Tough assignment in Tuscany


Every year, Tamahere’s Venetia Sherson swaps her briefcase for brambles and olive trees, working as a volunteer on organic farms in Italy. At Spannocchia, a farm in Tuscany, she faced her toughest assignment, helping out at a farmers’ market.

My first encounter with Riccio, the salumi maker, is not reassuring. He is in the butchery, sorting and weighing meat for the farmers’ market, where he will once again confirm his reputation as the best prosciutto maker in the district. I have been assigned to help.

Riccio knows the perils of the Saturday market. Italians are not patient people; there will be queues five deep, plus noise and confusion. “Parla Italiano?” he asks, glancing up while slicing through a dead cow’s ribcage. I am togged up against the brisk dawn temperature and must resemble Michelin woman. “Un po,” I say. He shrugs.

We load up the van in silence. Riccio steers with one hand and talks on his phone as he lurches around blind corners, the meat swaying wildly on hooks in the refrigerated trailer. He seems to be explaining to the person on the other end of the phone that he is late because he has a nonna incompetente (a numbskull of a grandmother) as his assistant.

Aproned and ready to serve

The market is in Sovicille, on the outskirts of the affluent city of Siena and, while this is a small farmers’ market by Italian standards, it is already packed with smartly-dressed Italians stocking up their pantries. Riccio tosses me a green apron, and a plastic-covered calculator and points to the till, where a previous demented assistant has hurled coins at random. Italians still have tiny one and two cent coins and, even on a normal day, I have trouble differentiating between them. Plus, the electronic scales don’t work so we can’t issue receipts, which is illegal.

As soon as the meats have been arrayed, a man who resembles Italian actor Roberto Bernigni, thrusts a 50 Euro note across the counter. He wants three slices of prosciutto, price 89c. I give him change for two euro. He raises one eyebrow and continues to hold out his hand. Meanwhile, a woman with a lapdog demands “tresalsiccarigatinolardo,” a word that escapes me. “Mi dispiace. Non capisco, (I’m sorry. I don’t understand),” I stammer. The Roberto Bernigni-lookalike, who has stayed to watch my gig, winks and translates: “She wants three sausages and a kilo of lard.”

Riccio appears oblivious to the chaos unfolding at his stall. He is deeply engaged in conversation about his salumi with a group of men in suits and dark glasses. Each is given a morsel of a meat to try; they then debate its merits. Italians approach life at a different pace to the rest of us. Life is about connections and the quality rather than quantity of experiences. The approach fosters deep connections with people, the land and with food. “Why run and cry when you can walk and laugh,” is a common saying. At a vegetable stall opposite, I watch a woman spend five minutes individually smelling, touching and considering the tomatoes she will eventually buy for her lunch. Other vendors explain their production methods, share their produce and hand write receipts.

Meanwhile, at our own stall, the queues are lengthening and I am rattled. The labels on the produce are hard to read from behind the counter and I can’t distinguish between the soppressata (uncured salami made from the leftover parts of the pig) and buristo (a similar-looking product). “Prego, senora,” say half a dozen voices, trying to catch my attention. The artisan baker from the next-door stall comes across to lend a hand. Riccio continues to chat. In the back row, Senor Bernigni smiles.

By noon, the meat is all but sold. The woman with the dog returns to see if there are any leftovers for her companion. Riccio gives her two remaining sausages. Then he takes a loaf of the bread maker’s crusty ciabatta, cuts two fat slices and adds a filling of prosciutto, handing me a perfect sweet and salty sandwich. He runs his hands through his grey curls and takes off his apron. “Finito,” he says. “Buono. Molto buono.”

I first became a WWOOFer in Italy four years ago, on the eve of my 60th birthday, and I have returned each year in the autumn to lend a hand at harvest time. The acronym WWOOF has two translations: Willing Workers on Organic Farms or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (to get around the problem with illegal workers). The philosophy is the same: a worker offers their labour in return for food and accommodation. The idea was the brainchild of a British woman, Sue Coppard, who set out to provide Londoners with a rural experience. Today, it is a worldwide organisation involving thousands of farms throughout the world.

When I first applied to work in Italy, my main worry was that, at nearly 60, I would be too old. I had an image of WWOOFers as young, bronzed backpackers, working in the fields and sleeping under the stars, which they largely are. But there are also many older people, who are still physically fit. The oldest WWOOFer in Italy is 86.

My criteria in selecting farms are simple. I like to be within walking distance of a village (some farms are very remote); I don’t drive heavy machinery and I won’t work on roofs. Plus, I don’t like sleeping rough. I have worked on eight farms in the past four years and while each has had its challenges, the work has been manageable, the food marvellous and the people warm and friendly.

The property named Spannocchia, (pronounced spah-NOCK-eeyah) where Riccio is the farm manager and chief salumi maker, was an obvious choice. The 445ha agricultural estate is a working organic farm that produces its own wine, olive oil, and meat products and hosts agriturismo guests. The farm also operates an internship programme for mainly young people who are keen to learn about organic farming and sustainability. The interns and WWOOFers work alongside the Italian farm staff for 30 hours each week.

Spannocchia lies about 19km southwest of Siena and is one of those fairytale places that move people to poetry and art. The property is largely planted in forest through which you drive for about two kilometers before coming upon Castello di Spannocchia the operational centre of the estate. The buildings include a 12th Century tower, the main villa and surrounding castello apartments, where paying guests stay. A short distance away are the ruins the Santa Lucia monastery and a castle, named appropriately Castiglion Che Dio Sol Fa (The Castle that God Only Knows), because it is so hard to find.

For centuries, under the feudal mezzadria system, Spannocchia was home to sharecropper families who worked the land and sold their produce to the wealthy owners. Six of those families still live in the district and one descendant, – Graziella, who was born on the property, is Spannocchia’s head chef. In 1925, the Spannocchi family sold the land to Delfino Cinelli, a Florentine aristocrat and writer, who saw the property as a tranquil place to write. His grand-daughter Francesca Cinelli and her husband Randall Stratton have run the property since 1992.

On the day I arrive, there are eight interns in residence. All are American and mostly under 30. They have been here a month and have another two months’ internship programme to complete. To be accepted they have had to demonstrate their commitment to learning about agriculture, animal husbandry and Tuscan cuisine. Some work the land; others look after the animals or help prepare the meals. Two, as it turns out have visited New Zealand. Heather studied at Victoria University for two years and Eleanor was a WWOOFer at Putaruru. They have all heard of Peter Jackson, but not of the All Blacks. Bobby, who looks like a quarterback and has a slow mid-western drawl, says he has seen all of Jackson’s films, including the splatter movie, Bad Taste. “The explodin’ sheep was, like magic, dude,” he says.

The other WWOOfer is Soliz from LA; 20 years old with more body art than Sonny Bill Williams. She tells me her last WWOOFing stint was on a commune where she shovelled horse shit every day. I sympathise. At one of my previous farms, I was assigned to paint windowsills, which is not strictly an organic practice. The expectation is that WWOOFers will learn something from the experience that will benefit the planet.

At Spannocchia, our tasks are more varied and include stacking firewood, weeding the vegetable garden, pruning fruit trees and trimming hedges. I am also assigned to scrape kernels from the maize to make polenta, fill bags with lavender, make quince jam, and tie little paper hats on the jars of Spannocchia Thousand Flowers Honey. For two days, I also hang the sweet vin santo grapes on a canopy of wire frames to dry.

While I am hooking up the bunches of grapes, two paying guests walk past. Without thinking, I greet them in Italian. They stop to take pictures. “I bet her family has been doing this for hundreds of years,” the wife whispers to her husband but in a voice loud enough for me to hear.

Spannocchia is largely self-sufficient and most of the meat, eggs, whole grains, fresh vegetables, honey, olive oil and wine come from the estate. As well as the 364ha of forest (largely oaks), there are 2.5ha of grapes – sangiovese (red) and malvasia and trebbiano (white) grapes – and more than 700 olive trees. There is a cyclical system of production: the crops feed the animals; the animals produce manure that is used to fertilise the fields to grow the next cycle of crops; the animals and crops feed the human residents and humans provide the labour to make it all possible.

Spannocchia also operates a “Noah’s Ark” project, breeding and raising endangered species, with the help of Government funds. There are Calvana cows, with their white porcelain coats and dark eyes, the gentle Monte Amiata donkeys, and a Monterufoli pony, a breed which is thought to have come from the now extinct Selvina horse.

But it is the Sienese belted pig (Cinta Senese) for which Spannocchia is best known. These ancient pigs (they can be seen in frescoes dated from the 13th Century) were almost extinct by the 1980s with almost no breeding stock. Today they roam more or less freely in the forests at Spannocchia, eating a gourmet diet of acorns, chestnuts, mushrooms and truffles, supplemented by an organic mash. It takes two years for the pigs to reach slaughter weight and by then they have 10cm of back fat, which produces the wonderful lardo. The salumi has elements of fennel, oregano, chestnut, olive and even roses – the result of the pigs escaping into the rose gardens.

Two of the interns at Spannocchia are budding butchers and they tell me the prosciutto – which is darker than Parma prosciutto – is “freaking awesome” because of the quality of the pork. “Most modern pork has the fat bred out of it. These guys are encouraged to put on weight,” says Cohen, a tall dark-haired political philosophy student from Canada who wants to establish his own butchery. Each pig produces around 260kg of meat.

Randall Stratton, whose vision drives Spannocchia, says when they first came to manage the property in 1992, they envisioned living in semi-retirement, home-schooling their three children, and focusing on architectural preservation. An architect in the US, he has always had a passion for preserving old buildings. “But once we were living here, I realised the key to preserving it was the landscape not the buildings and the only way to do that was to farm it again.” He says there is a lot of culture involved and “a lot of collective wisdom” from people who have lived there all their lives. Every year, he and Francesca and several staff – including Riccio – travel to the US to raise funds for their work at Spannocchia.

Tourism now supplements their income but the primary purpose is to maintain it as a working farm as it has been for some 900 years. “The good thing is we haven’t turned it into Disneyland. It’s a real community.”

On my last day, I return to Pulcinelli, the converted stables where the interns and WWOOFers sleep. Someone has pasted a sign on the bathroom door that reads, “The Toilet that God Only Knows.” On my bed, is a neatly folded green apron, embroidered with Castello di Spannocchia. There is no note, but I suspect the hand of the finest salumi maker in the district.

“To enjoy the fullness of life, we must act, otherwise we remain spectators, intruders passing through life like the road that flanked the torrent and ran rapidly to the pass between one valley and the next without being aware of the solitude through which it passed.” Delfino Cinelli

See Venetia’s earlier WWoofing adventures here.

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