Monday, May 18, 2009

Happy Birthday! And, Revelation.

First of all, yes indeed, it is Mr Matthew's birthday today. Hooray!

Secondly, I realized while napping/pondering before lunch something important about farming. I was thinking about how everyone has their own way of doing things, and how I could visit a million different farms and definitely learn, love, and or hate something at every place.

This is fairly overwhelming. Thoughts stormed around my cloudy sleepyhead...I have so much to learn, I must apprentice somewhere, Maybe I should apprentice in two places, or three, or keep WWOOFing, or not grow vegetables or, or, eee....

But then I realized that if someone is a good farmer, they love and tend best they can to the living things that are all around them. Like a parent. And certainly every parent is Exceedingly different from the next, and people have children successfully even if they don't intensively study how to nurture and guide and care.

I do not think that farming is as intrinsically linked and realized inside of us as the potential for parenthood, but I do think that everyone can live harmoniously in their landscapes and forests and gardens by being, observing, thinking, and especially, loving.

Well, I will work at many more places and learn many more things, but I think that this little nugget may be a strong and faithful one. I will leave this entry as a mere wee sketch, for lunch is a-happenning and I am missing the prelim birthday talk. Love you all,


Friday, May 15, 2009

Wrapped in Cheese Paper and Tied with a Bow

Today, with the help of Isa wearing her winter capello, and Andrea, who was so thoughtful and careful and smiling, I spun a lumpy little round of wool. Mostly steely colored, with flecks of white, we wound it over the wooden spindle that Betsy gave me upon my leaving Massachusetts. I have wanted to do this since I arrived in Europe, my hands tracing the motions of the wind and the pull, and to do this, one of my most loved activities, makes my heart grow and my way of being softer.

Needless to say, being here provides me with much of what I so love - my favorite fiber, meadowsides, other great, green, upright and patient patches of nettles, lacto-fermented soft goat cheese, and the closest we have been to being a part of a Family since we left Massachusetts.

We are in Italy's Langhe region. To paraphrase Mario and Isa, our most wonderful hosts, it is the footstool to the Alps. Such wonderful, wee rangy hills surround our own knoll, and before us and to our side we see the mountains. We are close enough to Mont Blanc to see it in amazingly orange and hazey purple repose at sunset, and the other mountains gently appear and vanish, surprising me and comforting me in turns with their felten, far-off statures.

I am still attempting to adjust to the Italian lifestyle. And to being a milkmaid. And shepherd, and night owl. My tools are coffee, our Rick Steves phrasebook, the dictionary, Il Piccolo Principe ("The Little Prince"), Matthew (no pun intended), and my notebook. A staff for the pasture, tin pails for mungitura, my udder-sore fingers for the harvesting of lemonbalm in the pasture and a zappa for furrowing in the giardino. And, the arnica oil that Francoise gifted us with upon our leaving the Herberie du Saleve in France. Oh, how I thank the earth everyday for arnica oil. (Hers is accented with wintergreen, so my nose is most pleased as the arnica penetrates into my muscles.)

We are living at Cascino Finocchio Verde, The Little House of the Green Fennel. Mario, who is possibly the most jolly man that I have ever met, is a cheesemaker who makes traditional formaggi of Italy with the milk from Finocchio Verde's sheep and goats. Murazzano, ricotta, caprino and more, served to us twice a day at the end of il pranzo and la cena. He also spends a lot of time in the garden, kitchen and stable, and in various chairs inside and out, rolling and smoking cigarettes. (At the milking stand, after every meal, in the cheese rooms, he is found with his corduroy cap and a cigarette dangling.) Isa, who is married to Mario, makes a torta di ricotta - CHEESECAKE - every Friday, which I hold in my mind's eye to the same height of my grandmother's. She milks, pastures, makes cheese and launders all of the dirt and manure and oil and winestains out of the place every day that she is here. Half of her week is spent in the big city of Turino, where she takes care of her mother and works as a medical librarian.
The flow of milk carves out our days, stiffens our fingers, and often softens my dreams into visions of lactation and easter baskets and fertility goddesses. After we eat breakfast, warm with milk and biscotti and piccola tazze di caffè, Mario and Andrea (pronounced An-DRAY-uh) smoke, and we make our way to la casa, the stable. There we make ready with flakes of corn and oats and fava beans to feed and milk-dry the many sheep and goats. The dairy animals consist of the endlessly clever white, brown, and tawny Alpine goats (including a tiny, tiny baby that was born on surprise on Mother's Day), and the sheep, a landrace of the Langhe, white-wooled and filthy (as sheep ever tend to be) with massive, and coincidentally Roman, noses. When all is molta veloce, it takes about an hour. With Matt and I more time is spent, though we are far more helpful than when we first arrived, our pants being less soaked with misdirected milk and our thumbs and hands more adroit. When we are doing well our feel for the coursing of milk is conversational and occasionally even fluent with the udders and teats of the mamas.

After milking we all go to pasture, baa-ing and whistling and shouting all the way, using staffs to make our arms longer and calling the sheepdog, Dago (named after the region of Italy from which he hails), to help herd. The pastures are managed impeccably, as the peccore and capre cycle through them in a very healthy manner, keeping the grasses, briar, and other wild plants (what the Virginian Joe Salatin deems a "salad bar") grazed just right. This means that there are relatively few edible plants that are going to seed (after which the plant is too hard and nutrient and protein-poor to be desirable), and the green growth is well-nibbled but not deccimated, as will happen when animals feed too long in one spot.

Then, lunch. Oh, lunch. It does not even make sense to call it lunch. We have Il Pranzo. And when we have pranzo we eat salami and panceta (akin to bacon), cured by Mario in the wintertime from a friend-raised pig, with Andrea's brick oven baked sourdough bread, wine from another family friend, and pasta.


Squiggly, stuffed, or flat, of such an infinite amount of types and accompaniments, like sardines, chitlins, nettles, pesto, oil, red sauce or sundried tomatoes.

There may also be a course of cooked vegetables or insalata, or veal or raw beef (so, so tender and pink and postcard-thin), and of course, the wooden plate on which is displayed the most beautiful white and round cheeses. And then, dolce, which is the torte di ricotta or strawberries or panna cotta, which tends to be a full moon of heaven on earth, either as-is in tandem with chocolate mousse, or dappled with orange peels. One day we had caffe with a CANNOLI, homemade.

Then we sit. And talk. (Or, as is more common, we sit. They talk. We listen and try real hard to understand. Our vocuabulary grows and our accents try to keep up.)

Then, maybe we will take a nap, or peel boxes of Sardinian artichokes (carciofi) down to their hearts, leaving our hands purplish black. Sometimes I study Italian, or stitch at my gingham apron, or think.

The evening milking happens somewhere between 5:30 and 7. (Nothing Is Scheduled Here, in stark contrast to the places where I have worked and volunteered at America. Even those in France were a more exacting. Here, if dinner ran especially late late last night then you sleep in. If lunch was so, so tiring with helping upon helping, it is okay if your wink of afternoon sleep ebbs and flows until you suddenly resurface and find the sky deep in sunset.) Pasture again, up the hills and through the briar, and back again, where little activities like table setting and water boiling fill up the space between homecoming and mealtime. Dinner is less extravagent than il pranzo, yet it is often just a hair short of midday's indulgences.

We sleep and sleep, and wake up in the morning. Tired, looking again for caffe. Figuring out how to make it right in the wonderful, yet tricky, little metal presses that abound in Europe.

And thus ride our days. There are nuances and regualrities, Italian beebop and the Beegees and Manu Chau on the stereo. Terra cotta, so many dogs, two cats named Hilary and Obama. Horses, cowboy comic books in Italian, the smells of leather, the warmth of new milk.

Monday is Matthew's birthday, and also marks the arrival of another American couple. Boy Howdy!

I hope that all's well in hearth and home, and that those of you who celebrate it had a wonderful Festa della Mama last Sunday. I will write more soon. Take the best of care, and know that we are nostalgia - we are homesick. But also so happy, cozy and warm, and also learning every day - things like how to say elephant in Italian, and how to get the sheep to their proper place on the milking stand, how to ride a horse and how to make ravioli Just Right.

Love, love love,

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day and Kittens in the home, Italy on the horizon

Happy May Day! This holiday, so tiny and rare in America, flowers like the wysteria, lillies of the valley (traditionally picked from the woods and sold and shared on May 1st) and lilacs into a big French day off for everybody. Barbeques, bike rides, long walks and rides in old sports cars abound.

We are doing well, having spent our morning harvesting fifteen trays of lovage that are currently in the humming dehydrator in the cellar. Lovage, a lovely neglected herb in America, was distributed in the sixteenth century as an aphrodisiac, and has been used for thousands of years as a digestive aide. It also makes a brilliant soup, of the sort that we have had the honor to taste many a time since being on Mount Salève.

Sadly, this is our last post from here. It has been so wonderful, and we both have much more to share and will do so from France. Matt (who wrote most of the entry on our Easter adventure weekend) plans on contributing a few posts on the food that we have encountered, and both of us are gathering so many ideas on agricultural whatnots that we are also interested in telling you about.
For now I leave you with the newborn kittens who are mewing and suckling in the wicker basket beside me, hands that still smell like lovage (somewhere between parsley and celery yet very distinct all the same) and a new knitting project. See you in Italy!
With Love,