a canoe or boat of some sort to her farm.

What Happens When You Leave Me Alone in Italy’s Food Capital

On Saturday I embarked on my first truly solo adventure in a new city, Bologna (pronounced Bo-lo-nyuh, not Boloney). I cannot think of a better city for both me to visit on my own as well as for me in general. The city was easy to get around in (clearly labeled streets, not too big, etc.), was not full of tourists, (but was touristy enough so that in certain parts some people spoke English), and had an incredible density of food and sightseeing opportunities.

The adventure started with public transportation. In Italy, most people without a car get around by bus or train. Just a quick note about public transportation…

Prior to coming here, I had only heard how easy it is to get around Italy, because the public transportation is so abundant. However, after speaking with various people on the farm, I have learned that it is not always quite as simple as we would all hope. The train system has recently added a new, faster line. This train is often very convenient because it is usually both the most direct route and the fastest train; however, these trains can often be twice as much as the slower trains. Furthermore, if you opt for the slower/cheaper trains, chances are you are going to have to stop and transfer multiple times before getting to your final destination. For example, a friend of mine who wanted to travel from South East Italy to Florence by train would have had to transfer 4 times, creating a 6.5 hour train ride for a trip that would only take about 3 hours by car. My conclusion: If you are willing to spend an unknown amount of time on a train, then yes, the train system is very convenient. However, be warned that you should do your research in advance to know exactly how much of your life you are going to have to sacrifice while riding the circuitous Italian train line.

All of this is to say that I am very fortunate, because Modena is in a prime location for train travel, being just a sort train ride (about 30 minutes) from Bologna, which is one of the main train hubs of Italy.

Anyway, what I did experience is the perplexing concept of train delays. I had been warned that trains are never on time in Italy, but I assumed this was a bit of an exaggeration…No, it’s not. Every single train that I saw was at least 5-10 minutes late. When I tell people I do not understand how such a national system could be so inefficient, they usually respond, “That’s just how Italy is.” I’m not sure I’ll ever understand this laid back Italian culture.

Enough about transportation. This post was supposed to be about Bologna, not my confusion about the trains, sorry about that.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the city is fantastic. Although I was alone, I had a few tips from my tour guide at the balsamic maker to help guide me along; I was surprisingly able to hit most of the places she recommended. I really enjoyed the energy in Bologna. It is known for a wide variety of things like the campanile at the Cathedral of San Pietro (a bell tower that you can climb to the top of to see a 360 degree view of the city), the University of Bologna (one of Italy’s oldest – maybe the oldest universities), and food. Lots and lots of food. They are most known for their fresh pastas (Bolognese and tortellini) and meats (salami, sausage, and mortadella, similar to Boloney but way better); however, the Emilia-Romagna region itself is also known for Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciuttio di Parma, balsamic vinegar of Modena, and a flatbread-like thing called Piadini. There is wonderful food everywhere Italy, but I didn’t realize when I chose Modena that I was going to be in arguably the most culinarily dense region of the country.

Traveling alone for the first time was both nerve-wracking and empowering. I was extremely tense the whole journey to Bologna and still felt out of place when I made it to the city, but after I made it to my first stop (Mercato di Mezzo), a huge smile swept over my face. From that point on, I realized, “Ok Sierra, you have a map, an Italian dictionary, and the entire day. You are perfectly capable of handling yourself in this foreign city.” It was refreshing to make decisions on my own without having to consult someone else; it was refreshing to go to the places I wanted to go to; and it was refreshing to get lost and not worry about ruining an experience for someone else. For once, I could be completely selfish and do exactly what I wanted to do. In this case (who am I kidding, isn’t it every case?), this meant trying as many Bologna-ian foods as possible. I loved the freedom; however, I must say, that all the delicious things I ate would have tasted oh so much sweeter if I had a companion to share the experience with. These moments as well as when I climbed to the top of the campanile and soaked in the incredible view were the only times when I wished I had someone to share the moment with.

Nonetheless, I returned to the farm in the evening feeling accomplished, exhausted, and full. Very, very, full.

P.S. When I returned to the farm, some of Alberto’s fellow farmer friends were over for dinner. One of them was also hosting a WWOOFer and had brought her to the dinner. The WWOOFer was a 19 year old girl from Ireland!!! Alice and I chatted all evening. Aside from my skype calls back home, that was the most fluent English I had spoken since coming to the farm. A perfect ending to a wonderful day.

The first stop in Bologna!  Such as relief when I finally found it.
The first stop in Bologna! Such a relief when I finally found it.
there's my cappuccino for the day :)
there’s my cappuccino for the day 🙂
octopus salad (ensalada di polpi) from the market.  I must admit that it was a bit too much octopus for one person at 11 oclock in the morning haha
octopus salad (ensalada di polpi) from the market. I must admit that it was a bit too much octopus for one person at 11 oclock in the morning haha
A poster that shows which dishes are special to different parts of the region Emilia-Romagna.
A poster that shows which dishes are special to different parts of the region Emilia-Romagna.
This little gem of a gelateria was recommended to me by Francesca, my balsamic tour guide.  I am so happy she told me about it because I never would have A) found it or B) thought to have gone in if she hadn't told me about it.
This little gem of a gelateria was recommended to me by Francesca, my balsamic tour guide. I am so happy she told me about it because I never would have A) found it or B) thought to have gone in if she hadn’t told me about it.
Nocciola and Crema gelato :)
Nocciola and Crema gelato 🙂
Next to the little gelato place was this Piadini shop.  I was planning on getting a piadini later on (not directly after eating gelato), but this little hole in the wall looked so authentic I couldn't pass it up.
Next to the little gelato place was this Piadini shop. I was planning on getting a piadini later on (not directly after eating gelato), but this little hole in the wall looked so authentic I couldn’t pass it up.
Piadini a regional dish that is like a flatbread/tortilla toasted and filled with various things. I had originally ordered some other kind of piadini, but I saw the man making this kind and used my Italian to ask what that was that he was making.  A few hand gestures and charades later, he understood that I wanted to change my order to the piadini that he was making.  I actually don't know exactly what was in it, but I think it was some sort of prosciuttio, arugula, and creamy cheese called stracchino.  Anyway, it was delicious.
Piadini a regional dish that is like a flatbread/tortilla toasted and filled with various things.
I had originally ordered some other kind of piadini, but I saw the man making this kind and used my Italian to ask what that was that he was making. A few hand gestures and charades later, he understood that I wanted to change my order to the piadini that he was making. I actually don’t know exactly what was in it, but I think it was some sort of prosciuttio, arugula, and creamy cheese called stracchino. Anyway, it was delicious.
Hi friends.  I know, I know, I eat a lot.
Hi friends. I know, I know, I eat a lot.
Next, I had to work off some of the food so I could eat more later.  (I still hadn't had the most famous dish -- pasta!)   Climbing to the top of the Campanile was the perfect way to do so.
Next, I had to work off some of the food so I could eat more later. (I still hadn’t had the most famous dish — pasta!)
Climbing to the top of the Campanile was the perfect way to do so.
Looking up the campanile.  This was about halfway up the climb.
Looking up the campanile. This was about halfway up the climb.
Last stop -- tortellini in cream sauce with a glass of pignoletto frizzante.  Hey, when in Rome - I mean Bologna...
Last stop — tortellini in cream sauce with a glass of pignoletto frizzante. Hey, when in Rome – I mean Bologna…
I lied.  This was the last stop.  Francesca recommended two gelaterias and this one happened to be on the way back to the train station.  When I got there the line was 20 people long, so I knew I had to get something.  This was a refreshing melon granita.
I lied. This was the last stop. Francesca recommended two gelaterias and this one happened to be on the way back to the train station. When I got there the line was 20 people long, so I knew I had to get something. This was a refreshing melon granita.
Back at the farm for dinner. ONe of Alberto's friends brought it.  This is cotechino, a meat product typical of the region that is fatty and made up of various parts of the pig.  Not for the faint of heart.
Back at the farm for dinner. One of Alberto’s friends brought it. This is cotechino, a meat product typical of the region that is fatty and made up of various parts of the pig. Not for the faint of heart.

Food Update

Things have been fairly mellow on the farm this week.  It’s just me and Alberto working, so there is a lot to be done each day.  However, I have surprisingly enjoyed working by myself.  Each morning I have started out with some fairly light task such as tying tomatoes or harvesting peas.  I have discovered that the perfect way to pass the time during these tasks is to listen podcasts on my phone.  In the past 3 days I have listened to 9 hours of KCRW’s Good Food podcast, and now have to find another show to keep me occupied as I have run out of new Good Food episodes to listen to…suggestions?

While working alone, I also enjoy thinking about what I am going to cook for our next meal.  When I first met Chef Michael Fiorelli at mar’sel (now Chef/Owner at Love&Salt in Manhattan Beach), he said, “What grows together, goes together.”  These words have really resonated in my cooking while on the farm.  Essentially, I have been able to pick whatever is ready from the fields, throw it together and trust that nature (and proper cooking technique) will make it taste good.  Yesterday I made a bean salad with dried beans from last year’s harvest with cucumber, green peppers, red spring onions, mint, basil, parsley, and lemon.  All of that (except the lemon) was from the farm.  Alberto complimented me on my cooking.  He said he is normally very skeptical of people from other countries coming to cook (especially from the U.S.), but that I have really surprised him.  I’m glad to be a good ambassador of “American” cooking and to show that we don’t all just eat hamburgers and french fries.

And now for pictures.

For those who have never seen zucchini on the plant before...No, it does not grow on trees.
For those who have never seen zucchini on the plant before…No, it does not grow on trees.
zucchini harvest!  You would not believe how fast this stuff grows.  We have to harvest it everyday, because it grows so much!
zucchini harvest! You would not believe how fast this stuff grows. We have to harvest it everyday, because it grows so much!
I can always count on Alberto's mom to counteract any healthy dish that I make.  These zucchini fries were SO GOOD.
I can always count on Alberto’s mom to counteract any healthy dish that I make. These zucchini fries were SO GOOD.
Only fresh off a farm in Italy will you eat (and enjoy) a whole red onion dipped in balsamic vinegar and evoo.
Only fresh off a farm in Italy will you eat (and enjoy) a whole red onion dipped in balsamic vinegar and evoo.
Only fresh off a farm in Italy will you eat (and enjoy) a whole red onion dipped in balsamic vinegar and evoo.
Only fresh off a farm in Italy will you eat (and enjoy) a whole red onion dipped in balsamic vinegar and evoo.
Peach tree full of small, but delicious peaches!
Peach tree full of small, but delicious peaches!
So many peas...
So many peas…
buckets and buckets of peas...we harvested close to 6 buckets and there are still more that are hiding.
buckets and buckets of peas…we harvested close to 6 buckets and there are still more that are hiding.
Axel keeping me company as I harvest peas.
Axel keeping me company as I harvest peas.
What do you do when you have over 25 kilos of peas?  Make pasta with peas for lunch!
What do you do when you have over 25 kilos of peas? Make pasta with peas for lunch!
Each one of those yellow flowers will soon become a beautiful, organic cherry tomato.
Each one of those yellow flowers will soon become a beautiful, organic cherry tomato.
Cherry tomatoes are almost ready!
Cherry tomatoes are almost ready!
We splurged on some seafood tonight.  Yum!
We splurged on some seafood tonight. Yum!
I'm not the only one eating well...the mosquitos are having quite the feast as well...grrr dang
I’m not the only one eating well…the mosquitos are having quite the feast as well…grrr dang “zanzara”

Farm Hands Take The City

This past Saturday and Sunday were the first days I have had off since coming to Collegara. It was incredibly refreshing to sleep in, eat a slow breakfast, and put on normal day clothes. Agnes and I went into the city of Modena on Saturday. Getting into the city could not be easier. The bus stop is just a short (albeit hot) walk and for 1.20 euros you can go anywhere in the city very quickly.

The city of Modena itself does not have too much to offer from a tourist perspective. The main sights to see are the Duomo (cathedral), a tower, and a few other church related buildings. However, as many people who have been to Italy know, every city has some form of these structures, just some are more spectacular than others.

However, if there was a day to go into the city, it was Saturday. In the center of town there was a huge international festival. There were tables from all over the world (mainly Europe). Italy, France, Germany, England, Austria, Russia, and even the US had tables. Many countries had multiple booths representing different parts of the country. Though when I went up to the U.S table (selling donuts, brownies, muffins, etc.), I was disappointed to find out that the person running it did not speak English. Needless to say, I did not buy anything from the U.S. table.

In addition to the festival, there was also a big soccer match going on. Modena was playing Virtus Entella (for those MLS fans out there), so there were many excited fans taking to the streets.

Lastly, after Agnes and I made our rounds through the city, on our way back to the bus, we noticed that there was a huge crowd of people in Piazza Grande (where the Duomo) is. Turns out, there was some sort of old-fashioned sports car show/competition! There were 100+ little sports cars from Porsche to Ferarri to BMW, etc. all from different time periods. We were even allowed to walk through to see all of the cars up close!

Agnes and I had a wonderful time exploring the city and getting to know each other outside of our farm work. It was also, of course, very helpful having her to help translate. Sadly, Agnes left on Sunday to move onto her next farm. She was incredibly kind and a wonderful person to talk to. This week I will be the only WWOOFer on the farm, then next week I will be joined by a woman from Italy.

haha
“Life’s Too Short to Drive Boring Cars” haha
Agnes and me happy to have ice cold granitas on a hot day in the city.
Agnes and me happy to have ice cold granitas on a hot day in the city.
Just one small part of the international festival.
Just one small part of the international festival.

Sunday was another day of fun activities. Conveniently, one of the best places to do balsamic vinegar tours/tasting is just 2 miles from where I am staying! I borrowed Alberto’s bike and gave myself 30 minutes to get there just in case I get lost (pssssshh, that would never happened…right?).

Evidently, what should have taken me 10 minutes took me 50 minutes and I was late for my tour. Italian streets are not labeled very clearly. However, what at first seemed like a huge mess, ended up being a blessing in disguise. I had to wait an hour for the next tour, but when my time came, I was the only person on the tour, so I was able to chat with my tour guide, Francesca. As it turns out, she has several very good friends in Santa Monica and often goes to visit them/travel around. Furthermore, her passion is pasta making! But wait, there’s more! In order to help pay for her travels to the U.S. she teaches pasta making lessons! In Southern California! After talking a bit more, I found out that she lives in Bologna (a town just 30 minutes from Modena where I plan to visit my final weekend here) and she very sincerely offered to show me around the city! She said that she understands what it is like to travel alone and that she would appreciate it if she were in my shoes. It is amazing the people you meet and the connections you can make with complete strangers when you travel alone.

6 Year old balsamic over gelato!  They gave this to me while I was waiting for the next tour, again maybe getting lost wasn't such a bad thing.
6 Year old balsamic over gelato! They gave this to me while I was waiting for the next tour, again maybe getting lost wasn’t such a bad thing.
“Acetaia” where balsamic made. It’s such an interesting process! Sorry, I’m not going to type out the entire balsamic tour, but know that it is worth learning about if you have the opportunity to.

One last thing to add to the smallness of the world: the two ladies taking a tour of the balsamic producer after me were both from Southern California. One even grew up within a few miles of where I grew up. Unbelievable, just unbelievable.

Can’t Stop Running and Won’t Stop Running

I’m 6 for 6 on days on the farm and days that I have gone for a run! There is a biking and walking path that runs along one side of the farm and goes for 30km. The path (Alberto calls it the embankment) was just built within the past 10 years and runs along the river and winds above various farms. In addition to giving me a place to do my daily runs, it also is a nice way to eliminate the feeling of “being in the middle of nowhere.” The other day when I was going on my third hour of weeding lettuce, a group of chatty cyclists road by on the embankment. Seeing and hearing them really helped break up the monotony of weeding and listening to the same bird taunt me with its cheerful chirp.

You would think that after spending hours and hours working on the farm that the last thing someone would want to do is go for a run. But, alas, I am a runner, and runners always want to run. I’m finding that it is the best way to refocus myself after a long, sweaty day in the field and to get some blood flowing through my body again. At dinner last night, Alberto was joking about how he thought 3 hours of hoeing the soil would tire me out enough to not want to run, but the next thing he knew, I was in my running shoes and out the door. I told him that the more tired I am, the more I need to go for a run. It certainly is not normal, but hey, it’s what I do.

A pond at one point in my running path
A pond at one point in my running path

It’s Harvest Time!

It’s Friday and that means it’s market day!!! Whooo I have been looking forward to this all week. Yesterday we harvested peas (piselli), fava beans, and strawberries (fragola). Today, well, before harvesting more, we spent the entire morning hoeing between the tomato rows. “Zappare” is becoming both my nemesis and friend. The purpose of hoeing is two fold: 1) To remove weeds and 2) To move the soil, which incorporates air. You have to be forceful enough to remove weeds from the root while also lifting the moist soil below to the surface; however, you also must be very very careful not to damage the plant itself. You can imagine why after 3 hours swinging a 10 pound hoe can be my nemesis, but as for my friend, well, according to Alberto, it is absolutely necessary for the plant’s survival. He said, “the plants like it when you do this. It is like when you brush your hair.” By this he means by keeping up general maintenance, the plants feel fresher (with more space and air for roots to grow) and do not need to be watered as heavily (because when you hoe, you break the thick layer of dried clay on the surface and make it easier for water to penetrate to the roots).

After a quick lunch, there was no 3 hour siesta today – not when we needed to leave for the market at 4:15pm. By the time we were ready for the market, we had harvested multiple types of lettuce, arugula (rucola), fennel (finnochi), mint (menta), strawberries, peas, fava beans, and my favorite, beets (bietole rosa). My goodness those were the most beautiful and delicious beets I have ever seen. They were so big and perfect you would think they were genetically modified to look that way, but no. They are 100% natural and organic.

The market is about a 5 minute drive from the farm in a park just on the edge of the city. The park is quite big. It has two big ponds, multiple play areas, many hills, a couple bar/restaurants, a dog park, and many ways to exercise. There is also a senior housing place next to the park, so there were many elderly folk being pushed around in wheelchairs.

The market itself is very small. There are only 2 produce stands, 2 cherry stands, a cheese, a meat, an egg, and a bread stand – all the staples. Markets in Italy (and Europe in general as Agnes told me…also, I have been spelling Agnes’ name wrong. It is a “g” not a “y”) are different from farmer’s markets in the US because instead of the customer serving him or herself (choosing the produce, putting them in a bag, and handing it to the worker to pay) the customer actually talks to the farmer/worker and tells them what they want. Though it takes a lot more time, it is much more personal and allows people to ask questions and develop a relationship with the farmer.

It was just Alberto and me at the market and I will tell you, I loved being there. I loved seeing the differences between the US and Italy. I loved being surrounded by so many people (after working on a farm for 5 days, anything more than 3 people was huge). And I loved seeing how excited the customers were to buy the produce. What I did not love, was the fact that I could no communicate with the customers. This is my favorite part of anything that I do – seeing the final product make it to the consumer/user and talking to them about why I feel so passionately about it. I wanted to answer questions. I wanted to explain that why the arugula had holes. I wanted to tell them that you can eat raw fennel in a salad with strawberries! But I could not do any of that. All I could say was, “Io non parlo Italiano.”

I was determined to make myself useful while I was at the market, so I helped Alberto put the unwieldy heads of lettuce into bags, but aside from that and restocking the displays, I was quite frustrated by my lack of use. I am now determined to at least learn the proper ways to buy and sell in Italian. I know a few phrases about measurements and prices, but there is much much more to learn before I can really help at the market.

It looks like a heart.beet harvest beets with stem

It looks like a heart.

lettuce in ground

beets and ceci (garbanzo beans) with fresh herbs and fennel
beets and ceci (garbanzo beans) with fresh herbs and fennel
The outside table where we have breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner.
The outside table where we have breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Our instructions were to pick only the “perfect” strawberries. A perfect strawberry was void of any holes, blemishes, had the stem on, and was just the right shade of red.   If the berry did not meet these criteria, it was not a perfect strawberry and was either left on the bush to ripen more or, if it was ripe but not perfect in another way (i.e. a hole) it would go into a basket of strawberries that Alberto’s mother would make into strawberry jam for us…or directly into my mouth to give me more strawberry picking energy 🙂

Each one of those perfect strawberries was so unbelievably perfect that it looked fake – almost as if it were shaped out of clay and given a final glaze to catch the sunlight. You better believe if there ever was a test of my will power, this was it. It took everything in me not to eat those strawberries.

Fortunately, I was able to snag a few strawberries to use for our lunch. I made pasta with pomodoro sauce (made with last season’s tomato harvest) and a garden salad. But the wonderful thing about the salad was that it wasn’t just a “garden” salad with limp lettuce, dry shredded carrots, and cardboard croutons that you get when you order one at a restaurant in the states. This one truly was a garden salad. It had arugula, romaine, fennel, red onion, mint, basil, lemon, orange, strawberries, and fresh mozzarella – all of which (except the cheese) was harvested from the garden within the past 3 hours. Add a drizzle of 24 year old balsamic vinegar of Modena and you have a garden salad that you can eat every day of this harvesting season.

But aside from the salad being delicious, I also had satisfaction from introducing Alberto and Aynes to something new. Neither of them had ever heard of putting strawberries in a salad. They were really confused at first, but both were pleasantly surprised to enjoy the sweet and savory combination. Alberto called it an “international meal.” Funny, I never thought of a strawberry and arugula salad as being American, but apparently it’s at least not Italian or French.

STAWBERRIES!!!

Ok, I must confess.  This perfect strawberry didn't make it to market ;)
Ok, I must confess. This perfect strawberry didn’t make it to market 😉

strawberry and fields - Version 2strawberries in strainer

Garden salad
Garden salad