Farm Newsletter Archive: the long story of the Gordon-Rosati adventures

Click on a month to view the newsletter. Or, scroll to the bottom and read our story from the beginning.

2014

2015

November

Greetings from Località il Piano!

Autumn rains brought wild mushrooms, fresh pasture, gigantic broccoli, fat cabbages, many quince and a little time off. Now we're racing the first frost, draining the irrigation lines and bringing in the last kiwis, persimmons, medlars and pomegranates. Impossibly early though it seems, it must be time for winter again! Ben and Fafa are already singing Jingle Bells while we shell dry beans by the fire, the trees in the orchards are mostly bare, and the basement is full of apples, cheeses, jams and firewood.

The fall has also brought us crates and crates of acorns. When we hear the first acorns falling we spread nets under the oak trees and wait a few weeks, then pour them into boxes. It's much easier than picking them up one by one. The small acorns we feed to the goats, and the big ones that are more efficient to peel are for human consumption. Dry, peel, freeze, leech, boil... we made a few pounds into a sweetened puree like an acorn jam. The flavor is nutty, roasted, much like a chestnut; which makes botanical sense since acorns are cousins of chestnuts. We sent a jar of our creation to Ben's second grade class for their opinions: they demolished it. Thumbs up from 18 out of 19 kids, a tough crowd! The rest of the acorns will be bread, muffins, cakes or pancakes, yum.

We kept up the pace of jamming all through the late summer and early fall: late yellow peaches, white peaches, figs, nectarines, wild peaches, quinces, medlars, for a total of 20 kinds of jam made this year, a delicious rainbow of colors. There seems to be a pent-up demand for good jam so we have managed to sell a lot of it already ... to the guy who runs the hardware store, to friends from school, to the mayor who has 4 hungry teenage kids. To a lot of people in Spoleto we've suddenly become the Jam People. It's funny to see life through jam-tinged spectacles, and to know people according to their favorites: Lorenzo's grandmother likes quince, the vet who spayed Micia prefers peach, the second grade craves raspberry, Armando wants more acorn jam, the old ladies at gymnastics class like blackcurrant, Emma only wants the sugar-free medlar paste, Pam likes only tart jams, and for heaven's sake don't give blackberry to Filippo because he hates the seeds. Many thanks to all the 2015 WWOOFers who spent so many hours picking, sorting, washing, pitting, slicing, stirring and jarring!

Cheese has also been flying off the shelves. "Pepper Goat" has been a hit, and some of the early summer cow-goat blends have developed nice flavors as they have aged. Now we've put away the milking bucket until February when the cow, the sheep and the goats are all due to give birth. If all goes well we'll have a milk tsunami and we'll attempt gorgonzola and asiago with some of it.

This season's 90 liters of olive oil was hardly a tsunami but it is green, fragrant and darn good. From the first olive picked to the last olive crushed, it's always a race for quality. As with any fruit to be juiced, olives shouldn't be bruised, abused or sit around. A minimum of bruising is inevitable so the best thing to do is press as soon as possible. So, hurry! During the olive harvest you ignore the overflowing laundry baskets, postpone any non-essential activities, appointments and phone calls, eat mostly sandwiches, and pee in the fields - no one is indoors. Daylight hours are only for picking, spending hours in the tree tops getting in touch with your monkey heritage. By night you fix olive nets, prepare bins and food for the next day, pick olive twigs and leaves out of your hair and clothes, and rest your aching bones. Even when you close your eyes you see olives: the inside of your eyelids seems wallpapered with an olive-twig pattern.

This year we were blessed with warm sunny days, making everything easier and thus faster, despite having no helping hands. With the help of Giorgio's shaking machine, Adolfo and I managed to pick 640 kg of olives by ourselves in four days, which we zoomed to Bachetoni's olive mill at dusk on the fourth day. Ben and Fa were relatively patient and occasionally even helpful while we were picking, seeming to understand the importance of olive oil as a staple food in our diet. Milling, though, is way more interesting than picking. They loved the dirty, dangerous and deafening mill, watching the olives tumble from the bins into the leaf separator, then into the vibrating wash vat, up the conveyor belt to the powerful grinder, and through the fragrant pulp-mixing chamber that smells of green hay and bananas. Finally, to the huge centrifuge, with its maze of tubes spewing out solid waste (pit and pulp), liquid waste (bitter aqueous olive juice) and vibrant green fresh oil. The ritual first taste of the year's oil is magical, a fun moment to share with the kids and with friends who also produce their own oil.

After the first rains and before the olive harvest, we actually took a family vacation. Experienced farmer-WWOOFers Liz, Brent and Esther showed us how to make really tasty sauerkraut from the first cabbages. Convinced that if they could make sauerkraut they could handle the apple harvest, rambunctious cow and estatic puppy, we left them in charge for two nights and took the boys to Isola Maggiore on Lake Trasimeno. We enjoyed the tiny island community, the fascinating local history, and most of all the boats... the speed boats, the small ferry, the big ferry. We rode them all day long, in the pouring rain (which dented Fa's and Ben's enthusiasm not a bit) until the lady taking tickets asked "When are you going to get off?" In the evening, when no one else was aboard except the captain and the ticket lady, they let the boys steer the ferry!

The rambunctious cow, Ellie (akaThe Elephant), arrived in August. She is an immense Brown Alpine, who immediately announced her presence to all of the neighbors: MOOOO! She bellowed round the clock for a couple of weeks, driving us nuts. Adolfo's cousin Stefania who lives up in the village of Paterno got out her binoculars to see what sort of beast was making the racket, then phoned us: "Wow, your new cow is really big. And really loud." Perhaps she was lonely, not accustomed to being an only cow? Ellie has made friends with Orso now, letting him nibble her ears and tail, and is a lot quieter. She spent much of the late summer hanging out behind the garden fence, waiting for overgrown zucchini and cucumbers to be thrown her way. She is a "buona forchetta", a good fork, as they say of people who live to eat. Watching her eat is fascinating, reminiscent of a baling machine or garbage disposal. Her lightening-fast tongue reaches out and pulls in any sort of potential food, which disappears into her mouth very quickly. She devours watermelons, tomatoes, chard, carrots, rotten apples, old jack o'lanterns, persimmons, stale bread and whole ears of corn in a single bite. She weighs more than twice what Musa did and has the appetite to match. Looking at Ellie's massive muscles it's possible to imagine oxen plowing the fields, as they did locally through the 1970's before the advent of tractors. Ellie turned 3 in September and is as spunky, goofy and playful as a human toddler, though she weighs nearly 2000 lbs. An affectionate head butt sends me flying, so I have to carry a cow bopper stick when I'm in the pasture to discourage friendly frolicking too near me. We're fervently hoping that she mellows a bit through late pregnancy and motherhood, before we have to start milking in February!

Fafa is a happy boy in autumn because the maples in the forest turn his favorite color, brilliant flame orange, and because there are so many fruits ready for harvest. He has been in sensory overload from the vivid yellow leaves on the pomegranates, bright red leaves on the juneberries, and leaves of every hue, and has become a passionate collector. He crams leaves in the pockets of his school smock and jackets, in his snack container, in his bed, in the car, all over the place. Glad that he enjoys collecting leaves instead Pokemon cards, we tolerated the leaf piles until the inside of the house started looking like the front yard, then we evicted all leaves to a colorful mountain outside the front door. Fortunately he turned his attention to fruit harvesting, disappearing into the fields with his little metal bucket in hand to search for jujubes, pomegranates, walnuts, acorns, anything he can reach and considers edible. Fa stuffs first his belly, then his bucket, then fills his sleeves and makes a pouch of his sweater, and tries to navigate home through the tall grass without dropping anything. Since Adolfo and I often don't have time to harvest the minor crops we appreciate for Fa's patience and determination. Thanks to him we'll have pomegranates and walnuts all winter!

Ben isn't as keen on picking crops, but he can be very helpful with processing them. He's fairly skilled with big knives, quartering apples for sauce, or cracking walnuts with a hammer. He loves driving through the apple orchard on the way home from school, rolling down the car window and grabbing snack right off the tree. Unfortunantely his two front teeth have either been wiggly or missing this apple season, making raw fruit a challenge to eat. But that leaves baked apples, apple pie, apple sauce, many of Ben's favorites. We can him "Toothless", which makes him smile and show the funny gaps. Ben likes second grade better than first grade "because the math is more interesting". He's part-way through the How To Train Your Dragon series of books and dressed up as a Viking (yes, with genuine goat horns duct-taped to his head) for Halloween.

In October Adolfo went to Madrid to learn about carbon footprinting of agricultural systems, another way to quantify just how sustainable various crops, practices and systems are. It seems to be a useful tool to make complicated information digestible, especially as a starting point for discussions with agricultural policy-makers who understand little about agriculture. When at home, Adolfo is usually out digging, grading and packaging asparagus plants for sale, as has become his fall ritual. An attack of criocera larvae set back many of our young plants this spring but there are enough surviving plants to keep us busy for a while yet. Adolfo has been experimenting with juicing pomegranates to makes "sour power" juice that we all enjoy.

Darcy is enjoying the break from milking, and the consequent potential for travel! We'll be in Dublin for an (all-expenses paid? yes, we'll come) farmers' convention, then I'll take the kids on a last minute trip to Florida to meet Nonna Deirdre and Nonno Doug "halfway"before Christmas. It was really fun to host Carolyn and Kim from Davis in October, reminding us of the good old times. Now we're looking forward to hosting some students from the University of New Hampshire for an educational farm tour, and to taking Thanksgiving day off to make and eat apple, pumpkin and pecan pies.

May you spend Thanksgiving with good food and good company!

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


August

In a nutshell:

Boys are reveling in summer laziness while parents and WWOOFers work frantically to keep trees watered and fruit picked. We've been jamming up a storm and making some decent cheeses. The menagerie has grown by a energetic puppy and a saintly kitten. Cow fever continues, though actual cow ownership has had a lot of ups and downs and even some tears.

At a more leisurely pace...

Today we're purple-fingered after making elderberry jam, enjoying a rare moment of peace while Ben and Fa are off in Spoleto with Nonna Antonietta. All is well, and more-or-less under control... as much as it can be in the chaos that is summer on a farm! It's unusually hot but valiant efforts at irrigating have kept most of the trees looking good. Little green pawpaws peek from under leaves, our first crop. Apples are plentiful already, the sweet-tart little summer ones, and "keeping"apples are promising to be plentiful too. It's good weather for hay and Gregorio's making the second cut this afternoon, which will fill the barn completely. The kitchen counter is crowded with peaches, jars of elderberry jam and all shapes and colors of tomatoes.... it's peak summer, for sure.

Spring brought us fava beans, peas, leeks, strawberries, raspberries, lettuce, chard, arugula and endless asparagus. The garden is now producing the usual summer rainbow of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, corn, green beans and eggplant, and each afternoon finds us hauling in crates of fruit from the fields: peaches, Asian pears, summer apples, crab apples, blackberries and raspberries, melons. Fafa is the chief picker-of-small-things. His nimble little fingers are often faster than ours, and he doesnt have to bend down to get at the raspberries hiding under the bush! Fortunately there is a fair demand for boxes of farm produce from Spoleto residents, so we manage to sell some there. Lots is given away to Adolfo's extended family, and we donate some of the extra produce to the Church (capital C, as there is only one sort of church around here) soup kitchen. The left-over fruit goes into the jam pot and the left-over veg goes to the grateful goats, who will do tricks for overgrown zucchini and cucumbers. The jam cupboard is close to overflow after big batches of strawberry, raspberry, marionberry, sour cherry, wild cherry, juneberry, peach, black currant, red currant and gooseberry. We're hoping to sell some at Christmas, in gift packages. In theory the health department allows us only to serve the jam on-farm or use it for educational purposes (?!), but not to sell it, because we dont have nutritional information on the jar labels. Since it's all but impossible to have that kind of information for each of the twenty or so 15 kg lots of jams that we make each year, I guess all of our jam will have to be eaten for "educational purposes" in exchange for a "donation"!

Last week the four of us and WWOOFer Alex went hunting with Gregorio and his dogs, Fanny and Theo, for black summer truffles. Truffling involves a lot of stumbling through the bushes attempting to keep up with Fanny and Theo as they dart here and there, noses to the ground. Every so often dirt flies, as a dog digs up something interesting. The truffle is gently carried to Gregorio and the dog lies down at his feet, to present him the treasure and exchange it for a treat. At the end of our hunt, feeling tired and rich, we pull a million prickers out of our socks while admiring our bowl full of dirty slobbery lumps. Fa donates his old Elmo toothbrush to scrub the truffles clean, then we grate them: black truffle spaghetti for dinner, Ben's favorite!

We're managing to get more food by bartering our excess with friends who produce things that we lack... a big lamb in exchange for a 6-months'-supply of wine, milk for honey, yogurt for wheat, eggs for childcare, peaches for potatoes. It's wonderous to be able to get rid of things that you don't need and in exchange to receive the things that you do need! And it is a good solid feeling to know the people who grew the food and shared it with us: it is Roberto's wine, Gregorio's potatoes, Marco's honey. We eat like kings, humble though our clothes and car may be.

One spring project was converting our B&B-style agriturismo into apartments that we can rent out. As much as Darcy likes to make breakfast, we decided that apartments are a more practical formula, since guests usually prefer to stay more than a couple of days and may like to have their own kitchen. So now we offer apartments, with spacious kitchens and 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms, each bedroom with its own bathroom and balcony. Another spring project was a culinary and medicinal herbs garden in front of the house, which has now become productive and useful for cheesemaking experiments and farm tour groups.

Most of the excitement in the last months has been in the barnyard and chicken coop. One day at the end of March the goose started laying. We went out to collect the hen eggs and found a big white whopper of an egg on the ground near the nests. Who could have produced such a thing? And what was inside? Fa was positively quivering, struck dumb by excitement, cradling that big white egg in his arms. He carried it home ever so slowly and carefully and couldnt be convinced to put it down for about an hour. He talked to it, tucked it into his bed and read it a story. When finally we managed to convince him that the egg would be safer in a basket in the kitchen, Fa went back out to the coop and had a long monologue with the goose, Snow White, about what a marvellous wonderous thing she had made, SO BIG! and was there any way she could please make another one tomorrow? She did, and the second egg was dutifully cuddled and carried around, then snuggled into the basket in the kitchen. After several weeks of this the basket was overflowing and we needed to do something with the pile of eggs. We had a feeling that eating them was going to be a touchy subject. In fact, Fa was appalled at the very idea of breaking the shell. After long diplomatic talks we found a compromise... I poked tiny holes in the eggs so we could blow out the contents for cooking, and he could keep the intact empty shells. So we all had goose-egg custard, and Fa had lots of big shells to color for Easter!

Orso ("Bear"), a Maremmano puppy, came to live in the barn in June. He is a fluffy white ball of energy with needle-sharp teeth, who loves people, especially as chew toys. For now he follows the sheep around the pasture, trying to gnaw on their tails. Once he quintuples his size he will be a good guardian for the goats and sheep - if we make him a collar with sharpened nails to protect his neck, he should be able to best a wolf. And once he gets past the chew-on-anything-and-everyone stage the boys will have more fun playing with him! Now they play with the new kitten, Micia, a funny little scrap of a cat with the patience of a saint. In theory she eats the mice in the hay barn, but in practice she hangs out by the front door waiting for children to pet her. She lives for human attention, even strangulating hugs and rides in the wheelbarrow, and purrs like a tractor even when dangled upside down.

Early in the spring the cow hunt started in earnest. After lots of phone calls, emails and faxes, I learned that there was not a single Jersey cow in the region of Umbria. But, Google be praised, we managed to locate a dairy with 300 Jerseys in the region of Le Marche, about 2.5 hrs away. Adolfo took a day off work and we drove up to ask Arturo, the frenetically busy owner, if he had any extra cows, ones who didnt give enough milk, old ones, ones with three teats, anything at all. He thought for about 5 seconds, then barked out two ID numbers and two prices and and zoomed off to deal with other business. We wandered through lakes of cow manure and herds of identical cows searching for our two prospects, Number 289 and Number 546. A kind dairy worker took pity on us and helped us find and compare the two cows, chatting about everything bovine and spouting much-welcome advice. Number 289 was younger, cost more, and seemed vaguely curious about humans. Number 546 was older, was further along in her lactation period, and seemed slightly cautious. Both had long enough teats for hand-milking. (And here the first practical lesson of cow ownership: Don't stand behind a nervous cow or you may be covered by incredibile amounts of very messy manure.) A while later the owner zoomed back past us and barked out "Take the young one, you won't regret it". We bought some cheese, and talked about cows all the way home and for the next two days.

We re-named Number 289 "Musa" ("Moo" for short, of course). She arrived on May 2nd and caused as much household chaos as a newborn human does, all of us adapting to milking schedules and learning to deal with bovine diet and diarrhea. Moo immediately wowwed us with her sweet temperment, incredibly good milk and copious amounts of manure. To our surprise, the poor girl didnt know how to eat plain old hay! Apparently it requires some learned tongue agility? In the dairy she had always been fed pre-mixed pre-chopped rations, food designed for easy digestion and high performance, the bovine equivalent of Power Bars. And, in her 4 years of life, she had never seen grass or been out of a barn or stepped on anything other than a cement floor. Poor Moo took a week to learn how to eat hay but she sure made good milk. 6 liters a day was nothing for her, compared to the 20 L/day she had been producing on dairy feed, but it was plenty for us. Soon our forearms and hands had muscles that hadn't been visible before, and the fridge was always full of milk, cream, cheese and yogurt. Friends in Spoleto started asking if they could buy dairy products, apparently happy to pay 10 euros/gallon for white gold. Everyone loved Moo and came to visit and pet her. Moo was the star of the show when Ben's whole first grade class came over for an educational farm day, patiently allowing twenty 6-yr-olds to pet her face. Moo seemed happy, affectionately licking us and wanting her neck scratched in return, but she was getting thinner. It is hard to know exactly how messy your cow's manure is supposed to be, but it seemed too liquid to us. She was always ravenous, devouring a bale and a half of alfalfa and mixed-grass hay each day. We brought her the best hay we could find, and made her corn-bran-soy mash twice a day. The diarrhea continued, on-again-off-again... we tried probiotics and yeast... took manure samples to the local lab.... had the vet come look at her... tried cortisone and even antibiotics. Finally we took a manure sample to the Animal Diseases Lab at the University of Perugia. A week later the results were awful and unforgiving. Moo had paratuberculosis, incurable and eventually fatal. It is a bit like Crohn's disease in humans, but is contagious to other ruminants, meaning that our goats and sheep were at risk of getting the disease. Arturo the dairy owner had neglected to mention that his barn had had trouble with paratuberculosis in the past, and we hadn't known to ask. (Another lesson of cow ownership: run all possible tests on an animal before buying it no matter what the owner and the animal's paperwork say.)

And so we had to sell wonderful friendly sweet Moo, knowing that she was destined for the slaughterhouse. It was totally and utterly awful. Fa said "We'll cry every day, always". Adolfo didn't say much, kindly not mentioning the financial aspect of the disaster. Ben said "we'll give her the very most delicious hay while she's here" and was angry with the guy who sold her to us. I felt numb and nauseated for a week. It was amongst the worst moments farming, thus far. The truck came to take her away, and she, true to form, climbed in willingly. As the man handed me a check and drove away I had to strangle the urge to shout at the departing truck that I didnt want the damned check, I wanted that cow! In the next days the only thing that made me feel a tiny bit better was the thought that perhaps we could have another cow, a healthy one. We've cow-shopped a bit and are likely to buy another, though I have no illusions that she will be as wonderful as Moo was. She was worth waiting 30 years for and we were lucky to have her, if only for a couple of months. Cheese-making and yogurt-making continue with the 10L/day of milk that the goats are giving, though they are not nearly as good as pure Jersey yogurt and mixed Jersey-goat cheese.

Fa tells all visitors about "when we had the nicest cow", and periodically raises a slice of cheese "To Moo!". He is still passionate about eggs and is very specific about how he wants them cooked. "Today softboiled!" "Fried but squishy!" "Scrambled!" Fa's other passions are harvesting cherry tomatoes, and ripping petals off of my flowers. I find dried petals in his bed, in his pockets, all over the house. He is such a cheerful (filthy) delightful (sticky) little person these days. Fa is thoroughly enjoying summer at home and says he is never, ever, going back to school. Nonna Deirdre sent Fa some special ladybug and frog buttons to sew on his school smock, so maybe going back to school won't be so awful. Adolfo's father's companion, Licia, died this spring and Fa still has a lot of questions, ideas and fears about death so we talk about it every day. Dead insects, dead chickens, dead lambs are familiar (and interesting) to him but the idea of people in his family dying bothers him a lot.

Ben is methodically plodding though excessive amounts of summer homework, and is quite proud of his Crimson Sweet watermelons, Big Max pumpkins and sweet corn. He swims like a fish now, and loves to zoom up and down our dirt road on his mountain bike and build forts behind the farmhouse. Ben's best friend is Micia, who is usually slung over one of his shoulders. He has a wide smile filled with improbably tiny teeth, only his two new bottom front teeth are in proportion. Ben seem to be looking forward to being a second-grader though not to sitting still indoors and doing "all those dumb worksheets".

Adolfo is on 'vacation' these days, meaning that he's working on the farm instead of in his office: building a rock wall, planting asparagus seeds, chopping wood, putting in the winter garden, swimming in our lake. It now sounds as if the government will close his research institute and transfer all personnel to other entities, but after 10 years of dithering it's hard to believe that the plan won't change again so we decide not to worry excessively yet. In the mean time, he's busy working on some pan-European agroforestry projects and setting up an agroforestry booth for the EXPO in Milan.

Darcy is completely possessed by cheese mania. All spare moments (meaning when the kids are in bed, it is too dark to work outside and the housework is more-or-less under control) are spent poring over cheesemaking books, learning about enzymes, cultures, techniques and incubation temperatures. The shelves in our cheeseroom in the basement are filled with golden rounds of cow, goat and mixed cow-goat cheese. As with learning to make wine, the first goal is to make a product without flaws. Only then is it possible to experiment with ways to bring out the best in the raw material. And now, most of the time, we can produce a basic cheese with few or no flaws (hallelujah, it only took years to get to this point!). All tasters but one have raved over our proto-cheeses, which is encouraging, and we've started including cheese for our weekly farm-basket customers. We've improved textures and rind development, and are ready to play with some of the fun variables like adding peppercorns to the curd or rubbing the rind in ash, grape skins or dried herbs. Today we made some soft cheese (for filling crepes, with raspberries) and some paneer (for frying with eggplant).

We enjoyed lots of visits from friends and family in May, and are all looking forward to more friends coming this fall and at New Years! Anyone planning to be in the neighborhood in November is most welcome to help with the olive harvest or join us for for Thanksgiving :)

Wishing abundant watermelon for all, and early fall rains for the poor farmers/gardeners in California,

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


February 2015

Hello from Localita' il Piano!

Spring is somewhere under the melting snow, percolating up into the air. Daffodil buds are fat, our three roosters are crowing round the clock as their testosterone ramps up and one hen has decided that it is time to sit on eggs. Soon the new grass will be growing faster than Ben and Fa, who are shooting up at an impressive rate. Time has flown since the last farm letter and so much has happened... wild boar damage (boar now in freezer), first kiwi harvest (delicious), wolf attack (terrible carnage), California-Hawaii trip over Christmas (wonderful warm interlude)!

2014 was a year of extremes.... an extremely mild winter and an extremely wet summer. Climate change? Or normal variation? It felt more like southern England than central Italy, with pitiful tomatoes, sickly grapes, and a disasterous olive harvest. It is the first year I can remember that we didnt have any excess tomatoes to can. And it is the only year that anyone can remember that there were no olives to pick. Not a single one. Pollination was negligible due to the June rain, and the few fruits that did set were devoured by the huge olive fly population that the mild winter had failed to kill off. Fortunately we have enough olive oil, canned tomatoes and grape juice left from last years bumper crops that we wont need to buy any, but there are many Italian farmers who will short on cash this year and will be buying things that they usually can produce.

On the bright side, the English climate does produce excellent raspberries, currants, gooseberries and, maybe best of all, apples - and all the summer rain worked wonders on ours. The basement is still lined with boxes holding apples of every imaginable color, size and shape. Some are truly strange... one has a dull deep waxy purple with chartreuse stripes, another is dark yellow and conical, with fragrant bright yellow flesh scented of pineapples. The few remaining fresh-eating types are shrivelling, most already eaten by us or by the goats, but the storage types are still maturing. Starchy, hard and completely uninteresting at October harvest, they finish ripening over the storage period and develop a rich winey honey-sweet intense flavour. Fafa often disappears down the basement steps, coming back a few minutes later with a partially gnawed apple in each fist. I find apple cores everywhere, in jacket pockets, inside shoes, under his pillow... Ashmeade's Kernel was the favorite this year for fresh eating, and russet varieties for storage. Resembling spherical potatoes with their rough brown skins, russets are wonderfully sweet. Though past their peak now they are still heavenly when boiled in red wine with cloves and honey (both the warm wine and the apples!).

This makes the whole house smells of mulled wine, like a ski lodge, a warm pleasant refuge from the cold. We must have whined too much about the mild winter last year, because this year we've gotten genuine COLD, complete with snow that sticks around for a while. I had forgotten the surprise of waking up to a white world, the absolute silence when the air is thick with snowflakes, the brilliant light of the moon over snow-covered fields, and the satified feeling when happily blockaded in a snug house with abundant firewood and food. It's fun trying to guess who has left those footsteps in the fresh snow.... a big fox? A neighbor's dog? A porcupine? Feeding the animals can be a challenge now, especially when the barn door is frozen shut. I iceskate to the barn with a wheelbarrow loaded with hay and grain and use a rock to bash through the ice on goats' water buckets. We have about 5 minutes to complete any outdoor task requiring dexterity before fingers are too cold and clumsy to be useful. The worst part is that you can't feel cuts and injuries, and just wonder where those spots of blood on the snow came from. When it's too cold to prune we take shelter in the greenhouse, re-potting trees in our nursery area, taking stock of the situation, planning ahead for spring projects and the grafting to be done just a few short weeks from now when the trees will be waking up for spring.

Adolfo and I took a Valentine's day trip in our trusty rusty Fiat Panda up past Florence, Lucca, La Spezia, and Carrara,its huge chunks of white-grey marble visible from the highway. Our mission was to get a purebred baby Alpine goat, and we found one! Spunky brown little Valentino will be our billy, bringing his good milk-producing genes to our herd. For now he just keeps us laughing with his capers, folllowing us around, chewing dead oak leaves and pretending to eat grass, and giving Darcy a head-butt when he wants a bottle of milk. Between Valentino and the four new lambs, the barn is hopping! Three lambs were born here and our friend Diego sold us "Shaun the Sheep", a black-faced Suffolk lamb, to replace the ram that the wolf ate last fall.

Not ate, really. Actually the wolf slashed Cornuto's ("Horny's") throat and left him to die, touching none of the meat. Same story with Ben's yearling lamb, Neve ("Snow"). The beast did consume most of our best milk goat, JetBlack, leaving just her head, three legs, and a garishly red, denuded rack of ribs poking above the grass. It seemed unreal that such a massacre could happen right next to the barn, just 100 meters from the farm house, in a well-fenced area that we had previously considered "safe": 6-ft cyclone fence with the base buried, with one strand of barbed wire underground and three at the top of the fence leaning outwards, prison-style. Aside from sadness, impatience wtih the mandatory "wolf attack" paperwork, and frustration at the economic loss, we worry for the future. It may be pure stupidity to invest in more livestock that could be slaughtered tomorrow night, but, on the other hand, with luck another 10 years could pass before we have another brush with wolves. So we'll just proceed with fingers crossed. Sometimes we wonder who is the endangered species, the wolves or the few small farmers remaining in rural mountainous areas? And who is the wanton murderer, the wolves who slit the throats of many more animals than they will eat, or the farmer desperately trying to shoot or poison the wolves? As with anything, prospective changes with position. In past years we have sat back and watched the annual wolf battles of our neighbors but this year the conflict came literally quite close to home.

It was a shock to come back to the cold after a holiday trip to California and Hawaii. Ben didn't want to come back to Italy, but Fafa told us for days that he was "so glad to come back to my Italy-house" apparently because he had missed his toys and the chickens. Trip highlights included New Years' in Davis, sampling Scott's Asian greens, body-boarding (Adolfo!), seeing college friends in San Francisco and on Maui (Darcy!), drinking enormous quantities of pineapple-passion fruit juice (Ben!), airports, airplane rides and visiting Walmart (Fa!). Now we're back to hauling firewood, feeding animals, baking bread, eating what we can grow... currently kiwi, persimmon, broccoli, sunchokes, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage, beets, parsnips, apples, eggs, and our very last wheel of goat cheese.

Fa was not enthused about starting public nursery school in September: "I'm NOT going!". He is white-blond and very tall, and stands out among his classmates like a giraffe in a herd of cows. Though he has made (girl) friends at school, he prefers to bop around the farm. He's passionate about chickens and loves to collect the eggs, of which there are quite a few with 40 laying hens! His favorite things to do are hitch a ride in the wheelbarrow, visit the new lambs, dig up carrots and beets and parsnips and deliver them to the front door via tricycle. He volunteers to prune olives with Papa, or drag firewood with Mama, and makes a great little helper.

Ben seems to enjoy the social aspects of school though 1st grade isn't as academically challenging as he and we would like. Perhaps a third of his class of 19 kids are non-native Italian speakers, coming from Albanian, Romanian, Ukrainian or northern African immigrant households, so he has a fairly diverse set of friends. Ben dressed up as "Dash" from The Incredibles for Halloween and again for Carnevale (MardiGras). We thought it was really funny to see those sturdy little legs encased in red tights but he was very serious about being a superhero. Ben spends many hours up on the aia constructing teepees and forts and traps in the wood pile. He and Adolfo crashed and destroyed the old sled on a tandem trip down the snowy slopes of the alfalfa field, so now the snow saucer is Ben's vehicle of choice.

Darcy is wishing for slightly warmer days and thawed soil so she can plant some strawberries, divide the artichoke plants, propagate the herbs, and plant the new sour cherry and quince trees. She is also wishing for a cow, nothing new, but this time we've actually located a farmer with 300 Jerseys, a few of which are for sale! We have on hand a new cow halter, two stainless steel 10L milk cans, a box of California Mastitis Test papers and new beechwood shelves in the basement to age the cheeses-to-be. Wise Santa brought bovine literature: "The Family Cow", "The Backyard Cow", "Keeping A Family Cow", "Humane Livestock Handling", "Masterning Artisan Cheesemaking", "The Cheesemaker's Apprentice". Book-learning is never adequate, but it can be helpful!

While dreaming of expensive cows we've been playing with cheaper livestock, rehauling the vineyard to create a chicken-mowing system. The plan is to fence down the rows of grapes with chicken wire to divide the vineyard into small blocks then send the chickens thorough the blocks in rotation, to eat all the grass and bugs and drop their manure directly in the field. We need to raise the trellis wires first, though, after watching turkeys leap to devour the wine grapes in the test area last fall: apparently they enjoy a good San Giovese as much as we do. Poultry do amazing things to the soil and low vegetation, aside from producing eggs and meat from bugs and grass, which is pretty miraculous in and of itself. As Adolfo points out, they are much better weeders than we or WWOOFers are, working 18hr days with no vacations and no complaints!

Adolfo's phone has been ringing at all hours for the last few months, as he was taking orders for wild asparagus plants. It was the most successful nursery season so far. We were lucky to have a warm-ish weekend recently for digging up the last 3000 baby plants. We finished taping up the shipping boxes well after dark Sunday night, too late to join the kids at a Carnevale parade, and almost too tired to celebrate with a beer. And soon it'll be time to start weeding the beds of soon-to-germinate asparagus seed for next years crop of plants!

We're looking forward to the birth of the rest of the baby goats, spring fields of red poppies, several groups of friends and family visiting in May-June, and maybe, just maybe, the arrival of a big-eyed good-tempered Jersey cow.

Wishing you a beautiful spring,

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


2014

June 2014

Hello from Localita' il Piano!

Today was the last day of school and Ben and Fafa are so ready for watermelon, popsicles and summer. The lavender hedge is in full bloom, the hay barn is almost to capacity and fireflies entertain kids and WWOOFers when finally the sun goes down. Somehow it's that season again when things grow faster than we can harvest them! Activity in the garden is ramping up, 6 varieties of summer squash and 15 of winter squash, 4 kinds of corn, way too many cucumbers, chard, celery, carrots, beans, onions, shallots, basil, melons, eggplant, peppers and of course tomatoes! Berries are as abundant as they are colorful: golden and red raspberries, strawberries, red and black currants, gooseberries, early blackberries. The fields are giving us amaranth greens and lambsquarters, and the orchards summer apples, late cherries, golden plums and apricots.

March kindly spared us the kind of late freeze that usually wipes out apricot and plum blossoms, and the trees have gratefully produced a huge crop. About 50 kg of apricots were waiting for our attention on Saturday morning, crates barricading our access to breakfast. So we started in early: grading, pitting, slicing. The prettiest fruit we gave away or ate, the nice ones we jammed, the slightly ugly ones we pureed for fruit leather, and the seriously ugly ones went to the goats. Fa, who loves the color orange as much as he loves apricots, was in sticky heaven tasting everything, but by late afternoon Adolfo didn't want to see another apricot ever again. Fortunately by then the crates were empty, jars of brilliant orange jam cooling on the counter, puree drying on oiled trays in the sun, and goats having a feast with the discards. Later on a young couple stopped by, looking for special jams to pair with local cheeses at their upcoming wedding banquet, and they carried off some of the still warm jars.

We have been lucky with rain this year, getting a good storm every time things were looking dry. We haven't had to spend much time irrigating, and it feels so good to see the trees thriving, with fresh growth on the tips of branches which are finally tall enough to be out of reach of the deer. Finally the years of hauling manure are starting to pay off. We can see the soil fertility improve, watching the color, height and composition of the grass on the orchard floor during the season and across years. Adolfo's forest garden has had the most dramatic change, from sparse stunted grass 10 years ago to rich clover and legumes that now leave a thick green mulch when mowed. Our poor and rocky soil will need many more years of good rain, manure and mowing to get to the level of organic matter that most farmers would consider "very fertile" but at least now we can see that we are on the right track!

The barnyard scene has been more frustrating lately, and sad, as a fox and an eagle have between them killed all 6 turkeys, all 12 guinea hens, the rooster and 20 of the young chickens that were just starting to lay. We plan to buy some more birds, keeping them safe in the chicken tractor while we build a high security coop. We have been trying for years to have free-range birds on pasture, but have finally come to the conclusion that it is just not possible with predator habitat surrounding our pasture as it does. We wanted to keep the birds with the hooved animals so that they could help by eating fly and parasite larvae but for now we will have to do something differently. To use that pasture we would either have to raise thousands of birds so that the relatively few that predators pick off are barely noticed, or completely roof the whole thing to protect them. So it looks like our new birds will have to have a safer and more structured, tame life in the vineyard right outside the front door, hoping that the proximity of people and cars will keep predators away. This is Plan A. Plan B might be get a big hairy aggressive dog that doesnt eat birds (or small children)?

Fortunately things have been going better with the goats! We sold 10 young goats for 575 euros, keeping only Elsa the Snow Queen (yes, Ben has been watching "Frozen") who'll join our milking herd. Now our forearms muscles are getting a workout, milking about 5 L each afternoon. Every two or three days we have to make cheese if we want any fridge space for other food.... so we practice making mozzarella, scamorza, ricotta and "caprino", the goat milk version of the local pecorino cheese. Cheesemaking is endlessly fascinating and frustrating, and sometimes delicious. When working with milk, especially raw milk, there are so many variables that affect the color, flavor, texture and storage life of the final product .... what the goats ate, hygiene at milking time, how many hours the milk has been out of the udder, how acidic it is, whether you skim the cream off, how slowly you heat the milk, at what temperature you add the rennet, whether that rennet is of animal or vegetable origin, and an endless list of other factors. Despite keeping a detailed logbook of our cheese experiments, we still havent figured out all the variables and often the result surprise us... why did holes form in the middle of the scamorza? Why did the mozzarella curds not stick together as expected? Why did the rind of the caprino crack? Why was the ricotta grainy instead of smooth?

Early this spring I went to visit our neighbors, Giuseppe and Fabrizio, to watch cheese experts at work. Their family keeps some 300 sheep above Vallo di Nera, selling the lambs and pecorino cheese. Every morning, December through June, the brothers milk the herd together, then Giuseppe takes the sheep out to pasture while Fabrizio takes the milk to the stone basement/cave where they make and store their cheeses. Fabrizio makes his rennet the old fashioned way, using the dried stomach contents of a milk-fed lamb pounded together with a local thyme species (a preservative, I think). It's powerful: a fraction of a teaspoon is enough to coagulate 50 liters of milk. We haven't yet experimented with making our own rennet, but have done quite a bit of cheese experimentation using store-bought rennet. More often than not our results have some serious defects (ie - full of holes, stinks of dead animals). Adolfo gamely eats all but the worst, which keeps me motivated to try, try,try again. I think learning to make cheese may be like learning to riding a bike or make bread: you must practice, make some leaps of faith, practice more, pay attention to your results, practice more.... then "Poof!" Success! I'm hoping that we get to the "poof" part soon. In beginning to master some fundamentals of cheesemaking, perhaps we are getting closer to buying a cow, something I have wanted to do since I was little girl.

Ben lost his first tooth, turned 6 and will be heading off to first grade in the fall. He is fascinated by Legos, swords, pirates, contraptions, tools, math, chemistry, motors and fuel, acid-base reactions.... so far we've dissolved sea shells in HCl, filled a balloon with the gas made by combining baking soda and vinegar, manipulated the color of berry juice with baking soda and vinegar.... way cool. His ability to absorb and comprehend long and complicated explanations amazes me. We have fun in the kitchen: he made his own "Ben Bars" to take with him to swim camp for snack, using apricot puree, oats, nuts and dried fruit. His prized watermelons are the size of softballs and he has become fascinated by Very Large Pumpkins. Ben has decided that if urine is fertilizer, then the best place to put his is on his pumpkin plants. Several times a day he beelines out to the pumpkin patch to make a deposit, sometimes with Fa in tow.... "Please, Fa, just try! You see, they grow better if you pee on them...."

Fa's English is getting much better. He retains a hilariously strong accent but can make himself understood, and really enjoys chattering with our WWOOFers. He's very bossy, even commanding the elements , hands on hips... "Stop, wind! I dont like you! Stop!". He spends a lot of time outside, and is often to be found wandering down the rows of berries with an empty bowl in hand (the berries go straight into the mouth). Fa doesn't seem to derive as much pleasure as Ben does from using his brain. He might ask why the sky is blue, or how that rainbow got there, but he doesnt want the long explanation. Part of this is his age, but part is his personality. He's a much more sensory-driven kid, strongly affected by colors and sounds and emotions. There is no grey in Fa's life... for him everything is either white or black, wonderful or horrible, love or hate. Fortunately his alarming temper is balanced by his charming smile. That impish grin saves him many a scolding, wrapping adults around his sticky little finger.

We had a triple birthday party on June 1st, for Ben turning 6, Fa turning 3 and me turning 38, complete with a red airplane pinata and a lot of cherries and pizza. Some months in advance Ben started drawing pictures of how he wanted his birthday cake: a chocolate layer, then white frosting "like the kind on carrot cake", then a yellow cake layer, then more white frosting, then another chocolate layer, then encase the whole stack in chocolate glaze frosting, with a white "B" piped on top and decorated with Smarties. We did our best which, fortunately, made him happy. Fa was easier to please, rampaging through the pantry until he found a favorite cake pan - he didnt care what kind of cake it was as long as it was round and had fresh strawberries and caramel sauce on top.

Somehow we didnt get around to making a third cake for me, which was fine. What is there to celebrate about 38? The years blur and all the numbers sound the same after a while. From a distance I look more or less the same too, but up close the mirror shows me the first few grey hairs around a smiling, weathered face. Adolfo used to say that young people have the face they were born with, and older people have the face that they have earned. At first I am ambivalent about these grey hairs and this tired skin, but I decide that they are mine, they are me. Wear them with shame, indifference, or pride: that is my choice, so I choose something between indifference and pride, and immediately feel relieved.

Adolfo was elected to county council at the end of May, along with his second cousin Agnese who will be the mayor. Italian-style, the first thing to do is eat a lot: she immediately arranged a victory feast for the whole electorate, all 300 of us. (The losing mayor candidate and her team were of course invited but didn't come.... apparently it is acceptable for adults to sulk as Fafa does.) Our contribution was two enormous jam tarts, each one 3ft x 2 ft. Agnese brought a whole, deboned, roasted pig, whose weight nearly collapsed the table it was carved on. Agnese's first official act as mayor was to marry Adolfo's sister, Emanuela, and Tonino, who is finally, after 15 years, our brother-in-law. In part of the ceremony Agnese read aloud some sections of the "codice civile", the body of civil law in Italy, which describe marriage. Not having been married in Italy, I hadn't had occasion to read the law, and was impressed that there is at least one good law on the books. It is beautifully written, and, interestingly, there is a lot of emphasis on the absolute equality of husband and wife, the importance of fidelity, and the requirement that both parties support each other financially and emotionally and work together towards family goals. Surprisingly progressive ideas, though not much reflected in most of the marriages I see. At least the official description sounds good!

Today Adolfo is leading a seminar on the cultivation of wild asparagus as a secondary crop that can be added to existing olive orchards, and is taking local farmers to visit Bachetoni's olive groves where olive trees are under-planted with wild asparagus and grazed by meat chickens. It gives the farmer three sources of income from the same piece of land, which aside from simply increasing profit also buffers the farmer from variabilities of weather, market, disease etc of a single crop. It pleases Adolfo that his day job pushes sustainable agriculture beyond being a buzzword, towards being a viable option for farmers.

Adolfo and I have evolved a common decision, not a very radical one but a distinct shift in perspective: we want to enjoy the farm... to live its wonderfulness instead of feeling trapped in a workplace that demands more hours than we can possibly give. Work less, and mostly on things that we really like. Feel and breathe and maybe even sit a moment to admire the view instead of running frantically to the next task. For example, the raspberries.... rather than selling all the best raspberries, making them into jam for other people to enjoy, or serving them at breakfast to the agriturismo guests.... we decided to eat them this year. Having all those brilliant perfect reds and goldens to ourselves is an immense luxury that makes the work feel worthwhile. For breakfast, with dew still on them, cool from the morning air, on bread with ricotta. After dinner, still warm from the afternoon sun, rich and sweet-tart on homemade ice cream.

For now, we're looking forward to hosting a yoga retreat this weekend, a series of jam and fruit tastings in July and August, and friends coming to visit this fall. If we can find a farm-sitter we might be able to do a trip back to California at Christmas.

Wishing you a relaxing summer,

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


March 2014

Happy spring from Localita' il Piano!

The garden is still sleeping under a thick blanket of straw, but nap time is almost over: its time for spring! The peach trees are blooming, the kale wants to bolt and tiny green strawberries are starting to peek out from the leaves. It's been a warm winter, meaning that the dormant plants are starting to stir much earlier than usual. A hard frost now could cause a lot of damage to tender new growth, but if the mild weather holds we might be gorging on apricots and plums come July! The smaller humans note that the sun is out and ask if it's ice cream weather yet, while the adult humans are wondering where our winter quiet-time went, and wondering where we'll find the energy to charge through another growing season.

A spell of rain in January gave us time for culinary adventures.. digging up horseradish roots and grating them into a sort of wasabi-spicy condiment, applying the salt-and-hang prosciutto procedure to a haunch of lamb (our friends call it "ram ham"), attempting to make persimmon jam. Tasty all around, but the ram ham holds the most potential. We're finishing off the last few butternut squash and onions and are looking forward to fava beans, spring onions, peas, asparagus and the first offerings from the garden.

Projects: completing the basement, which had been on hold until our part of the house was really and truly finished. Franco Innocenzi's crew built and plastered walls to separate our "food lab" from the pantry/food storage/cheese curing room, the WWOOFer quarters/party room, and the general agricultural equipment storage zone. We'll run the electrical wires next weekend, paint everything, treat the floor, and attempt to have at least cooking gear and beds moved back in by the time our next WWOOFer arrives on 30 March. Details like doors and shelves are going to have to wait while.

The first babies of the year arrived March 2nd, twin lambs born to Francesina. Ben was thrilled, since she is his very own sheep, and immediately named the tiny white female "Neve" (Snow). We held off naming her twin brother, since, as Ben matter-of-factly explained to a visitor, "we'll either eat him or sell him". After long discussion we decided that though the little guy might have a short life we should let him live as fully as possible, so now he has a name, "Nebbia" (Fog), and he has been getting his share of the petting. Seven pregnant goats deliver in the next weeks.

The chickens ducks and geese have been enjoying the spring grass and turning it into eggs with bright orange yolks. Fafa and Ben enjoy hunting for the eggs, carefully carrying the basket back to the house (ok, we dropped it once!) and using them in the kitchen. Chef Ben has almost mastered scrambled eggs, just needing help to turn on the burner and reach the salt and pepper. Chef Fafa really enjoys cracking the eggs on the side of the bowl, but doesnt like the slimy feeling when the eggwhite touches his little fingers, so he whacks the eggs then waits til somebody comes to empty them into the bowl.

We finally have slow but adequate WiFi in our house, which makes me feel optimistic about life. I think it soothes a latent fear that the kids would be left behind in an increasingly technological world because of their parents' choice to farm in a rural area. Now Ben is learning how to use my laptop and Google to search for and admire pictures of "old firetrucks", "fast rockets", "big boats" and other things that strike his fancy. Fafa has also realized that the computer has great potential... for him it's clips of Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine, which are improving his English.... "Mamma can we watch a video?".

The boys are stir-crazy, ripe for spring fever after a winter of being confined indoors at school and at home. They go ballistic when we let them out on a sunny afternoon. Ben bikes up and down the driveway with frightening speed, while Fa pushes himself around on Ben's still-too-big tricycle. He can't quite make his feet go around but his legs are long enough that he can push off with his toes. Ben has gone from hydrophobic to wannabe-fish after about 10 swim lessons. He loves the water, and his orange Nemo swim hat. We're still pretty worried about him falling into our irrigation lake, but are grateful that he'd have a fighting chance of making it out now.

Darcy has gone cow-crazy, buying a huge stainless steel milking bucket and a Jersey-sized halter, and mulling over potential names like a pregnant woman. "Violet"? "Rose"? or the more traditional "Bossy"? When we got married, Adolfo promised that we could one day have a cow. House contruction, road construction and small children pushed it off the list of priorities for about 10 years... but finally we're nearly ready. We asked a friend to weld a long hay rack so we can reorganize the barn space and make room for a milk cow and her calf. The other big spring project will be fencing: subdividing the already fenced areas so that we can rotate the animals through the pastures in an efficient way. It will be a big investment of time and money but hopefully the new fencing will decrease the amount of hay we need and the therefore the amount of diesel we use. And, it will allow the goats, sheep and cow to eat local fresh organic grass and shrubs all year round, without the constant supervision of a human. Fencing is an expensive luxury, allowing us to send our boys to school instead of out to the fields to herd the sheep all day as Adolfo's father had to do as a boy. What a change in just 2 generations!

Adolfo is getting ready for the spring rush of wild plants tourism and teaching wild plants classes. We'll have farm-tour groups for lunch on all weekends in April and early May, some local and some international groups. Chicory-ricotta calzone, redbud flower and honey pizza and elderflower fritters are on the menu! Adolfo has fun concocting new ways of presenting wild foods, and really enjoys watching people come to the realization that they don't have to buy all their food - some can be gathered for free! Business is also picking up for the B&B. This is the first year we've attempted any publicity ... we're finally listed on TripAdvisor and booking.com. We would be delighted if anyone who has stayed in the agriturismo can find time to write a review of Localita' il Piano!

Looking forward to our spring open-farm party on Pasquetta (the Monday after Easter) and to summer visits with some of our California friends,

Saluti from Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa

back to top

2013

November 2013

Happy autumn from Localita' il Piano!

In quick summary:

The kids and animals are well, the cellar is loaded with food, the olive harvest was triple what we expected, now we're off to Spain!

The longer version:

In a race against the impending first frost, we're busily harvesting the last crops of the year (medlars, persimmons, pomegranates), packing all the winter squash and onions into the basement, draining the irrigation lines and winter-proofing the farm. Until now the nights haven't been chilly enough to paint the forests the usual autumn red; the upside is that we haven't had to start burning through our stock of firewood. In the last days our solar panel could no longer quite provide an adequately warm shower so we finally lit a fire, and now the smell of wood smoke convinces us that it is fall.

Adolfo's pet project, the sale of wild asparagus plants, has been going well. He's often out after dark digging, sorting, counting, bundling, and boxing the baby plants by headlamp. The manual labor is cold and muddy, but he finds satisfaction in the fact that his knowledge of this crop allows the farm to make money. Darcy's pet project, the weekly mini-CSA box of farm produce, has found an enthusiastic audience. We call it "la casetta di quello che c'e'" (the box of whatever there is), to explain that it is an edible snapshot in time. The last box that we sent out reflected the beautiful fall palette on the hillsides; the bright oranges, vivid greens, rich browns of arugula, persimmons, baby leeks, eggs, Tuscan black kale, medlars, Moscato di Provence winter squash, broccoli, turnips, the last green peppers, and a taste of freshly milled "olio novello".

The olive harvest has exceeded our wildest estimates and we definitely will remember 2013 as the Year of the Olive. The trees seemed heavily laden, so we made arrangements to borrow a "comb" harvester from Adolfo's colleague Giorgio, a backpack battery set up with a long arm with vibrating fingers that wiggles the olives right off the branches and onto the waiting nets. Frustratingly, our WWOOFers cancelled at the last minute but we managed to scramble up some help from a couple of friends and Adolfo's sisters family. Between combing and handpicking, in four marathon days we picked almost two tons of olives, and we had to take two trips to the mill with a borrowed truck. 1687 kg of olives produced 236 L of oil, a 12.8% yield: a bit low but not bad considering all the rain, which swells the olives without increasing their oil content. In ripeness, the olives were closer to green than purple, meaning relatively lower yield but relatively higher quality. There were many Moraiolo olives this year, known for their top-quality oil. In fact this may be the best oil we've ever produced: very spicy, not overly bitter, deep green, with artichoke and grassy overtones.

In this season the olive mills run close to 24 hrs a day, especially in a bumper crop year. The earliest appointment we could get was for 9:30pm Monday at Frantoio Feliziani, so there we found ourselves, dressed warmly, with olive twigs still sticking out of our hair, excited and much more awake than we normally are at that hour. Visiting the olive mill is an annual ritual and adventure. We watch the olives go from the leaf-remover to the washer to the grinder to the mixer to the centrifuge, farmers chat about their crops over the deafening equipment, the heavenly aroma of olive pulp fills the air, and everyone is ready for the first taste of the year's oil. What did the crop weigh, at what temperature should the olives be mixed, should all air be excluded from the mixer, how much oil will 2013 produce? Most importantly - will it be good? As soon as your olive pulp enters the final centrifuge, it's time to slice some bread and put it in the electric grill so that it is hot when the first stream of pungent green gold is pouring into your tank. Swipe the bread under, and "Assaggia!" The ambiance and preceeding hard work do add something, but the oil would still be amazing if tasted in a sterile white box. The first taste knocks your socks off. Though it will mellow with time, the fresh oil is very strong right after being pressed, as spicy as raw garlic and with a kick like grappa. It is intense, heavenly, enough to seduce anyone into buying an olive grove.

Rain had threatened to put a stop to the harvest, but barely held off. Finally: a torrential 10 cm in 24 hrs, followed up by another 5 days of more moderate rain. In Sardegna there were floods and a state of disaster. Here, just an exodus of worms wiggling all over our patio to avoid drowning in the lawn, though there is a landslide warning in effect. The sheep are soggy sponges with legs, giving off an odour worse than wet dog, and the poor donkey sinks into the mud with each step, and has four brown knee-high stockings to show for it. My mother-in-law doesnt like the rain either. For her, as for many Italians, any day in which at least one rain drop has fallen, or looks like it might, counts as a rainy day and clearly no one in their right mind should venture out of the house. Ben and Fafa, however, love playing with umbrellas, boots and raincoats, as happy as ducks, stomping in puddles and slinging mud.

Rewinding to before the olive harvest and rain wiped all other thoughts from our minds...

Summer was a sweaty blur, as always. With help from Tonino and a lot of WWOOFers the irrigation was kept under control and the trees responded with leaves and fruit. The weather gods smiled and sent us enough sun, but not too much. One hot week did frizzle the raspberries, but all else grew happily. Most of our fruit trees are now large enough that deer won't be a threat anymore, so now we can enjoy their presence instead of wanting to shoot them. Of course rabbits will gnaw the bark and wild boars will sometimes snap limbs and savage trunks, but in general the orchards are finally getting to the point where they will be less susceptible to animal damage. Our attention can turn to microscopic pests and diseases, and their prevention, about which we have a lot to learn.

Many of the apple trees set fruit, and we have been excited to taste some amazing apple diversity this fall... "Limoncella", bright shiny yellow like a lemon and about as tangy, "Dodici Apostoli" (Twelve Apostles), each one large enough for all twelve to have had a snack, "Api Etoile", small yellow and star-shaped in cross-section, as tart and floral as a quince, "Delizia Nera" , deep purple-red with sweet butter-colored flesh. Of the 450 apple varieties that we have planted, we've still only tasted maybe half! The vegetable garden and the rest of the orchards also thrived... we filled all of our jars, bottles, tanks, and shelves to capacity with tomato sauce, sun-dried cherries and figs, cherry syrup, apple sauce, all sorts of jams, 100 L of grape juice squished and bottled with the help of visiting relatives, Nikki and Daisy. Our next rainy-day project is to rig some sturdy shelving in the basement to hold the bounty.

Camoscia, Cookie and Jet are still giving a lot of milk, providing the raw material for experiments with the new cheese press and with yogurt. Soon it will be time to dry the goats off, as they are newly pregnant... and it is past time to make some hard choices about which animals to keep, which to eat and which to sell, as the hay wont be enough for all of them through the winter. It is hard for Ben to think about selling or eating anyone, but he is very brave and reasonable about it, understanding that there is not enough barn-space and food for all.

In mid-October, after the bulk of the harvest was in, Darcy and Ben took a quick trip to California leaving Fafa and Adolfo in charge of the farm. Fa is a willing co-manager, participating in chores like animal care and egg gathering and picking vegetables. He really enjoyed carving the pumpkins that Ben grew, and still insists on wearing his jack o'lantern costume whenever it is clean. Fa is irrestistably cute now, long-legged and voracious, a white-blonde fluff ball hurtling around at high speed, talking constantly. His chatter is maybe 50% Italian, 20% English and 30% Fafa-ese, which is a challenge to understand. Except.... his brother and cousins have taught him some choice swear words, which he parrots very clearly in exactly the right tone of voice and context... like the Italian equivalent of "Ben, shut the hell up". Fa loves broccoli, meat, persimmons, goat cheese, watching the fire in the fireplace, insects, and, wonderfully, he likes his crib, though there's not much space in it left for him with one large green frog, three teddybears, two dogs and a fuzzy blanket.

Of all the marvellous and exciting things in California, from fried pickles to eggnog to trampolines to bike paths, Ben was most impressed by the Leland Stanford Junior Marching Band. The term "marching" is used loosely, which is probably why the band appealed to him. He watched a practice session and was incredulous about the variety of instruments used by the percussion section (a skateboard, a kitchen sink, a crash helmet) and completely speechless when hundreds of adults ran all over the football field to rehearse their halftime show, hooting and hollering and rocking out. Of course I agree that being goofy while playing music really loud is indeed a very satisfying thing! But Ben doesnt quite believe that I was ever part of the band. Ben dressed up as a Stanford band member for Halloween, and tells me that he "will go to school there, so I can play in that band". Now he is looking forward to Christmas, mostly school closing and presents. A couple of days ago, as we were discussing religion, he told me that he's an atheist. Fortunately this doesnt hamper his enjoyment of the Christmas season!

Seeing friends in California was wonderful, and it made me happy to see so many of them thriving. The 15th college reunion in particular made me feel less cynical about life in general, as a reminder that there are many amazingly smart people in the world who are trying to do just and important things. It also felt good to go to a reunion with no makeup or fancy clothes and be happy about who I have become. It was surprising how "in" good food is, at least in California. I had thought that my life choices and priorities would seem irrelevant to people there, but things have changed. I found a hunger for good food, and an impressive level of consumer education on issues intimately linked to food: sustainability, nutrition, cooking.

Adolfo is busy busy as ever, though trying to slow down. He works hard Monday through Friday as do most people with full-time jobs, but instead of resting on the weekend he works even longer hours on Saturday and Sunday. Fortunately he is winding up his work with the Kosovo UNDP project and some local wild-foods groups, giving some more time to coordinating and packing orders of wild asparagus plants. The bumper olive crop was deeply satisfying to him, as the first trees that he planted back in 1993 bore the bulk of the olives - it does take a while to see the fruits of your labors, especially in an unirrigated unfertilized olive grove! Adolfo will travel to Spain for work towards the end of November and Darcy gets to tag along for an extra couple days of tourism: we'll call it a 10th wedding anniversary trip! Antonietta will take care of Fafa, Emanuela will take care of Ben, and Tonino will milk the goats: we're very fortunate to have this kind of support.

Looking forward to our trip to Spain, Thanksgiving with the local expatriate crowd, the Christmas season, and winter quiet time by the fire!

Feeling thankful,

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


back to top

July 2013

Finally it is hot, sticky and summery! Popsicle weather, as Ben puts it. Summer was reluctant to arrive and spring persisted through June, cold and green, dumping rain and more rain and more rain. It felt like we were in England rather than central Italy, and we started to fret about landslides. Mud, boots, raincoats, stunted seedlings, soggy sheep and finally thunderstorms throwing down hail. In late May we found ourselves plastered to the window, staring outside in disbelief at the thermometer registering 3 degrees above zero and at 70 precious heirloom-variety tomato plants shivering miserably under a 1" white blanket of hail-snow. That same hailstorm managed to finely mince our cucumber and watermelon vines, mysteriously leaving the summer squash in good condition. How can the weather gods prefer zucchini to watermelon? We had to replant a good part of the vegetable garden. All the early cherries rotted, and the apples and pears will have pock-mark scars this year, but all else has recovered.

All that chilly rain did bring some good things... like lush grass and abundant snails. Fafa has become a passionate snail collector and eater. He patiently pokes through the herb garden, flips over strawberry leaves and rocks, searching for another and another and another snail. He categorises them as "grande" or "piccolo" in a most serious voice, then deposits them in his bucket. The big ones go to our "snail jail", where they wait until we have enough to cook up a batch of escargot. The little ones Fa takes to the mobile chicken coop, reminding the chickens to say thank you, as he throws them in one by one. The challenge was to explain to Fafa that snails are yucky when raw, but yummy when cooked: his idea was to sample them both ways.

Finally, well into June, we got two consecutive days without even a drop of rain, and the weather report predicted 5 days of full sun. Everyone sprung into action, all of our neighbors out mowing, raking and baling hay, the air humming with their machines and with bugs grateful for some warmth. Our stunted tomatoes started to grow, tentatively. Soon the lavender bloomed, red and golden raspberries were plentiful and the mid-season cherries were abundant enough that we dried some. My parents and WWOOFers Hannah, Hana, Roshan, Marit, Inga, Indre, Janne and Clare helped enormously with mulching and manuring the berries and new vineyard, repairing the barn, maintaining the road, endless weeding and irrigating, planting and then replanting the summer garden. Now that garden is producing buckets of zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, basil, enough shallots to braid! Even before the summer garden came into belated production, we sold a lot of eggs and produce this spring through local buyers groups: ducks eggs, goose eggs, chicken eggs, arugula, Jerusalem artichokes, wild asparagus. There are currently 3 buyers' groups in Spoleto, each linked to a political party: LegaAmbiente (environmentalists), Movimento 5 Stelle (Beppe Grillo's crew), and the Communists (who actually do have a red hammer and sickle flag outside of their meeting place). At first glance it seems funny to mix politics and palate this way, but it appears that there are correlations between these variables. The LegaAmbiente people favor fruit, bread, cookies, eggs. The M5S is a bit snobby. The Communists are broke but friendly, and they like vegetables, especially arugula. We make laughable spare change selling food this way though, so we've tried to sell directly to the eater, on-farm, by hosting farm-tour events. This is a lot of work but makes a lot of money, and it seems to make people happy. Perhaps they need not just organic groceries but also a peaceful afternoon and a good meal in the place where their food is grown.

Our little apple trees enjoyed the cool spring and are now covered in fruit of all colours, sizes and textures. The berries were abundant this year and we have done about 100kg of jam.... black currant, gooseberry, raspberry, blackberry, red currant, strawberry, also fig. We've started pondering more urgently the same question that most people ask as they stand behind the farmhouse gazing up at the sloping orchard of 500 young fruit trees: "what are you going to do with all that fruit?" We don't yet know, exactly, but we are gradually getting to know our trees and varieties better: which ripen first, which need more thinning, which are most prone to insect attack, which keep well or dry well, which are "spitters" and which are so delicious that I suspect we'll eat them all instead of selling them. One thing we are sure about: there will be daily bucketfuls of buggy bruised tiny or ugly discard fruit on an organic farm, which makes the goats and Gelso very happy.

In the barnyard...

On Easter morning, two little doe-kids were born between the time I served breakfast to the agriturismo guests and when we washed the breakfast dishes. Ben ran to get the flashlight and returned in time to see the second kid born in a rush of fluid. "Why is she wet?" We dunked the umbilical cords in Betadine, hurried home to clean up after breakfast, then the guests ventured to the barn to see the new arrivals. Ben named the firstborn Sneetches, and the secondborn Pasqualina Marajah. In a couple weeks the barnyard population went from 4 goats and 1 sheep to 9 goats and 3 sheep. Now it's time to sell some of the lambs and kids, so we have some milk and can make cheese!

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade... not a bad idea except that it's too cold to grow citrus here. But we have our local equivalents... such as: when an eagle swoops down and kills your favorite grey goose, grab the carcass, cut off the good meat and make meatballs. I wouldnt have thought I had it in me, vegetarian for 20 years, to do such a thing. Normally our rule is that Adolfo does all butchering, gutting, skinning, etc, and when he presents me with fur-less, feather-less, head-less meat, then I'll hold my nose and do my best to cook it. But Adolfo wasn't home, and the eagle had only ripped off and consumed her head and neck and a bit of back meat... the breast meat, the most bulky and best part of the goose, was untouched. The carcass was fresh and warm, maybe killed 30 minutes ago, still ok for human consumption and it definitely could provide enough meat for dinner. Habitual vegetarian revulsion fought with common sense, until common sense pointed out that five pounds of pasture-fed organic goose was about to go to waste if I didn't move quickly. I grabbed her by a leg, balanced Fafa on my other hip, and hauled both back to the house. Fa asked "sleepy?" "bua?", perceiving that our goose was not OK. Where was her head? How to explain? "Dead. Like sleeping." I said, inadequately, preoccupied by sharpening my knife. That temporarily satisfied him, as did the spaghetti and goose-balls for dinner.

Fa is a big boy now, as he reminds us frequently. A two-year-old who is less terrible than he was a few months ago! Lets hope this trend continues. As his verbal skills have improved he has become more reasonable and fun, and now he stays still long enough to hear explanations and requests. Sometimes he chooses to obey, though he is still prone to bite, scratch and pummel anyone who makes him mad. Also asks, insistently, for what he wants .... "'Ocolate!" "Berries!" "Juice!". Fa got potty trained a few weeks ago: we just left him stark naked outdoors for a whole week, until he had made the connection between pee and that feeling that happens before the pee happens. Then we told him where we'd like him to put that pee, when there's not a handy shrub to water, and we gave him a pair of tiny underwear with motorcycles on it ("the motos want to stay dry"). Miraculously, the motos have only gotten wet once.

Fa and Ben love to pick raspberries and put them on their fingers like puppets. When not strangling each other, they blow bubbles together, catch bugs, careen around the patio on their vehicles, spend hours mining our sand pile for diamonds, making me grateful for the thousandth time that they have eachother's company. Ben got a red bike for his birthday and took two afternoons to figure out how to ride it without training wheels. He pedals off-road all the way to the greenhouse, helmet barely visible through the waist-high grass. He says he is ready for the bike paths in Davis now. He'll get a chance in October, when he and I will do a quick trip to California for my college reunion.

It's nice to have some responsibility for being a parent easing off our shoulders, as Ben helps us keep Fafa from getting shocked by the electric fence or trampled by the donkey as I milk the goats, as Ben starts to understand what he should do in case of a fire, starts to read to himself, washes his own hair, ties his shoes. And Fafa is out of diapers, very capable of feeding himself, competent on stairs, climbs into bed and falls asleep with no ceremony required.... life is looking up. As much as I will treasure memories of tiny dimpled fingers and baby gurgles and coos, and be nostalgic when I see other people's babies, I am glad to be moving out of the very demanding baby-phase.

I am glad, too, to see the large house construction projects finishing up in a burst of energy, after a long hiatus. Tomorrow morning the last cement truck should arrive, for the last tiny bit of rock wall foundation, and Franco's crew of guys will finish the rocks on the retaining walls outside of the basement. There remain some smaller projects to finish up over the next few years, but we're definitely moving out of construction mode and into maintenance mode. More time to do other things! Like finally buy my dream cow and make good cheese? Rediscover old hobbies? Or, realistically, maybe just stay more on top of the household things which tend get left behind.

On the work front, Adolfo has gone from merely super busy to positively frantic. He is in demand as a teacher and presenter and author, usually on the subject of wild edible or medicinal plants. His weekends booked up quickly with these commitments all spring, leaving the farm a bit neglected but padding the bank account. And then he was invited by the UN to do some consulting and training work in Kosovo for a month! Since he likes the opportunity to research and learn about plants, he takes the work, and we pay our brother-in-law Tonino to help with farmwork several days a week. It's easier on Adolfo's back, which has been giving him a lot of grief since Christmas, and provides a job for someone who needs one. Tonino is, fortunately, a jack-of-all-trades and one of the few people with many of the skills necessary to stand in for Adolfo. Shear a sheep, weld a gate, fix a pump, prune a tree, tie up the tomatoes, plaster a wall, work with the WWOOFers... the farm is looking much better after a few months of Tonino's help.

We did update the website this week with new photos, of fields, food, kids, jam-tasting, snail-washing, etc. See www.localitailpiano.it if interested. Ben and Darcy will be in California for a couple weeks in the middle of October, mostly in the Sacramento area. We'd be glad to meet up with friends!

Wishing you a relaxing summer and plentiful popsicles,

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa


back to top

January 2013

Hello and Buon Anno from Localita' il Piano!

Thank you for the multitude of Christmas cards and emails that made it to our small patch of the planet. We are doing well, are well-fed, and are glad to be very wet. After a rainy autumn and winter this latest round of frozen rain and snow topped off the water table and finally we are SOGGY! The natural springs are gushing, our lake is filling up, and the geese are partying in the stream that runs through the pasture. I pause for a moment every time I walk near the spring under the house, just to listen to the water flowing, gratefully. The harshness of last summer's drought seared into our memories the importance of water.

We lost all of the late summer and early fall crops, but some of the late fall crops miraculously survived the drought and managed to recover a bit with the help of fall rains. We had abundant (though tiny) persimmons, tons of Annurca apples, winter squash, tomatillos, quince, wild white peaches (which made Adolfo's all-time favorite jam) and dogwood berries. The freezer is full of guinea hens, crostini, and duck-duck-goose sausage (yes, two ducks and one goose were among the ingredients). So much to eat! Now the garden offers leeks, turnips, sunchokes, carrots, beets, cauliflower... no cabbage or broccoli, you might notice, as a clan of marauding porcupines has taken most of the Brassicas off our hands, bite by bite, night by night. They have decimated our winter vegetables, leaving pitiful gnawed stalks. On the bright side, one porcupine did provide us with three dinners-worth of meat in exchange for all the cabbage that disappeared. And we have learned something about the spiky little beasts: they like, in order of preference, Brusselsprouts, smooth green cabbage, broccoli leaves, turnips, kale, chard and beet leaves, cauliflower leaves, romanesco, savoy cabbage, purple cabbage!

Sunny and mild weather over the Christmas holidays allowed Adolfo to finish logging a portion of the forest for the firewood that will keep us warm in 2014. The weather, and many hours of help from Adolfo's mother, also let me get a jump on pruning after 2 years of orchard neglect (a small price to pay for having a second child). The olive field under the house is in order, the apples, pear, plums, figs, apricots and peaches are done. The blackberries are pruned and trellised. What remains to do...thin the raspberry canes, prune the black currants and gooseberries, and finish pruning the upper olive field. And do the two vineyards. The TO DO list is endless no matter how hard we work, but pruning is fun. It's hard on the right hand (callused) and arm (aching) but I find it relaxing. It is a job that can't be hurried: approach the tree and just look, evaluating how well it grew last year and whether the main limbs are healthy, check for crossed over or dead or weak limbs, thin out excess branches, remove suckers, dab copper on any large pruning wounds, step back to admire, step in to balance out the job with some finishing snips, walk towards the next tree and repeat quietly, for the next 1,500 trees. The Zen of pruning. All other thoughts leave the mind after a while, and at night when I close my eyes I still see branches. Being outside so much I have the privilege of watching the earth waking up for spring.... the first narcissus blooming at the lake, the sharp crocus tips poking up, the almond buds swelling. Already the days are getting longer, and the pregnant goats wider.

In October, after a long grace period, the local wolves finally made contact. Wolves? What wolves? We hadn't seen any in the last 8 years, since we've been here. Lulled into a sense of false security, we thought that we could leave the donkey and buck out overnight in the most "civilized" corner of the farm, in a fenced pasture visible from our house and less than a quarter mile from the village of Piedipaterno. No. A group of wolves, or perhaps wild dogs, ate "Stinky" the buck, leaving only his head and legs, signs of a struggle, and some puncture wounds on the donkey's hind leg. A variety of other predators have been relieving us of our poultry, one by one, most without a trace. Foxes, weasels, raptors, or all of the above? Tom the majestic white turkey who was to feed all the local American expats at Thanksgiving disappeared the week before (Tommasina the smaller female had to fill in for him). One afternoon I saw a pair of hawks fly over the pasture, one swooping down and skirmishing with a chicken. My screaming and hollering and frantic dances scared it off, but one of my favorite red hens was dead by the time I got to her. I did pluck the carcass but couldnt bear to cook/eat her, so Adolfo's mother did. Days later Ben spotted a hole in the cyclone fencing of the pasture and Adolfo fixed it, making it harder for foxes to get into the barn. We're down to 16 chickens, 3 roosters, 3 ducks and 3 geese. The geese are probably too alert and too ornery to get killed by something other than us, but the smaller poultry are at risk. Getting a large dog may be the best predator-prevention strategy, but Adolfo and I feel like we already have our hands and house full of messy frolicking loud hungry responsibilities without adding a canine one.

When he is asleep Fafa is positively angelic, all pink cheeks and white-blond fluffy hair, but awake he is a holy terror. He's only 19 months old but is well on his way to the Terrible Twos. He bites, he hits, he hurls food, then he meets our disapproval with a sunny and defiant smile. Lets hope it's a passing stage: I can't imagine a 6-ft-tall teenage version. He is nicer when he doesnt have to compete for parental attention, and can be charming when he wants to be, but he does often require more patience than any of us have. Fortunately his language skills are getting better and his babbling begins to resemble English and Italian. "No", is of course the favorite and most-used word, but "mutande" (underwear) and "cheeze" are runners-up. He pats his diaper and says "Kaka" as soon as he has produced some, and is very interested in watching anyone use the bathroom, which bodes well for toilet training. He loves to play with Ben and they have invented a lot of games that both enjoy, despite the 3-year age difference. They build nests of blankets, race around the house shrieking "Pronti, partenza, via!" (Ready, set, go!"), and play Legos (Ben builds, Fafa destroys).

Ben is fun to be with, and sometimes seems more like a small and quirky adult than a child. He's been working with us in the field, using his little wheelbarrow to transport the asparagus plants that I dig up over to Papa for sorting and counting and packaging for sale. We pay Ben by the hour and are curious to see how he chooses to spend the money in his little banking can. He thoroughly enjoyed everything about Christmas, especially snow, presents, and making-eating gingerbread men and gingerbread pigs. He made so many ornaments that our Christmas tree, a small potted citrus, was seriously sagging. We had several interesting conversations about Baby Jesus and Santa Claus, who he lumps in the same category: important and good people of whom he's seen lots of pictures but has never met. He talks and talk and talks, about machines and contraptions that shoot burning daggers at wild boars, catapult chunks of wood at deer, use peanut butter to trap porcupines (hey, not a bad idea).

In October, Nonna Deirdre and her friend Nancy gave us the marvelous gift of a few days off from kids and farm, which we spent in Brussels, sampling waffles and learning about the European Union. Nonna and Nancy took our chaos in stride and did a heroic job of farm- and kid-sitting, everything from milking goats to feeding chickens to diapering a tornado.

Fall was a busy time for Adolfo, with many farm tour groups, and many hours spent coordinating a wild foods seminar in Spoleto. Students from the local culinary school were provided with various wild ingredients from the farm, and charged with cooking up a gourmet menu for local people to sample. The culinary students did a great job, preparing acorn bread, wraps with wild greens, rosehip tea, elderberry tarts, calendula omelet, and getting a lot of people excited about wild edibles and good food. The weight of farm responsibilities on top of a full-time desk job and various wild food endeavours has been a bit much for Adolfo's back lately. Excessive lumberjacking certainly contributed, so he's laid off the heavy work for a while.

What has Darcy been up to? Sunny days, of course, are for pruning, dividing strawberry clumps, weeding, repotting, propagating currants and blackberries. Rainy days are for getting farm paperwork in order, updating photos on the farm website (www.localitailpiano.it), reading information on becoming an official "fattoria didattica" (teaching farm), hanging the pictures that have been in boxes for years, as well as the new ones that have been thrown on top of them. Winter is for tidying odds and ends, socializing, repair, planning, reflection. This winter marks 9 years from when we planted the first apple trees. This project has taken longer than we thought to bear fruit and has required much more work than we could have imagined. Wiser now, we realize that it will also require more maintenance than two people can take on. But there is much satisfaction when looking at the fields and the house and the dinner table, that these things were once just dreams and sketches. The detail that has filled in those sketches is richer than I could have imagined... two little boys laughing, a crooked row of raspberries stretching towards the hill, the fat black cat sitting in the herb garden, big work-worn hands holding soft little ones. Life is amazing.

We're looking forward to to the greenery and bouncing baby goats that spring brings, the costumes and sweets of Carnevale (Ben!), the first strawberries of 2013 (Fafa!), to reaching the half-way point in paying off our home loan (hallelujah), and to visits from family and friends!

Wishing you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2013,

Darcy, Adolfo, Ben, and Fafa

back to top

2012

August 2012

Ciao from Localita' il Piano!

This summer has brought us a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, dry golden fields, fattening guinea hens, a full wood room, sticky apricot fruit "leather", playing squealing children. The farm commands all of our waking hours and attention, pushing our winter trip to California into distant memory.

Catching up to the present at warp speed...

In our absence the farm slept soundly under a thick blanket of snow, the most in 50 years. In March the goat population exploded in Tonino's barn, from 6 to 13. As soon as we were back from the airport, the first order of business was to make sure we had running water and a functioning furnace, then check frost damage. Then make sure the barn still had a roof, then make a trip into town buy some grain and groceries, then collect our animals from the animal sitters. Then seed the spring garden, get Ben back in school, then finally start to unpack! After a few unsettled days we were back in the swing of things, in the mad rush that is spring on a farm. Despite the unusually cold winter the untended garden welcomed us back with abundant leeks, fava beans, asparagus and peas. The chickens seemed glad to be back and started off in high gear, laying 8-10 eggs a day. The strawberry patch was red with berries by the end of April, as were, consequently, most of Fafa's clothes.

Unusually dry warm weather during bloom set a bumper crop of most fruits... apricots, cherries, peach and plums. By late May we were rolling in raspberries, currants, cherries, and especially apricots. 2012 has definitely been The Year of the Apricot. This is the first year we have sold fruit in quantity, which brought new challenges: how to package sustainably and sell as close to home as we can, carpool with other farmers to get the fruit to the buyer, how to cut out the middleman so that we earn a fair wage and the buyer gets a fair price. So many tree-loads of fruit is immense wealth but can be overwhelming. What to do with it all? We decided to sell the prettiest fruit if we can get a reasonable price for it, juice and jam the uglies, give the rest to friends, family, neighbors and the local soup kitchen, and not worry too much about letting some fall to the ground when we can't get to it in time. Laundry and all activities beyond the urgent necessities (diaper changing, milking the goats) were put on hold until apricot season had passed. Some mornings three of us were in the fields well before 6 am; Adolfo harvesting 60kg of apricots and 25kg cherries from the upper orchard for a buyers cooperative in Perugia, Fafa and I picking vegetables and bundling lavender. Ben slept in a little more, but he and Papa had to be ready to tie the crates on top of our little car and deliver the produce on the way to school and work. In the evenings we'd be out til dark picking more apricots and cherries for a small buyers cooperative in Spoleto. The days were very long, but the best parts were the crisp mornings before sun is up and the warm breezy evenings after the sun is down. It is a magical peaceful time to be outdoors. We were out in the orchard picking our last apricots one evening after the sun had set over the mountain, the fruit still warm from the day. I thought about how many families of farmers and migrant workers were doing the same thing: children nesting on the grass under the trees, eating bread and windfall fruit for dinner, while both parents do a sort of arboreal yoga, climbing trees, stretching skywards with every centimeter of their height to get the top fruits, balancing the heavy basket, bending tall branches down, sorting, boxing, chatting, all the while keeping an eye on the little ones. It is a enjoyable way to pass an evening or morning hour, though hard to imagine doing through the heat of the day, all day, every day.

The least-expected bonanza of the summer has been black, bumpy and fragrant. Our neighbor Gregorio has a pair of well-trained truffle dogs, and has brought them over for several early morning hunting trips with Adolfo. The men walk and chat as the dogs dart here and there, sniffing. The dogs pursue the most promising scents, dig out the truffles and bring them to Gregorio to exchange them for kibbles, then back to the hunt. The last few trips  have produced about 3 kg of truffles (6-7 lbs). We hadn't looked for truffles in years, since truffle-dog Leah died, and had no idea so many were out there. We thought about selling them, but decided to give away part of the bounty to friends, relatives and the pediatrician, and freeze the rest for winter bruschetta. What wealth!

I have to admit that I am very grateful for the luxury of having supplementary sources of income and not being dependent on farm proceeds to buy medicines and shoes. I dont know how the many small farmers of the world make it, at the mercy of the uncertain climate and economy, pests and diseases, and the fickle Consumer.  As a farmer it is easy to be frustrated by The Consumer, who seeks Cheap Easy Food and rejects your freckled, (rosy-cheeked,) small, (intensely flavored,) organic apricots or tiny, (fragrant) truffles based on appearance and cost. This person seems to wear mental blinders when choosing what food to put into his body. The small farmer wants to shake him and shout WAKE UP! THINK! Where does your food money go? This Consumer must learn that he votes every day with his wallet. For all the nostalgic talk of small farms, they will die out if you do not buy food from them, paying prices that allow them to send their children to the dentist and to college, and to take proper care of their farm land. Habit seems to prevent people from thinking through these consequences of their food choices. I think it will take time for people to learn to carefully consider their priorities when it comes to eating, but the this year's crop of WWOOFers gives me hope. Of course, people who chose to work on a farm are not a random cross-section of the population, but many of the young people who have come our way this year have been very informed and thoughtful eaters, a joy to cook for and talk to.

Now the summer has entered a more difficult stage, psychologically, as the usual summer heat and drought has intensified into something unusual. Trees in the forests are dying. Umbria is famous as "the green heart of Italy", but this year it is brown, crispy, tense, and occasionally in flames. Three days ago a fire towards Spoleto was dropping white ash on our terrace, the summer version of snowflakes. Adolfo and this summer's team of WWOOFers had done a very good job of keeping the orchards well-irrigated despite the heat, but we no longer have enough water left in our lake to continue. The weather report has become a bit of an obsession though it states only the obvious: very hot again, desperately dry again, no clouds predicted, don't waste time hoping for rain. The late summer crops are lost, withered on trees that have started to lose their leaves from water-stress. I have learned that drought has a flavour: acidic, and slightly bitter, like wrinkled never-ripened water-starved peaches. The baked fields have a particular smell too, a mixture of chalk, dust, and a slightly roasted smell akin to that of weak coffee. Best case scenario, we will lose some trees. Worst case scenario? What will happen to 10 years of our work? Partially adopting the ostrich-with-the-head-under-the-sand approach, I try not to think about it more than necessary. For now we have decided that we will water selectively until our lake is completely dry, then water just berries and winter vegetables with water from the house, in buckets, if necessary. Since we can do no more than this, and we have done our best, the decision brings a relative peace to calm the simmering frustration and restless anger. Maybe we will eventually learn the calm and stoic acceptance of weather's tricks that I see in some older farmers.

We do have drinking water from the city acquaduct, so we and the animals are fine though the ducks are sorry that they no longer have the luxury of a bathtub to  splash in. Several of our poultry got "broody", so we put eggs under a couple of them. The turkey hen managed to hatch 14 chicken eggs a few weeks ago. She is ever so proud and protective of "her" chicks and is doing a very good job as Mamma Hen. Fafa loves watching the fluffy little chicks hurtle around the barn while I milk. We're getting just under 5 liters a day out of 3 goats, and have been making mozzarella and ricotta often. We spoil the milking does, cutting them fresh branches of olive and elm, giving them the best legume hay we can find, and giving bran, corn, barley, favas and carob at milking time twice a day. They thrive on the attention and are sleek, shiny-coated and happy to be milked. Stinky the Third, our odiferous buck, has been banished to the lower pasture where he is keeping Gelso company, and keeping his musky scent far from the milk. Come October we'll stop milking the goats in preparation for breeding and pregnancy, and Stinky's summer of celibacy will be over.

On the family front...
On our return to Italy, Ben had completely forgotten how to speak Italian. He did understand perfectly but couldn't seem to locate the words he needed to communicate. Silent and hesitant, he seemed like another child on his first day back at Italian nursery school. It took a week or so until he was fairly comfortable in heavily accented Italian, but now he has lost his American accent and is back to fluency. He was glad when school ended for summer break, and has been enjoying time at home, drinking large quantities of fresh goat milk and keeping up his English with Sesame Street DVDs. His much-anticipated 4th birthday party was a bit of a bust, as he managed to get very sick a few hours before people arrived, but we carried him outside to hear "Happy Birthday" sung, which cheered him up a great deal. He loves bubblegum, slingshots, catapults, bow and arrows and spends hours plotting against the wild boars who terrorize our fruit trees. Trains are his other passion. We teased him about being a monkey recently and he said, "no, no, I'm Ben, the boy who loves trains!". We try to read to him a bit each night, and he surprised me recently by sounding out simple words from his Dr. Suess books... hop, mop, bop, pop. He is happy, filthy, loud, oblivious, goofy, maddening, loving and lovable. Fortunately he delights in being a big brother, especially the part about having a ready audience.

One-year-old Fafa has morphed from a very tranquil infant into a small tornado with 7 large teeth. He zooms around the house and garden on all fours, waggling his padded bottom and sampling any rocks, ants and straw that he gets his fingers on, pulling himself up to his feet for a fishing expedition in the toilet. Recently his jet-propelled drunken staggering has exceeded his top crawling speed, and he's ever so pleased to be show off his biped technique. If I leave the front door open, he escapes immediately to the strawberry patch or currant bushes and I find him having a snack, happily smeared in red berry pulp. He and we are discovering that he has strong opinions, expressed with indignant shrieks, esctatic laughter and the occasional rude gesture. Like many Italians he sees things as either terrible or wonderful, and not much lies in the middle ground. Asiago cheese, wheels, Ben's antics and farm animals are fantastico bellissimo speciale! Haha! Naptime, footwear, diaper changes and cold milk are orribili intolerabili schiffosi! EEEEEEEEE! Fafa does have the very endearing trait of being able to play by himself contentedly, and he is happy outdoors, supervising me and the WWOOFers and we weed, mulch, water, pick berries....  Favorite word: "Uh-oh!" as he flings food or toy. Fa has started nursery school recently and seems to love it, and I am glad to have some peace for getting things done that have languished on the TO DO list since he was born.

For Darcy, one of the best parts of this summer was the apricot bounty. Raised in Silicon Valley, which excelled in producing apricots before it produced Hewlett-Packard and Google, the smell of sun-warm apricots is the essence of summer. The Year of the Apricot has been very satisfying and has given us dried apricots, apricot fruit leather, apricot puree and about 10 gallons of bright orange jam which will keep us rolling in 'cots for a long while. Aside from farm activities, I have been doing some translating for an Italian fruit tree nursery, helping them get their extensive catalog into English. It's surprisingly fun, and reminds me why I stayed in school for so many years.  I enjoy learning new things... about kiwi rootstocks, disease-resistant apple varieties, walnut diseases. It is also nice to have some time to think of things other than farm chores and household organization. It keeps my brain nimble and I like feeling that I can earn real money (about 16 times more per hour than when I pick and sell our fruit!).

Adolfo got a lot of papers written up and submitted this spring and has been continuing his articles on wild plants. Now he has some holidays at home and is working on tiling the exterior staircase and the pizza area. He's enjoying the accordion concerts that are part of an international festival in Spoleto. Our bottomless mobile chicken coop is his favorite hobby: he likes grazing the birds (5 chickens, 6 guinea hens and 5 turkeys) over various crops and observing their behaviour and consumption of supplementary feed. Alfalfa seems to be a good crop for them - it has strong enough roots to withstand some scratching and is nutritious and palatable to the birds. Lately we've been rotating the coop through a fresh patch of oats and wheat each day, and they have learned to find the grains. Now the maturing males are  starting to strut and fight, telling us that soon it will be time for the mammoth task of putting them in the freezer. Adolfo's favorite part of that, surely, will be checking out their stomach contents.

We are thankful for the shortening days, and are looking forward to fall rains, school starting, more sleep, Nonna Deirdre's visit in October, having our own turkey at Thanksgiving. We've updated the photos on our website so you can keep an eye on us. Or, come do it in person! We love visits.

Doing a rain dance,

Darcy, Adolfo, Ben, and Fafa

back to top


February 2012

Hello from Davis, California, where the plums are blooming and spring has already sprung! How did we get here? Adolfo got funded at the last minute for a long-ago-requested mini-sabbatical, giving us a few weeks of mad dashing get things in a semblance of order, close up the farm and hop a plane.  Not having heard back about the grant application in November, it seemed we weren't going anywhere. But over Christmas we found ourselves scrambling to get Fafa's passport, Adolfo's work visa, buy plane tickets, find an apartment, get a Davis nursery school place for Ben, and arrange for donkey-sitter, poultry-sitters, cat-sitter, goat-sitter, etc.  Amongst all the suitcases and organization, Christmas itself was a blur of wrapping paper, candy, carols and unfortunately some baby vomit. As usual the help of family and friends made possible the nearly impossible. Luckily Nonno Doug and Nonna Deirdre were visiting us for the holidays, so that someone had time to make and decorate some gingerbread men with Ben. Gregorio and Giuliana fed us, and Tonino, Patrizia, Antonietta and Properzio kindly agreed to take care of our critters and plants.

Adolfo's sister Emanuela writes that today the farm is blanketed in more than a foot of snow, with more snow and very low temperatures expected this week. I can imagine how beautiful the white fields are, frozen still and silent, everyone and everything waiting for the warmth of the sun. Spectacular as it is, I don't miss the harsh cold, the omnipresent muddy slush and the constant need to stoke the furnace.  I do worry, impotent, about the weight of the accumulated ice on the brittle limbs of our young olive trees, the water lines that maybe aren't buried deeply enough, the pregnant goats crowded in Tonino's cold barn. Since we won't be back at Localita' il Piano til mid-April, we will miss the births of the kids and lambs, the season for wild asparagus, our (usually) annual Pasquetta party, 200 red tulips blooming in front of the agriturismo. But, we will be back in time to plant seeds for the summer garden, harvest the first strawberries, and get the irrigation system hooked up before hot weather arrives.

The flights required much endurance as a family of four, even with the best behaviour possible from Ben and Fafa. 3 1/2-yr-olds are not designed to sit still, and holding a wiggling 7-month-old on one's lap for 17 hrs requires the patience of a saint from both parent and child. But we made it, as did all of our suitcases, and there are many American adventures to look forward to here in the next couple of months from Easter egg hunts to rootbeer float parties. Here we've settled into a little apartment, with futons, frying pans, bikes and toys on loan from friends and Darcy's parents. We met my brother's two little girls for the first time, pruned my fathers fruit trees, and have broken bread with many good friends. We fell into a rhythm so quickly, as if it was yesterday that we left instead of seven years ago. Life is relaxed and pleasant, less vivid than farm life perhaps but much more comfortable. It's hard not to be seduced by this taste of an easier life: the convenience of a microwave oven, DSL, huge quick clothes washer, immediate gratification of any consumers whim. In some ways California has continued merrily along same trajectory it was on when we left in 2005. Trucks are huge, as are many people. I wonder about the per capita square footage of lawn and retail space, perhaps ten-fold higher than in Spoleto? To an outsider, it's hard to see the economic crisis in California. It still seems like a very rich place, with so many choices and conveniences that the people don't notice their privilege. Ben has partially filled his yogurt-container bank with the pennies, nickels and a few quarters that no one bothers anymore to pick up.

To Ben, Davis seems like heaven. There are the chocolate milkshakes at Dairy Queen, for starters. And the bike-powered carousel in the city park. He says, incredulously, "Mama, at school I can do whatever I want!", comparing Rivendell to his nursery school in Spoleto where much of the day is spent sitting quietly. There, a single pair of nice pants stays clean for the whole school week, since the children aren't allowed to do anything actually dirty. Here he comes back each day coated in mud and/or sand, filthy, happy and tired. Other novelties delight him too... bringing a lunchbox, riding to school in a bike-trailer behind Papa, his cool green helmet, having dozens of rainbow-colored children in the apartment complex to play with, including his new best friends: Ali (Moroccan), Mia (American) and Jesse (Mexican). One of his favorite things is that Fafa and I pick him up from school at 3 and have a picnic snack, then we bike to one of the ten or so playgrounds on our way home, the nearest of which is about 10 meters from our apartment door. Ben chatters incessantly in English, and though he tells people that he is from Italy he isn't much interested in speaking Italian. It pleases me that he seems to feel a bit American, though I wonder if it will be hard for him to leave Davis.

Fafa doesn't know where he is, but he likes it here. The balmy temperatures allow long stroller rides to the Davis Food Co-op and much time outdoors riding in a sling while watching Ben's playground antics. Fafa is 8 months old now and remains a devoted breast man. Despite getting most of his calories from milk he's managed to built up impressive bulk. He is off-the-charts big and fortunately solid enough to withstand Ben's roughhousing. Just in the last two weeks he's started sucking down ripe Haas avocado pulp and mushed sweet potato, and  has decided that dried persimmons and bagels are ideal for teething. With his chirpy squeals of joy and tow-head fluff, Fafa resembles an inquisitive and bright-eyed chick. He laughs and laughs, especially at Adolfo and Ben, who are then compelled to clown around for him. Yesterday he started holding out his arms when he wants to be picked up, melting his mother.

Adolfo is busy, nothing new about that. He's trying from afar to keep his institute in Spoleto on track, catch up on a backlog of data, write some papers, and collaborate on a UCD project. His favorite thing about Davis is biking: he's delighted to trade in his 60-90 min daily comute to and from Spoleto for 45 min biking to nursery school and UCD campus. Two of our favorite used book stores have closed, probably thanks to competition via internet, but he did find another one with a decent plant/botany/gardening section. Trading hours of chainsaw work for hours of reading, already his hands have gotten smoother. He's shaved his beard and looks downright civilized, more like Dr. Rosati and less like the wild mountain man that he usually is. Adolfo is back to his old city-dweller's trick of foraging in parks and public green areas: he spent last Sunday morning picking and jamming beautiful but piney-tasting myrtle berries (we seem to notice that they have a laxative effect?).

What am I doing? A little bit of long-distance farm management, some translating and a lot of momming. I loved Davis as a grad student, but hadnt experienced it's green and friendly charms as a parent - such a pleasant place to be. It's easy to fall into conversation with the other moms watching their offspring romp on the playgrounds, but in talking I'm surprised to realize that I am different. I find it hard to casually summarize who I am, where I come from, what I do. I am both American and Italian but neither American nor Italian, neither an insider or an outsider, a bit lost in the middle. I find my place, as usual, in the kitchen. Our friend Dan gave us a bag of oranges from his tree and my brother gave us a huge sack of Meyer lemons... when life gives you lemons (a good thing), make lemon curd, lemon marmalade, lemon jelly, lemon tart! Since I have the rare luxury of time, I do.

We're in California through the beginning of April and would love to see anyone passing through Davis. We can't offer beds but do have plenty of carpeted floor space for people willing to do the sleeping bag thing.

Happy spring!

Darcy Adolfo Ben and Fafa

back to top

2011

September 2011

Happy fall from Localita' il Piano!

Farm news in a nutshell...
Ben started pre-school, little 'Fafa doubled his weight. Adolfo built and irrigated, I danced. We sadly sold the horses, happily welcomed Sam Cat. Thanks to WWOOFers and parents, we made it through the  summer in pretty good shape... if a bit short on sleep, at least we're long on good food: nearly self-sufficient this year, to our astonishment.

At a more leisurely pace...
The Jerusalem artichokes are starting to flower yellow, and fall asters purple. The brown parched fields are starting to green up after the first fall rains, which brought us 18mm of water, cool temperatures, and a very welcome end to a harsh dry summer. The irrigation lake was nearly empty (the scummy water was "thick" as Adolfo put it), and we'd started to worry about trees dying in the orchards. Despite the irrigation help from my parents and several sets of WWOOFers, most of the young fruit trees had a hard summer and didn't manage much growth. The breath of fresh air relaxed us, and washed away the constant tension of needing to irrigate more than we possibly could. Now we can coil the irrigation hoses for the winter, and move on to firewood and fall crops!

Every season has its memorable features, events and crops. Aside from the drought, 2011 has been the Year of the Fig and Raspberry. Fig molasses, dried figs, fig fruit leather, fig jam, fig wine, fig galette, roasted figs, brandied figs, dark chocolate-raspberry layer cake, raspberry jam, raspberry wine... we tried it all. Best of all, spectacularly good, was the simplest: green fig, strawberry, red and golden raspberry "macedonia" (fruit salad). Runner up to raspberries and goats' whipped cream over Dutch pancake.

We have so much food now, much more than we can eat. It keep one person busy full time just tending, collecting, cooking, preserving. Every day fresh milk from the goats, fresh eggs from the chickens. Still we are harvesting summer crops but the fall and winter ones are starting to produce.... young fennel, radicchio, broccoli, scarlet turnips, romanesco, beets, celery, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabaga, chard, purple Brusselsprouts, kohlrabi, arugula. Chestnuts, persimmons and olives are almost ready. The chest freezer is filled to the top with lamb cuts and poultry meat, vegetables, berries, truffles. The shelves are groaning under jars of elderberry jam (15 liters) and Cornelian cherry jelly, dried figs and herbs, fruit leather, bottled of tomato sauce, grape juice, pie cherries.  The basement is stacked with trays of onions, boxes of potatoes and a growing pile of winter squash (guess what baby 'Fafa will be eating this winter....butternut puree!). We joke that we'll either have to have more guests to feed, or get a pig to help with the excess.

Having abundant farm-raised meat is a new thing for us. As a vegetarian for 20 years I still have mixed feelings about killing, but as a mom I am grateful to have the most balanced and varied diet possible for my family. Ben is quite the carnivore and is matter-of-fact about the lamb being in the barn one day and the next day on his plate. He does ask many questions, like why do dead people go to the cemetery but dead animals go to the freezer? but he seems to accept that the animals get killed and cooked, without being too worried that the same will happen to him. Adolfo does the killing out of Ben's sight, but all the plucking/skinning, gutting, cutting, bagging happens as Ben plays nearby and Fafa kicks up his heels in the stroller. I admit that I'm repelled by the smell of the still-warm bodies, blood everywhere, the bucket of feathers-feet-heads-intestines. Two recent WWOOFers hesitated only a second before bravely saying yes, they'd like to participate in butchering because it is important to know and accept what comes before meat appears on the dinner table. One decapitated guinea hen nearly escaped them, taking off for the olive field, but they caught it, plucked it and did an admirable job of cooking it up. One of the challenges of butchering your own animals is to find ways of using every potentially useful part - chickens are not made exclusively of boneless skinless breast meat - so we've been experimenting with pate' recipes.

One evening as Adolfo returned from work, we decided that it was time to harvest the wine grapes.  The crop was minimal, as we'd ripped out most of the old vineyard to make room for the new one. Not enough grapes this year for the bother of selling grapes or making wine ourselves... so we decided to make juice without fermenting it. Right away, why not? In  moment we were all changed into work clothes (picking grapes is unbelievably sticky activity) and down in the vineyard, racing dusk. Fafa obligingly took a nap in the stroller while Ben hauled the bins down the rows. Adolfo and I clipped bunches and sorted them... top quality for this months' table grapes, medium quality for juice, damaged or diseased clusters for the animals.  The poultry, goats and donkey had a party with their grapes while we carted the bins with juice-grapes home. After some careful foot scrubbing, Adolfo and Ben crushed the grapes the old-fashioned way. We let the juice sit on the skins overnight for better flavor, then bottled the juice. Tasty! Hopefully the new vineyard will come into first production next year and we can make varietal grape juices... Merlot, Barbera and Sangiovese.

In August, both of us sad to the point of tears, we sold our horses. We miss watching Sorba and Jujube run across the pasture, but I comfort myself thinking that it was the best thing both for us and for them. We had to ask for baby-sitting favors when we needed to do even a simple two-person task like hoof trimming or vaccinating, much less finding time to ever ride together. The man who bought the horses keeps them together, at pasture, rides them rarely and feeds them plenty. Every so often Nicola calls us up to give us a report on how they're doing: we hear that his daughter loves to pet them, and that Jujube has developed a passion for overripe figs. For elderly animals in a country where people do eat horse meat, we couldn't have found a better place for them. Hopeful, we didn't sell the saddles. Maybe we can enjoy horses again in the few years between small children and old age.

Our newest farm arrival is Sam Cat, a jovial and impish black kitten who loves to ride on Fafa's stroller. He torments Baffona, the aging queen, as she attempts to nap the afternoon away under a daylily. She barely deigns to give him a disgusted look unless Sam comes close enough to earn a warning growl. We can sympathize... he reminds us of Ben. Running crazy sideways, skittering around corners a high speed, loud and oblivious to other people's need of peace, prone to knocking over and destroying things, knack for spilling breakfast all over the floor... they definitely have some things in common.

Ben just started public pre-school with the current crop of Italian 3-year-olds. He now carries a tiny backpack with snack in it and wears a blue smock over his clothes, just like all the other little boys. (Pink smocks for girls: even tiny Italian males and females cannot dress alike.) It is odd for me to see him disappear through the doorway with a hundred other identical little figures, I must adjust to the idea that he is a big boy now. Given the energy level that one child has, I wonder how many teachers it would take to keep them all more or less under control, much less teach something or even get them all to eat lunch at the same time. Certainly more than the 6 or so "maestre" present. I mentally wish them luck, these 6 brave women, and drive off half relieved to be rid of Ben's endless chatter and half mother-worried... will there be someone who helps wipe his nose, who reminds him to pee before it is too late, who has time to clean his scratched knees if he falls down? At least he is in the same class as his cousin Gabriele and friend Emma.

When enrolling Ben in pre-school I was stumped by a question about his religious education. I thought for a minute and said that I don't think he has had any, conventionally speaking. And no, he's not baptized. This raised red flags. Well then, would we like to opt out? Of what? Of religious education class, of course. Yes, in this homogenously Catholic country pre-schoolers have religion (meaning Catholic) class in public school. I was made to understand that only the (few) foreign parents opt out. I asked what all the foreign children do while the others are being religiously (Catholic-ly) educated. Now the lady was stumped, a bit flustered. She wasn't sure, some alternative activity. While I didnt think that coloring pictures of the Virgin would harm Ben in any way, it didn't seem a balanced and fair presentation of religion. We opted out.... this is our introduction to the need to supplement public school education. Now I'm wondering how we might present a balanced introduction to "Religions of the World" at the 3-yr-old level. Star of David cookie cutter and sculpting Buddha from playdough? Just to be well-rounded we might color some nativity scene pictures too, as I'm sure Baby Jesus will remind Ben of his beloved baby brother.

'Fafa is voracious and growing faster than our weeds. Now 3.5 months old, he has deep creases in his chunky little thighs, dimpled fingers elbows and everywhere else, and is in the 99th percentile in length. Big baby! Very gratifying to his mother, who still feeds him several times every night. He is such a happy boy and is very even-tempered, which makes him extra-lovable. For his patience and fortitude especially when enduring Ben's strangulating hugs, we've started calling him San Filippo. Best of all, he has an endearing habit of falling asleep with no ado right when we wish he would. Fafa's open-mouth grins and goofy sounds melt Adolfo and inspire Ben's antics. "My little brother" says Ben proudly, adding a touch of aggression if he thinks a visitor might try to take his 'Fafa away.

Adolfo used his paternity leave to finish the rock wall around the pizza oven. It was an immense effort but came out beautifully, something I will be glad to see every day. He's looking forward to traveling to Greece for a conference, and to completing more articles in the series that he is writing about plants suited for permaculture. At home he's been experimenting with a large mobile poultry cage that's open on the bottom to allow the birds access to fresh pasture whenever we move the cage. Being a dad of two is stretching his patience and possibly enlarging it. He admits that he's starting to actually like babies, or at least this one.

Me? In July I had the opportunity to dance in the Spoleto Festival with old friends from the Stanford Vintage Dance Ensemble. Dressing up in my old costume and dancing was fun but the best part was talking with people who I hadn't seen for over 10 years. On the home front... sleep deprivation is chronic but I'm really enjoying being the mom of a newborn, more this time than the first time around. Perhaps because I know how fast it goes and how little I will remember of the tiny toes, toothless smiles, sleeping baby warm on my shoulder at 4am. It's fun though challenging to be a mom of two... fun to see the boys interact and enjoy each other, though sometimes it's hard to prioritize the emergencies and needs. Who first... the shrieking infant, or the boy who has to use the toilet RIGHT NOW? The hungry rooting baby, the small needy boy attached to my leg or the ringing phone? I remind them and myself "all in due time, patience all around, please". I'm enjoying this sweet time, ignoring the accumulation of the spiderwebs on the ceiling so that I can have time for that second bedtime story or extra cuddle when changing diapers. Or even, luxury of all luxuries,
sitting still... out on the terrace with Adolfo when both kids are asleep, for 10 minutes of star watching.

We're even more grateful than usual to all the people who have helped us and made enjoyable the marathon that was this summer; especially WWOOFers Marianna, Rob, Noemie and Brian, and three very understanding grandparents. Next on the agenda... a visit by a Japanese group on a culinary tour of Italy, a MYO pizza lunch for kids in a local hiking club, digging-washing-sorting-counting-packing thousands of wild asparagus seedlings for sale, the olive harvest. Anyone planning to be in our neighborhood is welcome to join us for Thanksgiving dinner! Ben is already looking forward to Christmas when his Nonna Deirdre and Nonno Doug will come bearing suitcases full of books in English, chocolate chips, Legos, and other wonderous things.

FYI- Those of you tuned into Facebook can find our farm page there: Localita' il Piano
Also, our farm website photos have been updated.... see www.localitailpiano.it under "Photos 2011".

Saluti,

Darcy, Adolfo, Ben and 'Fafa

back to top


10 June 2011

Filippo Rosati (aka Alfalfa, or, as Ben says, 'Fafa) was born 07 June, 3.2 kg and 49 cm. He is long and skinny, healthy, apparently blonde, and has so far been a wonderfully good sleeper. Ben is truly delighted with his little brother, the first thing he wants to do in the morning is hug the baby. Adolfo and I are enjoying the little guy very much... he is sleepy and sweet and quite undemanding. Adolfo's family has jumped to help, with his mom feeding us and his sister shuttling Ben to school. We feel spoiled, like we're on vacation!
:)
Darcy, Adolfo, Ben and 'Fafa

back to top


31 May 2011

Happy spring from Localita' il Piano!

All is well here: baby goats are leaping, the iris around the lake are in full purple bloom and the first tiny tomatoes are ripening. A hot dry spell in April has set the seasonal clock ahead... already the leeks are going to flower and there are cracks in the clay soil of the fig field. The poppies that usually bloom in mid-June have painted the fields red since mid-May, the first fireflies are out, and Adolfo has already taken his first dip in the lake.

Our first spring crop came and went in the blink of an eye... the wild asparagus were poking up early.  Now we're on to strawberries, fava beans, lettuce, spring onions and the first few currants and raspberries. The new strawberries plants are surprisingly productive considered that they were planted only in early February. We've started calling Ben the strawberry weevil, as he managed to find and eat all of the even marginally pink berries for the first two weeks of the season. We've just now tasted the first truly ripe deep-red ones, mixed with currants, juneberries and raspberries, on top of whipped cream courtesy of the goats. Heavenly!

In the barn...
The 3 milk goats have been giving 1-2 L a day since kidding in mid-March, and we've been experimenting with raw-milk cheesemaking. So far, it seems an art as much as a science. We diligently keep a journal, noting temperatures, timing, ingredients, cultures, equipment and anything else we think could possibly influence the cheese (brand of salt?), but have yet to really understand what many of the variables do. Though we can't seem to predict whether the cheese will be pocketed with small holes, big holes, or no holes, and whether we'll be able to coax a little or a lot of ricotta out of the hot whey, the product is fortunately always edible. Ben's favorite gift from the goats is the whipped cream, Adolfo's the un-whipped cream, and mine the ricotta.

We never did definitively resolve the who-dunnit of last fall's avian massacres, though we did find a dead weasel by the side of the road less than a kilometer from the barn. Fingers crossed that the culprit met his  match, we've started accumulating poultry... 8 small guinea hens, 10 meat chickens, 10 layers and 1 proud red rooster. Now we're getting about 6 eggs a day in varying tints of brown, and one white whopper every other day from the ornery gray goose.

In the fields...
The Church (there is really only one here) has finally agreed, after 10 years of our letter-writing, to sell us a field that our road runs through. For, of course, a favorable price. "Non salato, ma super-salato!" said the priest when he and Adolfo discussed price over the phone. Super-salty turned out to be less bad than we'd feared, about 10,000 euros for 2 hectares of land, mostly pasture and some woods. In theory, we'll sign the purchase papers next week! Though this land would be considered marginal in most agricultural areas, it is actually better in terms of soil and slope than most of our fields... as in plow-able and seed-able. Most importantly, this Church land hosts the worst 200 meters of our 800 meter dirt driveway that connects the farmhouse with the public asphalt road. We've maintained this stretch of the road (illegally) for years, just to a state where it's passable. But as traffic flow out to the farm increases and visitors are starting to include city-dwellers unaccustomed to off-roading, the driveability of our road is starting to be our limiting factor.

We've had more day visitors than B&B guests lately (most of them opting to park safely on the asphalt and hike in). This spring we've hosted 3 large groups for educational wild plants hikes and lunch. Adolfo walks the group through the farm, talking and gathering edible plants from the fields as they go, then brings the group back to the farmhouse for a meal based on the plants that they've learned about... nettle gnocchi,  redbud-calendula salad, acacia fritters, poppy greens- chicory wraps, fennelseed cookies, elderberry flower wine... It's a lot of work and an interesting culinary challenge: the menu can only be decided a few days ahead of time when we know for sure what will be perfectly in prime season for the event. Then, menu decided, all hands on deck! Adolfo's mother is the head gatherer, Adolfo the head washer, and I the head chef. Antonietta disappears into the fields with her knife and bag and, hands flying, we begin the sorting, washing, boiling, chopping, sauteing, baking of immense quantities of food. Nobody sits for two days, until the last guest is sauntering back to his car with a full belly.

The plumber arrived 12 hours before the last May group arrived, and finally installed the long-awaited kitchen sink. More miraculously, he attached a super-efficient dishwasher too! After the guests had left we enjoyed a brief incredulous minute of luxury ... sitting at the table listening to the hum and rumbles of the machine's first cycle as it washed all 40-people's-worth of dishes-glasses-utensils with 12 liters of water. After two years of doing massive quantities of dishes by hand, it was a landmark moment.

On the family front....
Adolfo is as usual doing a thousand things, between his "real" job and all the others that he does. This spring he enjoyed experimenting together with a local company to come up with ways of preserving and marketing wild asparagus... wild asparagus pasta sauce, asparagus-truffle spread, asparagus pesto. The bureaucratic aspects of his research job eat up ever more time, leaving less for actual research. Outside of work, he's been preparing a series of articles on "forest garden" plants, edible but not commonly eaten plants such as daylilies, and has been increasingly caring for/teaching/playing with Ben, who thinks his tractor-driving chainsaw-wielding Papa is very cool.

Ben is comfortably bi-lingual now, though he has a slight Italian accent in English. In Italian though, he can roll his Rs better than his mom can. He is a peppy chatterbox, enthusiastic about everything and afraid of nothing except the vacuum cleaner. He loudly tells anyone who will listen what he's going to do when he's big, and that soon he's going to have a baby brother named Alfalfa (baby brother, yes, but we'll see about naming him "Alfalfa"!). Having seen more baby goats than baby humans, he is convinced that his brother will have horns - Ben's theory is that the baby will use his horns to poke a hole in my belly and escape. I got out some photos of babies to show him that baby people are, in fact, hornless, but he remains unconvinced. To celebrate Ben's 3rd birthday we played hookey from nursery school and did fun stuff... took the train to Foligno, ate Nutella pizza, went to the hospital to see wheelchairs, went through the car wash, and generally tried to do all of the things that interest him that we don't usually have time to do. Apart from occasional moments when one might like to strangle the imp, like when he can't resist turning the hose on me instead of the potted plants, he is a good buddy and helper. We gather the eggs together and he manages to squeeze some milk out of the goats, I weed the asparagus patch while he picks raspberries, I hold the dust pan while he wields the broom. I realize that he is a tiny competent person now, not at all a baby anymore.

I'm fine, relatively spunky but grateful that we won't be hosting any more WWOOFers or groups until at least July. "Alfalfa" and I co-exist pretty well in one body, but it will be nice to get his little feet out from under my rib cage and finally meet him. The summer will be a challenge - summer on the farm always is, even without a newborn - but we are lucky to have one month of paid paternity leave, three months of paid maternity and help from both the Italian and American grandparents. Somehow the goats will get milked, the trees will get watered and the people fed. The essentials. Beyond that, we'll just let the weeds grow, defer the road maintenance, steal any possible moments for napping, and try to stay as patient and good-tempered as possible.

We heartily thank hard-working spring WWOOFers Nick, Molly, Leslie and Logan for helping us get the farm shipshape (baby-ready): drip-irrigation installed, thick straw mulch applied, next winter's firewood already stacked!

Saluti from Localita' il Piano,

Darcy, Adolfo and Ben

back to top


20 March 2011

Hello from Localita' il Piano!

The almond trees are in bloom, the horses are shedding, the first daffodils are nodding (those that have escaped Ben's enthusiastic whacking)... apart from a few stray snowflakes this morning, it feels like spring is creeping up on us. In a nutshell, we're planting, pruning, tiling, grouting, tickling and chasing, while waiting excitedly for the baby goats to be born next week and for the arrival of a special new critter in June.

In more detail...
Adolfo and I finished planting the new vineyard next to the farm house. I see it from the kitchen window every morning when the sun comes up and imagine all the tasty grapes we'll have in a year or two... table grapes, raisins, grape juice, wine! For wine we put in mostly Sangiovese since we're sure it does well in our area without any chemical sprays, and added a row each of Merlot and Barbera. The more exciting part is the collection of table grapes, about 100 varieties of local, Italian, French and a few American cultivars. We put in a row of kiwi too, some green Hayward, yellow Soreli and Jingfei, and a few hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta). Our area can suffer late spring frosts, which may be a problem for the green and yellow standard kiwis but in mild years we may be able to grow a decent crop, and the hardy kiwi are likely to do well.

It's pruning time again! Dusting off and sharpening the loppers, pruners and saws felt like a bit like agricultural New Years' - pruning is the first routine outdoor farm work of 2011. We gear up mentally, assess the farm's condition, and start deciding where to focus our resources and energies this year. Pruning so many hectares of fruit is daunting, but this year we have help and a good division of labor. Our brother-in-law Tonino is giving a hand with pruning the two olive groves, I'm doing the other (about 1000) fruit trees, and Adolfo will take on the vineyards. While Ben is enthusiastic about saws, clippers and all things that cut, he isnt quite ready to do the pruning himself yet, so he keeps me company on warm days when I prune near the house, holding the tools and passing me what I need.

House-wise... after a year in the new farmhouse we still have no kitchen sink, but have lately made progress towards ordering one. At least we've chosen the countertop (Sardinian granite, a relatively local material) and ordered tiles. A super-efficient dishwasher will be delivered on Saturday! After years of doing large quantities of dishes by hand in a laundry sink, this jump to having both a kitchen sink and a dishwasher will be a revolution. We'll be better equipped to host large groups, four of which have signed up for spring educational hikes/classes/meals. Adolfo takes people on a rambling tour of the farm, identifying and gathering the wild spring edibles like chicory and nettles, then the groups circle back to the farmhouse for a snack or pizza lunch based on the same wild foods. It is a lot of work in terms of preparation, cooking and cleanup, but Adolfo is in his element when teaching about wild plants, especially as they relate to sustainable agriculture, and Ben thoroughly enjoys the chaos and meeting new people. 

In the barn.... We've sold two goats in the last few weeks, just keeping the three best pregnant females for milking, as well as Ben's "lamb" from last spring (Francesina, who is now a huge wooly beast about to become a mother herself). As the goats' bellies grow I can sometimes see the kids kicking inside, low on mom's right flank. Considering how much kicking a human fetus does, compared to how capable it is of running and frisking as a newborn, I can imagine that those goat kids are practicing up a storm in preparation for being born. Within a few minutes of birth usually they are on their feet nursing mom, and by the next day competently running and jumping. Gelso the donkey has a small tumor on his chest that we'll remove soon. The horses, Sorba and Jujube, are getting spunky on their menu of spring greens and olive-tree prunings. We've put a nest in the goose enclosure, waiting to see if our two females produce some (very large) eggs. The whites of goose eggs are a bit rubbery when hard-boiled or fried but are highly prized for making pasta and baked goods, especially for souffles.

On the family front... almost-3-yr-old Ben is great fun if a bit exhausting, a joyful buddy and willing helper. I am in love with the kid. He is surprisingly patient and competent, counting and breaking the eggs when we cook, even getting most of the egg in the bowl. He carries the bucket of grain for the goats, and insists that he is going to fix tractors when he grows up. He delights in tickling and being tickled, books and reading, stomping in mud puddles, dressing up as a monkey. A fever took away his energy and appetite for a week and now he is slimmer but zooming again, voracious for cauliflower, artichokes, chocolate, tofu, and bananas. Ben's excitement is contagious (though unfortunately his energy level less so). His greatest excitement these days is about his little brother-to-be, due in June.  Daily I am asked "can he come out and play yet?". Ben practices singing "Happy Birthday", offers to share his room and toys and tells everyone he meets that he is going to have a tiny brother. I hope his enthusiasm can survive the realities of sharing his parents with a very demanding newcomer. While I would have enjoyed the purple, dancing and hair braiding that might have accompanied a little girl, I'm sure that Ben will be happy to have someone more like himself to romp with and we will be glad that the boys are out getting lost the woods together.

As for me these days, I am patiently gestating, a background activity to everything else that is going on. Pregnancy hasnt slowed me down much yet though I think it will soon. I'm as voracious as Ben, experimenting with traditional Carnevale sweets and helping Ben put on and take off a hundred times the monkey suit that Nonna Antonietta made him for Carnevale, planning and measuring the kitchen, planting new strawberry and asparagus patches, dealing with paperwork (the county can't decide whether we owe taxes or not on our house), trying to plan the menus for visiting groups around the wild greens that will be available on the day of their visit, seeding the first spring crops (lettuce, radish, chard) and picking the last fall ones (kale, leeks, rutabagas, cauliflower).

As usual, Adolfo is juggling many tasks at once between work and farm and home. The first cycle of chickens has been completed in his regional research project on sustainable chicken-asparagus-olive co-cultivation systems. For his hobby writing, the next article subject may be strawbale building, something that he has enjoyed thinking about for years. It looks like we might construct a strawbale poulty palace so that we can take before-during-and-after photos to accompany the article. The nasty flu that infected about half of Spoleto this winter kept him in bed immobile for almost a week (something I'd thought impossible), but now he is back to tractor repair man, tiler-grouter, researcher, .... Adolfo enjoys being a dad these days, very kindly taking up the slack when mom is tired after dinner, becoming the main tickler, chaser, bedtime story reader, and teacher (if you hold it like this you can avoid peeing on your feet).

We were lucky to be able to take a trip to France together in December for an agroforesty conference, leaving Ben "on vacation" at Nonna's house. We enjoyed Christmas markets, hot wine, sauerkraut, exquisite pastries, acting like adults, wandering the sleety streets of Strasbourg and Obernai. We discovered delicious Mirabelle plums, and brought home a few twigs of scion wood so that we can graft and enjoy the variety at Localita il Piano. Now we're enjoying the last moments of relative peace before spring and summer farm chaos ramps up fully, and we are looking forward to so many things, especially meeting "Alfalfa".

Wishing you a happy spring, and hoping that some of you will make your way to this corner of Umbria in 2011!

Darcy Adolfo Ben

back to top

2010

10 November 2010

Happy autumn from Localita il Piano!

Cool weather came early to the Valnerina, bringing enough rain to  green up the fields and painting the orchards and forest in brilliant fall colors. We've had a full house lately between WWOOFers, agriturismo guests and my parents, with 14-17 people around the dinner table each night for much of October. The short days have started chasing us indoors earlier, and while we've enjoyed a fun and productive summer we're ready to slow down a bit now.

The garden is in transition too, waiting for the first frost to put an end to the last valiant cucumbers, eggplants and basil. Already we're enjoying kale, fennel, cauliflower, rutabagas, turnips, peas, purple kohlrabi and the first baby leeks. Persimmons are abundant this year, as are chestnuts and quince. We have a big pile of winter squash in the basement, (Delicata, Butternut, SweetMeat and Napolitana), many liters of canned tomatoes and a room full of dry firewood. Despite being materially ready for winter, the shorter foggier days could be a bit melancholy were it not for the extraordinary fall color. For a person raised in a milder climate, the vivid colors seem improbable, like dreaming with your eyes open. How can juneberry leaves achieve that audacious shade of purple-red when they were gently green just a week before? The cherries, persimmons and big-leaf maples stand out for their shocking oranges and reds while the grapes and pomegranates are highlighter-yellow. I spend minutes lost in amazement, absorbing the color, glad to be working outdoors.

In the vineyard...
We delayed picking the wine grapes in order to harvest them together with a student group visiting Il Piano for an educational farming experience, ten high school students and two teachers from an international school in Rome. They delighted in squishing the grapes with their feet, with much play and shrieking. The weather has been cool enough that the resulting juice has fermented slowly, giving us two weeks to enjoy the half-way product between grape juice and wine known here as "strignitura". Literally the "squeezings" of wine grapes, it is a sparkling rich purple drink, very very sweet due to this year's late harvest date and only barely alcoholic since the yeast hasn't gotten down to serious business yet. Ben is crazy about strignitura, calling it his special wine. It is spectacularly good, possibly the tastiest thing we make on the farm, but ephemeral. Most years it is in the perfect state of sweet bubbliness for only a couple of days before the yeast push it closer to wine than juice. It's gone now for 2010 but we are enthusiastically looking forward to next year's harvest and are newly excited about this winter's vineyard-planting project.

In the orchards...
While almonds, sorbs, apricots and cherries had a decent year, our apple trees look terrible. 2010 was a triple-whammy for them, between the porcupine damage, a serious hailstorm on 10 Sept that shredded the leaves, and a late mite infestation that destroyed whatever was left. The days after the hailstorm we collected all the damaged apples and made many gallons of pink and golden applesauce, so all was not lost. Sometimes we do wonder what we were thinking when we planted so many apples, when so far they are the crop that gives us the least satisfaction. But we wait and hope, water and prune, watching the big old apple trees in other peoples' fields that produce fruit with little to no care. Though our trees are taking longer to grow and produce that we had estimated, when (and if?) they do manage to take off it will be really exciting.

At pasture...
Though the official paperwork was registered several months ago, we've just gotten around to inspecting the 1.8 hectares that we bought and added to the farm this summer. Three fields were included in the lot: a tiny one with some abandoned and overgrown olive trees, a decent-sized cultivatable field with soil appropriate for growing oats or alfalfa, and a very large field that seemed best used for pasture. We fenced that one quickly and the horses set about cleaning it up. They ate for two weeks, mowing down the waist-high grass, manuring the field and trampling brambles, exposing several trailer-loads of fallen wood (firewood!) and many young walnut trees (a very pleasant surprise). Sorba and Jujube do an effortlessly good cleaning job and it is satisfying to use real horse-power to clear the field instead of diesel horsepower. A few times this fall we've made time to ride them, an exhilarating gallop together through the colorful autumn leaves with the excuse of checking our fenceline.

In the barnyard...
A month ago we borrowed Gregorio's enormous and mellow ram, Grillo ("Grasshopper"), and he immediately set about courting Ben's sheep, Francesina. We're guessing that she is thoroughly pregnant by now. The goats went through an amorous period when we put a Camosciato buck in their pasture, and all four are probably, hopefully, pregnant. Since both sheep and goats have 5-month gestation, we're expecting lots of lambs and kids to be bouncing around the barn come late March. We've stopped milking, and started drinking store-bought milk again. What a different flavor cow's milk has when your taste buds are calibrated to goat milk-cheese-yogurt!

Our poultry experiment has not been going well, rather a bloodbath lately. Apparently the word is out among local predators that tasty organic chickens and ducks are to be had easily at Loc. il Piano. We imagined that a 6-ft chainlink fence (plus a foot of fencing underground, with barbed wire) and 4 outward-leaning strands of barbed wire over the fence, prison-style, would be a sufficient deterent. Nope. Down from our peak of 35, we now have just 7 surviving chickens (3 fluffy red "ovaiole", 3 Livornesi and Ciufetta), zero ducks and 2 geese. Five of the chickens did end up in our freezer, but the other 23 chickens and ducks were mostly eaten by foxes, raptors, weasels or feral cats (results of our primitive forensic observations when we do actually find a carcass). Perhaps the geese are be too big, loud and ornery for an easy snack, or perhaps the predators are saving them for an extra-special Thanksgiving meal? We have the feeling that the chickens will continue getting picked off one by one, another disappearing every few days, until they're gone, so we may just take them over to Giuliana's coop to spend the winter there guarded by her dogs. If we can find time to build a new extra-high-security coop over the winter we may start over in the spring. Ben will miss hunting for eggs, which had become his favorite job.

In a couple of weeks Ben will be 2 1/2. After a month-long visit from his Californian grandparents, he speaks English with confidence and sometimes a hint of an Italian accent. After many many hours spent reading books with Nonna Deirdre, his English vocabulary is amazing, better even than in Italian. We've settled into speaking only English at home and mostly Italian when we're out. Friends have very kindly sent lots of nature documentary DVDs in English, which we're looking forward to watching together on the inevitable home-from-school-sick cold winter days. Ben is a good companion, with only rare terrible-twos moments. He is fascinated with bones and skeletons and where his lunch goes when he swallows it, very impressed that one can make purple kaka if one eats enough beets or green kaka if one eats enough chard. It's almost cool enough to make one want to eat more vegetables! He loves cement trucks, excavators, spelling his name with refrigerator magnets, making pretend-soup ("I'm Chef Ben!"), making cookies for real, riding Jujube together with me, watching Papa work with plaster in the basement. He may be old enough that I can start trying to explain part of his heritage to him this Thanksgiving. Since having many people at dinner is not unusual, I suspect that for him Thanksgiving will just be the holiday when we make yellow gritty cornbread and eat it with tangy dogwood berry jelly (our stand -in for cranberries). He has seen some photos of Native Americans though, and loves running around the house with turkey feathers stuck through his hair, hunting wolves.

Researcher, speaker, journalist, teacher, wild plants expert, author: all of Adolfo's careers are frantically busy these days. The olive harvest is at its chaotic peak now, both at the olive institute and at home. Finally he did get paid the raise he earned (retroactive to 2008, this being Italy) and while it's nice to have the money in the bank account we are in a quandry about spending it... frustratingly, some legal challenges to the promotion process could mean that in 3-4 years time the government may ask for the money back (with interest, of  course). This Saturday Adolfo will speak at a mushroom and wild plants convention in Spoleto, then on Sunday we'll host a group of 30 people at the farm for a wild foods hike and feast (menu: nettle frittata, wild asparagus crostini, fried sage leaves, warm greens with pancetta, pasta with wild herbs, calendula "meat" balls, dogwood berry punch, mint tea, sorb-juneberry-dogwood jam bars). Adolfo's book on traditional uses of  the wild plants of the Valnerina will be coming out in a month or so, and two of his magazine articles on traditional techniques of making glue out of mistletoe berries will be published in December. He's been busy!

I have too, mostly with farm paperwork, organizing farm events, tending the vegetable garden, etc, with the occasional battle between me, the washing machine and the repair manual to liven things up. While we certainly enjoy hosting large groups, our washing machine protests at the resulting mounds of sheets and sometimes, with exquisite timing, goes on strike when there are more than 12 loads waiting to be run. Since it is more ecologically-conscious to repair than replace, we attempt repair yet again. And since previous repairs involved superglue (or Attack, as it is known here) disassembly is getting more complicated, but we'll see how far we get.

Our plan is to finish up some odds and ends of farm work with our last 2010 group of WWOOFers, press the olives, plant fava beans and garlic, then update the farm website and focus on house construction....  finishing the chimneys of our outdoor fireplace and wood-fired pizza oven, pouring a cement floor in that area, starting some rock work. We're very much looking forward to Thanksgiving, both a Thursday dinner at our house, then a Saturday dinner out with American friends. Anyone planning to be in our neighborhood on Nov 25th should give us a call and come share dinner. The theme this year is "grown at home"... our chicken with baby leek and chestnut stuffing, Gregorio's potatoes, peas from our fields, garden veggies, wild berries, our goat cheeses.... yum!

Buon appetito and Happy Thanksgiving!

Darcy Adolfo Ben

back to top


31 August 2010

Happy summer from Località il Piano!

These days we're sticky with watermelon juice and full-bellied, between abundant garden produce, dairy products and eggs. Lots of eating, laughing and working these days, and very little sleeping. The current group of WWOOFers provides another 14 helping hands, as well seven mouths to help us eat all the farm produce, milk and eggs. Ben's on holiday from nursery school, wreaking havoc and making everyone laugh.

The new rows of "piccoli frutti" that we put in last winter have been generously supplying us and our agriturismo guests with handfuls of raspberries and currrants. Ben puts the raspberries, a favorite snack, onto his fingertips like puppets. Our main 2010 field project is a new vineyard behind the house, past the rows of blackberries and raspberries. We moved a greenhouse to make way for it and for a week Adolfo was busy plowing until well after dark. We plan to put in a row of kiwis next to a collection of table grapes, with some local wine-grape varieties like Montonico, Martone and Cornacchione, perhaps some San Giovese and Trebbiano. These days we have seven WWOOFers helping us dig holes for the trellis posts, solid oak trunks that they've helped us drag from the forest. Yep, seven.... a Polish couple, two Americans, one Japanese lady and an Australian couple! They are a good group, positive and hard-working, laughing as they dig and proud of their blisters.

The teeming vegetable garden dominates our activities these days. Mulching, weeding, seeding beets-turnips-rutabagas-radicchios-carrots-onions, tying up tomatoes, tenderly planting the tiny Brassica seedlings of that will feed us all winter. Cucumbers by the bag make their way from the farm to Spoleto, to the small organic store near Adolfo's office, to the teachers at Ben's nursery school, to friends and relatives and anyone who will take them. The first few of the season were welcomed by all, still a novelty in early summer.... but now it is getting harder to be rid of the 15-20 long green, short green, prickly green, furry green, twisty green things that appear every day. Fortunately the goats do enjoy them, even the tough baseball-bat size ones. I've made a note to plant less next year, and more of things that can be jammed, frozen, sauced and dried. Like tomatoes!

For a couple of months we've had abundant cherry and salad tomatoes for fresh eating, giving away and freezing, but the peak of the red(-yellow-purple-orange) wave is imminent and it's time to start canning in earnest. Huge and heavy, the clusters of pale green tomatoes have turned color and swollen, making the vines sag. I've got three hand-cranked tomato-saucing machines, several hundred jars with new lids and seven pairs of helping hands: hopefully we're ready for the onslaught.  Last week Adolfo and Ben harvested our first fat watermelon, anxiously, ceremoniously, after thumping it daily and examining rind color with care. When it seemed comparable in sound and color to the ones in the store we gambled, cutting it from the plant and opening it.... and were very sad when its insides were barely pale rose. Of course we ate it anyways, proudly, deciding that unripe watermelon tastes a bit like a lemony cucumber. We eat and eat and eat huge quantities of fresh vegetables, to the amazement of our WWOOFers who are accustomed to more meaty canned and frozen diets. Good thing that we have some homegrown proteins to balance things out.... milk and eggs!

Courtesy of the goats we have feta, ricotta, black-pepper cheese, mozzarella, cacio-ricotta, yogurt, whipped cream, ice cream and of course plain unadulterated straight-up raw goat milk! For months life has been punctuated with 7:30am and 7:30pm milkings. It is an intense commitment, impossible to "skip" a milking, ever, on the pain of mastitis. But we have been fortunate to find two WWOOFers who are good milkers and so have been able to share the responsibility. First Mike, later Hannah, then Alex, gave us evenings off to go to a concert or play with Ben or just get to bed earlier, and we are very grateful. It is a large commitment, but gives a generous return. Five liters a day is a lot of milk. Every time the accumulating white Mason jars threaten to crowd all else out of the refrigerator, we try a new recipe for cheese. There is now a shelf in the basement with aging, molding goat cheeses. We have tasted a few, learning some things about how much salt is too much, how moving the cheese from the mold too early makes it lopsided and bulgy, how cheeses from pasturized milk are less likely to have air bubbles inside. Next year we'll know better what we're doing. Now we're starting to taper off milking, to give the goats time to build up some body fat for breeding season and winter pregnancy.

Our first chickens arrived in May - Darcy's birthday present! We bought six young red females, who had been raised in cages and were quite perplexed when let loose in our barn. We waited a few days, lost one to a fox, patched the hole in the fence, didnt lose any more, and decided that this preliminary poultry experiment was a success. Now the population is up to 18 hens, 6 "broilers" and two roosters, mostly Ancona-Livornese or Rhode Island Red -type. Angel, the majestic white rooster, rules the roost, definitely in charge and secure enough that he doesnt have to prove anything by being mean. He shepperds his girls around the pasture, following the browsing goats. The chickens are hilariously awkward and intent as they leap into the air in pursuit of the flies that tend to follow the larger animals. Eggs started arriving a month ago, first one then two then three a day, usually deposited into a nest box but not always.... not quite as abundant as the milk but encouraging given that this isn't peak egg season. We got six eggs yesterday, in various tints of white and brown. Ben's favorite activity these days is gathering eggs, which he is learning not to squeeze, throw, drop, etc on the way home. Gregorio and Giuliana gave us a pair of baby ducks and two huge grey geese to round out the barnyard. Now it is starting to sound like a farm, adding all the clucking, crowing, hissing and honking on top of braying, whinnying and bleating!

Wild animals too have been very present. Several rabbits had been hanging out near the house and garden, until Adolfo caught and ate one. A wild boar visited our oat field for midnight snacks, casually leaving scat not 30 meters from our front door, until we plowed the oats under. An unidentified beast was causing terrible damage to our apple and fig fields for most of July, making us swear. We dreaded going out in the morning to see how many more trees it had snapped off in the night. At first we supposed it was a single wild boar, marking his territory by snapping branches and trunks, and sure enough the tooth marks were big ones, but the beast didnt dig under manure piles for worms, as a boar would do. Tooth marks scarred the bark as high as 1.3 meters... what else would be big enough to reach that high and have jaws strong enough to snap a branch the size of my wrist? We wired lights to a solar panel to illuminate the upper reaches of the apple field and sent 400 feet of extension cord to the lower orchard to play all-night music with Ben's Ipod, but the beast stayed away for maybe one night only to return. Adolfo camped out for several nights in various spots, lying in wait with firecrackers, a big flashlight and bigger stick, but didnt see anything. We were getting very tired and very frustrated as half of our trees had some degree of damage, until one night when we drove through the apple field around midnight: the culprit was a huge porcupine and her offspring! Perhaps she was ripping branches from the young trees to look for fruit? Since porcupines arent as powerful diggers as boars can be, we filled all the potential holes under the orchard fence with rocks and Adolfo bulldozed a foot of dirt against the fence line. Not boar-proof but possibly enough to stop a porcupine? Fortunately, the porcupine hasn't been back. It will take several years for some of the affected trees to recover, but we've gained experience and next time we will be quicker to ID the critter and stop the damage. 

On the work front... my summer job is farm-garden-animals-family-guests-WWOOFers, and above all chef, leaving little room for other activities! Adolfo's institute appears to have been granted a reprieve, in the form of a governmental change that re-set the decision process about which entities to close. So, he is still holed up in a suffocating pigeon-dropping-scented office in Spoleto, and, miraculously, someone has taken responsibility for providing toilet paper. Miraculously, too, it looks like they will give him raise soon, retroactive to 2008! Ben is well, tall and strong and red-cheeked, potty-trained, and more of a boy than a baby. Life with a 2-year-old is chaotic, hilarious, affectionate, fast-paced and messy, requiring much patience, tact, and consistency. The other night Ben proudly showed our dinner guests how good he is at making peepee by himself.... right onto the basil bush. Fortunately they laughed, and managed to continue eating their basil-laden dinner. He loves all the WWOOFers and agriturismo guests coming and going, enjoys playing with and talking to new people, but does need undivided parental attention too sometimes. Usually he needs it right as I am trying to prepare dinner for 10 hungry people, latching himself to my ankles and begging to be held. I can't blame him - he does spend much of the day being sidelined - so I try to cook and set the table one-handed for a while as he rides on my hip and observes. I too would often rather cuddle him and read a book together instead of making another big dinner, but remind myself that we have winter for such luxuries. We are all short on sleep, but we have had enough summers on the farm that I know this is normal and that we'll start recovering as fall draws closer and the sun goes down earlier and earlier, making us stop working. 

We're looking forward to an upcoming visit from Ben's California grandparents, to the winegrape harvest, to having our own meat and sharing it with friends at Thanksgiving. Anyone who is in the neighborhood in late November is welcome to join us!

Saluti from Localita' il Piano,

Darcy Adolfo Ben

back to top


30 April 2010

Happy spring from Localita' il Piano!

Tall iris has turned the lake border purple and white, Sorba and Jujube are contentedly mowing the grass along the road, three baby goats are leaping around the barn and the first red poppies are blooming. Spring visited briefly for the first days of April, then went back into hiding for a couple of weeks. It had been sunny enough that our solar panels were churning out lots of hot water and our seedling tomatoes and squash in the greenhouse grew faster than the weeds. No sooner had we sheared off Ben's hair and cleaned out the wood-burning furnace ..... we got snow for Easter. The unstoppable chard wasn't worried, the horses confidently kept shedding their winter coats, and finally the sun did come back. These days I'm out in the garden harvesting spring onions and fava beans, pulling the last stubborn turnips and 10-lb cauliflowers, making space for tomatoes. 

After last year's successful trial run with our little summer garden, Adolfo decreed that 2010 was to be the the year of the tomato. In March we pulled out our old seeds and planted every last one, about 30 cultivars of red, pink, purple, golden, orange, green, mottled, striped, fuzzy, pointy, heart-shaped, ruffled, horned, you-name-it tomatoes. Over the last 10 years, we had been saving a few seeds anytime we tasted an interesting tomato, especially heirloom types... we tucked the precious seeds into a paper napkin at a restaurant, stuck to an old phone-bill or envelope, glued to a papertowel at a friend's house. Unfurling all these old paper bits with seeds stuck to them was laborious but also a fun walk down memory lane.... remembering that glorious October Saturday at the Davis Farmers Market when we taste-tested and fell in love with "Pineapple" and "Black Brandywine" (and each other), or the first time we were shocked by the fuzziness of "Garden Peach", or the sweetness of "Green Grape". I thought that most of the seeds were too old to germinate but I was happily wrong and now the greenhouse is crowded with recycled styrofoam boxes from the fish monger, exploding with little tomato plants. We have space for just over 100 plants in the expanded garden this year so we'll plant only a few of each. All summer we'll be saving seeds again, letting mashed tomato and water stinkily ferment for a couple of days, then rinsing and carefully drying the good seed that's sunk to the bottom of the cup. Around here the safe date (no more snow) for planting tender annuals is May 1st. I jumped the gun a bit and planted out the first 25 plants yesterday, most of them already two feet high with pea-sized little tomatoes attached. The challenge will be convincing Ben not to pick them until they're red!

Our main field project for the winter was a new planting of "piccoli frutti" not far from the house: blackberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries. We put in many many varieties with just a plant or two of each, so in a few years we should have a good idea of which cultivars produce well in our area when grown organically. Scouring all the Italian nurseries that we know about, we found some unusual varieties, like white and pink currants, yellow and black raspberries and uncommon blackberry-raspberry hybrids. While the new planting is a relatively small project, we are both really excited about it. I find all kinds of excuses to go to the field for a few minutes and watch the first new leaves unfolding. In some ways these plants are more rewarding than trees... easier to plant, quicker to prune and earlier to produce some fruit! We'll probably get just a handful of berries this summer, but we'll give them deep straw-sheep manure mulch and we should already have good production next year. Black currant cordial, loganberry pancake syrup, red currant jelly... we're already salivating, though we'll have to come up with a fence that discourages the deer and wild boars from tasting the berries before we do.

An unexpected opportunity to buy a neighboring field has us smashing the piggybank, trying to sell Adolfo's old motorbike, one of our oxcarts and two of our donkeys. The seller wants about four times what I'd be willing to pay, but we have little choice in the matter of price because our driveway-road happens to run through the field in question. So we'll put off car repairs, buying a kitchen sink, a trip to the USA, etc and the farm will grow from 20 to 22 hectares. I hesitate, because the farm seemed plenty big enough already and I was really looking forward to having a sink in the kitchen, but we'll go for it because Adolfo is right that the road is our biggest weakness. I'm starting to understand that our life will always be like this... that house progress, maintenance and repairs will almost always take the backseat to the urgencies of the farm. So, I will have to learn to relax about it. What does it matter if we have to drain the pasta water into the bathroom sink for another six months? The pasta tastes the same, fills everyone's belly the same and life goes on. Eventually the kitchen sink will happen too.

The sink may happen faster as the agriturismo starts earning. The biggest difficulty turns out to be keeping Ben quiet in the morning so that people can sleep in! Easter brought us six overnight guests, two of whom stayed for Easter lunch. For the "primo", or first course, we sent the guests out with Adolfo to pick wild asparagus, then served these over homemade duck-egg pasta. For "secondo" I cooked a leg from one of Gregorio's lambs, and our "contorni" were roasted potatoes and sauteed chard from the garden. The guests were too full to even look at dessert, which I took as a good sign. As a cook, it is particularly rewarding to serve extremely fresh food and see the appreciation dawn on peoples' faces at the first bite. Skill in the kitchen is helpful, and there I have a lot to learn, but I think that the key to extraordinarily good food is starting with extraordinarily good ingredients. As people eat at our table, they can look out the window at the garden that much of the food came from, perhaps harvested with their own hands 15 minutes previously. Their tastebuds ring a wakeup call and the words fresh, local and organic take on new significance, moving from buzz words to the concrete. Offering food like this, and eating it ourselves, was one of the reasons we chose to have a farm.

In the barnyard...
Early in January we decided that Selvatica had been an only-goat long enough, and we started searching for company for her. One miserably rainy night we borrowed Adolfo's dad's truck, piled in with Ben and went in search of goats. An advertisement said "2 goats for sale" and nothing else, so we weren't sure what we'd find. High up in the mountains we found three beautiful pregnant Alpine and Alpine-cross females, one of whom was nursing an adopted orphan lamb. We paid cash, piled the goats in the back of the truck, covered them as best we could, and with the lamb on my lap made our tortuous sleety way home on the dark mountain roads. Weather-wise it was probably the worst night of the year for such adventures, but it was therefore also highly unlikely that the police would stop us. By law one must have a licenced live-animal trailer, inspected trailer-hitch, etc, but what is a small-time goat-owner to do without such luxuries? We had further adventures carrying the concerned goats through nearly frozen knee-deep mud into the heavenly dryness of the barn, while Ben screamed bloody murder from his carseat because his dinner was late. After the rough beginning, the goats have settled in well and Ben is very much taken with them, particularly befriending the lamb. Francesina is a four-legged saint, tolerating Ben's rough hugs, soggy kisses and wool-pulling. She even seeks him out for company: Ben is convinced that she calls him, "Beeehn!". We gave one goat to our brother-in-law as a birthday present, and kept other two, Lola and Camoscia. In February Lola delivered a single female kid, who we named Lilla' (Lilac), and Ben enjoyed the extra fresh goat milk all month. Camoscia gave birth to tall chocolate-brown twin boys last week. I hesitate to name the boys because they must be next-winter's meat, but we are planning to keep Lilla. Lilla and the boys are hilarious and bouncy, greeting us with electrified leaps when we visit the barn and head-butting Ben. Selvatica is due in June, which will bring our total up to two horses, three donkeys, seven or eight goats, one lamb and a cat! The goats have taken over the strawbale barn, with the horses and donkeys out mowing the fields. Aside from one episode of chewing damage, the barn held up well through the winter: after a bored somebody (who left red hairs on the crime scene - Sorba!) chewed a 30cm deep hole through our mud-plastered strawbales, we wrapped the whole interior of the barn with fine chicken wire and haven't had any more problems. 

On the family front....
Ben had a rough time through the late winter, incubating first one virus then another for several months on end, and only going to nursery school enough days to pick up new viruses. It was a pretty barfy time, requiring a strong stomach and a lot of towels for clean-up. He's a tough cookie though and is back to whacking things with sticks, chatting nonstop, digging in the sandpile, pulling the cat's tail, "helping" me cook, scooping and dumping with toy tractors, making extreme messes, telling (and showing) us where kaka comes from. He's getting to be helpful ... he was able to hold the flashlight for us at a critical moment while Adolfo and I were wrestling in the dark with a borrowed male goat that we needed to tie into the passenger seat of our car in order to return him to his owner (the disgruntled goat came untied during the trip, but that's another story). Ben has his own ideas and own agenda... once he disappeared when I took my eyes of him for approximately 30 seconds while sawing a cherry limb. Ten minutes later, after a heart-attack and searching the house, the basement, the garden, I found him down at the barn, conversing with his lamb and poking blades of grass through the fence for her to nibble. He loves to read with us and has learned some letters, starting with B, E and N, naturally. We're making some progress on potty-training, mostly because he thinks that underwear is really cool and that peeing outdoors standing up is fun. Our neighbor Gregorio is Ben's favorite hero these days - a man of 3 tractors and 25 sheep who cracks walnuts with his hands. Marcello the plumber is another hero (he drives a white van jammed to the ceiling with fascinating tools) as is the fish vendor next to the nursery school (big knives, ice, flopping fish). Fortunately, he still thinks that we're cool too.

Adolfo's work travels continue... he spent the month of February in Spain collaborating on a research project and brushing up on his Spanish, and the second week of April at a conference in South Africa. He enjoys the adventure and meeting interesting people, but naturally finds it a bit stressful to come back to the enormous variety of undone farm tasks. As the local wild-plants expert he's busy with spring tours and educational walks, thus far hosted elsewhere though in mid-May we'll have our first tourist group on the farm for a plant-gathering hike followed by a wild-plants cooking class and lunch. On the menu: chicory rolls, nettle foccacia, poppy petal pizza, elderflower fritters.

Ben and I have done a pretty good job of holding down the fort while Adolfo is gone... playing midwife and lactation consultant to clueless baby goats, changing tires, economizing on firewood since neither one of us is good at wielding the chainsaw to cut more, baking bread together and doing a lot of log-rolling and wrestling on the floor. In between Ben's viruses I had some rainy days for furniture restoration, improving the farm website (www.localitailpiano.it) and coming up with a brochure for the agriturismo. Now it's time to gear up for the craziness of summer, as we will be inundated by WWOOFers and guests shortly. I'm hoping that many English-speaking guests will come help Ben with his English, since despite my best efforts he speaks 90% in Italian. Do let us know if you're planning to be in Italy!

Saluti!

Darcy Adolfo and Ben

back to top

2009

31 December 2009

Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo da Localita il Piano!

Catching up: July to December in a nutshell....
Late summer brought us free goats, lots of fried zucchini flowers, our first night in our portion of the farmhouse. Summer chaos, basil and WWOOFers vanished just a week before fall colors and our first agriturismo guests arrived. Fall brought a bumper crop of chestnuts, a couple of baskets of walnuts, ridiculous quantities of turnips, and three varieties of persimmons harvested just in time before the first hard frost. We all ate too many dates in Tunisia. Benben learned about Babbo Natale but is most interested in blinky Christmas lights and dancing to Jingle Bells until he keels over from dizziness. See website for photos www.localitailpiano.it

Told at a more leisurely pace…
Men and beasts are warm and well at Località il Piano. Our phone has been hooked up at the new house, the vegetable garden is feeding us well, our car still runs and we have enough dry firewood. We moved into our portion of the farmhouse in October and have just this week gotten around to putting up some doors. Our winter pace is slower, at least from the olive harvest until vineyard pruning starts, and we are enjoying ourselves.

We're starting to feel more like farmers these days as we become more self-sufficient in terms of food. In August we had tilled and picked the larger rocks out of a patch of land to the west of the house under our bedroom window, and put in an extensive fall-winter vegetable garden. The soil still has more rocks than “dirt”, but it’s growing kale, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, brusselsprouts, purple and green cabbage, savoy cabbage, broccoli raab, chard, three kind of turnips, rutabagas, red and golden beets, lettuces, endive, radicchio, fennel, carrots, celery, spinach, fava beans, garlic, green onions. Thanks to several trailer-loads of rich and odorous sheep manure the garden has been very productive - more than we can eat. Ben has learned to pick carrots and collect chard (though unfortunately he's in a phase where he's not keen on actually eating the green things that he picks). My favorite thing about the garden is its location: it's the first thing I see from the window each morning, so close to the house that porcupines don't dare dig up our root crops and the deer stay far from our turnips. Gregorio is turnip-less this year after the deer had a party in his garden patch, so we've traded some of our whopping purple turnips for his fat yellow potatoes. There is a promising green haze on the field to the east side of the house: newly planted wheat, rye and oats. We don't have the equipment for harvesting or threshing or cleaning these crops though we do have a grain mill to grind the flour... when we get to that stage we will have to ask Gregorio what his family did when he was little, before
they had mechanized harvesting. We have much to learn!

I spent September-October preparing linens, copying keys, putting coat hangers in the armoirs, buying tablecloths, cleaning, painting, polishing furniture, trying to imagine how to be an innkeeper. The five bedrooms of the agriturismo were full for much of November, between my parents, aunt, brother, sister-in-law and guests. It was gratifying to finally see people enjoying the house, the farm and the valley, and it was a good trial run for the agriturismo. Yes, we have enough pillows and blankets and towels – a roomful, literally. No, the farm road is still too rough for some drivers/cars. Yes, people are
curious enough to try our unusual jams, and yes, pizza from the wood-fired oven is an international crowd-pleaser! Everybody helped pick olives and we finished in two long days, then carted the bounty off to Bachetoni's olive mill: 60 liters of deep green spicy grassy oil, probably the best quality that we've produced over the last ten years. We had a Thanksgiving feast courtesy of Giuliana's fattest duck, finished off with a honey-glazed quince tart, pumpkin cobbler, and apple-juneberry pie.

One thing that I am laughingly but sincerely thankful for is the relative health of our car. The propane-powered Fiat Panda turned 20 this fall. Zucchina is a native of Rome and still has RM license plates, though she has now survived 4 years with us as a country car/tractor/jeep and it has aged her more than 16 years of zipping around the relatively flat and tame streets of Rome. We've tied the seatbelt buckles back together, glued flat some corners of carpet, duct-taped the hole in the roof, and periodically vacuum out several kilos of dirt, sticks, gravel, hay and germinating seeds. Recently I even scrubbed the windows inside and out, since it had become embarrassing to fill up the tank and watch the attendant try to clean our windshield..... scrubbing intensely, wiping, scrubbing again, puzzled as to why the dirt and fly-splats refused to come off.... (um, they were on the inside). Parts are starting to fall off more frequently, and we've given up re-attaching the non-essentials.... who needs speakers or an antenna when there's no radio? A year ago we got to the point where each month I thought that maybe, if we were lucky, the car would last another month. And it did. And it still does, though keeping her running requires more than my mechanical skills. All there is to do is swear at and pray to the engine until it starts on cold mornings, then hurtle up the hill with Ben's carseat wobbling alarmingly at each drainage ditch. Fortunately Adolfo has a magic touch and enough patience to fiddle with the engine. We fervently hope she'll hang in there until we have money to buy a replacement, though it will be difficult to find another vehicle as tough and versatile.

On the animal front... we had some drama in the pasture late this summer. An acquaintance called at lunchtime one hot Saturday, saying that he had three goats that he had to get rid of IMMEDIATELY, and were they welcome at our place? A puzzled Adolfo said sure, and before dinner time a trailer pulled up. The situation was a little mysterious because Paolo declined to explain why exactly the goats were unwelcome at his mini-farm on the outskirts of Spoleto, though he had bought them just 48 hours previously. We still don't know, though we have a guess... One of the new arrivals, a few-month-old kid was obviously ill with fever and diarrhea. We hoped it was just travel stress (jouncing down our road in a trailer tied up like a sack of potatoes would stress anyone) but by the next morning he had deteriorated quite a bit and despite rehydration therapy and immediate antibiotics he started having convulsions and died before the vet arrived. We were a bit in shock by his sudden arrival and equally sudden departure, traumatized by his suffering, and worried about not having time to bury the kid in the half-hour or so remaining before 70 people descended on the farm for our first open-farm pizza party hosted at the new farmhouse.

We built up impressive forearm muscles hand-milking the two remaining goats, the kid's mother and another lactating female. Despite Ben drinking a liter a day, goat milk was suddenly very very abundant. Full white Mason jars crowded everything else out of the fridge until we started making cheese. Soft cheese, ricotta, mozzarella.... all with that distinctly goaty flavor which both attracts and repels me (it smells like you've licked a dirty goat!). Adolfo and Ben have no qualms about goatiness and happily indulged in all the goat-milk products, until tragedy stuck again. One evening the higher-producing female, a Saanen cross that we had named Barba, was less interested than usual in her evening grain though she nibbled hay and came over willingly to be milked. We checked her first thing in the morning but found to our distress that she was lying down, unable to get up, with the same symptoms as the sick kid. We called the vet and gave her sugar-bakingsoda-water by mouth and vitamins, and immediately started an antibiotic that the vet had suggested. With a nervous stomach, I left Adolfo to care for Barba as I took Ben to nursery school. She was dead and already buried by the time I got home. Reading, talking to vets, and websurfing revealed that Clostriduim perfringens was probably responsible, an organism related to tetanus that kills very quickly when it has taken hold in the rumen. We were depressed, sick about the fate of remaining goat and very worried about our future as goat keepers. The last goat, who we had named Selvatica, was frantic in her loneliness for a few days, bleating and pacing. Miraculously, she survived the Clostridium and the loneliness and now has become part of the donkey "clique". Smaller, but cheeky and well-armed with long horns, she trots around the pasture chasing Fico and Gelso and butting them out of the way when she wants to put her nose in the grain bucket. My brother and sister-in-law brought us a Clostridium vaccine when they came to visit at Thanksgiving, so there is still hope that we'll be able to keep goats (alive) in the future.

Since we are now warm and dry in a nice house, the next priority is to get the animals warm and dry in their own nice house. With the help of my visiting family and Gregorio, we constructed a "real" barn of giant strawbales over Thanksgiving. Adolfo and I have been interested in strawbale construction for years but had some qualms about using standard bales in a dwelling for large animals: one playful kick or shove could potentially damage the structure. So we used giant "maxi-bales", each weighing just over 400kg (just less than our car) and measuring 2.5m x 1.25m x 0.90m. Gregorio used his tractor to stack the huge cumbersome bales ever-so-carefully in position, then my aunt Pam sprinkled salt between layers of bales to discourage mice from taking up residence. My mom and sister-in-law kept Ben busy while my brother and dad helped us roof the barn with recycled chestnut beams, posts cut from our forest and purchased fir boards, all covered with a plastic tarp. To discourage the animals from eating their straw palace, the next step was plastering the interior side of the bales with mud... messy and cold but fun. The last thing to do is re-route our pasture fence a bit and build a new gate to let everyone in!

After we finish up the barn, we'll turn our attention to details like tiling the last bathrooms (6 of 8 are done already) and making a kitchen in our part of the farmhouse. There is a big simple but functional kitchen in the basement for WWOOFers and a huge beautiful kitchen on the top floor for agriturismo guests, but so far no sink or furniture or cabinets in our own "kitchen" aside from a small table, two chairs and a high chair. Piano, piano. For now I cook in the unheated upstairs kitchen, and carry dishes down to the warmth of our house for eating. Our living room is large but equally bare except for a strand of Christmas lights, two bookcases and one chair - ideal for indoor balloon-soccer with Ben. It will be nice to have more comforts eventually, when we get around to putting in a fireplace and restoring all the antique furniture in the basement, but we are enjoying the simplicity now, and the quiet. We won't have any guests or parties or WWOOFers 'til March, and are discovering the fun of family play in the long dark evenings... rolling on the floor, tickling, watching Curious George DVDs on the computer, baking traditional Christmas sweets, making nests of blankets for reading books, dancing, playing Adolfo's accordion and making up songs (about tractors, of course).

In a sense, Adolfo's work situation has deteriorated further (his olive research institute will be closed), but probably things have hit bottom and might be looking up. It seems that the powers-that-be will leave him an office at a research field station outside of Spoleto instead of transferring him to Milan (this would have been the end of the farm) or requiring him to commute to Rome everyday. Also on the bright side, Adolfo has gotten to travel often for work this summer and fall, to Kenya and Morocco among other destinations, and the week before Christmas he managed to bring me and Ben with him to Tunisia for our first-ever family vacation/business trip. Ben thoroughly enjoyed everything; travelling by packed mini-bus, playing with Tunisian children, eating dates, strollering in the port and roaming the old city market in Sfax. He is so active and sociable that it was a challenge to keep him relatively quiet and still on my lap on trains, planes, buses, and taxis to and from Tunisia! He has turned into a chatterbox with an amazing vocabulary, jabbering in often comprehensible sentences to anyone and everyone ... "get it heavy red box", "Mamma black bra" (?!), "BenBen 'Osati bello!". He talks about vehicles, colors, foods, clothes, animals in both English and Italian, and had even picked up some French after a week in Tunisia ("Merci" and "Bisse"), as well as some swear-words in Italian. He loves nursery school, and talks incessantly about his friends there... Emma, Lulu, Giorgia, Elena. All females - is it possible that he is already into girls? Nursery school is a mixed blessing though because Ben innoculates us with all kinds of bugs until all three of us are snotty-nosed and suffering from diarrhea. He is a handful, but is such a sweet and affectionate boy that we somehow find the energy to keep chasing him.

It was fun to be a family at Christmas. Babbo Natale brought Ben a little toy bulldozer, a package of balloons, tangerines (he loves to peel them) and fingerpaint but the most excitingly joyous things are blinking Christmas lights. The gifts exchanged with Adolfo’s family were simple ... bottles of our oil with olive-wood salad servers, our jams, spices from Tunisia. Christmas in Italy has a magical feel to it, with rich traditions and enthusiasm sufficiently strong to carry along even non-believers like us. No Kwanzaa here in the land of the Pope: people are homogenously Catholic (church-going) or catholic (culturally-so). For example, only a few people fast completely on "the vigilia" (Christmas Eve), but most of them respect the vigil by eating just fish. Then, it’s party-time. Many businesses close down entirely from Christmas Day through the Ephipany (6 Jan) while people admire nativity scenes, attend free concerts, stuff themselves with panettone or pandoro, go to mass, shop, spend time with family and eat,eat,eat. What did we do? Hang doors, chase Ben, and eat, eat, eat!

We wish you a Happy, Healthy New Year. Please let us know if you plan on travel to Italy – we’d love to see you.

Darcy, Adolfo and Benben

back to top


28 July 2009

Summer greetings from Localita il Piano!

The greenhouse is filled with freshly baled hay, the lavender-pomegranate hedge around the lake is in lively bloom and the first mid-summer peaches and fat yellow figs are tentatively coming in. The frost-damaged apricots did manage to supply a few basketfuls though not enough for serious jamming. Cherries, however, were in eight varieties of abundance - big yellow ones with a pink cheek for fresh eating, small dark sour ones for canning, fat brilliant red Montmorency for pie, a shiny burgundy local variety that stained all of our fingers and faces for a few weeks, the pink ones that gave Ben a belly-ache..... The summer is flying by in a sticky haze of jam, fig molasses, and sweat. How can the days be getting shorter? Already the fireflies, red poppies and juneberries are gone until next year. It goes so fast. 

We were fortunate to have a relatively soggy warm June and early July with gentle well-spaced rainstorms that kept our trees effortlessly watered. The trees are delighted - it looks like they've put out two years' worth of growth in two months' time. There are tiny apples on many of the trees, just one or two or three per tree, but that is enough to get an idea and a taste of what is to come. Ben votes for Red Astrakan, an early summer apple that he enjoys to the core, then proceeds to eat that too. We've gotten our first sampling of plums, the favorites so far being Shiro and Dragon's Blood. Some tiny green persimmons look like they might grow into a basketful, and the old chestnut trees are loaded with prickly pale green "hedgehogs". Even the walnuts and almonds have a tiny crop this year, the first we've seen. 

Thanks to help from my parents and many WWOOFers the farm is more ship-shape than it has ever been. All the helping hands have picked, pitted and put up about 10 gallons of jam so far, mostly juneberry, wild cherry, golden plum and red plum, fig molasses, as well as apricot-black currant puree for Ben's winter breakfasts. The same hands have weeded, dug trenches, picked lavender, whacked blackberry vines, mulched hedges (with wool), washed vegetables, moved rocks, prepared the winter garden, tended the vineyards, attached varietal name tags to all of our apple and plum trees, irrigated, chopped and stacked firewood. Obviously, these hands now have calluses, despite all the gloves we wear out! The farm really is starting to look like an inhabited, living, productive place rather than the lonely wild still-beautiful abandoned farm that we started with! Thank you Doug, Deirdre, Holly, Teleri, Erico, Kim, Paul, Kelly, Anna, Kate, Laura, Alex, Roseanna, Kate, Yoan, Solay, Kate, Michael and Erin.

Agriturismo Il Piano is official! All of our county and regional permits are in for opening the agriturismo. We've purposely avoided publicity though, to give ourselves more time for finishing touches like fire extinguishers, making enough copies of the various room keys, mounting the molding of the bathroom tile, getting a phone line, putting toilet paper into all the bathrooms, not to mention moving ourselves out so there is space for guests! In the last week of May, we loaded our tractor with washing machine, kitchen table, oven, various possessions and Ben's crib tied on top, and Adolfo, Ben and I moved down to the new farmhouse. We are temporarily holed up in a corner of the agriturismo, looking forward to moving downstairs to our part of the farmhouse as soon as it is ready. We're getting there one brick at a time. Adolfo finished grouting the terracotta floor tiles and will take a couple weeks off work soon so we can tile four bathrooms, hang some doors and rub melted beeswax/linseed oil into the floor."Small" details remain to be resolved, like how we can make our long steep dirt road easily transitable in the average rental car, but at least in theory we will soon be guest-ready.

A new all-organic store has opened up in Spoleto, right next to Adolfo's office, and we have been selling our extra produce to them.... small quantities of local ("zero-kilometer") produce are exactly what they want and they have been tolerant of our inexpert attempts at ecological packaging solutions, like recycled milk boxes lined with brown paper. I suspect that selling produce on this scale will never make economic sense unless we sell straight to the final consumer, but for now we are happy to help this little store get going. We've sold them five varieties of cherries, apricots, juneberries, lavender and hopefully some chard soon, though for silly beaurocratic reasons I won't be able to pawn off any extra zucchini or tomatoes this year. Both the deep green and pale striped zucchini are alarmingly prolific. I put in many zucchini plants in the spring, dreaming of Adolfo's favorite summer antipasto of squash blossoms stuffed with scamorza cheese, battered and fried. Somehow I negected to think of the time and creativity required to dispose of zillions of resulting zucchini - true, we eat the male flowers, but that sure doesnt stop the female flowers from making zucchini! We've been cutting them from the plants at about 4" length, trying to keep ahead of the green tide. Fortunately Ben devours them, and since the typically farm meal prepared lately has been for 5-10 adults (zucchini pizza, zucchini-spring onion risotto, gnocchi with zucchini and sausage, zucchini frittata, zucchini bread, even zucchini chocolate chip cookies - there is a theme here), we've managed to keep on top so far. Tomatoes are starting to trickle in from the garden, smelling like summer and making me very happy. A basket of these tomatoes is a beautiful, satisfying, coherent achievement; tomatoes that Adolfo helped me plant, just a few feet from the kitchen we built together, tomatoes weeded and tended by my mom, then staked by my dad, tomatoes manured by our donkeys and watered with the water from our lake, tomatoes harvested with Ben's enthusiastic help and eaten together with friends.

We've been testing the woodburning pizza oven with a series of parties, labor-intensive but delicious and fun. With our brother-in-law's (Tonino's) help we've adapted and experimented with dough and sauce recipes and are becoming minimally proficient at gauging oven temperature and being able to cook foods other than pizza.... roasting peppers and eggplants together with the pizzas when the oven top is white-hot, making bread and nan and cookies after the oven has cooled a bit. We find that it requires 3 full-time "cooks" to quickly feed 20-30 people.... one to roll dough and put on toppings, one to stoke the fire and tend the cooking pizzas (just 2-5 minutes per pizza!) , one to cut and distribute the finished product. The pizza oven is a fun center of the party, and pizza seems to be a food that pleases everybody older than 6 months. Gabriele and Benjamin seem to consume as much as the adults do... "more, more!".

After a month with his visiting Californian grandparents, Ben started chattering in English.... "kiki" for cookie, "ca" for car, "batub" for bathtub, "monkey", "kaka" more or less in the same moment that he's making some. He's fascinated by things with motors and wheels, containers with lids, sticks and rocks and water and donkeys. Ben walks and really really wants to run, practicing with some pretty funny drunken sprints from one supporting object to another. On all fours, however, he is a confident whirling dervish zooming off to throw my shoes down the stairs or make a lake in the bathroom while playing with the bidet faucet. His culinary tastes have gotten slightly more discriminating.... as in, some things occasionally extrude right back out of his mouth when forked in, but he continues to love food and has pudgy pink cheeks to show for it. Older women stop us on the street to say, with great approval and satisfaction, "Ah yes, you can see that THIS is a child who EATS". Eating solo is indeed a delightful, if messy, game.... spreading chard puree far and wide, moussing his eyebrows with ripe apricot, and how did the tofu get in his ear? The only solution is frequent bathing. Ben's first birthday "cake" was a massive tiramisu kindly made by his aunt and grandma. Being an authentic Italian tiramisu, however, it was made with prodigious quantities of strong espresso. We learned that Ben is about as sensitive to caffeine as I am.... there was no napping after that tiramisu! Ben started nursery school a month ago, a relief for me and fun for him, because he enjoys contact with other kids. Where else do you learn to swipe toys and screech when crossed? He is one of the youngest of his group, at 14 months, in the 13-24 month category, but he is tall and sturdy enough that he seems to hold his own most of the time, only occasionally coming home with bite marks from cohorts. He's been busy testing his (and ours) immune system, learning more Italian ("basta","grazie", "si!","scarpe"), and is very fond of his tiny new cousin Giovanni ("Nino!").

Adolfo's wild edible plants book that came out in January has been a big success, with a second printing already ordered and a second volume to come out next year. At work he is excited about a new project involving pasturing organic hens in a combined olive-wild asparagus system, where the birds will weed and fertilize the other crops. The hoped-for gastronomic end results: wild asparagus sauce over roasted free-range chicken drizzled in Moraiolo olive oil, green olive-asparagus tapenade on bruschetta, asparagus-chicken omelet! He is looking forward to attending an agroforestry conference in Kenya in late August. Other aspects of Adolfo's work situation are slowly but steadily deteriorating. The only other researcher left at the Spoleto branch of the institute has stopped taking on new projects of any kind because he's planning to retire in 2011, thus piling onto Adolfo's already overburdened shoulders all responsibility for project writing, money finding, supervising of students, administrators and field laborers, technical decisions, equipment acquisition, etc, nevermind doing any actual research. A string of retirements, transfers, "liquidations" and a death have left the instutite with a huge empty building with few overworked staff, demoralized by the fear of impending closure. Symptomatic of the institutional decay is the lack toilet paper. No one seems to know who exactly is supposed to find time to locate, pay for, distribute and unwrap the institute's toilet paper. The confusion has resulted in many toilet paper-less months, and "carta igenica" has become one of the things I have to slip into Adolfo's bag in the morning along with lunch and keys. Somehow he is still enthusiastic about his job and manages to come home with enough energy to put in more hours in his farm job. 

What have I been doing? My job is to hold the whole thing together, make sure that everyone is happy and well-fed and has the tools to do his or her job, pay the bills and figure the taxes, do the paperwork and PR, cuddle Ben when he falls down, remember to order more diesel and oil filters for the tractor, write to WWOOFers, plan ahead for upcoming projects and adventures, bottle jam at 11 pm and check the donkeys' drinking water at 6am. It's challenging and tiring, a 16+hr-a-day job that requires 360-degree skills, but it is satisfying to be a farmer-mom. 

Lots of things to look forward to..... seven enormous soon-to-arrive truckloads of cow manure (my birthday present, no joke) that will give us a productive winter garden, our San Lorenzo/Ferragosto star-watching party in mid-August, the grape harvest and our first agriturismo guests in September, ordering and planting huge quantities of daffodils in October, and hosting some Gordon family members in November for the olive harvest and for Thanksgiving (the ducklings that will provide the Thanksgiving "turkey" hatched this week, and the dogwood berries that will make the "cranberry" sauce are ripening). Anyone who makes it to our corner of Umbria is welcome to join us for Thanksgiving dinner!


Saluti,
Darcy Adolfo and Ben

back to top


31 March 2009

Spring greetings from Localita' il Piano!

Today it looks like convincingly like spring, complete with nodding daffodils, shedding horses, toads mating in the pond, but she is coy this year. It's been warm on and off all month, alternating friendly sun with intense snow and wind. One of these freeze-thaw cycles managed to melt some snow on our firewood stack, just enough for the moisture to percolate thoroughly down inside, then the temperature dropped at night and froze the whole mess of soggy wood into one giant ice cube full of logs. For a couple of days I was putting on my steel-toed boots when it was time to set the fire, to kick a few sticks lose from the stack!

Our apricot trees were fooled into blooming, only to be rewarded with a day-long blizzard and -2.5 degrees C at night which almost certainly damaged the tiny fruitlets-to-be. The farmers were fooled too, mentally extrapolating from abundant flower buds to apricot jam without taking weather into account – we should know better by now. Apricots are one of the gambles in this area, along with other early bloomers like almonds. Fortunately the cherry, pear and apple blossoms are still tightly, safely, furled so we still have some jam hopes. Adolfo and I have been busy in the fields for weeks; pruning orchards and vineyards, painting tree trunks with copper to discourage rabbit nibbling, and planting new trees though we need more young trees to take care of like we need more holes in our heads. But we persist in ordering, propagating, grafting, each of us egging the other one on to find that old special variety of some-fruit-or-another. It's a genuine fascination with plants, a passion that we are looking forward to sharing with more and more farm visitors as we open the agriturismo this summer. Between digging holes, leaning on the handle of his pitchfork, Adolfo reflected that planting trees is one of the best parts of farming because it's about dreaming.... dreaming about the jars of peach jam that this tree will provide, dreaming of resting in the shade of that olive some day when we're old, dreaming that some day Ben will build a tree house in that chestnut for his children.

After taking time off from house project to get the fields ready for spring, we're back to building. We're starting to enjoy the house work in ways that we didn't before, with more confidence and experience, rating somewhere between do-it-yourselfer and contractor. Adolfo has learned the ins and outs of gluing on floor tiles and how to cut bathroom tiles precisely on the diagonal without breaking the fragile edge. I've studied exactly how much linseed oil a terracotta brick can absorb and know where to order terracotta-colored silicon. We're so used to working on the house that it is almost a shock to be ready to submit the paperwork that concludes construction and ask permission from the health department to open the agriturismo. Though the lower story of the building (our home-to-be) has quite a bit of work left, the upstairs (agriturismo) is almost habitable. Basically we need some interior doors, floor wax, furniture, and paint touch-up. Last night we bought and carted home a used kitchen, complete with walnut cabinets, sink, fridge, oven, dishwasher, etc, and spent much of the evening unloading the truck by moonlight as Ben slept in his carseat. We're hoping to get everything set up by the time my parents come visit in May. Then the next order of business is to get the basement organized for hosting summer WWOOFers, hopefully six at a time!

It will be good for Ben to hear English spoken by people other than me. He appears to be absorbing both English and Italian, some words of which he studies and then repeats, though most of his chattering is undecipherable. Ben still spends most of his waking hours with his grandma Antonietta and sometimes also his cousin Gabriele: bouncing, gnawing, yodelling, slithering and rolling on the floor, hauling himself up and getting ready to walk. I do the night shift.... dinner, diaper, pyjamas, cuddles, bedtime (7 pm), cook and puree all meals for the next day, wake-up (5-6 am), breakfast, diaper, clothes.... then hand him back to his grandma. Ben’s grandma says he’s a “buona forchetta”, one who enjoys his vittles. He does eat impressive quantities of anything and everything, and has depleted almost all the jars of stewed plums, applesauce, and quince mush from last summer. Cooking all his next-day's meals each night is time-consuming but satisfying, because it seems all-important to provide him with good quality food: butternut squash puree with sheep milk ricotta, thyme, and olive oil, hummus, plum-apple-pear-sorb paste with millet, tiny potato gnocchi, leeks, and duck liver pate, beets (very messy, photo on website www.localitailpiano.it), whole milk yogurt with juneberry jam, egg yolk, dinner of quinoa, lentils, carrots and chard. I miss Ben sometimes during the day when I'm off working on farm/house projects, but am grateful to have him stay with someone who cares about him. He changes so fast, surprising me every time I turn around, getting ready for first words, first foods eaten solo, first steps. I'll get my opportunity to be a full-time mom for a while, starting soon, when Adolfo's sister delivers her second son and Antonietta will be giving her a hand.

Busy Ben and I did get to spend some time together on a California adventure in mid-January, leaving Adolfo at home to care for the animals and farm.  Driving along Highway 80 to Davis I was powerfully nostalgic for the gentle velvety brilliant green of the California hills in January, bright paperwhites thick along the on-ramps, easy consumerism in 4-acre Walmarts, and orderly drivers who actually drive between the lines along comfortable 6 lane expressways. It was the first real vacation in a very long time, my first time back to California in two and a half years and Ben's first trip anywhere. It was fun to be a normal mom, chattering with friends, strollering along in the sunshine, periodically popping Cheerios into the kid's mouth. One afternoon Ben and I sat lazily on a blanket on a lawn on UCD campus, sharing a tidbits of a deli sandwich. It was a treat to have the time to watch, enjoy, and remember him in his 8-month-old goofiness, with ready smiles, abundant drool, tiny teeth, upraised "Hold me!" arms, outgoing fascination with everything and everyone that passed him by. We went on a thrift-store shopping spree, outfitting Ben with enough overalls, raincoats, rubber boots and jackets for hopefully the next three years. While good nutrition is important, so is learning to appreciate new foods unheard of in Italy: we indulged in American specialities such as root beer, blueberries and whipped cream on pancakes, vegetarian "meat" products, Cheetos and cheese dip while watching the Super Bowl at my brother's house. Ben enthusiastically slurped his first Dairy Queen pineapple milkshake from a spoon, particularly enjoying the part about getting sticky, and loved riding on the shoulders of his very tall American relatives.

I had to admit to myself that was hard to come back to our depleted stack of firewood in February, to cold grey Umbria still stuck in winter, after sunny springy California. Life is so much easier there, and houses effortlessly warmer. The idea of warmth at the push of a button was seductive, though usually Adolfo and I celebrate/enjoy the adventure of heating ourselves here... finding dry wood, dragging it out of the forest, cutting - hauling - stacking, lighting the fire, waiting for it to get going. Adolfo jokes that we heat ourselves more than once with the same wood, meaning that we work up a sweat several times for the same log before actually burning it.  The adventure occasionally wears thin as spring is approaching, as threadbare as my longjohns, but by fall hauling wood will be exciting again. This is one of the beautiful things about this necessarily seasonal lifestyle: there is so much variety in tasks that we don't get permanently burnt out on any particular one since we're given enough time to regenerate enthusiasm.
 
On the work front, there's some talk of closing the olive institute where Adolfo has been a researcher. While there has been talk for years, perhaps the current economic crisis may tilt the balance towards closure. Adolfo has been doing a lot of phone calls and talking, trying to figure out where things stand and how to propose acceptable alternative plans, which is an interesting exercise in politics. The institute closure may happen only partially, with some workers transferred to other government research jobs, and most likely whatever comes to pass will come with a lot of advance warning, so we are not frantically worrying. However, it is hard to do inspired research when you're not sure that there will be funding to finish projects, or even an office to sit in. Fortunately Adolfo gets much satisfaction from his other jobs ..... leading nature walks, writing articles about wild edible plants, being a dad, working on house construction, and farming.

One upcoming event that we're looking forward to is our annual open-farm "Pasquetta" party, on the Monday after Easter (Pasqua). Here Easter is of importance equivalent to Christmas, complete with a week of holidays from school. Pasquetta is a national holiday, traditionally a day spent outdoors with friends and family, so we make it our first farm party of the year. We'll play traditional games involving rolling hardboiled eggs down a slight slope, something like a cross between bowling, bocce and a destruction derby. Of course all the eggs have to be decorated differently, so that the players can recognize their entry. Adolfo dyes the eggs by boiling them with onion skins, while holding pretty-shaped leaves against the shell with string or old pantyhose. The leaf shape remains egg-colored while the rest of the shell takes on the beautiful orangey-red tint of the onion-skin bath. After playing the remnant eggs get eaten, along with a frittata made from the first wild asparagus. The salami and capocollo which have been hanging since pig-killing at Christmas are reverently opened and sampled, compared to last year’s flavors. People eat big chunks of Easter "pizza", shaped like a panettone but richly yellow with cheese and egg. This year we'll party in style.... for the first time we can offer the guests use of a functional bathroom rather than handing them a roll of toilet paper and pointing them into the woods!

We're looking forward to red poppy season, the birth of Ben's new cousin, growing more of our own food this year and hosting some of our farm friends as our first agriturismo guests. We would be very happy to see any of you who are planning to be in this neck of the woods this summer!

Happy spring and auguri di buona Pasqua!

Darcy, Adolfo and Ben

back to top

2008

28 December 2008

Happy New Year from Località il Piano!

We've had some spectacularly thick frost and pea-soup fog this week, typically Christmassy weather according to Adolfo, complete with a dusting of snow this morning. The cold has killed and matted down the fall grasses, making our little trees look taller. A few lonely leaves still dangle but most trees are naked for the winter and ready for pruning. The orchards look good and there's relatively little planting to do (60 trees or so), fortunately for our backs. This year we'll put in some chestnut trees, fill in the persimmon and apple collections, and replant some sick peaches and figs, maybe a few more iris around the lake. Weeks of rain have topped off our irrigation lake and already the natural springs are full of water, trickling audibly on quiet days. 

Quiet days are few and far between, though, because boar hunting season is loudly and quite literally upon us.... several have been killed within a mile of our house over the last weeks. Our neighbor Giuliana was herding sheep down the main road last week and saw five of them cross just in front of her. Adolfo and I see few wild pigs "in person" but there is ample evidence in our fields, from tracks to scat to brown bristly hairs stuck on our fence to muddy tooth scars on tree bark to limbs and whole trees snapped plumb off - we lost seven apple trees that way this fall. Vegetarian animal-lover that I am, I have invested too much work in the orchards to feel very sorry when the neighbors' freezers are full of boar meat! Adolfo is not sorry at all, happily munching home-made sausage in front of the wood burning stove. Though the boars did snack on our low-hanging wine grapes, fortunately they left the olives alone. In November we had a record olive harvest, mostly because the trees produce more as they get bigger. Oil yield was relatively low though, due to late summer drought followed by heavy rains before harvest. At any rate, we were lucky to have good weather during harvest and four extra pairs of hands picking: my father Doug and three WWOOFers. About 50 liters of deep green oil are patiently waiting to be bottled after the sediment drops to the bottom of the tank.

Lately we've spent little time with the horses and donkeys, save a marathon morning of hoof trimming. They're living in our high-security (hopefully) wolf-proof pasture under the house for the winter, nibbling all the rosehips off the wild roses and slip-sliding around in the half-frozen mud. Everybody is impressively shaggy, especially little Fico whose big brown eyes are barely visible under his grey eyebrows. The cold weather makes the equines frisky and we enjoy watching them romp and chase each other as we work on the house. The terrace on the south side of the house looks out over the pasture, as does the kitchen window, and I'm looking forward to watching them in years to come as I cook, jam and bake. 

Most of our effort for the last months has been targeted at making the house habitable, which consumes many evening hours and all weekends. We're exactly two years on from when the original farmhouse was knocked down, and an amazing lot has happened in the meantime, especially considering how long these projects usually take in Italy. It feels like we're really in the home stretch now, though sometimes the home stretches our endurance limits and sanity: we're planning to do almost all of the rest of the work ourselves. Adolfo has tiled and is grouting the floor of the upper story (tile "Terre di Sienna"), the balconies (tile "Vecchia Firenze"), the stairs, and has moved on to the lower story. His knees and back are holding up: so far, so good. It is incredibly dusty work - I can tell what kind of the tile he has been working on from the color of his eyebrows, beard, and Kleenex. Actually he is getting very good at tiling. So much for investing years in education....we calculated that he would make significantly more money switching careers to tile-layer instead of continuing in research! I have been painting and working with the electrician, attaching light fixtures and door bells and phone jacks. Bathroom tiles for the upper story arrive tomorrow, we've chosen faucets, and are mulling over various ways of treating the terra cotta floor tiles. The idea we like best is buying a whole lot of extra-virgin olive oil and dumping it on the floor until the terra cotta can't absorb any more. Our theory, accidentally tested over three years on our current kitchen floor, is that oil stains terracotta worse than anything else you would drop on it and that the oil-marks then repel all other stains. So maybe we can forget fancy and expensive chemical treatments... though we are slightly concerned about the potential for a rancid olive oil odor when we turn on the floor heating next fall... 

I work in short stretches, driving back every three hours to breastfeed seven-month-old baby Ben, which is pretty inefficient but has been the only way to get things done for the last few months. People joke about mothers-in-law but I have to say that mine has saved our collective neck. Antonietta has been doing almost fulltime childcare, freeing me to work on farm and house. Fortunately Ben is developing enthusiasm for solid foods, which will give me more independent time. He gums mushed apples, pears, plums, quince, medlars, juneberries, squash, chard, zucchini, oatmeal, millet, rice, and polenta as well as smearing them all over his face, and he is very good at atomizing things when he sneezes with his mouth full. Ben is an exuberant giggler, wiggle-worm, and intent observer of everything, and is fun to be around. (photos on our website http://www.localitailpiano.it) He babbles, drools, teethes on raw broccoli stems and apple cores (third tooth on its way in today), and laughs, spending much of the day listening to music while wrestling with his toys in the middle of the bed. His laughter is good for us, melting away stress and tiredness. It was hilarious to watch him unwrap his first Christmas package, mostly by himself, though it did take 45 minutes and involved a lot of soggy paper. He sits, rolls, squirms and is very active....imagine trying to diaper a windmill in a storm, socks getting smudged in the dirty diaper as chubby legs pedal and flail, barely keeping the cherub on the changing table (sometimes the hood of the car) with one hip while your left hand whips off the old diaper and the right hand tries to slip on and fasten the clean diaper. Pit stop in 20 seconds flat! Breastfeeding while cooking dinner - kid cradled in the left arm while the right arm washes/chops/stirs. I did imagine that parenting would require saintly patience and serious sleep deprivation but I totally underestimated how much physical coordination is necessary!

Adolfo is still writing articles on wild plants, and is doing an admirable job of keeping a grip on his research job despite some 50 hours a week spent working on the house in all non-research non-Ben non-sleeping hours. His first book is coming out soon, in Italian, a collection of his wild edible plant articles published through Vita in Campagna. Too much work is putting us at risk of becoming boring and forgetting how to goof off, so we have decided to spend more relaxed time with family and friends, play some "tombola" (a bingo-like game), chat without looking at the clock, maybe even watch a movie. Ben and I will visit California in late January, my first trip back in over two years and Ben's first opportunity to meet many of his relatives. Adolfo won't be able to come to California with us this time, but will be looking forward to "Thanksgiving in Italy" with as many family and friends can make it to our new house next November.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year, filled with good times, good meals and good friends! Tantissimi auguri!

Darcy, Adolfo and Ben

back to top


31 July 2008

Ciao tutti!

Summer is in full swing in Paterno. The fireflies have come and gone, the oats are golden and ready for threshing, and we're gobbling fat green figs by the basket-load. Adolfo has already mowed most of our orchards twice and the grass is still growing thanks to abundant summer rain. The celestial irrigation has saved our trees, because baby Ben has kept us more busy than we imagined possible and we've been neglecting the fields.

Some 5% of our little apple trees have an apple or two this year and it's exciting to finally taste some of these unusual varieties that we have only read or heard about. Since we grafted most of the apples on seedling rootstock, the trees do take a while to come into bearing but should be vigorous and increasingly productive now that they have gotten going. It's a miserable year for peaches and pears, but we had some apricots and currants, a few cherries, and a bumper crop of juneberries. Best of all are the very abundant figs, which have kept Adolfo up late the last two nights boiling down fig juice into molasses. We've been too busy to even look at the vineyards or the olive trees for months and so are keeping our fingers crossed in terms of wine and oil this year.

House construction... a few weeks ago the workers took down most of the scaffolding that had covered the farmhouse for more than six months. It reminded me of a teenager getting braces removed to reveal a wonderful bright smile: we can finally admire the stonework. The house is beautiful and alarmingly BIG. We are in awe of it. How were we ever crazy or naive enough to embark on such a project? More importantly now, how will we get around to finishing it, in terms of time or money? Deadlines and targets fly by un-met, and progress alternately zooms and crawls. Stonework is completed except for the parts we'll do ourselves, someday. The windows are being installed next week (in theory). Another layer of insulating clay is being poured on the floor in preparation for the laying of floor heating pipes. Marcello the plumber is still, after 3 months, installing the finishing touches on the solar system. Furnaces (one wood powered, another fed by propane) have arrived and are waiting to be installed. Aesthetically though, the exterior of the house will change relatively little from this point onwards. We're almost to the point of interior work and landscaping! ("Almost" could mean September since nothing, absolutely nothing, happens here in August.)

On the animal front... the horses are shiny-coated, round-bellied and knee deep in grass from all the rain, passing the day in the shade lined up head to tail for mutual fly swishing. We sold Morrica the black donkey, together with her daughter, Asimina, to a man who will use them for "donkey therapy" for children. It seems like a good home where they will work relatively little and get to stay together, and we were happy to cut down on the equine population of Il Piano. For a brief while we were down to two horses and two donkeys, but on July 5th Pucca delivered a tiny grey male with floppy black ears, who we named Fico (Fig). He is silky soft and quite adventurous, wobbling over to nuzzle us for milk when he was only a few hours old. At three weeks old he is zinging around the pasture at a gallop, while his worried mother trots after him, struggling to keep him in sight.

The other new arrival on the farm (the human baby) has turned things more upside down than either of us had imagined. Miraculously we get by on 4-5-6 hours of sleep and foggily go through the motions of farm life as usual. Adolfo and I are still somewhat in shock. From our happy couple-dom we have been hurled into a diaper-and-breastmilk timewarp. We are learning that parenting is an endurance event. The closest thing to this that I had experienced before were the demands of final exams week, just that this time there is no end of the quarter. It doesn't seem possible that we have a 2-month-old son or that the rest of our lives is going to be about taking care of him. We like him, find him hilarious, are fascinated by him, and can't stop talking about the consistency and color of his last poop, but neither of us can imagine how we are going to DO this in the longer term... being farmers and researchers was already two full time jobs, without being parents too. Fortunately Adolfo is on paternity leave. He has been building rock walls, mowing the fields, irrigating the youngest trees, doing most animal care - shouldering almost all of the farmwork alone while I've been mostly cooped up in the house like a coddled dairy cow. Definitely the breastfeeding experience has given me new respect and sympathy for dairy animals. Breastfeeding has been a round-the-clock battle, between Ben sucking only weakly and me not having enough milk for a ravenous kid. Oh - he drinks a fifth of his body weight in milk every day! I had no idea that was possible. 

After 6 chaotic weeks we've slowly eased in to a saner rhythm, thanks to very very much help from Adolfo's mom. She's moved up to Paterno for the summer, downstairs from us, and takes the baby several hours a day so I can do some chaos control on the farm, just take a nap, or have half an hour alone with Adolfo. We are starting appreciate the role of the grandmother, and to understand why so many Italian families still live with multiple generations in one household. While living with extended family in close quarters requires a fair amount of teamwork, self-control and mutual respect, it is wonderful for childcare. We are very grateful for all of the attention, singing, rocking, playing, and strollering that Ben gets from his nonna Antonietta, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors. He is a loved and lucky baby, sweet and smiley, who enjoys music from Cri-Cri to samba to Pavarotti, likes dancing with his dad, is a big fan of bath time, and is really into the color green (passes the time staring at leaves and trees). He's almost doubled his birth weight, has grown 10+cm and it looks like he has intentions of being a blue-eyed blond! 

Our ambitions and priorities are necessarily adjusting to Ben's needs and we are learning fast.... how to untangle the carseat straps around a sleeping baby, how to shower in 30 seconds flat, how to type one-handed with a hiccupping baby on my lap. There are so many firsts... first smiles, first cooing, first outgrown clothes, first night slept through. In all, this baby adventure is fun, if exhausting, as beautifully sweet as being newly married and surprisingly humorous: ever been addled enough to realize only at bedtime that your underwear has been inside-out all day long? or to pour a bottle of breast milk on your muesli? 

We're looking forward to so many things.... to seeing friends at our star-watching farm party on the night of San Lorenzo, to having WWOOFers again and catching up on farmwork, to Ben's Californian grandparents visiting in October, to the house being minimally habitable, to going out to concerts again, to enjoying Ben's transformation from newborn to sociable baby. 

Wishing you all a good night's sleep, health, and a relaxing August!

Saluti da Il Piano,

Darcy, Adolfo, and Ben

back to top


24 May 2008

Benvenuto Bengiamino!

Benjamin Rosati was in born in Spoleto at 5 am on 24 May 2008 after a relatively fast labor. He is long and skinny like his mom (3.040 kg), and has a flat belly button like his dad. He scared us and the doctors by not breathing immediately so we spent a few days in the hospital in Perugia doing a bunch of tests to confirm that he was doing fine (he is). We're getting used to life at home now, with the help of Adolfo's mom and both of Darcy's parents who have been dealing with the horses and preparing meals for us. Benjamin is a sleepy sweet tolerant baby who has yet to cry... he just says "eh" and waves his fists when he's starting to get hungry. We think he's pretty cute, but we might be biased. Thank you very much to all the people who recycled their unneeded baby stuff to my parents... we have plenty of everything from blankets to cloth diapers to tiny suits. We feel very fortunate to have been helped by so many people, and to have a happy healthy relaxed baby.

back to top


17 April 2008

Ciao tutti!

After a few false starts and snow flurries through Easter day, spring has definitely sprung. The first red poppies are flowering, the horses are shedding their winter coats, and the donkeys have been enthusiastically mating. The daffodils and tulips are up around the lake and the toads have filled the water with black-speckled gelatinous ropes of eggs. A late frost may have wiped out most of our newly-pollinated pea-sized apricots and peaches, but the pears and cherries currently in bloom have had reasonable weather and we're hopeful. 

The winter was dry until early March and we were starting to worry about drought, but a few good storms have topped off the springs and encouraged the fields of struggling alfalfa, oats, and fava beans. It rained on April 4th, which according to local lore means that the next 40 days will be wet. So far, spot on. An unexpected bonus due to the plentiful spring showers has been a huge crop of morel mushrooms along the edge of the forest. The first few were discovered and harvested by visiting friends Dan, Hanne, Aspen, and Anya, but we have returned to the best areas several times for a total of 10-15 lbs of morels. The wild asparagus season has started and field greens are tender, and we eat like kings when we have time to hunt and gather the various bounties of spring.

January and February were relatively peaceful, with few guests and most of our time focused on house-building decisions. The house is still in the awkward adolescent phase, all braces and strange angles, but we're beginning to see it take shape. The stone masons have been busy on and off, bustling around the scaffolding. About a quarter of the exterior stone work remains to be done and we've moved on to interior work. So far we've finished about half of the electrical system by working weekends together with a local electrician, and over the next month we're hoping to move on to the windows and plastering. Marcello, Adolfo's cousin, is in charge of plumbing and has already painstakingly pieced together our solar system as well as all the drains and water pipes. His precision and level of attention to detail are very unusual around here, most un-Italian. His snail's pace drives our general contractor mad, but we are very glad to have him working on the plumbing.... stone houses are not easily remodelled and this is the investment of a lifetime. It's better to take an extra week to test everything thoroughly and do the job well. As they say around here, "measure twice and cut once"! Visiting over Christmas, my parents were surprised at how big the farmhouse is and how much the road has improved. While previously it might have more accurately been called a trail, or a 4x4 track, the road has now been leveled and gravelled... our braver friends have tested it with various non-4x4 cars and we haven't had to tow anyone out in months, despite the rain.

A few rainy quiet evenings have provided an opportunity to practice basket- making with our neighbor Gregorio. He has 60 years of experience and can make just the right sort of basket for any use... transporting hay, storing acorns, gathering wine grapes. Adolfo learned some of the traditional techniques years ago by watching one of his uncles, but has been enjoying refining his skills by studying Gregorio's. So far he has completed two baskets of red willow and is working on a third one, which will be the last of the year. Who has time for basket making unless it's raining, when it's light until 8:30 pm and there are so many things to do in the fields! 

On Jan 20 we rode Sorba and Jujube to the nearby village of Montefiorello for the mass in honor of St. Anthony, the patron saint and protector of farm animals. It took longer than we expected to get there and we missed all but the last minutes of the mass though we were in plenty of time for the bountiful lunch that followed. The priest flung some holy water in the direction of the horses, surprising them, and getting most of the water in Jujube's ear. Traditionally the priest would have made rounds to each farm house to bless all of the animals but these days few of the local residents have large livestock...Sorba and Jujube were the only four-leggeds attending mass. 

Nespola the milk goat met a tragic end a month ago. She was about a week short of her due date and judging from the size of her belly would have delivered twins or triplets. One morning I found her unhappily lying down outside, breathing strangely and drooling a little, with a mild neck and limb paralysis. After calling three vets and following the suggestions of all three as best as I could, we carried her to the barn and tried to make her comfortable. By afternoon she was having convulsions and had trouble breathing and I was getting frantic. No vets were available to come. By night she was thrashing around and obviously in agony. Following directions over the phone from a vet in Rome, Adolfo and I gave her an IV, one of us sitting on her to hold her still, the other trying to hold the needle and IV bag. After sitting in the straw with her in the freezing cold barn for hours, we realized that she was not going to recover. Unable to bear the prospect of leaving her to suffer and die, we agreed to shoot her. Truly awful, but surprisingly less heart-wrenching than watching her suffer. It is odd to think of a gun as an instrument of mercy, but it some cases it is is just that. We buried Nespola and her unborn babies in the apple field, near Leah-the-truffle-dog. I spent the next days poring over goat husbandry and vet books, and the next nights having nightmares about her thrashing around. With the benefit of hindsight, my best guess is that she had a sudden calcium deficiency, with the cation-rich alfalfa hay inhibiting her own body's ability to mobilize bone calcium to meet the needs of her fetuses. Tragically, this is something easily prevented and remedied. I hope we never need to use it but we will have calcium solution in the fridge from now on when we have pregnant goats. 

Adolfo had given me a lamb for Christmas, a sweet fluffy cream-colored female which we named Fragola ("Strawberry"). She had bonded with Nespola and was upset to be alone after the goat died so I reluctantly gave her back to the farmer who owns the mother sheep. The barn at Monastero seems very empty now, without Nespola and Fragola and with most of the chickens and rabbits and ducks dispatched to the freezer. We sold the other goats and gave some of the animals to neighbors. In addition to missing the company and antics the animals, it feels like the farm has suffered a setback... we were starting to build up a population of farm animals and learning how to use their grazing preferences to sustainably mow our orchards. As Adolfo reminds me, down-scaling the animal population this year is the only sane thing to do since we will have a baby of our own to keep us busy. We can scale up in a year or so when the baby is older, the house is built, and we know better what we'll be able to handle in terms of daily chores. He is right, but I miss the barnyard chaos. We'll keep the horses and donkeys though, our trusty and relatively wolf-proof portable mowers and manure-producers.

Morrica the black female and Gelso the 1-year-old pipsqueak were in the midst of a ardent courtship before we rudely interrupted things with a call to the vet and a quick castration. Morrica would wave her tail in his face and do her best to provoke him, though Gelso was a little confused about what exactly she wanted... what does all this biting and champing and slobbering mean? He took a day or so to figure it out, hindered by the fact that Morrica is a good 40 cm taller than he is, which made operations a technical challenge. Our donkey population is already as high as the pastures can sustain, given that Pucca is expecting a foal in July! Sorba and Jujube are frisky with their bellies full of rich spring grass, though they were on their best behavior at our Easter open-farm party, even tolerating with good humor the crowns and necklaces of wildflowers that some little girls made for them.

On the personal front.... 
my front has been growing quite a bit and it's starting to look like I swallowed a volleyball. "You've got more wife now", as one of Adolfo's friends teased him. An ultrasound at New Years' showed that the baby is a boy, and a more recent one showed that he's head down and getting ready for his exit in mid-May. With increasing urgency we've been pondering names that are pronounce-able easily in both English and Italian.  My parents are terrified that we'll chose something along the lines of Luigi, Michelangelo, or Romeo. I feel fine, given plenty of extra sleep and food, and until  now have been as busy as ever pruning and getting the orchards ready for spring. The little guy seems to feel fine too, gently kicking and poking every so often. Our impression is that he seems relatively calm, not the rambunctious sort, and we're fervently hoping we're right. Adolfo hasn't had much time to contemplate upcoming fatherhood and breaks into a cold sweat when he sees the pile of tiny clothes that people have given us. As well as keeping three graduate students on-track, he's been busy teaching evening classes for young people who want to work in the olive oil industry. It has been a fun opportunity for him to haul out his old agronomy text books and brush up. One Monday he brought the whole class out to the farm for an end-of-quarter fieldtrip, to show them the permaculture design of our olive and wild asparagus field. We try to make time for quiet moments together, to enjoy our last weeks as a twosome. Impending parenthood is as worrisome as it is exciting, partly because we're really not sure how we will make it through a summer of irrigating and house-building with even less sleep than usual. Could we possibly be ready for a change of this magnitude, especially a permanent one? Diapers? We will have to think of this as yet another adventure to be enjoyed. Fortunately my parents will be here the first few weeks and Adolfo's mom has volunteered to take the baby when we need time to work on the farm. Somehow, as usual, everything will turn out okay with help and support from family and friends and neighbors.

Our farm address is finally official: we are Località Il Piano! Please note that our farm website has moved to www.localitailpiano.it, and has been updated with photos, maps, directions, and information for WWOOFers. 

Happy spring!

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top

2007

30 November 2007

Ciao tutti and fall greetings from the farm!

A few mornings ago we awoke to a very hard frost that turned the valley into a sparkling white wonderland, freezing the horses' water, blackening the late sunflowers, and icing the road. The cold nights started early this year (already in mid-Oct we got a few random snowflakes), but combined with relatively warm days the fall color was vivid, making Adolfo's daily drive to work in Spoleto spectacular. With the olive harvest and last farm party past us, we're turning our thoughts to winter activities.... preparing for new tree plantings including a new collection of 60 varieties of figs, and an assortment of new pie cherries, chestnuts, walnuts, and persimmons, cutting firewood, restoring furniture (Darcy), tanning leather (Adolfo), working on choosing materials for the house, and attempting to keep warm. Judging from how thick the horses' coats are, it might be a chilly winter. Coscerno put on her white hat a full month ago.... Coscerno being the tallest mountain on the other side of our narrow valley. Around here there is a saying that when Coscerno puts on her hat (is covered by first snow) you should sell the goat and buy a coat. Coats we have in abundance, goats too, so we should be in good shape! With all the wood we cleared from the forest when building the new road, we have several years worth of wood piled up and drying, ready for sawing to stove-length. The late harvests of the season were bountiful as fall rains softened the late-summer drought. Adolfo's first experimental field produced a heaping basket (20 kg) of bright yellow quinces which we've been roasting in the wood stove (exquisite when drizzled with honey, warm), a smaller basket of medlars, some hawthorns and late blood peaches, as well as 187 kg of olives (= 34 liters of strong green oil). An old twisted tree in the middle of an abandoned field surprised us with 2 big baskets of red apples despite the drought, and our little chestnut trees managed about 10 kg. All of our shelves, baskets, freezer, and jars are full and we feel like squirrels, ready for the winter. Sitting together on top of the wood stove the other night (it's the warmest place), we realized that it might be our last winter in our apartment at Monastero since with a lot of work and some luck we could be in the new house by the end of next year, and potentially ready for overnight guests by summer 2009.

House progress is visible and encouraging. Lately we've been spending afternoons stripping the bark off of the 30cm by 6m chestnut logs which will be the beams of our roof. It's taken about a month of afternoons and weekends to get all the beams stripped and painted with two coats of stain, but the first beams were lifted up by crane and shoehorned into place a week ago and the result is impressive. The roof gives a sense of dimension to the building.... before it seemed like a small concrete spider lost in the immensity of the natural landscape but the roof has delineated the human space, which, standing inside, all of a sudden seems much bigger. It is good for us to see rapid progress and to hope that there might really be a roof on before Christmas so we can work with the contractors on the house "guts" during the winter.... electric, water pipes, gas line, etc. Of course, we don't have walls yet, just a half-built roof on supported by 12 concrete legs, so it is more than a bit breezy and frosty inside the house at the moment. The head contractor insists that the stone masons will arrive on Monday. Of course, this is what he has been saying for 2 months, but sooner or later we will see walls rising up and will know at last if we have hauled enough rocks from the field for the whole building. We're now a year on since the demolition of the old farmhouse ruins.....what a change. The new wood-fired pizza oven is missing only its chimney, the portico is finished, the furnace room is ready and waiting for the furnace (wood-powered, pre-heated with solar panels, and backed up by propane), and the road is now accessible to non-4x4 vehicles and is wide enough for two cars to pass in most points!

Word about the farm is spreading like wildfire. One of our WWOOFers from this summer is currently in London doing a journalism internship at a magazine and has chosen to write an article about the farm and the WWOOF program, while the president of the valley counties sent a blurb about us to a national newspaper, and the Region of Umbria periodically sends a cameraman to record our progress with the farmhouse to be made into a documentary on agriculture and tourism in the mountains. We're excited about all the publicity, and hope that we're ready for it. Neither of us has any training in hotel management, food preparation, customer service, PR or any other skills that might be useful in running an agriturismo (like ironing, hardly our specialty) nor are we 100% certain that we will find the money to finish the building. For now we can just focus on keeping the house progressing and the farm running, and see how things evolve. 

On the personal front....
Adolfo has been travelling a fair amount for work, mostly around Italy , to Bologna, Ascoli-Piceno, Bari, Ancona, Roma. It's a lot to have a full-time career position in Spoleto and another full-time job at home, and he is pretty busy juggling the demands of both jobs. The early darkness has lengthened our evenings at home in front of the woodstove, and given him precious snippets of spare time for tanning goat and rabbit skins and reading about biodiesel and green building. He completed three years of articles on wild edible plants for the magazine Vita in Campagna, and is pondering what to write about next, maybe after the house is done. After 3 years of paperwork, I was granted Italian citizenship this month and was given a an Italian flag and copy of the constitution. Somewhat surprisingly, the first article states that the Republic of Italy is founded on work, which had not been obvious to me. 

More exciting is the fact that, as my friend Alison put it, I seem to be in a family way! If all goes well, we're expecting baby Rosati to appear next May. While the timing isn't what we had imagined, a child seems like a natural part of life on a farm and we're curious and excited about this new adventure. Pregnancy hasn't slowed me down much so far, though there were some nauseous exhausted days in the beginning. Fortunately we hosted two understanding and helpful WWOOFers in October, who made sure the animals got fed and the chestnuts were gathered, and gave Adolfo a hand with some of the heavier farm work! Now my appetite and desire to cook is back and I'm looking forward to having my parents here for a month over Christmas.... already starting to plan the menu: truffle bruschetta with our black winter truffles and the new olive oil, home-raised roasted duck with wild dogwood berry glaze, risotto with wild nettles and cream, fennel-mandarin-dandelion salad, quiche with porcini and wild field greens, roasted quince-honey-mascarpone tart, our own chestnuts, wine and wild cherry liqueur... for me the Christmas feast will take the place of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, which sadly doesn't exisit here.

Hoping that Thanksgiving found you around a table laden with delicious things, and surrounded by people that you care about,

Festivi saluti,

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


31 August 2007

Ciao tutti!

Once again August has brought us heat, general sluggishness, and ample quantities of watermelon. Even the goats have developed a passion for watermelon, including the rind, which provokes fights with the geese (also watermelon appassionati) when I dump the kitchen scraps. We had a couple of blazing hot sticky weeks in July but Aug has been a bit breezier and cooler, and the shortening days make the evenings enjoyably long and balmy. Summer brought a bounty of visciole and really good luck with apricots, harvesting some 80lbs of 'cots from June 1rst through late July. The best apricot product? Dry halves are good, and apricot "fruit leather" goes over well with nieces and nephews, but the prize goes to apricot liqueur. The secret is putting a few cracked open pits in with the fresh apricot halves and alcohol, so that the nice amaretto flavor (small doses of cyanide are tasty) comes out. Now we're in the midst of fig season, which means that Adolfo is up a tree getting his beard sticky whenever he has a rare spare moment. If we get another hot spell, we'll put some figs out to dry, and may have enough sweet yellow figs to make fig molasses.

The village across the valley, Vallo di Nera, hosted a week-long party around the Aug. 15th holiday of Ferragosto. Everybody is invited for evenings of live music, dancing, and chocolate-filled "cornetti" (like croissants) at midnight. A prosciutto is hung up on a stone wall and people take turns guessing its' height or weight in the hopes of bringing it home. There are only 400 of us in the county and most turn out for the party, digging fancy clothes out of the closet which clearly come out only a couple times a year. We hosted our own farm party on 11 Aug, the night after San Lorenzo, which is noted to be the best night of the year for seeing shooting stars. Despite some passing clouds, the visibility was very good - this valley is relatively uninhabited so there is little competing light other than the moon, and the stars are spectacular.

It hasn't rained since early June and we're thirstily overdue for a good storm. The natural rainfall here was one of the deciding factors for us choosing to farm near Adolfo's family instead of near mine in California: we calculated that healthy adult fruit trees on vigorous rootstock should survive here with no summer irrigation. We're starting to wonder if that will hold true if the climate changes over our lifespan. The extreme mildness of this winter, the early heat of this spring, and the dryness of this summer makes us wonder about what kind of impact climate change is going to have on our life and on our land. Maybe it's a freak year, or maybe it's a part of a pattern? Farming is so intimately dependent on weather: an event such as a hailstorm, torrential rain, drought, wind and other big events can have more impact on crop productivity than good farming practices do. Natural systems are so complex that small changes like a shift in winter rain patterns can alter irrigation needs, disease susceptibility, and harvest dates. One of our motives for planting so many varieties of each crop was to buffer against weather variability. Since the varieties leaf out and bloom at different times this sort of buffer might protect us from losing all the crop to a late frost or to a rainstorm during bloom, but it can't save us from drastic change or really bizarre events. With so much of ourselves invested in the farm, the subject of climate change is an anxious one.

June brought us the first blooms on the 150m rose hedge along the north side of the donkey pasture. We planted several species (rosa moyesii, rosa rugosa, rosa canina, and rosa multiflora among others) hoping to find at least a few that are hardy, relatively donkey-proof, and good producers of tasty rose hips for making jams and teas. In terms of hardiness, all seem relatively drought-resistant and happy in baking summer sun. However, the donkeys seem to find all the roses quite tasty, so any stray branches that poke through the fence into their pasture are rapidy pruned. The plants on the road side of the fence are thriving though and it was fun to find out what color flowers we'll be enjoying... a wide spectrum of pinks, with some reds and oranges and a few yellows.

Barnyard news...
Nespola gave birth to white twins, despite being very very sick a couple of days prior to delivery (meaning several liters of goat IV fluid and two house calls by the vet). Mom and babies have all developed a taste for watermelon rind. The baby donkeys are growing up, are still nursing, and have learned to wear their tiny halters and have their hooves clipped. Gelso ('Mulberry') the little male is curious, sociable and very good-tempered, and I'm hoping we can keep him. He and his half-sister Asimina ('Pawpaw') have been learning to bray, and welcome us when we come to feed with a sort of feeble high-pitched Eeeee-aa! Nothing like the volume or duration of the welcome song that Achille gives us, but they're working on imitating dad. We've learned the hard way that, while horses can be trusted to graze vineyards selectively, donkeys would prefer devouring the vines to grazing down the grass. As Adolfo says, each animal has its role on a farm, and apparently the donkey's place is not in the vineyard. There's a saying here that it looks like a donkey taught you to prune your grapes, and now we know exactly what that looks like. Fortunately it seems that we can use horses to do a light grazing instead of consuming diesel to mow mechanically, with the benefit that horses dump manure on site directly. We've had the whole donkey family under lock and key lately because there are wolves on the prowl. I found a half-chewed wild goat carcass lying on a path one morning, and two villages away they've lost some 20 sheep in the last month. In another village a pair of wolves were seen as they attacked two sheep and took out the sheep dog too. A hungry pair is strong enough to take down an adult donkey, so we re-inforced our gates and keep the donkeys in the most securely fenced pasture. So far so good. Leah-the-truffle-dog died a couple of weeks ago and we buried her under a persimmon tree near the new house. We buried her with her collar, so we're left with a half-sack of kibbles, a small dog house, and memories. I remember her running so fast after a pheasant that her legs were a blur, a red and white streak trying to take flight, and I picture her hot on the trail of a mouse, pouncing, snorting, excavating, front half of her body down a hole and dirt flying out between her back legs, with her stub of a tail in fast motion. She was a great buddy for farm work, following me through the orchards or to the barn in all weather and at any time of day or night, and I miss her enthusiasm and companionship.

It is beginning to sink in that the farm is not a two-person job, nor will it ever be. These days it's a six-person job..... we've been hosting an Australian couple and a Canadian Serb whose combined efforts are contributing over 100 person-hours per week towards farm progress. They've helped us collect rocks from the fields for use in building our house, irrigate young trees, dig out weedy Ilanthus trees, clear brush, weed the lavender hedge along the lake, construct the filter house, pick figs, fix up the fence, collect firewood, etc. Adolfo's mother has also been helping a great deal, spending many hours irrigating as well as bringing ready-prepared meals for us and the three WWOOFers. As a result, the farm is in much better shape than it has been. True, the weeds will grow right back and the brush will need to be cleared again next year. However some of the tasks accomplished have been one-timers... building the filter house, adding another strand of barbed wire to the fence, collecting rocks for the new farmhouse. Also, the abundance of help and availability of water from the lake have made possible much more irrigation than other summers and the trees are loving it, growing and thumbing their noses at the drought. We picked the very first apple from the new apple field in July (the only one this year), and I suspect that by next year about a tenth of the trees will be strong enough to start making an apple or two.

The new farmhouse is shooting up even faster than the trees. It seems nothing short of miraculous to see it rising up exactly where the old farmhouse had stood abandoned for 200 years. Now it's an un-aesthetic mess like any other consruction site, but I'm beginning to see how it will take shape (photo on farm website). The concrete columns are in place, patiently waiting for the construction workers to come back from August holiday to start working on the roof. Another squad of worker will start laying the insulating aerated terracotta blocks which will form the interior wall of the house (think Lego on a grand scale), and will begin clothing the exterior of the house in stone. The basement is roughly finished, and our wood-fired pizza oven is halfway assembled. It is a huge igloo shape, oven 4ft interior diameter, and is supposed to cook 30 lbs of bread at a time. We (mostly me) are getting excited about future culinary possibilities.... pizza parties, drying fruit, making our own bread, apple pies, etc.

With much help from WWOOFers, we assembled a shack which will house our water filter. Since we plan on using filtered lake water for flushing toilets, watering the garden, and watering the animals, we needed to build a structure to protect the filter system from sun and cold. Since hundreds of small-diameter trees had been cut down to make way for our new road, we decided to use them to weave between upright posts to make a basket-style sort of mini-logcabin, dug into a hill. My dad, upon seeing a photo of the new construction, commented that we're copying the 3 little pigs - we built a house of straw (the strawbale toolshed), built a house of sticks (filter house), and are working on a house of stone-brick (for us!). Fortunately the wolves have left us alone and all structures are still standing.

Adolfo's 41st birthday was last week. At the risk of sounding sappy, I have to say he's the handsomest 41-year-old I've ever seen... fit from swimming in the lake and brown as a bear. Looking in the mirror at our brown faces and looking down at our farmer hands, rough and stained by cherry-pitting, it's interesting to see how the farm is shaping us as we shape it. The enormous help that the WWOOFers have given, as well as the realization that the house is finally getting built, is very good for us psychologically. With some of the field work off my shoulders, I have had more time for cooking, restoring furniture, farm paperwork, jamming, planning the house, and generally tying up loose ends though I still haven't gotten to the teetering 2-yr-old stack of mending. Improvements in farm and house are very visible, and renew our faith that somehow it really is all going to happen more or less like we dream it.

Thanking our many WWOOFers and supporters, wishing everyone plentiful basil, and hoping that many of you will come visit one of these days,

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


11 June 2007

Ciao tutti!

A whole week of welcome fat rain drops has washed off the early summer dust and turned the trees and fields an even more vivid shade of green. It has also, of course, turned the temporary road and the horse pasture into large mud wallows, but we're not complaining. We had started irrigating the thirsty youngest trees by the second week of May, and were imagining a very long hot summer ahead. Fortunately the late spring showers have re-zeroed our irrigation clock... we have at least 10-14 days to think of other projects before we have to start worrying about watering again. Another rain-given bonus: the 8 cm that have fallen recently have topped off our "lake".

It's fascinating to watch the irrigation pond evolve as an ecosystem. As the water level has risen, more and more critters have made it their home. In late March some frogs left looping dappled strands of eggs in the shallow waters on one side of the pond. We tried to fish them out with a stick, thinking it was garbage or old ropes that had blown in, before realizing that we were about to become hosts to tens of thousands of tadpoles. They are now frantically wiggling around the margins of the lake, vacuuming up tiny bit of algae, and we're looking forward to frog songs on warm summer evenings when we're out irrigating at dusk. The poppies and alfalfa planted last fall are blooming red and purple. The new hedge of lavender and pomegranates is starting to grow along the outside of the fence enclosing the lake, and the parallel hedge of almonds, sorbs, juneberries, and iris along the inside of the fence has begun to leaf out. In a few years I imagine the fence itself will disappear inside of the tasty productive greenness of the hedges.

Fruit-wise, 2007 looks very promising. Already we have harvested, eaten, jammed, and pressed juice from the early cherries, and have set up a test batch of 3 liters of cherry wine. One cherry tree that Adolfo planted some 15 years ago has turned out to be a dependable producer (70 kilos this year!), and picking cherries together is turning into a early summer tradition. Adolfo climbs high, monkey-style, and picks from the top branches, eating cherries until he's purple around the mouth, spitting the pits down towards my head as I pick from the lower branches. Stomachs full and rumbling, we eventually get around to filling the baskets. While I refuse to participate in the time-honored Italian custom of bribing officials,  I can happily grease palms with good organic fruit. So far we've given cherries to the town hall planning department, cherries to the architect, cherries to the bank official who is about to grant us a whopping loan for the house, apricots to the plumber.... Fruit makes people smile, and it's fun to give away. The apricot field has a impressive number of unripe fruit resembling florescent fuzzy green golf balls as well as some more attractive ripe orange ones: tonight we'll turn the first ripe 'cots (early cultivars 'Lady Rose', 'Ninfa' and 'Aurora') into  a cobbler. Looks like it might be, just maybe, a stupendous year also for apricots. Adolfo reminds me not to get my apricot hopes up, that this is a freak year in terms of weather, and we're unlikely to have such a crop most years. The rainy Spoleto weather typical during bloom prevents good pollination and helps brown rot attack the blossoms and twigs, but this year's hot dry spring allowed excellent pollination. I have my fingers crossed into knots that we won't have hail or any other calamities as the fruit ripens over the next month so I can jam sauce and dry enough apricots to last a good few years, to sooth my Californian soul and feed my childhood memories of my grandparents' Blenheim apricots.

In the barnyard... this spring has been a spring of birth and we're overflowing with young animals of pretty much every farm species, including human. In the case of our new nephew, Gabriele, born 15 March to Adolfo's sister Emanuela and her partner Tonino, he just lies around, but the baby donkeys, baby geese, goat kids, chicks, baby turkeys are already running, waddling, prancing,jumping and scooting. Morrica gave birth to a tiny grey female donkey on April 6. I was on hand to move the sac from the Asimina's nose so she could take her first breaths, and took some video clips of the 2-hr delivery and of Asimina's first attempts to stand up (her front end was trying even before her back end was completely delivered). Pucca followed suit early the morning of the 7th of April with the birth of Gelso, a tiny grey male. Both foals take after their father Achille in terms of appearance, and Gelso also got Achille's inquisitive and sociable temperment. Asimina is timid, like her mom, but both little ones are comfortable around people and have already learned to pick up their miniscule hooves to have their feet cleaned. When the babies get a little bigger we're thinking of swiping enough donkey milk for a taste. Rebecca the white milk goat had shaggy white triplets a month ago, and all of her milk is going to the babies. The last birth of the spring will be Nespola's... in the last 5 days her udder has gone from merely large to gigantic and she can barely eat enough each day to maintain her weight plus the growth of her unborn baby or babies. If Nespola has only 1 or 2 kids we may be able to take some of her milk for us. I'm looking forward to wild cherry - goat milk ice cream!

With the help of our last WWOOFer, Pearlie, and neighbor, Gregorio, we collected 200 bales of first-cut hay and rushed them under cover just before a spring thunderstorm would have soaked them. Haying is very hot dusty sweaty sticky scratchy work and we were delighted to have a hand: dragging the bales from where they dropped out of the baler into approximate piles, then the tractor and trailer go from pile to pile, with one person high atop the trailer stacking bales as the people on the ground attempt to fling the 20+ kg bales just higher than the last row of bales, then tying the stack of bales ever so carefully so that the load makes it down the steep road to the barn intact, then throwing the bales down and restacking them under shelter. It's one of those times of the year when I'm grateful for my height and rueful that my arms aren't as powerful as Adolfo's. We'll need another 200 or so bales to make it through next winter, so we're about half provisioned.

House construction is well underway, and is keeping us busy. So far the basement has been dug, foundation poured, and basement walls erected. By a minor miracle, a thick chain, and much traction from the Fiat 605C, the 12 cement trucks were able to make it back up our temporary road after dumping their contents. The architect who has been keeping an eye on our project took one look at the enormous piles of rocks that we have painstakingly accumulated over the last two years and pronounced it inadequate: apparently we'll need many more to finish the house. We have all of the rocks saved from the demolition of the old farmhouse, as well as many trailer loads hauled out of our fields. More rocks....?  Backs tired, we're procrastinating. Instead Adolfo and I have been collecting estimates for interior and exterior doors, windows, bricks, iron railings, terracotta roof tiles, solar panels, photovoltaic panels, as well as scouring the want ads for used building materials. We have hauled home a lot of prize junk and a few nice objects, like a big slab of Cararra marble and four pairs of beautiful walnut doors from the 1800s. I'm supposed to figure out where all the furniture will go in order to figure out where all the faucets and electrical outlets go, etc. We're starting to get nervous about how exactly to pay for all this construction, but have reassured ourselves by coming up with plans A, B and C as well as a list of priorities in the case that we run out of money and have to post-pone or eliminate some parts of the construction. Other than the official grant deadline to have the agriturismo portion of the building up and running, we have a self-imposed deadline to have the house portion functional.... we invited the entire Gordon clan for Thanksgiving-in-Italy in 2009. Depending on how many new spouses marry in and how many kids are born between now and 2009, I'm guessing that'll be about 20 people. Allowing for inevitable construction delays, we might just make it, though I have a feeling we'll be installing the last few doorknobs before zooming to the airport to pick people up.

This year we're enjoying the human dimension of the farm and of life, a nice move away from the initial hard labor and isolation of being newcomers. It's been almost two years since we moved here, and we're definitely rooting. The mayor has called a couple of times to ask our farm's participation in a local gatherings, which makes us feel like part of the fabric of the community. Our first open farm party of the year was a success. The day after Easter about 50 friends and neighbors made it down to the Cappannella field to play and chat and roast sausages. Nespola hung out with the (human) kids and the 3-day-old donkeys charmed everyone. Barbara and Marco, two musician friends, as well as Adolfo and his musician brother Angelo, played some traditional Umbrian music and we sat around the fire until way after dark, making the walk home a star-lit adventure for the kids. The farm is now functional enough even without the farmhouse that it's really fun to show people around and watch them experience the view, the wide open fields,
the chaos in the barnyard, the unusual fruits, the local cooking. We're taking fewer WWOOFers, and trying to spend more time with them. We're currently hosting our first paying guests, and are enjoying all the human contact the farm brings us.

Adolfo is writing his last few articles to complete the three year series on wild foods commissioned by an Italian magazine. Certainly the writing and experimenting process has produced some excellent recipes that are pretty far off the beaten gastronomical path: high marks go to nettle gnocchi, acorn cookies, and lambs- quarters lasagna. As if a full-time research job and a farm weren't enough to keep him busy, now he's excited about writing about straw-bale building and hide tanning techniques. My 31st birthday flew by a couple of weeks ago, and I figure I must be an adult now. Who did I think I would grow up to be? Life is much more interesting that I imagined, I'm better with a pick axe than I ever dreamed I would be, am surprisingly fluent in a foreign language, have more sun-crinkles at the corners of my eyes than I expected (doesn't that happen around 45?), and am still glad to have taken the long shot of trying to build a life in Italy.

We saw the first fireflies two nights ago, reminding us to take a moment to enjoy the clear quiet evening. It's easy to get caught up in the frantic bustle and growth of the summer, letting the whole season fly by without reveling in it. Maybe this year we'll learn to slow down a bit, piano piano, and thoroughly enjoy the passing of time.

Happy summer!

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


05 March 2007

Ciao tutti!

Birds are singing, wild asparagus is sending up tender shoots, and the wild violets are blooming! The spring-like weather and warm nights throughout January and February has prodded the orchards a full month ahead of schedule and the apricots are in flower. The old-timers are gloomily reminding everybody that it happened just like this after the mild winter of 1956, until an week-long ice and snow storm in April caused disaster on an epic scale, setting the olive trees back 50 years by freezing them back to ground level. We, as beginning farmers, are naively and happily ready for spring, even if it seems too early to be true. We're excited to see the daffodils and narcissus up an blooming around the lake, the groups of porcupines out at dusk, and the rapidly greening pastures. 

The weather has convinced the horses and donkeys, who are starting to shed their winter coats. Pucca's and Morrica's bellies have reached amazing proportions (think watermelon suported by four toothpicks) after 11.5-12 months of gestation. They're temporarily stabled in the clean and warm maternity ward that we rigged up in the larger greenhouse, to avoid them delivering the babies into a large mud puddle in the horse pasture. Achille has been sent up at Monastero to stay with the goats - he was doing a lousy job as the anxious father to be, harassing the ladies instead of letting them rest. Morrica already has her "bag" ready with two swollen teats, which according to my donkey care book means birth within the week, and if Pucca is on schedule she should follow suit a week or two later. We're checking them a couple of times a day, anxious to see if there's an extra pair of ears poking up behind the fence. I have my fingers crossed that all will go smoothly (Morrica's will be her first delivery) since I'm not sure that we're ready to play donkey obstetrician. Adolfo's sister is due in three weeks, as is Rebecca the white milk goat - it is going to be an exciting spring around here! 

Speaking of goats, the newest resident of the farm is a middle-aged Alpine milk goat. Her name is Nespola, the Italian work for medlar, since she is sweet and medlar-brown with black legs (medlar fruits are shaped like a tiny apple, eaten soft and very ripe like a persimmon). We found her in dire conditions, were charmed by her sweetness, and Adolfo gave her to me as a belated Christmas present. She was a very good sport about riding in the back seat of the car all the way home from Perugia, periodically nibbling our hair and attempting to make small talk. Slowly we're trimming back her overgrown hooves, and her scruffy fur and awful dandruff is getting better. She has a wonderful temperment - inquisitive, gentle and sociable, good with children, tolerant of beginning milkers - and will be an excellent farm ambassador when we have groups of kids come visit. 

With no rain the last month and water shortages on the brain, we went dowsing with Angelo, Adolfo's more-than-slightly batty uncle. Zio Angelo is fascinating, a real self-schooled independent thinker. He's got theories on pre-Columbus contact between the Americas and Egypt, and will explain to you that water comes out of springs on the top of mountains only because the earth is turning really fast,... and one of his specialties is dowsing. With a special forked elm stick and much muttering, he declared that we have a fat vein of water some 40-50 meters down on the upper edge of our land, which might be the same vein which feeds the spring of the village below us. We don't have the 30,000 euros it would take to prove him right, but it's an interesting thought to keep in mind if we do end up seriously short on water. In the mean time, fortunately, the overflow from a neighbor's spring is compensating for the complete lack of moisture in ours, and we're piping his excess down to fill the new irrigation lake. Six of the goldfish we freed in the lake last summer are still swimming and growing, so Adolfo is getting excited about establishing some catfish and other edible critters in the lake. Myself, I'm beginning to wonder just how big the goldfish will get, if it's true that they grow as big as their container will allow. The lake is about 30 meters by 40 meters across and 3.5 meters deep..... 

On the house front....
As always, we're just about to begin construction. But this time it might be for real: the contractor started digging the basement this morning! We're still awaiting permission to build a road transitable by fully-loaded cement trucks, so pouring the foundation will wait on road progress. The good news is that we have just one hoop left to jump through - we're hoping to have road permission within 3 weeks. The electric company hooked us up to the grid a few weeks ago and the water company is working on it. While waiting, we've been hunting, hauling, and hoarding various bits of used/antique building materials, from doors to furniture to roof tiles to rocks. Adolfo's father, Filippo, gave us three huge pieces of a stone arch that he found buried in the garden years ago, and we commissioned a friend to re-make the missing pieces so that we can use the arch to frame the main entrance to the house. We took a fieldtrip to the county archive, and found some documents from the 1700's and 1800's mentioning our farm. It seems that the central part of the farm was called "Il Piano", or, the plain. It sounds ironic given the steepness of some of the fields but it is, relatively speaking, the flattest piece of land around. We like the name because "piano, piano" has become our motto over the last few years: piano also means softly, so piano piano conveys a sense of patience with time, like step by step, a good thing to repeat to one's self when faced by beaurocratic hurdles, crazy deadlines, and crazy beaurocrats. At any rate, we may have found our name and address, Il Piano. Can't argue with history!

On the wild foods front, Adolfo has developed a root-coffee, made by roasting and grinding the roots of chicory and other plants from our fields and putting this through the espresso machine. It does smell a bit like dirty socks if you dont get the mix of roots right, but with the right plants it is surprisingly similar to coffee, at least as far as we non-coffee drinkers can tell. Adolfo's "real job" has been keeping him busy, with several deadlines for papers on kaolin, organic olive oil quality, and wild asparagus-olive cultivation, and he's looking forward to a week in Spain at a convention on ecological cultivation of olives. I donated my waist-length ponytail to Locks of Love (www.locksoflove.org) for the third time, and am as short-haired as I've been since elementary school. Achille, Adolfo, and I were on national TV last Sunday for about 4 seconds, as part of a special program about agriculture in the Valnerina. I've been attending "farmer school" several days a week since November, which was a requirement for young farmer grant recipients. The course was a whirlwind tour of practical agriculture in Italy, and was extremely useful for a book-learned farmer like me. We studied the 5 races of white Italian cattle (Chianina, Podolica, Maremmana, Romagnola, Marchegiana) talked about tax law and farm accounting, practiced reading Italian fertilizer labels, giggled over the reproductive anatomy of the stallion, and toured various farms. The final exam is next week and I'm nerdily looking forward to it. 

There are so many things to look forward to this year: baby donkeys, house construction, interesting visitors, swimming in the newly-full lake, sun-warmed ripe apricots right off the tree. We head into the busy spring-summer season less giddily but more confidently than last year. Already the fruits of our labor are visible, tangible, and, even better, edible, which renews our motivation.

Looking forward to seeing lots of you this year,

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top

2006

27 December 2006

Buone feste a tutti!

So much has gone by in the four months since I last wrote! Finally a cold rainy day and early darkness (the sun goes over the mountain at 3pm!) have us cooped up by the fire. Also, my computer has recovered from a severe mid-life crisis and is feeling cooperative. The highlights, in chronological order.... 

In September one of our few mature apples trees, grafted by Adolfo 15 years ago, had a record harvest: 7 heavy baskets - some 200 lbs! - of aromatic and beautiful deep garnet fruit with such a powerful red pigment that the flesh nearest to the skin is deep pink (cultivar "Pioneer"). After a intense day of bottling lovely rose-colored applesauce and cleaning up the resulting mess, all with the help of Adolfo's mother Antonietta, we started pondering more seriously kind of equipment we're going to need to pick, store and process all the apples from our new apple field. 350 apple trees... say, very conservatively, with an average of 100 lbs of fruit per tree per year... should produce 17+ tons of apples. We concluded that we have another 3 or so years before the trees are producing much, and that we'll need that time to brainstorm and experiment with apple products. Hard and fresh cider, apple balsalmic vinegar, dried apples, apple butter, applesauce, appleseed liqueuer, apple pectin for jams, fresh apples of course,... and the left-overs will probably go to pigs who comb the orchard floor after harvest, making apple-fed pancetta and prosciutto!

On the transportation front....
After five years of paying our neighbor to work our fields with his tractor, we bit the bullet and bought our own. She's a 1980 Fiat "super montagna" 65 horsepower with treads instead of tires. She is beautiful,if I do say so myself.... deep persimmon orange, with a new seat and shiny black bulldozer-blade on the front. We bought an ancient rust-bucket trailer too (the dealer said, "It's sturdy though, those are airplane tires") and a new blue "ripper" which will help us control weeds in the fields where the fruit trees are too young to allow grazing. We plan to tickle the top layer of the soil enough to disturb the roots of weeds without messing up the soil structure or provoking erosion - we (meaning Adolfo) tested the tractor and ripper in the upper olive field and were very satified by the results. Though the tractor is officially mine, I've yet to learn to drive it. So far I've attempted only to master the paperwork required to buy it, register it, and purchase agricultural diesel (no mean feat). The tractor itself is even more intimidating. More knobs, levers, and buttons than a spaceship! One to control the hydraulic lifting and lowering of the bulldozer blade, one to wag the blade's right and left sides up and down, one to raise the trailer like a dump truck, one to control the spinning thing-a-ma-jig on the back of the tractor meant to be hooked up to a pump or grinder, one to lift and lower the various implements that the tractor is hitched to, six gears forward, two speeds backwards, two clutches,.... one completely inexperienced tractor driver (me) and one slightly more experienced tractor driver (Adolfo). Fortunately we have one very experienced driver as a neighbor/mentor (Gregorio), who bought his first Fiat back in 1967 and has been working with it ever since.

My parents arrived for a visit just in time to witness the delivery of the "new" tractor, and spent a good part of October helping us build a rock wall near our future house, along the west border of the lower olive field. My dad and Adolfo and I attended a two-day intensive class on traditional no-cement rock wall construction, then took a deep breath and rolled up our sleeves. Then we rolled them down again, fast, since the first task was eliminate a forest of blackberry vines (chainsaw, machete and pick-axe required). Then we dug a trench for the foundation, set up guide strings so we could build a straight wall, canvassed the orchards for rocks, and trailered many tons of them down to the wall site. After a few days of working together we settled into a rhythm, each person specialized for a particular task. My dad wheelbarrowed rocks and placed some of the large ones, with silent concentration and careful analysis. My mom backfilled the empty interior spaces between the larger rocks with small rocks ("This is fun - it's like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle!"). I hauled small rocks in buckets and specialized in placement of medium-sized rocks. Adolfo took the very biggest rocks and dragged them into place. Gregorio did some of everything, and most importantly, helped us avoid Big Mistakes. With all the experience and technique he has acquired in 69 years of living here, he can still outwork us and anyone we know. He is amazing, knowing exactly how to lever a huge rock delicately into place without straining, precisely how to hit a rock with his chisel to sculpt the face the way he wants it, how to securely position a rock over the ones below and behind it so that it is supported in multiple points and won't budge over the years. Once again we realized that book-learning and intensive classes are no substitute for experience. Without his help we probably would have had our wall come crashing down after a few hard frosts and thaws had loosened and shifted the rocks. With his help, my parents' help, and many pairs of gloves, we now have a spectacular chest-height rock wall running from the house site halfway down to the spring. The wall is one of our proudest accomplishments and possibly the most beautiful. After cleaning up and photographing our masterpiece, we tucked some crocus bulbs into the crevices at the top of the wall, and are looking forward to picnicking on the wall next spring when they bloom.

In mid-November, with the help of 2 WWOOFers and numerous friends and family members, we picked a bumper crop of olives in just 4 days. We were blessed by perfect sunny weather and extraordinary fall color, making the harvest a fun social event complete with campfire and roasted sausages. All olive-pickers placed bets on kilos of olives, percent yield, and liters of oil. Since most of our trees are young and still coming into production, we weren't sure what to expect in terms of yield. Harvest completed, we proudly delivered our brimming sacks and bins to the oil mill, run by a friend and his wife. We had brought our 50 liter stainless steel tank to carry home our oil but had to borrow some extra bottles because yield exceeded the wildest and most optimistic estimates - some 55 liters of deep green spicy oil. We think that an early frost probably dehydrated the olives slightly, taking the edge off of some of the good flavor compounds, but we are still very happy with the quality.

On the house front.... Two days before we left for Thanksgiving in California, the contractor arrived with his bulldozer, excavator, and crew and proceeded to knock down old farmhouse. We were too busy gaping, taking pictures, and avoiding falling debris to get emotional, but it was sad. How little time it took to knock down something that had been part of our valley for hundreds of years. Our consolation is that we will bring the farmhouse back to life, as close as possible to the way it was. We managed to salvage some roof tiles, some floor tiles, an old oak beam, and all the rocks from the old house will be used in the construction of the new house. Since the demolition, we're been stalled: road blocked, literally, waiting for the town hall to clear our road project so we can get cement trucks down to the house site. When that project gets cleared, we'll have to wait for dry weather to dig the basement and non-freezing temperatures to pour the concrete of the foundation. We're guessing that major progress will happen in the spring, and hopefully by fall we'll have a roof and maybe windows so we can close ourselves in next winter to work on plumbing, electricity, plaster, tiling, and painting.

With the olives pressed and the house demolished, we took a 10-day whirlwind trip to California - our first vacation together in a year and a half. With my family we celebrated my brother's birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, all in a period of 3 days, and then visited friends and family all over the larger Bay Area. A highlight was a trip to our friend Wolfgang's farm up by Redding. She, like us, is building a farm from scratch. It was inspiring to see her progress (an impressive photovoltaic system installed solo!), to taste her delicious vegetables, and to exchange ideas about how to deal with various challenges that we have in common.

Back in Paterno, we are as snug as bugs in a rug and are ready as we can reasonably be for our second full winter spent here. Meaning that... while roads you can drive in all weather and a real barn for the animals are far-off dreams, we do have many loads of good hay in the new temporary "barn" structure, several tons of ready-cut firewood stacked outside the door, and enough jam and canned farm produce to feed several armies. Such a difference from last year, when we had barely hooked up the woodburning stove before the first snow hit, no dry firewood, no idea whether our 400 bales of hay would last a long winter with 5 hungry equines, and we had never tested our new path/roads in nasty weather. It makes us feel experienced, confident and lucky, to be facing winter much better prepared this year. Still there are things we have to work out.... such as, how will we pipe the spring water down to fill the new lake in such a way that water won't freeze in and burst the water pipes that serve the horse pasture? 

The horses are looking snazzy in their winter coats. Jujube's is so thick and long that on a sunny day she sweats just standing still. I rode her to the post office this week and she was well-behaved (except for the inevitable large steaming pile of droppings she left in front of the town hall). Sorba seems to be handling the weather better than last year but does need a couple pounds of crushed corn-carob-favabeans-barley each day to avoid losing weight. The donkeys are doing well. Achilles is cantankerous, horny, sociable by turns as always, Morrica's coat is long and silky and her belly is growing, and Pucca is already so pregnant that she looks like she swallowed a really large football, sideways. Leah-the-truffle-dog seems to have recovered from her tumor-removal and spaying, and is raring to go hunting for the black winter truffles. This week she has dug up 10 or so truffles which we have scrubbed clean and frozen, to be shared with guests next year.

Adolfo's recent articles on wild edibles have featured dandelions, acorns, and primroses (the small yellow ones wild in Italy). With all the culinary experimentation necessary to come up with good recipes for his articles, we have been eating a lot of "weeds" lately. If it's true that a varied diet is key to good health, I think we're in good shape! Adolfo has also been experimenting with hide tanning techniques using pelts from the Gregorio's Christmas lambs. The first attempts stunk impressively, but he has refined his technique and the recent pelts are olefactorily acceptable. Unfortunately this required using the washing machine (imagine the quantity of white sheep fuzz that remains on your next five loads of laundry) and my lavender oil, but I am looking forward to warm shearling mittens!

Thank you for all the Christmas cards which have made it over the ocean. Happy holidays to all, and best wishes for a healthy peaceful new year that finds many of you coming to visit us :)

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


30 August 2006

Ciao tutti!

Once again it's August in Italy! Meaning that no one does anything.  It's like working six days and taking the seventh off: here there are 11 real months of the year, plus August. As long as you don't urgently need a doctor, bus driver, or pharmacist (who are all on holiday), the whole-country-on-holiday atmosphere is really fun. We even got in the spirit of things, taking our first vacation together in over a year to visit a friend in Ancona. Two nights and one wonderful day at the beach gave us some perspective and relaxation. We owe this rare possibility of vacation to two factors, the weather and the electric fence.

Since early July we've gotten rain til we're soggy, which let us off the hook in terms of irrigating. The trees are very happy and have grown as much this summer as they usually do in two growing seasons. With the help of two WWOOF (www.wwoof.it) volunteers we installed the new solar-powered mobile electric fence,  which lets us rotate the horses through otherwise unfenced pastures. With the abundance of grass in the new areas where they've never grazed before, we were also off the hook for daily hay delivery... letting us go to Ancona, stay in town to have dinner with friends, maybe we'll even get to go to the theater!

Barnyard news.... Morrica and Pooka the donkeys are starting to look pregnant though they're not due til February-March. The vet came yesterday and gave us some advice on Jujube's limp. Apparently she has strained tendons in both front legs, possibly due to incorrect shoeing. It seems to be a minor injury - she can walk for 20 minutes before the limp shows up - but the vet advised anti-inflammatory shots, shoe removal, and 2 months of rest. She's been consoled with lots of petting and apples, and seems not to be suffering at all. Leah-the-truffle-hound isn't feeling so hot though. She'll have surgery today for a mammary tumor, but we hope she'll be raring to go soon. She's had a spectacular summer truffle season, locating and digging up lots of little truffles as well as a whopper, the biggest truffle I've ever seen. I thought it was a chunk of tree root until the aroma hit me! We scrubbed it clean, weighed it (120 grams), photographed it and admired it for about an hour before we had the heart to grate it up on top of spaghetti.

We've had groups of super-WWOOFers coming and going all summer. They've helped us wrap up the fencing and lake projects, yank out many weedy blackberry vines which are infesting the apple field, paint the trunks of our young trees white to protect against sunburn, weed and water the new rose and dogwood hedges we planted around the main horse pasture, and kill chickens (the main reaction was ick). While it is intensive to have guests full-time, doubling the cooking and cleaning, it is stimulating to host people so excited about organic agriculture. We initially expected to have quite a mix of volunteers, maybe some less capable or hardworking or open-minded than others, but we have really had 100% "good apples" and have had a lot of fun cooking local specialties for them, picking fruit together, and talking about all aspects of agriculture as well as why we choose this lifestyle.

At last we have a potential name for the farm... or, at least a postal address. A contractor asked for the address of the work site for the rebuilding the old farm house, and we realized that we have no idea what it is. The farm house has been abandoned for at least 100 years so no one has been sending or receiving mail there for quite a while.  Also, there is no road, only a mule path, so having an actual street address would be a trick. When I went to inquire at the post office, the poor lady was very puzzled and said I should ask the county offices. The county mayor said to ask the county technician, who said to ask the county police officer (we have one since there are only 400 people in the whole county of Vallo di Nera and we are generally well-behaved). The police officer listened to the story, shrugged his shoulders and said, well, what do people call the place? I told him that Gregorio's wife Giuliana calls it "lu casalittu", which is local dialect for "il casaletto", meaning the little house. He said it sounds fine to him, and we settled on "Lu Casalittu". It might have to turn into "Casalittu sull'Aia" or "Lu Casalittu di Cargirusciu" since we've discovered another "Il Casaletto" down the valley and we wouldn't want to be confusing. I'm guessing the former might be easier for non-Italians to pronounce. Any input?

On the occasion of Adolfo's birthday, which nearly coincides with Ferragosto (traditionally a religious holiday though in reality is has a fourth-of-July feel), we held a big picnic down at the old farmhouse. About thirty stalwarts showed up despite threatening clouds that morning, and we had great fun eating too much watermelon, escorting the kids (and adults!) on horse rides, milking Rebecca-the-goat, singing along with Adolfo's accordion music, and roasting sausages over the fire til after dark. We watched shooting stars for a while - they are very visible against the black sky of our relatively uninhabited valley - and around midnight were treated to a celebratory Ferragosto fireworks display put on by the neighboring village.

A local history expert, also a distant cousin of Adolfo's father, took a good look at the ruins of the old farmhouse during the party. Judging from the techniques used to sculpt, place, and mortar the stones, he says that our house was probably built in the 1500s, in part from stones recycled from a 1200s building that was likely a church or castle, and hauled to our location. The house was damaged seriously in the great earthquake of 1703, and some patches were roughly reconstructed afterwards. We know from talking to the oldest people in town and asking if they remember their parents having aquaintances from our house that it has been uninhabited for generations, likely since the 1850s, though livestock was kept inside in the early 1900s. My personal conjecture is that the spring below the house dried up somewhat after the big earthquake (now it only flows 6-7 months a year), which might have discouraged the occupants and caused them to move to town. We know they kept farming the land through the 1950s or so.   At any rate, we're fascinated by the house's history and hope that the upcoming re-building will keep the original design of the house as much as possible and be true to the local traditional style (rock walls, arched doorways, etc).

The first step towards rebuilding the house is to build a road to get there - a gravel road which can safely handle, in most weather conditions, a loaded cement-trunk, an ambulance, a school bus, or a normal car. Our current access is an old mule path transitable only by foot, horseback, tractor, or with a good 4x4 car.  Choosing a route that can meet the legal requirements for maximum road slopes, widths and curves will be an exercise in measure and calculate, measure and calculate, swear, measure again and calculate again. Our 50-acre body of land slopes from 350 meters above sea level up to almost 600 meters above sea level, with the house itself at 450. Yes, we're in the mountains! Somehow this road has to average 8% slope - I'm thinking there will have to be a number of switchbacks. For most modern people it must seem ridiculous to get so excited about a dirt road, but
Adolfo and I remember what it means to have access to the fields only on foot as it was in the beginning, then on donkey back, then last August with the Panda 4x4 car. Already it seems miraculous to load all our tools in the car and drive down to work in the orchards, instead of carrying them on our shoulders. Imagining that a school bus could someday bring us a busload of kids for a farm visit is mind-boggling. "Piano, piano" as they say here...slowly, slowly, one thing at a time.

Yesterday I noticed that the first red leaf on the Virginia creeper, and though it's not fall quite yet it's already time to make applesauce. Lately we've been bottling Cornelian cherry jam, fig molasses, wild yellow plum jam, Oregon grape jelly, and wild cherry syrup. At this point most of the jam is bottled in tiny sample-size jars and given away to friends and family, but we've been starting to think about labeling laws and how to meet sanitary requirements for official jamming. Adolfo's mom has been a big help with picking, peeling and processing fruit. We're realizing that a farm can't be run with just 4 hands, Adolfo's and mine, and that we are and will be dependent on the help of volunteers, family and friends. Most of the achievements of the last year were possible only with the help of others, for which we owe many many people a big thank you. We are fortunate to have so much support!

We hope this letter finds you happy, healthy and relaxed,

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


28 June 2006

Ciao tutti!

Summer has arrived in Paterno with a vengance, after a long cool spring. The jackets were just stowed in the closet when an early heat wave mobilized the firefly population. The warm evenings have been spectacular for several weeks now, particularly in Adolfo's walnut and sorb field where the high grass seems to attract the fireflies. They are plentiful enough that the field looks like it is draped in twinkling white Christmas lights, lending a romantic air to our late-night trips to irrigate and to feed the horses. The heat is impressive even for a native Californian, ripening the wild cherries quickly and making everybody feel lazy.

But lazy inclinations must be suppressed, for now. As we careen towards the June 30th deadline for completing all work, payments, and paperwork for our farm improvement grant, I have the sensation of being caught up in the craziness and desperation of final exams week. We're simultaneously assembling a 5000-lb irrigation system, three large greenhouses, completing the fence and gates (just one last fence post left to go in, of the 1300 we bought!), and attempting to get all documents in order and all work signed off by the regional authorities. June is a busy time of year for farmers anyway - we've been baling and stacking some 450 bales of hay and harvesting and jamming the early fruits (blackcurrants!).

On top of the high degree of chaos with the farm improvement grant and seasonal field work, things are, shockingly, starting to move for our house project. The regional authorities decided to push through some agriturismo projects, including ours. After a year and a half of designing, pondering, and talking, all systems have shifted to GO. We've been given 30 days to have all necessary permits to build, a super-human task in a place as beaurocratically handicapped as Italy. Our architect has worn his Superman cape to rags but has managed to produce a septic system plan, handicapped-access plan, astonishingly detailed house plans, a road proposal, and a pile of other documents required by the town hall, the province offices, and the region within 10 days. It seems amazing to be ready to talk about details like solar panels, where we'll put the wood-burning furnace, and when we'll start digging. Even a month ago we weren't 100% sure they'd let us build at all, since there is a total moratorium on new construction in Umbria and our project is really stretching the definition of "remodelling" - the house has no roof and is missing one wall entirely. So far it seems that the powers that be want to help us, ie - will swallow our definition of remodelling and let us rebuild the house as big as we're guessing it once was. This may have to do with the fact that our architect is married to the president of the council of our valley? Admittedly we did choose him in part for this reason, Adolfo being very aware that connections matter around here, but so far we have also been happy with his professionality. We suspect the house building process will be a game of hurry up and wait - probably we'll get final authorizations late in the summer and might start actually physically doing something in fall or early spring. As I write, the local building commission is in session to consider our project. My fingers are so crossed they are tied in knots and the nails are long-since gnawed, but it seems like we might actually pull this off and end up with a (habitable) nice stone farmhouse in a few years.

Things move so fast. Our new irrigation lake is now dug and lined and even has a tiny bit of water in it - just a few hours after the liner was finished the sky cooperated with a 20 minute sprinkling of rain which was enough to cover the lake bottom 10cm deep. We'll have to wait for winter rains and the corresponding overflow from the natural springs to fill the lake up the rest of the way so we can use it next summer ( we calculated that it would take a large faucet open full blast 24/7 about 3+ months to accomplish the task). Leah-the-truffle-dog has been the only one attempting to swim so far - she seems to enjoy wallowing and frolicking in the lake-puddle. It does look inviting, given the recent heat!

We're on our third round of irrigating already, something we haven't begun 'til late July in the last couple summers. We're praying for a good heavy rain (desperate enough to think about choreographing a rain-dance) since that 20-minute sprinkle that dampened the new lake bed is the only moisture we've had in 2 months. For now we're using water from the tiny old irrigation pond to water the youngest trees by hand, since they havent had time to grow good roots yet and are suffering the most from the heat. Fortunately, we hosted a pair of wonderful WWOOFers (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) from England for a couple of weeks. Lucy and Clare bailed us out by spending hours hauling hoses to reach the young apples and plums as well as the new rose and dogwood hedges along the horse pasture. Without their help I think we would have lost a fair number of trees to drought because Adolfo and I have been focused on finishing the lake and fence and house project paperwork.

Lee and Joe, another pair of adventurous WWOOFers who visited us this spring, made a serious dent in the catepillar population in our orchards in those precarious few weeks of the season where the pest populations have boomed but the predators haven't caught up yet. We have a lot to learn about the many pests that frequent our orchards. Sometimes whole young trees are defoliated within a couple of days, and it's not always clear who was responsible. Teeth marks and missing shoot tips distinctively implicate deer but when it come to the insect kingdom we're woefully ignorant. Most damage is apparently due to caterpillars - green fat caterpillars, black and grey hairy caterpillars, brown rough caterpillars that impersonate twigs, thin wobbly translucent yellow caterpillars that stand up on their hind legs and stare at us. Last year we mostly looked and wondered. This year we noticed
some trends and took photos. Maybe next year we'll actually figure out whodunit and whattodoaboutit. Probably our pest control tactics will remain the same - dilute perfume and chili pepper spray against deer and manual caterpillar control (yep - squish!). It does take a lot of time to check every tree in the orchards but it is a good opportunity to slow down and evaluate how the fields are doing.

We're looking forward to hosting many more visitors and WWOOF volunteers this summer. It's a neat opportunity to meet people from around the world with an interest in organic farming, and they lend a very needed and appreciated hand to our field projects. Long live the WWOOF program! (www.wwoof.org).

For me and Adolfo, July 1st will mark 5 years together as a couple. It is amazing to think how far we have come... courtship, long-distance, marriage, and farm. We're planning to celebrate by buying the largest watermelon that we can find, and taking it, us, and the horses down to the River Nera in the bottom of the valley for a cool well-earned afternoon of rest. It's been an intense couple of months. A brief but awful bout with kidney stones sent us to the emergency room 3 weeks ago but Adolfo is feeling much better now. One tiny stone eventually left of its own accord, reminding us to take care of ourselves, remember to drink enough water, and be grateful for good health. On the whole we are doing well despite the chaos. I feel like we may be reaching a sort of turning point, where life starts getting a smidgen easier as we get ever more settled here.... my citizenship application is finally being processed, I did get an Italian driver's license (and with it regained a degree of independence), our house plans are making progress, and our trees are growing.

We hope this letter finds you well and happily enjoying the summer with friends and family.

Saluti,

Adolfo and Darcy

back to top


21 April 2006

Hello everyone!

Our little trees have set some fruit and we are (fingers still crossed) thankfully past risk of major frost damage! We did get a few last flakes of snow 10 days ago but now the sun is coaxing the early wildflowers into full bloom, from cyclamen to violets to wild primroses. I am so excited that we'll be tasting the first fruit from many of the trees this year... I keep walking through the rows of trees, checking amongst the young leaves for tiny green fruit. Looks like we could have some apricots, a few cherries (twenty?), a decent number of peaches, a handful of pears, and a few baskets of apples. That's if we're lucky, since there may be a lot of caterpillars, deer, wild pigs, and a summer hailstorm or two between us and harvest!

The Monday after Easter is a holiday here (Pasquetta, or Little Easter), which we celebrated with our first open-farm party. Traditionally Pasquetta is a day enjoyed outdoors with family, a chance to enjoy the spring sunshine, gather some wild asparagus, and sample the abundance of foods that the season brings... the neighbor's sheep are producing lots of milk on the fresh grass so cheese and ricotta are plentiful, the current-year salami are ready, the previous-year prosciuttio is finally cured to the right degree, the chickens have kicked into high gear and we're inundated with brown eggs of every size from tiny to big enough that you wonder how the bird did it. About 30 friends and family members hiked down to our "broken" house site for a picnic in the nearby meadow. Pucca and Morrica gave donkey rides to the kids, which let them build up courage to hop on the horses later on. Both Sorba and Jujube were admirably well-behaved, tolerating endless petting, photo-taking, and short rides by adults and kids alike. After lunch Adolfo rounded up the kids for a game of "Cuzzurella" which is similar to bocci but played by rolling hard-boiled eggs down a grassy hill, with the twist that if you manage to bonk another egg, you capture it. Our 8-year-old nephew did some impressive egg-rolling and wound up with most of the eggs! An adventurous contingent of guests hiked out to the decrepit medieval watchtower which offers a spectacular view of the valley to the east towards Norcia and to the southwest towards Terni. It was a very enjoyable day, especially for us, because so many people that we care about came to see the farm for the first time. 

The fence project has made pretty steady progress though we will need a small miracle or two in order to finish by our June deadline. With the help of my dad and Tonino and Filippo, we finished planted fence poles in a particularly hairy (nearly vertical) stretch of fencing thorough the woods and have gotten many rolls of fencing nailed up, enough to move the horses into their second pasture. While we do have many hundreds of meters of fencing left to go, it is comforting to see the stack of fence posts dwindling as they go into place. As the ground gets drier and harder planting poles will get closer to impossible so we'd better hurry up and get that part done ASAP. 

In the mean time, digging of the irrigation lake is due to start in 10 days. After a zillion false starts and changes of plans the official letter giving permission to dig should arrive in a few days, the excavating company should be available in 10 days, and the plastic liner/tubing company should have our material in hand in a couple of weeks. Of course, this being Italy, things which should happen bear little resemblance to those that actually do happen, especially in terms of time frames. But, if we are very lucky, all may go as planned and we'll have adequate water for the trees this summer.

Our first WWOOFer (volunteer interested in organic farming) came in February and helped us move a lot of rocks. Given the appearance of our apple field, he looked at us like "you must be kidding" when we said our goal was to take all the rocks out. It is a monumental task, something that used to be done one rock at a time while tending the sheep. Along the edges of cultivated fields there are typically long piles of rocks taller than I am, carried out of the fields by shepherds in centuries past. In spite of their efforts, there are plenty of rocks left... and more come up again every time you plow. First we pile rocks at the base of the trees so they're out of the way of the tractor and horses, then we pass through with a trailer and collect rocks potentially useful for building, preferably before the grass grows high enough to hide the stacks. One fine morning, my dad and Adolfo and I loaded approximately 15 tons (many loads) into our neighbor's trailer and dumped them near the house site. Oof! Not only will clearing the field make it easier to drive through, but it will provide the raw material to build the house - quantities of stone which would otherwise be near-impossible to truck in given the lack of passable roads. Fortunately it sounds like we will have a steady stream of WWOOFers helping us this summer, which should also lighten the burden of hand-irrigating considerably. It's fun to meet people who are excited about farming and it keeps us going in the moments when being tired wins out over farming enthusiasm.

Building a barn has been indefinitely postponed ever since our geologist consultant said that, according to his computer model, the potential barn site should have mud-slided right off the mountain already and thus a 30,000 euro slab of cement would be required under the barn. Huh? We think he's ridiculous but have been re-considering our options and other sites. Maybe while we wait strawbale building techniques will become officially accepted here, and we will be able to build a more environmentally friendly barn.

On the house front... paper, paper, and more paper... a design that pleases both us and the architect has emerged. It sounds like we have approximately one more year of paper ahead of us before we can put any rocks in place. We have to send all documents to the town hall, to the region, to the province, back to the town hall, which takes about a year. While in some ways I'm impatient to start because I'm impatient to move in, taking a year to let details crystallize is a good idea. Meanwhile we talk with the architect, figure out the road situation, and hope that cement prices fall. Recently we found a big tree particularly well-suited to hosting a tree house, and have been looking forward to the distant day when our construction projects will be on this less overwhelming scale. One day we climbed up (that is, Adolfo climbed up and hauled me up by the arm) and we ate lunch up there, surveying our kingdom. The tree is in the middle of the new horse pasture, and it's fun to be munching up there with the horses grazing underneath. Though the land is still very wild, it is starting to look like something like a farm, with patches of distinctive greens defining the fields. I wonder if one day it will be anything like it was a hundred years ago before it was abandoned.

All in all, we are doing well these days, thankfully healthy and glad to be doing what we're doing. While there are lots of ups (great wild asparagus harvest) and downs (Morrica lost her foal at 5 months gestation) we get a sense of falling into a good rhythm and building a life here. We're meeting more people with common interests, and making some time for socializing, getting to know the neighbors better, and for horseback riding. We got to spend a lot of time with my dad when he helped us out for six weeks. I'm heading to the States next week for my brother's wedding where I'll get to see my grandmother and the rest of the extended family. Adolfo has been traveling a lot for work, venturing to France to see an experimental high-density olive planting and zooming around Italy talking with olive researchers. These contacts and variety keep us (kind of) sane and (sort of) balanced in spite of crazy farm projects with even crazier deadlines.

We hope this letter finds all of you well and enjoying the spring!

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


22 February 2006

Hello all!

Two relatively warm sunny days and we're coming down with a case of premature spring fever. At least, the first crocuses are poking up (yellow!) and I can start imagining warm air, sun, and leaves on the trees. Freezing nights last into April though, so it will be a long while before the long underwear goes back into the drawer. Hopefully this weird spell of balmy weather hasn't tricked our trees and they'll hold off on blooming until spring really hits.

For a while it was too cold to rain or snow and we got a lot of field work accomplished in the absence of mud. The new 1.5 acre horse pasture under the house site is completed except for the upper bit of barbed wire and the gates. The equines are happily inside and haven't attempted any escapes over the temporary gates. They revel in the open space available for running and spend a lot of time chasing, frolicking, and rolling around on the ground. The horses and especially the donkeys resemble teddy bears in their winter coats. Pucca went into heat several weeks ago and Achilles did his duty with enthusiasm, so we're wondering if she'll present us with a baby donkey next January (12-13 months gestation). She's already so round and fuzzy I suspect we won't know for sure til it's born. 

We've made significant progress on planting fence posts for the outer boundary fence (another 200 or so posts), and have more or less decided where the rest of the fence is going to go. There remains just that minor detail of getting around to actually doing it all: clearing a path with the tractor, planting the remaining posts, putting up the cyclone fencing, stringing the barbed wire, and building gates. Some of the stretches of fencing that we have yet to do will be pretty challenging... nearly vertical rocky slopes on the edge of the forest. Very very lucky for us, my capable-engineer-builder-type father will be coming to visit and help the whole month of March. He's volunteered to give us a much-needed hand with fencing, pruning, planting, as well as with rock wall building in the new olive field.

I say "new" but the olives are new only to us... when cleaning brush under the site of the ruin of the old farmhouse, we noted some greyish-green foliage waving high in the breeze and wondered what it could possibly be, inside the dense 15-foot-high jungle of weeds, shrubs, trees, and woman-eating blackberry vines. Indeed, after further investigation and a lot of scratches from the blackberries, we located some Very Old Olives! Unbelievable. We had no clue that they were there when we bought the property. With much help and sweat from Adolfo's father, Filippo, and Adolfo's sister's parter, Tonino, we have been liberating them from the jungle. One by one they appear and we're surprised how many there are and how old they must be. We live on the upper border of the olive's range because of high altitude and short growing season, so the trees grow very slowly. In Umbria you'll find none of the hulking trees you see in southern Italy because every so often they freeze back to nothing and resprout. Some of our "new" trees were conceivably around at the time of the Medici (1600s), and most are certainly a couple hundred years old at least. The oldest portions of the trees are dead but many have sprouted back multiple younger trunks. Generally they are in poor shape, after who knows how many years of suffocation, light-deprivation, and neglect. There are signs of a big fire within the last 50 or so years, lots of charred hollow trunk sections. Happily, almost all the trees can be recovered with TLC, manure, and careful pruning and the few dead or missing ones will be replanted next year. The new "oliveto" will eventually bring our count of productive olive tree from 125 to about 200, hugely increasing our oil production. What a gift! In a few years we should be swimming in oil, if we can find enough helping hands to pick all those olives.

Our irrigation-water lake should (fingers still crossed) be getting dug shortly. The lake project got hung up in the local building committee, after we asked to shrink the already-approved project a little. You would imagine that this would make it even more ok, if the original bigger design passed the committee with flying colors, but for some reason they sat on it for 2 months until we upped the number of phone calls to town hall and started harassing the mayor (something one can do in a county of 400 people). We're supposed to be done digging, smoothing the extra dirt, replanting the immediate area, fencing the lake, lining the lake bed, and filling it with water before the springs dry up in late May. If all goes well, it just might happen. Hopefully it will, so that we will have all the irrigation water we need for the new trees in our "forest garden", just planted in January.

Over the years Adolfo has assembled a collection of unusual edible and otherwise useful perennial shrubs and trees that produce berries, dye, medicines, forage, and edible flowers. He lovingy shuttled them (lots, in pots, not a small undertaking) from friend to friend when we were traveling or in California, and his family very kindly watered his precious babies when we couldn't find a plant sitter. Mortality was high but the hardy survivors at long last have been planted in the ground in the new forest garden. Our idea is that it will be a sort of permaculture-botanical garden complete with name tags on every plant and a map for visitors. At the top of the field (it's planted on a steep slope) there is a beautiful view of the valley and Adolfo wants to put a picnic table up there to reward anyone persistent enough to climb to the top. 

One of the unusual and interesting events of the winter was pig killing day, traditionally one of the first tasks of the new year. In a village of 12 people, almost everybody participates because a lot of hands are needed and more helpers and relatives flood in from the surrounding villages. Our neighbor Gregorio raised two pigs last year, so just after New years Adolfo and Tonino went over to help him turn them into prosciutto (and of course many other things). After giving the pigs a last pat, I hid in the house for the actual killing part. Pigs scream when distressed, a horribly human noise. I can accept that the meat is needed, that all parts of the animal will be used (from the blood to tip of the tail to the nose), that the animal had a relatively full happy life, that the suffering is minimal, but I still find the dying part pretty upsetting. If the shooter is accurate the screaming part lasts about 2 seconds, then pig is unconscious. Then the work starts... scraping the hide, removing interior parts, cleaning the hooves (yes even these are eaten), splitting the carcass in half so that it cools quicky. On the second day I helped too, learning more about salami and sausage making than I thought there was to know. We are fortunate to have knowledgeable neighbors who are willing to teach us the traditional ways of doing things, before such arts are lost.

Not having pigs of our own, our main product/crop for the winter has been black winter truffles! No kidding. Adolfo wrote his undergraduate thesis on the symbiosis between the truffle fungus and the roots of hazelnut trees, and has long dreamed of haresting his own truffles. He planted his own cultivated truffle field 13 years ago by innoculating the roots of hazelnut and oak seedlings with the fungus. For several years we have seen the tell-tale zone of sparse or dead grass around the trunk of certain trees in that field, telling us that the fungus was developing well and could potentially be producing truffles. In the wilder parts of our land, we found oak trees with the same "halo" in the grass. Until this winter we had no way of locating the truffles more precisely in order to dig them out. Enter Leah, the truffle dog! Last fall Tonino brought her home because a co-worker didn't want her anymore. We needed another dog like we need a hole in the head, but were charmed by her doggy enthusiasm and excited about her training as a truffle dog. In fact she has proven herself very capable of sniffing and digging out truffles. The main problem is convincing her to hand them over once she has dug them out, because she prefers to gobble them up on the spot. I have taken to carrying a bag of bacon in my pocket so that when she starts scratching at the ground I can hurry over and persuade her to trade me the truffle for a chunk of bacon. Most of the truffles we have dug out belong to the species Tuber melanosporum, which sell for about $300-$600 per kilogram. Not that we have sold any .... between us and Adolfo's extended family (and Leah's appetite) so far we have consumed all the truffles ourselves, mostly in the form of spahgetti al tartufo and bruschetta al tartufo. Such luxury!

My "little" brother decided to get hitched to his longtime girlfriend, Amy, on the 6th of May so I'll be heading back to California for a week or so. Adolfo and I were hoping to go together since it would be our first vacation in a very long time, but the delay in our lake project means that the digging will probably coincide with the wedding, and one of us has to be here to supervise the work and ensure that the lake ends up in the right place. Fortunately, lots of friends and family (uncles, aunts, and cousins from both sides of my family!) will be coming to visit this spring and summer, and we're very much looking forward to seeing them!

During some of the more severe winter weather I had time to put together a rudimentary website for the farm. Some day maybe we'll get fancy, but for now we have put up just some pictures of us and the fields and the animals. I will try to put up recent photos every couple of months. Check out www.geocities.com/gordondarcy

"Auguri" to everybody for the new year!

Adolfo and Darcy

back to top

2005

11 December 2005

Auguri e Buone Feste! Happy Holidays to all!

Two days ago we got dusted with the first real snow of the season and are starting to get into the holiday mood. We're almost done fixing up the kitchen so I'm ready for some serious holiday baking. Other than panettone, which isn't really traditional in Umbria, I'll make Torta di Natale, a sort of spiced strudel of apples and raisins in the form of a spiral, and a bunch of American-style cookies to share with the neighbors. I'm really looking forward to Christmas, which is celebrated beautifully and thoroughly here since the country is homogeneously Catholic. Lots of singing, roasted chestnuts and hot wine (both of our own production this year!), lots of free concerts and happy pandemonium on the streets in the evenings. One of my favorite things about the Italian Christmas season is that it continues through the 6th of January, the Epiphany, when a good witch (the Befana) brings presents. When Adolfo was little, presents arrived on the Befana rather than the 25th of Dec since they didn't have the tradition of Santa Claus. Most people have exchanged the Befana for Santa these days.

On the home and farm fronts, we've been busy busy as usual, between turning a bedroom into a kitchen, starting fence construction, and preparing for digging the irrigation water lake. The level of chaos will elevate shortly (tomorrow?), with the arrival of 200 new trees that we've ordered. We're putting in two rows of persimmons behind the site of our future farmhouse, as well as a collection of plum varieties, and some more apples and pears and a few cherries and apricots. Another lot of trees will arrive closer to Christmas. (Who was it that said that farmers rest during the dormant season?) In a few years we're going to be pretty busy finding something to do with all the fruit!

We have been very fortunate so far with our construction projects - we were officially granted assistance for young farmers in the form of grants and matching funds for improvement projects such as the lake, the fence, rock wall building, and some other projects we had proposed. The checks arrived a month ago and with them in the bank we feel a little better about undertaking projects of this magnitude. However, along with the grants come deadlines, so now we're in a hurry (what's new?) to get all of the funded projects done by the end of June. The only proposal we haven't heard back about yet is the house-agriturismo design. If all goes well we could be building by April, but it's pretty unlikely that things will move that fast - it's only been one year since we submitted the plans and this is, after all, Italy. 

We did get about 200 of the 1200 fence posts up before bad weather set in. A moderate amount of rain helped soften up the ground so the tractor could hammer in the posts more easily, but the freezing rain just won't quit. All of the natural springs in the area are flowing and the ditches are overflowing - we're about ready for Noah's ark to pick us up since even a 4x4 car doesn't cut it. Part of the road that connects us with Spoleto is covered by a landslide, but there's a reasonable detour so we're getting back and forth pretty well. A couple of days ago there was another landslide about 30 meters past our house, where about 15 trees and a whole lot of mud ended up covering the road, totally isolating the village (Paterno) from the outside world for a day since there isn't a second road to get there. Natural events of this sort make you feel the isolation of living in the countryside even if you're only 20 minutes form a good-sized town.

One of the most difficult aspects of the never-ending rain has been the mud in our horse pasture. It is just less than knee-deep around the hay rack, which means that a normal pair of rubber boots is barely sufficient.... in fact, a couple times the mud has spilled over the tops of the boots and into our socks - cold wet sticky ick! Still worse was the time I fell in the mud while carrying a bale of hay.... dirty, grumpy!.... anyways, this quantity of water introduces all sorts of challenges into the daily routine. It's worse for the horses than for us, obviously. They do have drier corners of the pasture to escape to, but tend to hang out around the hay, in the deepest mud. I'm starting to look forward to colder days when everything freezes hard for weeks on end and we'll be able to walk on top of the frozen mud!

The good news is that our wood-burning stove is hooked up and functioning beautifully, so at least inside the house we are warm and dry. The stove manages to heat water for all of our radiators, and as well as heating water for showers and dishes. I was a little sceptical about depending only on the wood stove for heating and hot water production but so far the system is great. It takes only 30-60 minutes of a decent fire to heat 80 liters of water to hotter than necessary, and the water stays sufficiently hot for more than 24 hours, so we have been indulging in long hot showers.

Thanksgiving was a quiet affair here, since no one's heard of it - it's one of the few American holidays that hasn't crossed the ocean Someday I hope to invite local Americans as well as Italian friends to have a big dinner together, but this year it wasn't going to happen given all the construction in the kitchen. But it's my favorite holiday so I made an effort to approximate the real thing on a micro scale with just one turkey-eater, Adolfo. I butterflied a turkey breast (courtesy of Adolfo's sister's turkey), and wrapped it around a few handfuls of stuffing, then tied the whole package with string and roasted it as if it were a whole turkey. The mini-turkey went over well with Adolfo, who was very nice about having to eat leftovers for a whole week. I made pumpkin and pecan pies and took some to the neighbors. Pecan was a big hit, but pumpkin got a more ambiguous response (you Americans eat squash for dessert?). Thanksgiving tend to coincide with the olive harvest, so maybe in the future we can host a big weekend party of picking olives and feasting. Anyone want to visit us for Thanksgiving 2006?

Our olive harvest this year went very well, considering that most growers got a fraction of the normal yield due to nasty weather in March. We were lucky to have two relatively warm sunny days, and the help of Adolfo's mother. She is tiny, so she attacks the bottom of the canopy, and I-of-the-long-arms take the higher branches, then Adolfo climbs up inside the tree to get the fruits we couldn't reach. From about 135 kilos of Leccino, Frantoio, and Moraiolo olives we got 25 liters of green spicy grassy olive oil. It's good stuff! Very few growers harvest fruits indivudually by hand, most prefering to shake the tree or use mini-rakes to claw the fruits from the branches. Since olive oil is after all the fatty portion of fresh fruit juice, you can imagine that taking good care of the fruits is important. Most growers treat olives like corn or beans - throwing them in sacks and chucking the sacks in the corner until ready to take them to the mill, which could be weeks. Ideally, fruits are picked when they are half-green and half-purple, harvest is by hand, fruits are layered in large trays only several fruits deep, and are taken to the mill ASAP (like within 24 hours) for cold-processing. This gives strongly flavored spicy and bitter deep green oil, rich in anti-oxidants and beneficial compounds. It's very satisfying to watch your oil pouring out of the press and into the bottles, makes us feel so wealthy. And then the first taste of the new oil... the mills always have fresh bread and garlic on hand to put together a quick bruschetta as soon as your oil is done. Then we stand around for a few minutes enjoying the oil together and strutting like peacocks if everyone agrees that it's good.

On the work front, the olive institute has kept Adolfo busy - tasting the newly pressed oils, hosting seminars, and inventing new projects for next year. Outside of his official research job, he has now completed one year of wild-foods articles. In 2005 he wrote monthly articles for the journal 'Vita in Campagnia' (Life in the Countryside) about edible weeds. Each month features the history, botany, medicinal properties, and culinary uses of a different common weedy plant, complete with recipes and photos. So far he has covered chickweed, elm, black locust, ranunculus ficaria, amaranth, lambsquarters, purslane, sow thistle, warty cabbage, and violets. The articles have been popular and he's booked for another series of weed articles for 2006. For him it has been a neat opportunity to learn more about the plants than just casual reading, and we've had some interesting culinary adventures trying to come up with decent recipes that feature the weed-of-the-month (warty cabbage soup, anyone?). I've been doing some translating and editing of scientific papers, which I enjoy, as well as working on getting a couple of articles of my own published, left over from dissertation data. Officially though, now I'm a full-time farmer, complete with government pension scheme. For the farm, I've been doing mostly paperwork these days. Lots of visits to the architect which whom we're designing our barn, lots of documents pertaining to our organic certification, coordinating tree orders with nurseries, etc. And, I've started driving school. Yep. After 6 months of residency in Italy, my CA drivers license is no longer valid and I have to get an Italian one. Starting with 20 hours of "driving theory" (along the lines of 'the faster the better', I assume, given how most people drive here!).

For the New Year - as of January 1st our farm will be listed with WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), an international program that connects people interested in helping out on an organic farm with farmers who are willing to host and feed the helpers in exchange for a half-day of work. It will be fun and inspiring for us to work with people interested in learning about organic agriculture, and the extra helping hands will be much appreciated! If you know of anyone interested in a working farm-stay experience either with us or another farm, they can learn more about the program on the WWOOF website at www.wwoof.org - there are hundreds of participating organic farms in Italy and many more all over the world.

We wish everybody happy holidays, and would love to see some familiar faces in Italy if anyone happens to be headed to our corner of the world!

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top


05 October 2005

Hello!

Summer just flew by in a whirlwind of fireflies, irrigation tubing, gelato, and watermelon seeds. After teasing for a few weeks, autumn arrived three days ago complete with condensation on the windows in the mornings. Leaves started to turn colors almost overnight, and we lit the first fire in the fireplace. Cool weather has come a little earlier than usual and we're thankful that our grapes were picked and pressed a week ago.

My parents were here to give us a hand with the "vendemmia", and seemed to enjoy picking grapes. Adolfo's dad and sister and their respective partners joined us for the day and we worked our way first though our vineyards and then theirs. It was a beautiful day, for lots of reasons including sunshine and a lot of laughter. For me and for Adolfo it was wonderful to see our families working together. Linguistic communication is a bit limited unless one of us is translating, but Adolfo's sister does speak some English and understands it pretty well. Charades and gestures fill in the gaps. My parents are getting the hang of Italian.... though they are generally very quiet, they've started laughing at jokes and stories in Italian which is a dead giveaway that they're following the conversation! By mid-afternoon, all the grapes were picked and an impressive quantity had been consumed on the spot (in my humble opinion, wine grapes make fantastic table grapes if you don't mind the seeds!). After showers all around to wash off some of the stickiness of the grape juice, we drove the grapes to a friend's organic winery and celebrated the harvest with some very good pizza in the town of Spello. 

Another task has been stocking the woodpile. Now it's well over our heads, and while it won't last as long as I wish it would, it feels good to face winter with a solid stack of wood. Now we just have to hook up the woodburning stove to the radiators and build another chimney, more than a small detail.... Fortunately we'll be fine with just the fireplace til we finish setting up the woodburning stove. We decided to try to use wood for most of our heating needs this winter. Our new-to-us-but-thoroughly-used woodburning stove can make hot water for our radiators and for showering, and has a built-in oven and cooking surface. We'll see how it goes, with an eye to designing our eventual farmhouse. Hopefully we'll get an idea of how practical it is to use wood on a daily basis and maintain a reasonable degree of comfort and convenience. 

Other than wood, we've been squirreling away canned food... homemade applesauce (including my mom's special chunky-style with cinnamon, mmm!), dogwood berry jam, tomato sauce, and puree of sorb fruits. As soon as we locate some more jars we'll start in on rose hip jelly and hawthorn jam. Our last crops of the year will be olive oil and table olives. An unusually cold March (minus 11 degrees Centigrade) damaged some of the young olive growth and reduced fruit set. We won't know how many liters of oil we'll get until well into the harvest, but it looks like a lousy year for oil. On the other hand, now that Adolfo works at the Olive Research Instiitute in Spoleto, we have access to some of the Institute's fields and have located some trees with astonishingly large olives. One is called the "apple olive" for it's mildness and size. The apple comparison is a bit of an exageration but they are impressively big and hopefully we can get enough of them to do some experimenting with some recipes for table olives.

Another hurdle cleared - we've filed the paperwork to become an "agriturismo", which means that we are legally permitted to have overnight paying guests and to serve meals. For the moment we have only one studio apartment set up to host 2-3 people. It will be several years before we have the final B&B running, but we're hoping that word of mouth will start bringing customers our way. So, if any of you have friends, co-workers, or family who are heading to central Italy and are looking for a farm-style bed and breakfast in the Spoleto area, refer them to us! We promise to take good care of them and to serve them our organic farm products.

On the construction front:
So far there are no assembled sections of actual fence but a lot of thought and planning has gone into it and we have accumulated a large pile of fencing materials. After shopping around we bought some 1300 chestnut posts, 8 km of barbed wire, and 3 km of cyclone fencing. The pile is monumental (required 4 large truckloads) and daunting, because the idea is that we'll do most of the work ourselves with the help of a neighbor and his tractor. The idea is to start by making a high anti-wolf fence (for our animals' night-time safety) encircling a field just under the site of our future house, then to continue with a lower perimeter fence generally following our property line (to keep out both wild boars and the hunters that pursue them). 

Speaking of fencing, the most exciting development for us is the arrival of two horses and two donkeys, to bring our total to 5 equines! We decided to start with larger animals because they are less vulnerable to predators, which may be an issue until we get the anti-wolf fence built. Achilles now has 4 female consorts, lucky donkey, and is in heaven after years of bachelorhood. His favorite is Morrica (Blackberry), a 3-year-old black MartinaFranca-cross donkey. She is still in the teenage gangly stage but promises to fill out and be sturdy enough to ride. The second donkey is Pucca (Pooka), a middle-aged white and grey Amiata-type. She's very rolypoly but has done an impressive job of keeping Achille's amorous overtures in check (solid left hook with the rear hoof). Giuggiola (Jujube) is an enormous chestnut-and-white paint mare of draft horse parentage. She is very mellow and completely ignores Achilles' making eyes at her from across the pasture. The second horse is Sorba, a beautiful and lively sorrel mare with white stockings who has both Achilles and Adolfo wrapped around her little finger, um, hoof. So far the new additions are keeping our hands full much more than we expected, between a case of equine influenza, seriously overgrown hooves, and a shortage of hay. It took us only a week of horse-ownership to meet the local vet and become proficient in giving IM shots. Now things are calming down.... looks like we finally found a source of good hay (fingers crossed), a knowledgeable farrier, and have managed to erect a temporary rain shelter. I have to admit it would have been much more rational to buy the animals after the winter, when our fence had progressed further, but we are both horse-crazy and there was no putting it off. We are very fond of all of our equines and very much enjoy evening horseback rides together. There are many old mule trails around here between the villages and we're looking forward to exploring them in whatever spare daylight hours we have. 

Tying up loose ends:
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the UCD Office of Graduate Studies notifying me that my dissertation has been accepted. In a way it's a little anti-climactic because I felt done a long time ago, but it is a relief to be offically done and to be able to dedicate more time to the farm now. Many thanks are due to Adolfo and to my parents for their help and support during all 5 years of the PhD!

I hope that all of you are doing well. Please let me know if you'd prefer not to receive newsletters from us, or if you know someone else who would like to be included.

Adolfo and Darcy

back to top


11 August 2005

Ciao!

We arrived on the 7th of July and have spent the last month in a whirlwind of fieldwork, nesting, and thesis-editing.

The first priority was to fix up the irrigation system and water our trees... we patched the holes that some mice chewed and replaced some faucets that cracked at minus 11 degrees C last winter. This summer got hot early here, and unfortunately we lost about 20 apple and chestnut trees to drought before we could water. We have been irrigating a lot, from after work until dark. Since we have about a thousand young trees and we water them by hand, it takes about 10 days to complete a rotation. Then we have one day off and have to start over again. But we got a good downpour about a week ago, and more rain is predicted for this weekend. Our fingers are crossed!

As we're learning, rain is a blessing in many ways. Not only do the trees get effortlessly watered, but we get time to do other things. Like unpack suitcases, which took us about 3 weeks to get around to, and installing a wood burning stove before it gets to be autumn. We're slowly remodelling the upper floor of Adolfo's mom's country house, which will be our home until we rebuild the farmhouse in the middle of our land. His sister and her boyfriend have taken up residence in the bottom floor of the same house and it's nice to have 'neighbors'. We're only about 1 km from our fields and 20 minutes from Spoleto.

A couple of weeks ago we bought a little green 4x4 car, appropriately named the Zucchina, which makes the trip to the fields much easier. Previously we did it on foot, which is quite a hike roundtrip because of the elevation change, or donkeyback. We are actively looking for a girlfriend (or two!) for Achilles, hopefully a tall strong one so they produce some ride-able offspring. We're hoping to build them a strawbale-palace-barn before winter hits.

It sounds like we may get a grant for young farmers, which will help us put in an "anti-wolf" fence and buy some livestock, including Achilles' girlfriends. We'll find out for sure in a couple of weeks. Our plan is to start with some donkeys and goats, and maybe sheep. Since we acquired many of our fields in a sad state of abandon, we have a lot of vegetation to clear (vines, trees, shrubs... looks like a jungle) . If we can do a lot of the clearing with herbivores, hopefully we'll have less need of chainsaws and our neighbor's tractor. And, of course, we'll have a lot of manure, which is the organic farmer's best friend!

On the work front... I've been spending the days this summer finishing the writing and publication of my dissertation. Adolfo's workplace (Istituto Sperimentale per l'Olivicoltura di Spoleto) lets me have office space which keeps me from getting distracted with plants and gardening and kittens as I would at home! I plan to mail off the final draft in a couple weeks and will be very grateful to be done. Adolfo and my parents have been very encouraging, and their help has made a big difference in my motivation to finish. That and a big sack of Jordan almonds, with which I have been bribing myself page by page. Also I am very much looking forward to my parents visiting in September.

Adolfo has been getting organized here, getting involved with new research projects and meeting a lot of people in the 'olive world'. There have been a lot of changes for the better recently in the administration of his institute and he feels positive about the potential for doing good research here. We both completed a week-long course for olive oil tasters sponsored by the institute and came out with certificates stating that our taste buds were adequate to detect rancid, vinegary, fermented, and bitter tones (really). We learned a lot about oil quality also from the growers standpoint, which will help us do a better job of producing top-quality oil from our own olive trees. The hottest new fad in olive oil is "mono-varietal" oils. It's a funny thing - everyone accepts that Cabernet grapes make Cabernet wine, but no one wonders which of the hundreds of varieties of olives go into their oil. Some producers here are starting to label their oil by variety and consumers are getting educated about which varieties are ideal for certain dishes (Moraiolo with fish, anyone?). As with grapes, each variety has a sensory and chemical fingerprint and the differences are notable. 

We are exhausted these days but realize that we're glad to be back in Italy and are heartily thankful that we won't be moving around anymore. Both of us feel like it is time to settle down and grow some roots into the land and the community. We couldn't be in a more beautiful place. Our projects are starting to bear fruit, literally, after years of planning, and we're very excited to see where it goes. Sometimes we're too excited to sleep, with our minds full of plans for the barn, the house, the roads, the vineyard, the fields, and all the things we hope to do.

I hope that all of you are doing well. Please let me know if you'd prefer not to receive newsletters from us, or if you know someone else who would like to be included.

Darcy and Adolfo

back to top