In May I went WWOOFing again, my third official farm stay, while Luke was traveling in the U.S. I stayed for two and a half weeks at Pian di Stantino, an agriturismo in Romagna about 90 minutes from Bologna.
My first two farm stays were at farms with plenty of other WWOOFers and workers. This time around, I was aiming for a more intimate and immersive experience. I wanted to see what it takes for a small family to live off the land and operate an agriturismo. I hoped to improve my Italian by immersing myself in the language.
And that’s just what I got.
It’s 7AM. I roll out of bed, get dressed, splash some cold water on my face, and head outside from the guest rooms. I stop by the natural spring fountain, fill up my Nalgene, and take a few gulps of the crisp, fresh water. I head into the agriturimso’s kitchen, where I find Martino already heating up a Moka pot of coffee, his face still tired and his hair in its usual wild state.
“Buon giorno! Come stai?”, I say.
“Sono stanco. Voglio dormire ancora.” He’s tired and wishes he could sleep some more.
We sit down to breakfast — just coffee for Martino and homemade bread and jam for me. Martino’s girlfriend Denise joins us — coffee and toast with chocolate hazelnut spread. We gradually wake up as we sip our hot drinks. This twenty minutes for breakfast is the slowest we’ll move all day. Especially Martino.
I quickly discovered after my first week of WWOOFing at Pian di Stantino the irony in the term “Slow Food”. If you’ve ever seen an Italian nonna prepare bread or roll out a pasta sfoglia, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The process to make these quality food products is long (the opposite of fast food; hence, slow), but the cooks themselves are sure fast workers. This is certainly the case at Pian di Stantino. Martino and Denise are, no doubt, champions of Slow Food. They make their own bread using pasta madre (natural starter) — a process which requires feeding the “mamma” with flour and water nearly everyday to keep it alive — and bake the bread in a massive, outdoor wood-burning oven that they built themselves over a period of four years. In their restaurant, they serve dishes using top quality ingredients, mostly from their property, from neighbors, or from other Slow Food producers. While I was there, they were serving canederlo dumplings made from a neighbor’s ricotta and another neighbor’s eggs; artisan polenta from a Slow Food producer in Trentino cooked over an antique wood-burning stove; prosciutto that Martino cured himself; crostata made with homemade marmelade; apple tart made with their preserved apples; local wine from a cantina where Martino’s brother works; and chestnut honey which a neighbor collects from beehives on their property.
The food at Pian di Stantino is “Slow”, but life for Martino and Denis is anything but. Most days Martino is outside working by 8AM and he works almost nonstop for 12 hours or more, only slowing down to enjoy a hearty lunch and dinner when he’s not cooking for customers in the restaurant. Martino is passionate about creating a more sustainable, distributed food system and it shows as he works with lots of sweat, enthusiasm, and determination. He works speedily at every task at hand as if today is the last possible day to get the job done, commenting on how much work there is to do and how they got a late start this year. On one day, he jumps from his tractor to help some hired neighbors plant in the garden and weed in the vineyard; then he runs off to let out the goats and light the wood stove for the house’s hot water. On another afternoon, in the chestnut forest, he confidently wields a chain saw cutting down sick trees and grafting young branches onto the stumps while simultaneously directing others collecting firewood and burning debris nearby.
Denise, more calm and gentle, is just as busy — keeping the large house in order; cleaning the guest rooms; baking sweets; preparing lunch; and taking care of their six cats and four dogs (who were unfortunately attacked by porcupines while I was there). Before moving to the country, Denise worked as an interior designer which is evident all around Pian di Stantino. Every pitcher, vase of flowers, and basket has its spot. Everything is placed thoughtfully. Everywhere you look is a picture begging to be photographed.
Towards the weekend things get even busier than usual at Pian di Stantino. Fridays is their marathon day as they shop at the market, bake 30 kilos of the bread for the week, AND prep desserts and antipasti for the weekend in the restaurant. Luckily my first Friday there were no clients for dinner because I crashed into bed utterly exhausted at 8PM, passing up a dinner cooked by Martino’s mother, and sleeping twelve hours straight.
Martino is happiest working outdoors so he resists entering the kitchen until the last moment possible. Then he zips in like a character out of Kitchen Confidential and, if by magic, pulls together a four course meal all while chatting it up with the customers. My anxiety rose to an all time high every time we raced to get the antipasti ready as the customers walked in the door. I clearly could never survive as a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen or Top Chef.
I worked long hours, longer than expected of a WWOOFer, because I liked the work and I wanted to see what country living is like without sugar coating it. At first I tried to keep up with Martino and Denise, but I gave up after the first few days and started taking breaks to sleep in or practice a little yoga. The last four nights my amica americana and partner-in-crime, Joanna, joined me from Bologna. It was great to have a buddy to explore the countryside with and a much needed mental reprieve to speak some English again. On a couple of occasions, we cooked for Martino and Denise in order to introduce them to some of our favorite “American” recipes. For lunch one day I cooked up some oatmeal pancakes and scrambled eggs. And another day, for dinner, Joanna and I prepared vegetable spring rolls with a luscious orange yogurt dipping sauce along with a green vegetable curry. We noted some of the recipes in the WWOOFer guest book, which includes a signature dish from almost all the WWOOFers who’ve worked at the farm.
When Martino and Denise aren’t working, they can be found at the table with friends enjoying the fruits of their labors. They were kind enough to let me tag along on numerous dinner dates with their friends, who were all amazing people also dedicated to the “slow” life and good food. Anyone travelling or living in Italy longs for the chance to be invited into an Italian’s home for a home-cooked meal, and in the period of two and a half weeks, I found myself as the sole americana at an Italian’s dinner table numerous times. I was truly spoiled. We ate homeamde tagliatelle with seafood, tagliatelle with ragù, panzerotti, mushroom risotto, wild boar, tomato gratin, semifreddo with strawberries, fresh fava beans and pecorino, and a trout caught by their friend just four hours before dinner.
I learned a lot. I ate a lot. It was a whirlwind. It was a dream come true. It was exhausting and invigorating. I learned that the country life is hard, but the rewards reaped are sweet. It was great to see neighbors working together — trading eggs for bread or sitting down at the table together sharing their homemade goods. I felt a real sense of community — one tied together by people who love food and appreciate a hard day’s work. I have a harder and harder time returning to city life after every WWOOF experience, feeling an unidentifable void along with bouts of homesickness for my own family; probably a result of me missing a number of precious things: that sense of community; the comfort food; the shared meals; the “Slow” Life — which is paradoxically not slow at all.
For the last six years, Pian di Stantino has organized a large festival onsite mid-July called PiandistantinoStock. This year’s festival was last weekend and Luke and I were able to stop by for a few hours. There’s a different theme for the festival every year, but one ongoing mission is bring the community together to create the festival rather than to just consume. I wasn’t able to participate in the preparations leading up to the festival as much as I would have liked since we had family visiting, but Luke and I were able to get our hands in some dough to help prep the pizzas the day of. The admission was 15 Euro which included free camping, a dinner buffet with handmade pizza and focaccia cooked in the wood burning oven, unlimited vino, hands-on laboratories like basket weaving and bread making, a fire dancing show, and concerts all night. Attendance was in the hundreds with people of all ages. It was a fun and beautiful event.
In a nutshell
Where I went: I WWOOFed for two and a half weeks at Pian di Stantino, an agriturismo in Romagna located in the small town of Tredozio outside of Faenza, about 90 minutes from Bologna. It’s near the border of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany and just next to the National Park, Parco delle Foreste Casentinesi.
What I did: As a WWOOFer, I planted in the garden (corn, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers); I weeded (both the vineyard and the lavender); I helped graft chestnut trees (my job was to coat the exposed cut wood with a paste to protect the grafts from the wind); I cleared branches after the apples trees were pruned; I cleared stones from the garden and vineyard so that the plow could run through; I worked in the restaurant (cleaning, prepping food, washing dishes, and waitressing), and I helped make bread from scratch.
What I learned: How to make bread from scratch using pasta madre. How to graft trees. How to make canederli, farinata, crostata, and torta di mele. Some more Italian slang and lots of imperative phrases (vieni qua, mettila qui…)
What I think: “Slow Food” is an oxymoron.
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The How To’s of WWOOFing by Scott Hartbeck from BootsnAll
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