Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Transformation Room

Last weekend the eight of us interns went to Elba Island for a night. Our education director Katie was kind enough to cover the weekend animal chores so that the entire group could go together this one time. We left first thing Saturday morning to drive to the port town and catch the ferry, and had a great 36 hours on the island. Elba becomes quite a destination in the summer, and over a million people go there in August when all of Europe is on holiday. Fortunately the crowds hadn't arrive yet. We had heard that Elba is quite the German destination--the first time I asked how much something cost in Italian, the Italian replied in German, and when I cocked my head to the side and replied "che cosa?" he tried English. He seemed determined to not speak Italian with me, which is pretty rare here. For the night we stayed in a couple "bungalows," which didn't turn about to be the picturesque cottage by the sea I had in mind when I made the reservation, but rather a small plastic box in a trailer park. To complement our lovely trailerpark, we had a great weekend of swimming, relaxing and feasting on seafood, which we never have on the farm.

I'll get back to the farm now. A little before our trip to Elba, I was able to accompany Riccio, the farm manager and butcher, to a pig slaughter. We slaughter up to four pigs at a time, but this time we only did two. The pigs were loaded into a trailer Sunday evening and we left Monday morning around six to go to the slaughterhouse. Halfway there Riccio realized he had forget the documentation papers, so we unhitched the trailer and left the pigs on the side of the road while we raced back to the farm. Once Riccio found the papers, we raced back to the pigs and took them the rest of the way to the slaughterhouse. I won't go into too much detail about the slaughter process, but there are plenty of details and pictures to be shared for those interested. It was certainly an experience that would be difficult if not impossible to find in the US, as most slaughterhouses are very secretive about the whole process, and the only way to get pictures is with a secret camera. I helped lead the pigs up the ramp into the kill room, was right next to the guy who stunned and killed the pigs, and followed the processing of the pigs, camera in hand. Once everything was done, I helped Riccio load the pig halves into the refrigerated rear of the van, we grabbed some breakfast and made our way back to the farm.

Once we were back at the farm, I was expecting to go feed some pigs or cows, but when we pulled up, Riccio tossed me an apron and it was decided that I was working with him. For the next three and a half days, we cleaned the transformation room (I'll let you figure out why we call it the transformation room), butchered the pigs, ground a lot of meat and fat, and made sausage, mortadella, salami, soppressata, lardo and started the prosciutti, among other things. On our first day of butchering, we had pork chops fresh off the carcass cooked in olive oil and garlic and seasoned with salt, and it was perhaps my most positive experience with pork (certainly rivaled the ribs we had earlier in the spring).

The following day, we made soppressata, which is made from the pig leftovers- heads, skin, bones, cartilage, etc. All the bits and pieces are boiled in a huge caldron for four hours before draining and removing the bones, and everything that is left is then mixed with a whole blend of spices and stuffed into cloth sleeves to hang for at least a few days as fat drips off. For lunch that day, one of the guys helping us (he's the head butcher who trained Riccio) pulled out half a pig head, a couple pieces of cartilage and tails, put it on a plate and called it lunch. Keep in mind that just about all the good meat (cheek, tongue, etc.) has been used for other things like sausage, so it was just a few meat and fat scraps, and lots of skin and cartilage- it probably goes down as my most negative experience with pork. Rather than wiping the frying pan clean with bread and thirsting for more (like I did with the pork chops), I ate what I could and wasn't hungry for a good 24 hours.

Having eaten "pig face" and worked in the transformation room, I was impressed by how little of a pig goes to waste. Italians have traditionally used just about all of the pig, and they would think it a crime to do otherwise. And the best part of it is that they love every part of the pig. I've asked a few people around here whether they prefer pig face or pork chops, and everyone likes them the same. They see them as two different products of a pig with their own special characteristics, and it's part of their upbringing to respect the pig for all that it offers. I find this reasoning very noble, but pork chops are pork chops.

I appreciated the chance to work in the transformation room and see how pigs are transformed into many of the pork products I'm familiar with. Going to the slaughter and butchering the pigs also completed the process of seeing where meat comes from, however I realized I prefer to work outside with the animals when they are alive rather than once they are inside.

I’ll stop there. Tomorrow’s my last day, and I’m flying back to the states on June 1st. I’ll post some pictures when I’m back home with more time and better access to internet.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pigs and "field trips"

I really enjoy the work here. Every day has its routines, as the pigs and cows need to be fed and checked on twice a day, but every day presents a new challenge. 80 percent of my work here is dealing with the pigs, which makes sense as we have 150 pigs and only a dozen cows or so. First the sows were popping out piglets left and right, then the snow knocked down the miles and miles of electric fence we have around various pig pens. Almost every pig pen is several acres, some of them up to 20 acres for no more than 15 full grown pigs a pen. The bottom line is that we are still repairing fences from the snow storm our first week here. It is frequent to run into pigs coming down the road as you're walking up the road to feed them and check on their pens. I quickly adapted to coming around a bend to find pigs playing outside their pen or tearing up a pasture, or to find a sow grunting on the side of the road as her litter of piglets attack her teats, each one vying for its share of milk.

While the fencing of choice is usually electrical, some pens are partly enclosed by chain link fencing and/or stone walls. With these two types of enclosures the pigs demonstrate their snout strength. They can move large rocks you pile up with difficulty to cover a hole, and they bend the chain link fencing to make a hole big enough to squeeze through if it’s not reinforced with cross beams or boards. This last example was the escape method implemented by over thirty pigs the other weekend (when I was on weekend duty of course). They roamed the woods and roads for a day, tearing up the forest floor all the way, before I could round them all up and herd them back to their pen. Talk about free range.

A few of our pigs have been getting sick recently- a cough here and some diarrhea there. Pigs are only supposed to stay on a patch of land for so long, otherwise the parasite levels build up and they are more likely to get sick. This presents a problem of how to divide up your pen space and time the rotations, so that each pen has enough time to rest after the pigs have come through and demolished the place. I have a better appreciation for the word "pigsty." It was an interesting few days figuring out where to move the pigs that had been in pens for too long, moving them to their new homes, plowing their old pens to plant fresh grass, and treating some of the sick piglets.

I like to think that I got quite good at snatching up two piglets at a time for the vet, although one time a sow wasn't happy that I had grabbed her squealing baby, and she chased me to an area we had closed off, barking all the way. It seems this sow remembers me, as another time after I had picked up one of her piglets, she cornered me, lunged at me and got my boot in her mouth. In a moment of panic, I yanked my foot from her mouth, wound up and sent her reeling with a blow across the face as she lunged again. When pigs get angry, they're not cute like Babe and go "oink oink. " They bark, snap and are terrifying. It kind of adds a new perspective to the Snatch line "pigs will go through bone like butter.” Work here is a never ending lesson on animal husbandry with a never ending supply of surprises, but despite the occasional mishap (which I’m learning to avoid), I love the pigs.

Things have maybe been a little busier too because one of the three animali interns was sick for a while. Noah got sick our third week here, and we wrote it off as a bug as a couple other interns got sick shortly after. But when the other interns got better and Noah continued to get worse, we called the doctor, and he sent Noah off to the hospital thinking he had appendicitis. The test results were mixed but they decided to operate, and low and behold, Noah had the biggest appendix these doctors had seen. It had curled up behind his liver, making it difficult to see. Since they couldn't get his appendix out through the initial incision, they had to make a much larger incision above to pull his appendix out from behind his liver. The recovery process went well and Noah has been back with us for a while, but he has an awesome scar that looks like an exclamation mark from the two incisions.

In addition to the 25-30 hours of work we have a week on the farm, our duties include rotating shifts for serving dinner (two interns per week), and being one of the animal interns, I have weekend duty once every three weekends. Work probably amounts to about 40 hours a week, plus we have another 15 hours of classes, field trips and group projects. While I enjoy serving dinner to a large group of people (one night we had 48 people), it can an exhausting process with setup, serving and clean up, which can go late into the night.

In terms of our educational activities, this is where the going gets rough. On Monday and Thursday afternoons we have an hour and a half Italian lesson, followed by thematic class. On Mondays it is by our educational director, and some of her classes have been on pasta, cooking, small engine mechanics (she showed us how a small engine works by taking apart a chain saw—the guys all loved it but most of the girls quickly lost interest) and wine tasting. On Thursdays, an intern gives a presentation, and some of the topics have been on honey bees, childhood obesity, permaculture and coffee. I gave my presentation on methane biodigesters, which can rapidly convert manure to clean, odorless compost or bedding, while capturing methane gas (natural gas) to be used for cooking, heating or electricity generation. They’re great mechanisms to generate renewable energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce runoff from manure, and reduce odor. While these are well suited and often cost-effective for industrial meat and dairy facilities where manure collection is easy (yet few utilize these systems), collecting manure from a forested 15 acre pen presents a number of difficulties.

Fridays are fun days. Every other Friday is “Group Project Day,” and Fridays in between are field trip days. Our group projects have included a cooking class, cleaning a number of places around the property, and currently I have been working with my roommate Will (who is a carpenter back in Vermont) to build a blueprint rotating composter. The current composting system is very inefficient, and it seems to amount to filling a wire cage to large to turn with a pitchfork with food scraps and old straw, and letting it sit for a year in the rain. While I might be more of an impediment than an asset given my blank carpentry resume, I have enjoyed learning a lot and trying to myself useful, and Will has been a great teacher with an endless supply of patience. We should have the thing finished this coming Friday- I guess the summer interns will be the judges as to whether or not it works.

We’ve taken a few incredible field trips in between group project days. Our first trip was to visit another farm and vineyard and have lunch there, followed by an afternoon in San Gimignano, a hilltown famous for its skyline of stone towers. Our second trip we visited a biodynamic winery in the area, where we spent a few hours with the owners touring the vineyards and winery, and drinking wine in their yard overlooking a green valley. This was followed by a visit to an ancient monastery called San Galgano, where we had a picnic lunch made by our education director Katie. Another trip we visited an artisanal pasta maker and had a tour of his facilities and a lesson on the traditional way to mill grain and make pasta. He also talked at length about how pasta has changed in the last fifty years from being made from real wheat with low quantities of gluten and great flavor, to being almost exclusively made around the world with genetically modified wheat with much higher levels of gluten (we have a difficult time digesting gluten, and the number of people with gluten intolerance, different and less severe than Celiac disease, has risen dramatically in the last fifty years. When he showed us what real pasta was like, I had never seen anything like it. It was a little darker with a different texture, and has roughly five times the absorption capacity of conventional pasta (both water when you cook it and sauce when you add it). That afternoon was followed by another picnic in the hills of the Chianti region and a trip to a bar with 240 beers available from around the world. They’re probably the only bar in Italy that doesn’t serve wine, but I had an incredible chili imperial stout. Our most recent trip was to an artisanal biscotti factory, followed by a visit to a pecorino cheese farm where we stuffed ourselves with cheese and had another lunch made by Katie.

While each trip has been fun in its own right for obvious reasons, I have never met people who believe so passionately in what they make and want to share it. Rather than being dogmatic, they simply remain true to their principals and spread their message by example. Some of these products are more expensive (you can't buy artisanal pasta for fifty cents a pound), but some are relatively affordable, such as artisanal cheese at five dollars a pound, which is partly made possible by the large farm subsidies in Europe. I will digress. Europe has the largest farm subsidies in the world, followed by the US, but they are achieving an entirely different outcome than those in the US. The US pumps billions of dollars into our corn and soybean industry, which in turn sustains the fast food and processed food industries, and indirectly helps the oil industry as oil is used to replenish the fields that quickly lose their productivity from intensive monoculture. Europe in turn pumps billions of Euros into its farms, and from what I have seen and experienced here so far, this appears to be an investment in national health, nutrition and food security, as well as local/rural economies and communities. In Tuscany, and I imagine much of Europe, it has been a means of preserving the region’s history and landscape, as agriculture has historically been the backbone of the economy, and when you drive around the country, you see the effects of this. Those postcards or Google images of Tuscan hillsides that look fake are real, and my initial train ride up from Rome was all the confirmation I needed.

I'll stop there, but my next post will be much sooner, and shorter. It's getting warmer, and next weekend our entire group is going to Elba Island.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pork chops, ribs, wild boar, wine and more

Nearly two years have passed since my last entry here, but it's back to the blogosphere for me. Instead of writing about Uruguay and Latin America, I'll be writing about Tuscany, Italy. My time at Middlebury came to an unfortunate end (but expected...I graduated) this past January, and after a relaxing four weeks at home, I found myself on a plane to Rome, en route to an organic farm in the middle of rural Tuscany to work with seven other interns for the next three months.

After two nights in Rome I made my way up to Siena to meet up with the other interns and our program director at a bar, a convenient rendezvous after a three hour train ride. Of the eight interns, there are three guys and five girls (a slight difference from sharing a house with 11 other guys at Middlebury), with the others hailing from Vermont, Maine, Virginia, New Jersey and Texas. It's a great group of people, with a diverse array of personalities and experiences. Two girls finished college three years ago- one has been traveling the last two years while the other working and starting law school this fall. My roommate, who's from Vermont, has been a carpenter the last 18 months after finishing college. Most of us are in our early to mid twenties, but one intern is taking a year off before starting college.

On to the farm, or tenuta, which is named Spannocchia. It is about five minutes outside of Rosia, a small town 30 minutes south of Siena. It is the oldest farm/estate in Tuscany that is still preserved much like is was 800 years ago when the Spannocchia family purchased it, and still operates in many ways like a traditional tenuta- most of the staff lives on the farm, it produces almost all of its food, processes its own meat (except for the slaughter, which is off site), and makes its own wine, olive oil and honey. The estate contains a central villa, which is home to the family that runs the place, much of the farm staff that works here, interns, various facilities for winemaking and meat processing (called the "transformation room"), and a number of rooms and farmhouses for guests. The rest of the 1100 acres contains gardens, pastures, cows, pigs, vineyards, olive groves and forest. Besides its farm and guest services operations, Spannocchia has an extensive education program, which in addition to us interns, includes a volunteer program, and shorter programs of 1-2 weeks for students. The focus of the education program here, as well as my internship program, is to learn about sustainable agriculture, Tuscan culture and history (of which the tenuta is central to), and food and wine, all while learning a little Italian. All that in exchange for a little labor—sounds tough right? Hopefully things will chill out some once it's warm enough to take a dip in the swimming pool.

For my work here I am part of the "animali" team, which is Italian for "I work with animals." There are three animali interns, two garden interns, two olive orchard/vineyard/handy interns (especially right now in the spring, they don’t so much with grapes or olives and just kind of float around the farm), and one guest services intern. My mornings are comprised of feeding the donkeys, horses, pigs and cows. When we don't have Italian lessons, group projects or field trips, my afternoons are comprised of feeding the donkeys, horses, pigs and cows. Doesn't necessarily sound like a lot, but the animals are scattered all over the 1100 acres, and with about 150 pigs and a dozen cows, a round of feeding takes a good few hours. And that's if you don't have to mill 800 kilos of grain (we use a mixture of barley and black beans from the farm), move any pigs, push some guests up the driveway who are stuck in the snow (we got well over a foot in our first week here, a rarity for Tuscany, particularly in March), round up some pigs for slaughter, or deal with any number of problems that can come up on a farm. It's a blast. It's fun to learn about the animals, work with them, schlep through mud and shit, and walk/drive all over the farm. So far, the only drawback has been that for farm insurance purposes, we don't get to use the heavy machinery, so no tractors or chainsaws for me.

With the day comprised of working on the farm, with a sprinkling of Italian and other educational activities, we usually have some free time in the evenings, followed by wine at seven with all the interns, the family, some staff, and any guests who are staying here (right now we have anywhere from 0-10 guests at a time, but from late spring into the fall that number is substantially higher). Once it warms up some, we will enjoy wine on the terrace, but for now it's wine in the living room by the fire. That is followed by a four course dinner, prepared by Spannocchia's cook Graziela, an adorable 60 year old Italian woman, who grew up on the farm, and whose mother and grandmother cooked here before her. We've had all kinds of delicious pasta dishes, from a basic marinara (probably the simplest but most delicious marinara I've tasted) to wild boar, and any other delectable addition to pasta. We've had lamb, salami dulce (looks like salami but it's made with chocolate and all kinds of goodness instead of meat and salt- it reminds me of the cookie in cookies 'n cream ice cream, but better), soups, salads, lasagna, and my favorite, ribs and pork chops from our pigs slaughtered the day before. The only seasoning on the ribs and chops was a little salt, and it was the freshest and tastiest pork I have had. My mouth is already watering for this week's pig roast, or "man feast," which we after every slaughter.

Yesterday we went to a market in Siena, where Spannocchia had a table set up selling various meats. It is only the second time this market has happened in Siena's Piazza del Campo, and almost all of us interns went to the market yesterday. We didn’t go to work the table, but rather to walk around and stuff our faces with samples of prosciutto, cheese, honey, salami and sopressatta, and wash it all down wine and honey. While there were some good wines and prosciuttos, there were few that matched up to Spannocchia's (it could just be that after a long day of work in the snow the wine just tastes better, so pardon my bias). Still, my roommate Will and I spent an hour building a sandwich- we got a baggette, and then chatted up the vendors in Italian as we tried every prosciutto and cheese at the market before settling on our favorite. It was great to get off the farm, eat lots of free food from local farms, and then bring some wine and cheese back to the farm.

Alright, I'll stop for now. But to summarize, the work is fun. The food, wine and olive oil are all amazing and home grown. The other interns and staff are excellent. The area is beautiful. La vita è bella.