Friday, November 25, 2011

Harvesting Olives, Part 2

View from Il Bellini

 As we mentioned in part 1, we had arranged as WWOOFers (as volunteers from this organization are affectionately known) to go to Il Bellini, a local farm/agritourismo to assist with the olive harvest.  We had no idea what we were in for.  In the email exchange between Gabriella and Rosanna (the daughter who essentially runs the business), Rosanna had asked us to come for a particular weekend in which she needed help both with the olive harvest and at a local fair where she would be selling olive oil.  Rosanna suggested that since we speak Italian (what, us?) one of us could help her at the fair.  Gabriella was quick to respond saying that we would be happy to help, but we weren’t at all sure our language ability was up to snuff.  Sure, we can write emails in Italian pretty well, but that’s because we have our trusty dictionary and verb book on hand.  Plus we have the time to review what we’ve written before we actually send the message.  Actually SPEAKING to people is a whole different story!   Via email we agreed we’d come for the weekend and once we got there we’d determine what made the most sense.

On a Friday afternoon we took the train to San Giovanni, about ½ hour north of Arezzo, where Rosanna met us at the station.  Apparently she determined that our Italian was just fine because on the drive to the farm she said she wanted Gabriella to help her at the fair the next day, and she asked Henry to stay on the farm and help the others with the harvest.  This was the first time the two of us were going to have our own independent adventures for an entire day.  We were just slightly trepidatious.
The road to the olives groves

Once we arrived at the farm we found the olive harvest in full swing so we changed our clothes and went right to work.  There were three other WWOOFers as well as several family members already hard at work.  You will no doubt be as confused as we initially were by who everyone is:  Anna and Mario, Rosanna’s parents; Maria, Mario’s sister; Maria’s husband, also named Mario; Paulo, brother-in-law to Anna; and Adelita, Anna’s sister.  Dino, a local handyman, was also there for a few days.

This is very much a family operation and very different than our experience before.  The family has over 1,300 trees. They also make their own wine and honey.  The process for harvesting olives was similar to what we had done with Lauro, but on a much grander scale.  The nets are huge, 20’-50’ long, and since the groves are terraced, laying them out properly so that no olives are lost is a lot of work.              

There are usually 2 people working simultaneously on a tree - one on the ground and the other on a ladder getting the higher branches.  Anna also uses the mechanized rake to reach the higher branches - that thing is heavy!  It’s hard to believe she uses it all day long without breaking a sweat.

Anna and her mechanical rake
 Because it is necessary to harvest the olives when they are dry the family has been taking advantage of the unusually sunny weather we’ve been having.  They have been working 7 days a week for nine hours a day since the end of October.  They take about an hour’s break for lunch (which, by the way the women have taken the time to prepare in advance, presumably the evening before – when DO they sleep?!?).  They will do this for 30+ days straight.  We were exhausted after working for 7½ days (we were there for two consecutive 4-day weekends).  We can’t imagine how tired they must be.  Oh yeah, Mario is 75 with emphysema.  Anna, Maria and Adelita are probably in their late 60s, and Paulo is in his 50s. These are no spring chickens.

One of the highlights of this whole experience was lunch, not just for the food but for the whole quintessential Italian experience.  Around 12:30 everyone headed back to the house and sat around a table outside in the courtyard.  There were jugs of olive oil and huge bottles of wine, which Mario brought out from his cantina in the garage.  We all sat together for a meal that always began with pasta followed by some kind of meat, usually pork, salami or pancetta, along with copious amounts of bread. The bread however was a merely a vehicle for consuming olive oil and salt.  None of us could get enough of it!  After the meal we each got a cup of espresso.  This was just the thing to kick us into gear for the afternoon’s work.  Though she is not a coffee drinker, Gabriella grew quite fond of this ritual, and eagerly anticipated her daily shot of espresso.

Mario presides over lunch
The main house and lunch table

Courtyard where lunch is served

Every night we had dinner together with Rosanna, her 4 year old son, and the other volunteers.  The other members of the family don’t actually live on the property – they’re probably sick and tired of it by now and are quite happy to retreat to their homes just a few kilometers away.  Rosanna, or her mother, or one of her aunts, always provided the meals.  Everything was delicious and there were several dishes that we especially liked.  As we try them out at home we’ll post the recipes here.

The bigger highlight of our time at Il Bellini, though, was the connection we made with the family. 
Anna and Rosanna immediately took to Gabriella and both formed a strong bond with her. Meanwhile Henry and Mario, the Babbo (the term for Dad in Tuscany), became very attached.  When we left after our second visit, Anna invited us to come back for a Sunday lunch, which basically means we’re part of the family now.  

The richness of our experience at Il Bellini is something we hoped we would have during our time in Italy, but didn’t really count on happening.  If all this has taken place in our first few weeks here, who knows what else will happen.  We feel immensely grateful, and we’ve already started thinking about making annual trips to come visit our new friends every year, just in time for the harvest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvesting Olives, Part 1

One of the main things we wanted to experience in Italy was the annual olive harvest, which takes place in November-December.  In anticipation of this we joined WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) a few months before we left Seattle.  With our membership we received a list of about 600 farms of all kinds all over Italy.  The deal is that members provide volunteer labor in return for food and lodging.  It’s a wonderful arrangement for people who want to travel inexpensively.

We sorted through the list and ended up making contact with a farm called Il Bellini which is located about 30 minutes from Arezzo by train.  Il Bellini is a family-run farm that produces wine and honey in addition to olive oil.  They were eager to have our help.  Gabriella has been emailing with Rosanna, the daughter of the proprietors, to arrange for our visit. (More about our visit to Il Bellini in a later post).

In the meantime, through our landlord, we met a couple who live a few miles outside Arezzo and have about 40 olive trees on their property.  When we mentioned to Lauro and Angioletta that we were interested in learning about harvesting olives they suggested that we come and help them.  We arranged for them to pick us up on Monday morning.  As we drove out to their place they said that we wouldn’t be harvesting that day because it was rainy and the olives need to be dry when they’re picked.  Instead they offered to spend the day chatting with us (hooray – here comes our crash course in Italian language!). 

When we arrived they gave us a tour of their property, and afterwards offered us coffee and cake.  Well, we THOUGHT Angioletta was offering us a piece of cake she had already made, so naturally we said yes, we’d love some.  It turns out she was apparently asking us if we wanted her to make a cake right then and there, which is precisely what she did.  It was a “simple” crostata made with Angioletta’s homemade quince jam, and a lattice top.   By the time the crostata was in the oven it was time to start getting ready for lunch.  Angioletta made a delicious meal of pasta with her homemade tomato sauce, fried eggplant, salad, wine, bread and olive oil.  We finished off the meal with the crostata and home-made vin santo.  Exquisite!  We had a wonderful time and arranged to come back Wednesday when the weather was supposed to be dry. 

Wednesday morning was indeed sunny and dry (in fact we haven’t seen a cloud in the sky since that Monday) and we went right to work.  To harvest olives one literally combs them from the tree using a hand rake called un rastrello.  Nets are spread on the ground below the tree to catch the olives as they fall.  Once all the olives are off the tree, the nets are gathered up and the olives are loaded into cassettas (crates) that are then taken to il frantoio (the olive press)to be processed into oil.

Some of Lauro & Angioletta's trees
The Cottage Gardener hard at work!

Il rastrello

Reaping the harvest
Two trees' worth of olives
Henry & Lauro at the end of the day
Lauro also has a mechanical rake on a long pole that runs on a battery.  It basically gives the trees a gentle beating to knock the olives off the branches.  This is particularly helpful for branches that are too high to reach from the ground, or are too precarious to reach from a ladder.  Harvesting olives is not hard work, but it is steady, and fairly tedious.  For the unaccustomed it’s a bit of a strain on the neck, arms, shoulders and back.  By one o’clock we were eager for our mid-day lunch break!  Because Angioletta is not particularly fond of outdoor work, she stayed in the house and prepared another wonderful meal for us while Lauro and the two of us worked in the groves.  When we came inside we found the table set and we enjoyed another delicious spread of pasta, salad and wine.  And another cake accompanied by vin santo!  This cake was made with ricotta and nutella – YUM!  After lunch we went back to the trees where we worked until dusk.  

Lauro was very happy that we had collected about 100kg of olives (in general the volume of olive oil produced is about 10-15% of the quantity of olives used) and was disappointed that we couldn’t come back the next day  - so were we!  As much as we wanted to help Lauro finish with his harvest, it was time for us to go on to Il Bellini.  Stay tuned!

A Bike and A Blunder

Gabriella bought a bicycle!  It’s a used 10-speed bike and it will be just what she needs for the time we are here.  She has no intention of bringing this bike back to Seattle (she loves her bike in Seattle, even if it weighs about ten times as much as this one).  When it’s time to leave she will sell it.  Not only is she delighted with this new purchase, but also with having navigated the entire transaction in reasonably intelligible Italian.

Biker Babe setting off on her first Italian ride!

She was more than a little anxious about taking the bike out on the road for the first time, and she packed a first aid kit in her backpack just to be safe (as though that would help if she were flattened by a Fiat).   She chose a time of day when there would be fewer cars on the road and off she went.  After the first 20 minutes she found her groove and pedaled through the countryside in ecstasy!  What a feeling of liberation!  An unexpected benefit was having the opportunity to feel fully competent at something again.  We’ve spent the last several weeks feeling acutely aware of our inadequacies.   To be doing something familiar and nourishing in a foreign place, where everything we do poses some degree of challenge was blissful.

Later in the day Gabriella had the opportunity to be humbled again when we went into a local shop to get some tomatoes and basil.  The shopkeeper looked at Gabriella askance as she asked for some “basilica fresca.”  It turns out Gabriella should have said “basilico fresco” and that what she was saying was, “I’d like to have some fresh church, please.”  What a difference a vowel makes!

Truly, there are days when we come home and our heads literally HURT with the strain of concentrating so hard on what we are hearing and saying.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

La Cucina Italiana

Last Thursday we went to a cooking class and dinner, again organized by our language school. The class was taught by local chef named Lalla (her nickname and also her professional name).  It was a delightful evening that started with Prosecco and appetizers, included a multi-course meal paired with locally made wine, and concluded with dessert and limoncello.  We began by learning how to make pasta from scratch, and then doing the prep work for the sauces.  

Lalla demonstrates how to make pasta - 2 eggs and 350 grams of flour.

Making the tagliatelle.

Henry might have a new career as a pasta chef!

The menu Lalla had planned involved a lot meat, but she made a separate meatless dish especially for Gabriella and another of the students who is also vegetarian. Of course it was all fabulous. One highlight was the potatoes.  They were slow cooked in a covered frying pan with fresh sage from Lalla’s garden, olive oil, salt and pepper. YUM!  Lalla explained that EVERY Italian dish includes the following essential ingredients: olive oil, salt and pepper.  Garlic is sometimes used in a form known adorably as “dressed garlic” (aglio vestito) or “garlic with its shirt on” (aglio alla camicia), which means you use the cloves without peeling them.  In this way the garlic adds a less forceful flavor to the dish.

Lalla taught us that the secret to the light but extraordinarily flavorful Italian tomato sauce is that the tomatoes are cooked in their own juice – without adding water or oil in the cooking process.  Olive oil is added only at the end.  Here’s how she taught us to prepare a tomato sauce:

Chop about 3 cups of tomatoes, 2 carrots, 2 sticks of celery and an onion.  Place them in a pan and cook for about half an hour until they are soft.  At this point you can strain the sauce through a sieve or leave the vegetables intact.  Add olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.   Enjoy!

Street Art

With the help of Gabriella’s cousin we’ve found some wonderful street art.  

We discovered the “angel” right outside our door.  We’d been here two weeks and never noticed it!

Now we’ve started seeing them all over town and we’re keeping our eyes open for more.