Friday, July 25, 2008

Quasi Civilization

Well I have made it back to partial civilization (out in the middle of nowhere). The other day I used a hair blower for the first time in 17 days – that warm air never felt so good in my hands…really!!! BUT after the thrill of drying my hair I looked like a skank from Trailer Park Boys – my hair was frizzy, kinda curly - butt ugly overall. One of the friends of the family here asked how old I was and when I told her I was 30 she said, “Oh so young! I thought you were 34!” Bag! Maybe using the hair blower is not doing me any favours…either that or I have forgotten how to use it. I used the straightener after and put my hair up. The friend said she liked it better like that…
Anyways I have arrived in the mountainous Cilento (chee-len-toh) Park area south of Naples. Pruno di Laurino is about 1 hour inland from the west coast town of Vallo della Luciana. This area is quiet, the air cool and clean, and the people live to motto, “piano, piano” – slowly, slowly.

I left Calabria about 1 week early. I made the decision after we combined 2 small fields of wheat (which was a crazy gong show operation in itself) and I was told that we would be raking the straw and picking more 10 foot tall weeds out of some other oregano. I was tired of that work under the blistering hot Calabrian sun but what bothered me the most was that their 22 year old son, Francesco, was the laziest ‘farmer’ I have encountered. He once told me that his passion was this land and that he wants to do this farming forever. However, one afternoon after picking tomatoes, his hands were a bit dirty which seems normal to me… He couldn’t run to the car fast enough to pull out the pamper wipes to clean his hands off and kept telling me, “che schiffo, che schiffo” (how gross, how gross). I was mortified that a vegetable farmer thinks their own soil on their hands is disgusting.
One day as the other wwoofer and I were digging holes like prisoners under the sizzling sun, ‘Frank’ decided that he would water the cacti on the terraza instead of helping. We were digging these holes to build HIS tomato drier (that he keeps complaining to his dad isn’t finished).
Of course we were building it on top of an area where there are water tanks and soft hoses underneath…and cement. We were warned not to puncture any hoses with our shovels…yeah real nice since we know where all of these damn hoses are buried…and to watch out there is cement that we might encounter. We punctured a hose. You’d think that on a farm there are many more choices of area to pick on which to construct a tomato drier. Unless we were constructing it here to hide something that was underneath… Yeah, the other wwoofer and I believed we were a part of a bigger familia than the immediate obvious. This might explain why I was taken to a Bulgarian’s house at 1 am after me and the family went out for supper and was asked this by the father as he was driving me to the farm, “Would you like to stop at my friend’s house for a minute?”
Me, “No I am tired”.
The father, “Well, we are going to stop at my Bulgarian friend’s house just for a minute. You will have to have a drink of alcohol. I need to collect some money”. God almighty! I was exhausted as this was the first evening I arrived; worked 3 fast hours with him had to take the quickest, warmest shower. I was so rushed and it was so humid outside that I wasn’t even dry by the time I had to throw my clothes on and in the process of doing so I ripped half of a cup off of my strapless bra trying to twist it around my sticky body. And this was the first day without a hair blower…all of this and then I had to humour him with attending a business meeting at 1 am!!!!!????
The friend wasn’t there and I had to knock back 1.5 shots of some Bulgarian sambucca with 3 Bulgarian men at the table while they were eating their supper…at 1 am. But in the process I found out that by knowing Ukrainian, I might be able to understand the Bulgarian language. Bonus!
And the new wwoofer I left behind?
This was JUST ONE of his million dollar questions, “Does lettuce grow on top of the ground or underneath?” Mamma mia!!!
The one thing I miss the most are the people from the area. There were the countless cousins that would drop by for an afternoon coffee (everyone seemed to be a cousin), and then there was ‘Antonio Banderas’. Antonio (Antonello is his real name) is the neighbour who grows Romaine lettuce that looks like it has been fed steroids and basil as big as sheets of paper. As far as farmers go, he just doesn’t fit ‘the look’. He actually looks like a male stripper – dark Calabrian skin, broad shoulders, small waist, black hair down to his shoulders and full lips. He loves to Latin dance (thus he always is wiggling his waist) and would blare the Latino music so loud in his car that you couldn’t pick out a single word of the song. I’m actually surprised that his head hasn’t spun off of his neck because when he drives in his car, his head whips around every which way to cat call to the girls.
“Ciao Bionda! Ciao Bella!”
I told Giuseppe (my Calabrian host), “In Canada we would have a word for Antonello…it’s ‘Ciaci’ (CHA-chee) and it fits him to a tee!”
Giuseppe thought this was very interesting and funny as he told me, “You know that Antonello has created this word ‘Ciaci’? He mixed ciao (hi/bye) and baci (kisses). He uses it all of the time to say good-bye and now people in Milan (where he works during the winter) are starting to use this word!”
Antonello is 34, single and looking for a nice girl. He drives a motor bike, is really nice, looks like Antonio Banderas and his mom makes great sourdough bread. I have his phone number if anyone is interested… (Jealous types need not apply).

This new farm a lot of people might consider hippy like. A lot of their house was built of recycled material. They really try to live as much off of the land as possible and cultivate 5 types of ancient wheat from which they make bread. They are not a family obsessed with consumerism. They don’t work to the extreme, they don’t make a lot of money and they don’t have a lot of excess items. As some would say, they are living the 4 hour work week.
I came just at the right time to experience a local festa. The sounds of tambourines and tiny accordions filled the air as a blend of Laurino and Napoli traditions were exhibited in the dancing and singing. We had a picture perfect ending to the festival. We ate sitting at the long wooden table under the kiwi and grape pergola with soft white light above. Fork full’s of fettuccini and bright red tomato sauce were hungrily chowed down. The homemade wine was in continuous flow from bottle to glass and the music of tambourines and accordions floated away into the mountain air… I think I found my ideal “cobble stone patio surrounded by vineyard…” – sans the cobblestone but with plenty of the perfect atmosphere.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hot Boonies

I have been melting at my new farm in Briatico, Calabria in the toe of the Italian boot (an area where i have never been) for the past week. When I left Tuscany, I thought it was hot…
But at least for my last free day in Tuscany, I spent it in the Tuscan costal town of Grosseto in the blue refreshing Tyrrhenian Sea. Maaike and I lounged the day away, front row to the sea, on our lounge chairs and big beach umbrella. We went to order ourselves a Pina Colada only to find out they don’t make them there and instead walked away with a cocktail of prosecco (sparkling white wine) blended with Campari. This cocktail is a red bitter dry concoction – about the most opposite you could get of a Pina Colada.
As we sipped away at our drinks, a little Asian lady dressed in a cool white t shirt and pants walked up to us and asked if we wanted a massage for half an hour for $25. What a deal…an ocean front massage!
She brushed the sand off of our bodies and proceeded with massaging my face. Oohhh that feels nice. Then as she got to my back I thought,
“Hmmm… her hands are really rough they are kinda scratching my back…ooohhhhhh I think I am sunburnt there…and there…”
I had made my own conclusion that maybe she is a gardener by morning (without gardening gloves) and a masseuse by afternoon.
As she massaged my legs, her scratchy hands felt good going over the nasty mosquito bites I have been accumulating.
She finished with my shoulders and neck and by that time I had had about enough. I ran my hands over my shoulder and realised that I was a shiny mess of oil and sand. Of course it wasn’t her hands that were dry but the fact that I had been in the salty sea on the sandy beach all day and she should have recommended that we at least showered before the massage. I guess I shouldn’t complain, I mean how many women pay big money to have a microdermabrasion process done (using natural products to boot)?

So this new farm in Calabria is…different. I have come to realise that the write ups WWOOF presents to us are not always accurate or maybe things change over time. At this farm, my worst nightmare has come true. I have no access to a hair drier!!! All along the way I kept saying to myself, “as long as the place has electricity for my hair blower, I am fine.” The WWOOF post read like this, “electricity from solar panels.” In this case it means lights only not general electricity. I have used a hairdryer for the past 15+ years of my life…
I will let you read the post for this farm:

“Two hectare organic farm, which Giuseppe and Mattea have cultivated for choice not necessity, is in the hills 4 kms from the sea and surrounded by Mediterranean scrub. It has always been organic, for 15 years it has also been Biodynamic and now it is omeodynamic. Orientated to self sufficiency: olives, fruit, vegetables, aromatic herbs (Oregano, sage, rosemary etc), chickens and bees. Help needed all year round, accommodation in shared room for a maximum of 2, the family lives in the village 4 kms away. We expect WWOOFers to be responsible and to work hard. Electricity from photovoltaic solar panels. Water heated by solar panels or wood stove. Use of bicycles, canoe, internet and archery. Meals typical Calabrian cuisine with home produce….”

Giuseppe greeted me at the train station in Vibo Valentia Pizzo – he looked very different from the typical Italian faces I am used to seeing. Brown (as opposed to the blackish) hair and blue eyes. As we drove into town to pick up Mattea, his wife, he told me that I could pick up some food because during the week, meals are on my own and I get to eat with them on weekends. Hmm…ok I thought that was ok that way my meals are on my own time and I can eat chicken and yogurt and watermelon …ok that is not so bad.
As I made my way through the grocery store, Giuseppe met up with me and took a look at my basket.
So far I had a big container of yogurt, veggies and half a watermelon. I had not made my way to the meat yet when he said,
“Oh this yogurt. There is no fridge at the farm so maybe take some smaller ones so you can eat them once you have opened them.”
Of course…no electricity...
Needless to say I didn’t get the meat, but cans of tuna - which is still great. I have had a few meals with the family and they are awesome – they eat MEAT as in BEEF and potatoes as well as other delicious Calabrian cuisine. I am in heaven.

It is well over 30C during the day here. The water for some reason is not very cold and with the heat and no fridge it makes life here a bit difficult. You know there are those hot summer days where after working outside you can’t wait to down a glass of cold Pepsi and ice? But I mean at this point I am not even thinking about a cold Pepsi but just a glass of cold water dammit!

Because it is a stone kitchen it seems a bit cooler. I have learned that single servings of yogurt can stay out of a fridge for at least 6 days and still be good but watermelon needs to be eaten in 2 days.
The other scorching, boil an egg on a cotton-ball, hot Calabrian day, we were invited to the family’s house for supper. I was in disbelief as I watched Mattea dish out the macaroni soup. That’s right, macaroni in a HOT water broth. I thought I was going to die from heat exhaustion. Inside my body was burning. Luckily Francesco (the son) pulled out 6 ice cubes from the freezer and I put 5 of them in my red wine and let them all melt in my mouth. I don’t think they have heard of eating things like cold pasta salads.

This past week I had Verena working with me. She is from Germany but has been studying in Rome for the past year so she is helping me wonderfully with my Italian.
We spend our mornings weeding and mulching the oregano and tomatoes and sometimes going with Francesco to harvest veggies from the other garden. Giuseppe is only here on the weekends and then goes to Basilicata (another province) to work.

Tonight, I think that you should all thank God for the person who invented the Slurpee machine. You don’t realise just how lucky you all are to have them!!! You know it is so strange that a country that can get this hot isn’t over run by slurpee machines. I mean here we are in Canada snow and ice for 8 months of the year and mid twenties in the summer and there are slurpee machines everywhere. It is like they are there in case we go through winter withdrawal or something. At least thank God I am not having any chocolate attacks. They don’t have it here because it is too hot to keep it in the stores for the summer. YIKES!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Change of the Seasons

The look of the landscape is changing. Long gone is the yellow mustard and the various shades of green are replaced by hues of reds and browns.
As the spelt matures, the beards of the wheat have given the parcels of land a maroon colour and the bright red poppies are out in full bloom. It truly is amazing how the nature here really works in harmony with it’s colour schemes. Apparently I am witnessing something really beautiful because the poppies usually are done by now as are most of the flowers…but the rain is changing the landscape this spring.
Life in the caseificio (pronounced ca-zey-fee-cho) is the same. Although apparently I have come up with a novel idea of blending sun-dried tomatoes with basil and garlic into the caprino fresco (soft goat cheese aka cream cheese). They really like it here and to my surprise they havn't eaten this combo. I thought it to be strange since it is the ingredients of the famous Italian ‘margherita’ pizza and the colours of the Italian flag. But I guess as a cheese spread it is something new.
They are always a little worried when I am making some ‘interesting cheese’. I always tell them it will be “buonissimo” (oh so very good) and I get the reply of “spero” (I hope).
Well no matter how big of a batch of the ‘formaggio margherita’ I make, there is never any left over. Even though the last batch I made had maybe a little too much garlic – it was all gone. I actually woke up at one point in the night thinking, “My god something stinks like garlic….”
It was my palms of my hands next to my face so I hid them under the blanket.

I really am enjoying the group of us WWOOFers on the farm. It is nice to have the company of the 2 girls and the guy and we all seem to get along really well.
The guy. I won’t mention his name or where he is from because I am about to make fun of him (I’ll give a hint though, starts with a U. and ends in an S.A.). I truly do like him -he is REALLY nice, a softie and very intelligent– except when he said this:
“Can I, like, borrow your electrical converter and adapter for my shaver…or wait maybe my shaver cord won’t fit with your adapter because… do you use the same kind of electricity as we do?” he asked.
“Umm...yes you can borrow it. Our cords are the same” I replied.
He replied, “Oh I wouldn’t know because I have never been to Canada.”
Then the thought of:
“Oh wait a minute you don’t live in igloos down there! Our electricity IS different. We have special electricity that doesn’t …you know….overheat the wires too much because if it did, our igloos would melt and there would be a massive flood. And hell! We would all drown because we don’t have boats as there is no need for them because there is no water in Canada, only ice!”
Then as the four of us were talking about travelling to somewhere that was 120 km from the farm here, he turns to me and asks, “What is that in miles?”
“I dunno…should be something like 70 miles. 100 km equals 60 miles. We use kilometres too.” I said.
“Really? I didn’t know that!” he exclaimed.
Then the thought of:
“Yeah when we start to build wooden houses like everyone else we might switch to using miles too.”
I like the guy. I really do but he was just too easy to make fun of.

With summer trying to creep in to Tuscany, there have been some new arrivals in from the vegetable market. In the kitchen comes fresh produce like bright red cherries, SWEET orange cantaloupe (it is so much better than what we get in Canada) and the big fresh bag of fragrant green basil that Massimo bought. To my delight, Sandra decided to make basil pesto with it (and yes there are different types of pesto).
I love pesto di basilico. Especially on fat little gnocchi.
Tonight the pesto was served on long, lanky linguini. As I savoured the flavours of the first green forkful in my mouth, I noticed a different taste.
“Is there nutmeg in here?” I ask Sandra.
She squints at me with this look of “is she gonna get it?”
“Ah wait…no - it’s cloves right?” I ask. CERTAIN I was right.
“No I think it is the old cheese I used from the fridge – I thought we’d use it up. It had a very strong taste.” She replied.
I guess that is why Maaike said she had to use gloves when chopping this cheese it was that strong of a smell. Maaike even grabbed a handful of lavender to chase the smell away from her hands.
The result of eating this cheese?
A farting fiasco in my trailer later that evening.
I guess you could say I was really cuttin’ the cheese!
Which I guess was kind of ok because I woke up in the morning and all of the ants that have been crawling on my shelf for the past month were dead.

Ok not really…but they should have been.

You know that cheese commercial,
“If you want them to leave home….stop feeding them cheese!!!”

If you want them to leave home even quicker just start eating smelly old cheese

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Just Stuff

Why did God invent flies? Is there a particular purpose they serve other than to help forensics determine the time of death of someone? There are a lot of them here at the moment – warmer weather and all. There are 2 in my trailer that are flying around like they drank 10 espressos and are really annoying me right now as I am typing. I can’t kill them damn things.
Then there is the other day i was asked to bring some of the smelly, mouldy goat cheeses for some guests. Well, i had to perform the maggot check (or so as they so kindly refer to them as JUST 'bugs'). Yes, there were maggots so i picked them out of the cheese and put it on the table. One of the wwoofers at our table was saying how good this cheese was and that I should really try it. Hmmm... did I dare tell him that i just finished picking maggots off of it and thus think that it is the grossest, stinkiest cheese and that there is a reason that flies like it? I tend not to enjoy the same cuisine as flies do thank you very much!
The weather here is actually crappy. I am sure Alberta has had more sunny days these past weeks than we have. I got to suntan for 2 days and it has rained or showered almost everyday. But if the sun peeks out it is hot. So much for, ‘under the Tuscan sun’. It’s more like, “under the crappy, cheap umbrella I overpaid for from the guy on the street in Rome”.
I am sure you have all heard that too much of a good thing can be bad. Well how about too much pasta? Yes that is lunch and supper. ‘Basta’(enough) with the pasta! Sure it always tastes great...but I know that I will put on some weight with this pasta and so now am trying to limit the amount I eat – especially at supper. I even had a great scare one day as I put my underwear on and thought, “holy shit did my butt ever get big!” Then I realised I put my underwear on backwards. Thank God.
You know as great as Italian cuisine can be, I realised that I am truly thankful of our Canadian cuisine. The variety in Canada (and America in general) from all of the different cultures is exceptional. I mean you can go to Sobeys and find a Taco kit in the chip isle, perogies in the freezer section, Olivieri ‘fresh’ pasta in the deli, and Chinese ‘take out’ at the deli counter. Or you can barbeque a good ol’ hamburger and eat potato salad. As one guy put it, you can go to a Chinese restaurant in Rome and they still somehow incorporate pasta into the dishes. Granted, some of our restaurants may not be the most authentic...but it is great to have such a variety as a part of everyday life.
I do have to applaud the Italians for the freshness of their food. I guess we could have something similar for part of the year if we chose to grow our own food in our own gardens.
Two girls have joined Il Casale. Maaike from Holland and Astrid from Bolzano (north Italy – German speaking area). It is very nice to have some girls around here. Ronald has left here to go to the coolness of the Swiss Alps for the summer.
We have changed the cheese schedule to making it every three days so that Ulisse says I can get out of the cheesery for a few days. That’s a good thing. I was a bit afraid that to many more days in there I might be growing mould under my arm pits. The humidity is incredible in there – but alas it is good for my skin. Except for the salt bath (the cheese sits in it for about 6 hours) it burns the scratches on my hands.
Non cheese days I have been using my experience from Ukraine which is that of raking up hay. I roll the hay with a pitchfork into a round-type of bale and pitch it onto the wagon. I have also been ‘trimming’ the grape vines in the vineyard so that there are only 6 vines every meter or so. In the vineyard I get to work with Shima from Albania and have learned that a mouse in Albanian is miu and glasses are suje.
I think tonight warrants a visit to Capitoni! §

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

They Like it…they really like it!

I sit here in the (finally) hot Tuscan sun (about 26 C) with my tan enhancer on squinting out at the pretty Val D’orcia. Today I am looking out at the neighbour’s pea field (from last year) down below. The field is peas again this year – not because it was seeded to peas, but I am assuming they must have used a John Deere combine to harvest….(those combines like to throw a little out …right?)

The field is actually peas mixed with red wild poppies, yellow wild mustard and something white that looks like baby’s breath. I usually stop at the field on my way by for a snack – although the peas are getting dry.

Cheese making is still wonderful. Today we made a pecorino (sheep cheese) with walnuts mixed in! I think it will be great.

I have had an exciting weekend. Well exciting if you consider cheese exciting.
This weekend we made caprino (goat cheese). This cheese reminds me of cream cheese. Here they favour it with different herbs and spices and then use it as a spread on bread. There have been the old standbys that we have been eating for breakfast; chive, cumin (pumpernickel) and paprika. To sell they also do a cracked black pepper and a mixed herb caprino.

When ever we would be making the flavoured caprino cheese, I would always be concerned with the amounts of ‘ingredients’ (salt and flavours) I was adding. Ronald the Austrian cheese maker (my mentor) said I could be creative as that is what he was told…”Be creative when making caprino”
Well that phrase was music to my ears…hmmm…what other flavours would be good???

One day Ronald and I were walking back from the best winery just down the road, Capitoni. I was picking a wild flower bouquet and one of the pretty pink flowers I picked, he told me, were wild onion. So I smelled them and they sure smelled like onion. I ate it and it tasted like…ONION!

After 9 hours, I was still alive so I knew these flowers mustn’t be (very) toxic and decided that I would recreate the good ol’ standby flavour of cipollina (dried green onion). Being that the cipollina caprino is already white with green specks of dried onion, how about adding pretty pink wild onion flowers?

Ronald rolled his eyes when I revealed my idea. I double checked with Ulisse that the flowers were not toxic.
I was so excited to make this cheese. My hands were actually shaking and my heart was racing as I folded the delicate pink flowers into the soft white cheese. I put the cheese in the form and went with Ronald to Capitoni’s for a taste of their “aqua santa di Capitoni”(holy water of Capitoni – this is what Antonella Capitoni calls it).
Upon my return, I went to ‘flip the cheese’. Mamma mia! What a beautiful sight to behold! It turned out perfect. It would be ready tomorrow.
The next day I was too tired to wait until 8 pm to eat so I prepped the cheese on a white plate and left in the kitchen with a note for Sandra presenting this new cheese I named, “formaggio alla primavera” (cheese of spring).

I went to take my laundry out of the laundry room and on my way back I met Sandra. She said, “nice cheese, it’s pretty.”
Whew! I thought to myself. Wasn’t sure of the reaction I’d get. I told Ulisse (the husband) the night before about the cheese and the oldest son Simon was looking forward to tasting my “hippy cheese” as he called it.

Then Sandra asked, “How much of it did you make?”
Hah, I thought to myself. She is worried that i have made too many of these strange cheeses.
“Only one more” I reassured her.
“Oh, ok” she replied with a smile.

The next day Ronald revealed to me that everyone at supper the night before liked my cheese. Yay! I thought to myself. Then Sandra actually said to me that the cheese was really good! I was very happy to hear all of this.

A tour group came through Podere Il Casale. They were from Cretaiole, the agriturismo near Pienza I happened to stay at last September. They were all peering through the caseificio door when one of them said to me,“By the way that was nice flower cheese”.
Apparently Sandra gave them my cheese and a few of them made very positive comments abour it. Was I ever proud. One lady as a matter of fact said it was “ visually stunning”. Oh gosh!

Ulisse put in a request to me for lavender caprino. So I made it as he has a restaurant that he thinks would like ‘flower type of cheese’ – especially the lavender. I made it tonight – I probably won't like it but I don’t like lavender in general. Besides I think the full-bodied lavender would be better in the mild flavoured pecorino. We will see!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Down at the Farm

I am living in a postcard and I am not even over exaggerating by one bit of parmesan cheese. The greatest thing about living in this postcard is that I get to experience the perfume the wonderful aromas like the large elderberry bush with it’s creamy white clusters of flowers (ok and sometimes the stench of the cheese but you can’t always see cheese in my postcard).
I am living in a wide part of the Val D’Orcia one km out of the town of Montichiello and six kilometres from the towns of Pienza and Montepulciano.
The farm, Podere IL Casale (meaning dairy farm), is perched high above the green valley. The last time I saw this valley in September of 2007, it was on the brown side due to the dry weather and the fact that most of these clay fields had been ploughed.

Now if we look at this piece of art that God has painted for us this spring, we can see that the spelt is headed out and if you catch it in the right light, it looks like bright green velvet. On one of the green hills he has painted yellow strokes to the detail the contours of the land (wild mustard). He has lightly brushed some of the land with wild mustard in a yellow/green shade that blends in nicely.
To compliment the mustard he has dabbed warm, sunshine yellow Broom bushes. Balancing out the green palate, God has placed a few symmetrical grey-green olive groves and lines of hunter green cypress add nice vertical contrast.
There is presence of a road down below ever so slight as it too contours the land. Except for one grey road which seems to run straight through a wheat field (and is paralleled by a set of sprayer tracks but we’ll just disregard that for now). And there appears to be someone walking down that road…who the heck???
Wait he has turned around and he’s waiving and calling out, “Ciao!”
!!Santa Madonna (Holy Mother of God)!! It’s the Gladiator, Russell Crowe!
“Ciao Russell!” I shout and wave back.
Apparently this road has been featured in many films. And I get to see it everyday! I know, it’s just a road but…

Now this compared to the restaurant is very peaceful of course – an absolutely different setting. Including the owners.
The owners of Podere IL Casale are Swiss and a lot of the people working for them or camping here are German, Austrian or Swiss. Needless to say there is a lot of German and Swiss spoken here. Their boys speak Italian to them and the boys speak Italian to me and as well they speak very good English – so if after an explanation if I still don’t understand they’ll explain in English which is nice.
As well there are Massimo and Ines who are Italian so I speak with them as much as I can and they both speak at a speed that is understandable.

I follow Sandra to my sleeping quarters. It is not in the direction of the caravans, but to this one level building that looks like it houses about 5 motel rooms. Hmmm.. I think to myself, so this is not a caravan perched on the cliff but looks something like a ‘hotel room’. It might not be so bad.
As Sandra opens the door she explains to me that I will only be staying in here for 2 days because there is someone in my caravan and we walk through the door to what is part of the cheesery – and it smells like it too. Santa Madonna….
White tiled walls and floors, 2 small porcelain white sinks and a big stainless steel deep sink. On the other side of the room is some storage stuff covered in blankets and a box of packaged herbs that they sell. In the middle of all of this is a nice cot with a small reading lamp placed on a chair. All I can think of is I hope that my stuff doesn’t start to smell like cheese. The German lady staying in my caravan thinks its kind of funny but is also concerned for me that I don’t start to smell or look like cheese and so she confirms to me that she will leave here in two days and I can have my caravan.
At supper I get to meet some of the other guests working here including Ronald the cheese maker from Austria.

Ronald looks like Santa Clause’s younger goofy brother. He has been returning to the farm now since 2005. Then he takes off travelling the world either making cheese or vacationing in some hot spot.
He tells me when I hear the tractor at 6 am I can wake up then. I think to myself 6 in the morning is not my kind of thing!!!
Because the caseficio (cheesery ) is so humid inside I wake up clammy and then get really concerned that one morning I just might wake up all mouldy like the cheese.
Things I learned this week:
- I have learned that making cheese is not too difficult of a process and it is interesting to learn about the different processes. As well I have been helping feed some of the animals using the good ol’ pitch fork and helping with some of the kitchen duties.
- Farmers in Italy complain about the weather the same they do in Canada. Too dry, too much rain….geeeeeeezzzzz!!!!!!!
- The Swiss make some neat food products including elderberry concentrate wich is really tasty and high in vitamin C.
- I unfortunately have learned to live in a state of paranoia. There are green and black snakes around which are apparently harmless but I am sure they are ugly. I don’t want to see one but I am sure I will and I wish I never knew this fact. Today I freaked myself out because as I was taking a picture, this thing was touching my ear and it was some really tall weed beside me but of course I thought it was a …..
- I realised I love meat. I love it so much that I have resorted to drinking the watery yellow whey left after all of the milk is ‘cooked’ and the cheese formed. I realise I must be missing protein after comsuming a million plates of pasta at the restaurant and not much meat or protein in these last few weeks. Its actually not bad it just tastes like cheese juice. Yellow watery stuff with little white chunks. Yummmmmmmmmm. I mix it with some apple juice and it goes down like nothing. Tastes like apples and cheese – a great combo.
It really is good for you!
Until next time §

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Joys of Learning a Secret Recipe

I am exhausted. Mentally and physically I think this was the most challenging 2 weeks of my life thus far. 14-15 hour days six days a week. Trying to understand chipmunk Italian (because kitchen staff is talking so fast) and on my feet all day with about an hours break broken up throughout the day and on top of it I have to fight off a cold. I tell you this, it makes me appreciate this day off a lot more. Even a sunny walk to the medieval Abbey Sant’ Antimo yesterday for a private one hour tour was enough to lift my spirits and give me energy to push through the rest of the day. These days I have to appreciate all of the little breaks.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew for sure that I would be in the kitchen…hopefully at one point learning to make the BEST ribollita soup in the world. Little did I know that the Locanda Sant’ Antimo restaurant would be granting me such an unforgettable experience.
With a colourful cast of characters there was never a dull moment to be had. Well that is not true. Did you know that I was ready to leave here after two days because I was bored? I went as far as contacting my next destination, the farm, and they agreed for me to arrive within days. By day three though, there as a big turn around. There was a holiday which brought a lot more people to the restaurant. And I was finally getting used to a bit of a routine – pour wine into the bottles, sweep the floor, and make espressos. One of my favourite things to do was talking to the tourists of course! At least half of them spoke English whether from the American continent or European.
Of course many of them would ask, “So what brings you here?” You have to understand where “here” is. Castelnuovo is comprised of about 100 people with no big name attraction directly in the town. The setting of this town is so beautiful; surrounded by green hills, wild flowers, olive groves and the acres of sprawling vineyards. I think that a lot of people just happen to stumble upon this place only because they are on their way to the abbey of Sant’ Antimo. Which is just on the periphery of the town. Actually one person did ask me what the name of this place was.
So I would answer them, “I think they make the best ribollita soup so I came here to learn how to make it”
“You came all the way here for the soup…it must be really good”
Or the oh so popular, “ SO you are a cook or you own your own restaurant then?”
Haha…if they only knew how *good* of a cook I really am.
I was a bit taken aback at their amazement that I was really here just for the soup. It just emphasised to me that I was really lucky to be here.
I was more than happy to share tips of sights to see and movies that were filmed in the area. In turn I learned some interesting things like the walking and eating in Italy tours! Did you know that there are planned out walks from town to town through the country averaging about 10-15 km then there is a recommended hotel at the end and a transport company can carry your luggage if you so choose?!
The last two weeks were a big change for the restaurant. The kitchen helper/dishwasher quit. Which was both good and bad. Good cos I was really scared of her and bad because it left the family in a little bit of a pickle which stressed them out which caused their voices to grow louder…and lOuDeR…AND LOUDER
SO lets go back a bit and I will tell you about the people of La Locanda.
There were the 2 regular staff Chiara the kitchen assistant and the cook Maria. Now I have never seen the “soup nazi’ from Seinfeld, but I assume that Chiara is his sister, ‘the kitchen nazi’. She is rough – looking, talking and walking. She has a tattoo, wild black hair and looks like she’s had a rough night.
She barked at me because I picked up the empty wine glasses off of the table before the clients had left (although I did ask if they were finished with them – they were an American couple) her bark scared the American man. I think that’s just the way she talks all of the time – she is just very loud, but she is intimidating and someone mentioned, “she looks like quite the character”. She is.
I usually don’t understand anything she says to me because she speaks really fast and doesn’t use hand gestures and I am scared of her so I think I panic when she opens her mouth. She told me to get another mop and I thought she said to ask Anna Maria and nodded to the back door. I walked out and could not find any “Anna Maria” and could not see a mop except the dirty one. I was so scared to go back in sans the mop. But I did and said, “non lo so” (I don’t know) and she waved her hands around in the air and came out saying “lav-an-deria” – ooooohhh so it wasn’t Anna Maria it was lavanderia! The mop was in the laundry room but alas it was in the washing machine where I could not see it so she apologised to me. J

Then day three happened. This was the night where she yelled at me so loud I almost started crying! Really. Just doing my job of bringing her the dirty dishes but apparently she wanted me to put them somewhere else at that moment. Oohhhh so sorry Chiara but I forgot to put my mind reader cap on tonight!
Of course I was fuming so the next set of dirty dishes I brought in I raised my voice and in English I asked where the hell she wanted these dishes here… there… where!!! She had a bit of a surprised look on her face and the next morning she was waiving to me with a smile on her face as we walked down the stairs and was calm with me thereafter. What a bag of grumpies!

Then one night after telling the owner’s wife off in front of customers and then leaving early on the BUSIEST night (the night we had to stay up until 1 am) she quit. And there was peace in the Val (valley) D’Orcia again.

Anna Maria is a plump lady, talks a mile a minute a lot of the time with a cigarette hanging out of her lips but is sweet. I asked her if she likes cooking and her answer was that it is her passion, to her it is not work. It shows in her cooking.

Because she speaks so fast unfortunately I don’t even hear what she is saying to me never mind understanding her. Luckily sometimes her son Diego works with us and he speaks English well so he can explain a bit to me. It is Anna Maria’s ribollita that I must learn to make.
Many times I would ask if she was starting to make ribollita when I would see a pot sitting on the stove…but nope! One night Theresa and Lorenzo were saying that she is a very jealous cook and that I probably wouldn’t get the recipe. 2 mornings later Anna Maria handed me a pail and said we are making ribollita go collect the greens! BUT she told me I was not to tell ANYONE the recipe not Lorenzo or Theresa.
I was so nervous and excited. I watched as she was preparing it and when the soup was just boiling for a while I left to take some glasses out. Unfortunately I cam back and there was more stuff in the pot! AARGGH! Because I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone the recipe I didn’t want to ask Anna Maria what she added in to the pot because there were people in the kitchen. But I will try it at home and see what I can make of it. Of course I recommend it to everyone I talk to and they are pleasantly surprised at how great it is...because it really doesn’t look that good.

The dynamics of an Italian kitchen are explosive yet at times loving. Many times the kids are running around and spilling penne pasta on the ground or chewing pasta up and spitting it out. A couple of times I couldn’t handle being in the kitchen from the wood grill smoke that filled the kitchen, burnt my eyes and made me smell like I was hanging out at a bonfire for the evening. Maybe the owner and his wife are having an argument in front of everybody. Anything goes as long as the job is getting done well.

There is one ‘secret’ I want to release: some Italians drink decaffeinated espresso.
Normal espresso is a shot glass of espresso with one to two sugar packets.
One thing I will never understand is why the Tuscans like dry, stale, saltlessTuscan bread. You can damn near choke on the stuff. One large group Italian group actually ate all of the bread we gave to them and were demanding “more more!”
I still think my mom’s lasagne is the best.
Did you know that they put olive oil on the top of the wine in the 5 litre bottles to keep the air out? It prevents the wine from turning into vinegar. The oil is then sucked off and the wine transferred to bottles for the day’s use.
Finally, as Lorenzo keeps telling me, the best thing is that I received a valuable life lesson and I didn’t even have to pay for it!
As the saying goes:
Two weeks in an Italian restaurant kitchen, priceless…
For everything else there’s Visa.