Food Obsessed: WWOOFing in Sicily at Casa delle Acque

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I wasn’t always food obsessed.

As a workaholic adolescent and young adult, I didn’t think much about food on a daily basis.  In fact, I generally found eating to be a nuisance that interrupted my study, work, or extra curricular activities.  Convenience was the name of the game.  I loved smoothies and power bars and would down them while walking to class or driving between meetings.  I even daydreamed of food pills you could take to meet all of your daily nutritional needs.

At some point over the last four years, things changed.

During this time, I lived in Seattle and Los Angeles, cities where people are passionate about what they eat for all sorts of reasons.  I was exposed to the world of Farmers’ Markets and food bloggers and made friends with people who would be happy to spend a whole day just eating or cooking.  I went on a road trip to Portland with girlfriends in which our entire itinerary was planned around where we would eat for each meal.  I saw people pause after taking their first bite of a dish chewing in slow motion and enjoying every flavor on their fork.  I started to have this experience myself.  Slowly, slowly, I started to expand my own cooking repertoire beyond omelets and boiling water for pasta.  Then my aunt gave me Michael Pollan’s the Omnivore’s Dilemma setting off a reading spree in which I devoured any food related book I could get my hands on at the library: Pollan’s In Defense of Food and Food Rules, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, all of Ruth Reichl books, all of Anthony Bourdain’s books, Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed, exposés on the fishing, honey, tomato, and olive oil industries (this spree is ongoing and has expanded to following these folks on blogs and Twitter).  When I moved to Los Angeles, I experimented with veganism completing a 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Challenge.  Besides learning about veganism, I learned to plan meals ahead of time, thinking in the morning about what I was cooking that night or what I needed to pick up for meals the next day.

And then I moved to Bologna, Italy — the Mecca of food consciousness.  Here Italians talk about food nonstop.  They’ll tell you to eat the best quality pasta that you can afford.  Parents teach their children to make artisanal tortellini, prosciutto, parmigiano, and balsamic vinegar like their parents taught them.  I hadn’t fully realized I was becoming one of the food obsessed until my sister came to visit me in Bologna; her bewilderment brought my attention to the symptoms: always meal planning, constant food shopping, stopping in four different stores to make sure I got the right ingredients.

When I moved to Bologna, I had pretty good eating habits, focusing on whole foods and avoiding processed foods and meats with questionable quality.  But I still felt like a hypocrite: I was book smart, not street smart.  I knew all the arguments for eating local and organic foods, but I didn’t have a consistent practice myself: I didn’t regularly shop at Farmers’ Markets and never grew my own food;  I hadn’t stepped a foot on a farm since elementary school.

And so I decided to WWOOF.

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  WWOOF facilitates work exchanges between organic farmers and volunteers who are interested in learning more about organic farming and the organic lifestyle.    WWOOFers help on the farms in exchange for knowledge transfer, lodging, and food (work requirements and accommodations vary from farm to farm).  The program exists all over the world (even in the US), but operates separately by country.  I became a member of WWOOF Italy by signing up on their website and paying a €25 membership fee which includes basic insurance coverage.  I first WWOOFed at a cooperative-run farm near Bologna for a month last summer.  That was my first taste of working in the fields and eating cherries fresh off the tree.  I liked it.

Then while house sitting through WWOOF this Christmas, we met a spry 68-year-old WWOOFer who was headed to Sicily for the orange harvest.  Inspired by her and the warmer temperatures down South, I decided to follow her.  And that, my friends, is how I ended up working on an orange farm for two weeks this winter.  (Phew! Long backstory. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.)

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Our morning harvest of Tarocchi oranges: the farm has olive trees and citrus trees, including trees for Tarocco (half-blood oranges), Sanguinello (full-blood oranges), mandarines, and grape fruit.

The farm was Casa delle Acque, an organic orange and olive tree farm in Paternò, Sicily about an hour’s bus ride from Catania. The owner of the farm is Nirav, a portly Sicilian man whose embroidered cotton cap fits him perfectly.   Nirav was born in Sicily, but lived in India for over ten years.  When he returned to Sicily, he bought the abandoned farm and restored it to life with the help of WWOOFers.  His approach is to heal the world by taking care of its land.  I didn’t pick his brain much as we were in a large group; but it’s clear that Nirav has led a very interesting life.

The farm overlooks Mount Etna, the beautiful, still-active volcano that has destroyed nearby villages on numerous occasions through history. The farm has olive trees and citrus trees, including trees for Tarocco (half-blood oranges), Sanguinello (full-blood oranges), mandarines, and grape fruit. The heart of the large restored farmhouse is the communal kitchen; it also has a big larder (pantry area), meditation room, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and a second story terrace with killer views of the surrounding Simeto River Valley. There's a separate WWOOF building with at least five more bedrooms, a bathroom, and a bakery outfitted with a wood burning brick oven.

The renovated farmhouse has a large communal kitchen,  a big larder (pantry area), meditation room, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and a second story terrace with killer views of the surrounding Simeto River Valley. There’s a separate WWOOF building with at least five more bedrooms, a bathroom, and a bakery outfitted with a wood burning brick oven.  I was fortunate to WWOOF there when Molo, the puppy, was at the excessively adorable age of 2 months.

The farm overlooks the beautiful and still-active volcano, Mount Etna, which has destroyed nearby villages such as Catania multiple times throughout history.

The farm overlooks the beautiful and still-active volcano, Mount Etna, which has destroyed nearby villages such as Catania multiple times throughout history.  This is a shot of Etna from a hike nearby the farm.

January to April is the orange harvesting season in Sicily, and so the WWOOF beds at Casa delle Acque were maxed out upon my arrival.  There were thirteen other WWOOFers: five Italians, a Belgian, two Austrians, a German, three other Americans, and my now 69-year-old British role model.  I was there for the shortest period of time (two weeks).  Most of the other WWOOFers were there for about a month; some planned to stay for the entire orange season (four months); and one girl who arrived in September planned to stay for seven months total.  I met a 26 year-old Italian guy who had WWOOFed for a year in Australia, a year in Belgium, and a year near Urbino in Italy, staying at farms for a year at a time.  I met an American couple that is WWOOFing in Italy to learn the ropes before opening their own farm in the US (they are currently living for a year with an Italian family near Orvieto).  It’s easy to see how WWOOFing could become a longterm lifestyle; with your food and lodging paid for, there’s nothing else you need besides some travel funds here and there.

Soon after stepping foot into the farmhouse’s communal kitchen, I realized that I had struck gold.  All of my fellow WWOOFers were food obsessed too.  From the moment I arrived, it seemed there was someone talking about food at all times:

What’s for lunch?  What’s for dinner?  What do you think about making some arancini from the leftover cous cous?  Wouldn’t some naan bread be good with the curry?  Hey, we have a lot of potatoes… let’s make potato pancakes!  Extra pumpkin… how about a pumpkin pie?  Better get those vegetables in the wood oven so we can let it cool down before we bake the pizzas.  Let’s candy the leftover orange peels and bake a cake.  Let’s top the cake with chocolate ganache and put orange marmelade in the middle.  How about a soup with the topinambur?  What’s topinambur? 

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The heart of the farmhouse is the communal kitchen

Two women kept a pasta madre going and then taught the rest of us how to make bread.  During the bread workshop, the ideas kept flowing: one woman put fennel in her bread; another added olive oil, salt, and rosemary to hers.  The Austrian women used the dough to make apple strudel.  On another day, the Italian couple taught us how to make orecchiette pasta from scratch.  The Belgian woman made us a delectable pasta with onions, hazelnuts and gorgonzola.  The English woman whipped up some spicy lentil Dahl and cauliflower curry .  The group devoured wedges of local artisanal cheese: ricotta salata and cheese spiced with peperoncino.  Homemade yogurt was made almost everyday from a yogurt starter and local fresh milk.  Before each meal, someone would head to the garden to cut a head of lettuce for our salad.  Even while hiking, people spotted edible things and pointed them out to the rest of us: there was wild fennel and argula and some strange looking plant that must be a nightshade.  We ate so many good things; I really regret not writing every piece of it down.

And of course, we talked about oranges.  I learned how to tell the difference between a first flower orange versus a second or third flower (the skin is rougher for the latter).  And we talked about the different methods for making marmelade and how to eliminate the bitter taste of the pith.  We talked about the differences between jam, jelly, marmelade, and preserves.  We made marmelade from Tarocchi and from mandarines.  Then we ate the marmelade on our homemade bread each morning for breakfast.

Someone joked that organic farmers don’t have a lot of money, but at the table, they are rich.

Of course!  Why was I surprised?  It makes sense.  Who cares so much about where their food comes from that they’re willing to get their hands dirty?  Who else is willing to do backbreaking work for the chance to taste a perfectly ripe orange?  Who else knows that organic food isn’t just better for the Earth, but tastes better too?  The Food Obsessed.  WWOOFers.

Ahhh, I thought, My people.  I’m home.

DETAILS

Where I went: Casa delle Acque in Paternò, Sicily with stops in nearby Catania.  I also visited Bronte and Randazzo on the Ferrovia Circumetnea rail-line (which arcs around Mt. Etna) on my day off.  I spent the majority of my time on the farm, which is beautiful.  Paternò has a reputation for being not-so beautiful: Many of the streets are littered with garbage and men sit in their cars puffing on cigarettes on the side of the road.  It’s said that these men offer to “watch over” the orange fields for a fee (i.e. if you don’t pay for their service, it’s likely your oranges will go missing).  We could also hear illegal horse races dash by on the road outside the farm on Sundays.

What I did: I WWOOFed on an organic orange farm.  I picked oranges, sorted oranges, boxed oranges, bundled olive tree branches for fire wood, weeded the garden, and fed chickens.  I ate A LOT of good food, practiced yoga, and taught yoga to my fellow WWOOFers.  I learned about baking bread, making marmelade, making compost, and doing capoeira among many other things.  I also got to meet farmers, WWOOF volunteers, and HelpX volunteers at nearby farms, Saja Project and Az. Ag. Masseria San Marco.

How I got there: I took the train from Bologna Centrale to Milan Centrale, then took the Malpensa Shuttle bus to Malpensa Airport, and then flew to Catania on easyJet.  I could have also taken the train from Bologna Centrale to Milano Porta Garibaldi and from there taken a train to Malpensa airport.  I booked a cheap ticket on easyJet without much research.  When you add the cost of the train to Milan, the bus to the airport, and the hostel in Catania on both ends of my flight (because my flight got in late and left early), the trip was not so cheap.  In hindsight, I should have also researched direct flights from Bologna to Catania.  I also stubbornly wanted to do carry-on only and had no room in my bag on the return for oranges.

What I saw: A snowcapped volcano amidst the orange groves.  An incredibly cute puppy.  More oranges than I’ve ever seen in my life.  A farmhouse brought back to life.

What I ate: Absurd amounts of delicious home cooked vegetarian fare including homemade bread, pizza, marmelade, pasta, strudels, soups, cakes, and salads picked fresh from the garden.  I also got to try Sicilian specialties like arancini, canoli, and chiacchere (made around Carnival).  Next time in Catania, I’ll definitely head to Via Santa Filomena to try Polpetteria or one of the other hip looking eateries on the street.

My disclaimer: WWOOF experiences can vary greatly from farm to farm.  Even at a single farm, your experience can vary depending on what time of year you go and who your fellow WWOOFers are.  I was at Casa delle Acque during the peak season, so we were many and our main task was picking and sorting oranges.  We were fortunate; we had a great group where everyone was willing to help cook and wash up.  With that said, being around 15 people all day can be exhausting and for some might be too much.  Depending on your goals and personality, consider whether a big group is a good fit.  I can also see how WWOOFing somewhere with just 1 or 2 WWOOFers with more one-on-one time with the family could have its advantages and be a better fit for some.

What I think: I don’t know where this food lover’s story goes from here, but I’m happy to be on the WWOOF train and excited to see where we go next.

Some Links
The How-To’s of WWOOF’ing by Scott Hartbeck from BootsnAll
48 Hours: Catania by Duncan Garwood from the Independent
{Blog} WWOOFing in Sicily by Sally May Mills (2012)
WWOOFing in Sicily by Christian Cummins (2011)

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2 thoughts on “Food Obsessed: WWOOFing in Sicily at Casa delle Acque

  1. Robi

    Audrey! I randomly found this on the internet and it brought me back to those wonderful days! I hope you’re fine my dear and that you keep on enjoying Bologna, Italy, food and yoga with the same enthusiasm you had at Casa delle acque! Hope to see you again, un abbraccio! Roberta

    Reply
    1. ciaobologna Post author

      Robertina! Thanks for the note! I’m enjoying Bologna but definitely experiencing farm life withdrawal. I’ll be in touch so I can hear about your recent adventures. Un abbraccio forte!

      Reply

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