By Charlie Headington
(First of a series of articles appearing in the News and Record.)
Debby and I are living and working for two months on a Tuscan farm, Tenuta di Spannocchia. The name Spannocchia refers to a medieval family from Siena that made its fortune from banking. This valley of 2400 acres was one of their homes. In the early 1900s, the Cinelli family of Florence bought 1200 acres of the estate and for the past 25 years is refurbishing its buildings for staff and guests and restoring its farm and forest to organic and sustainable yields. Their land is also part of a bio-reserve and an Etruscan research center. Income is derived from the farm and its paying guests or “agro-tourism.”
As volunteers we are given a room to stay in, three meals a day, and general run of the place in return for 28 hours of work each week. The work can vary from stacking wood, mucking out animal stalls, herding sheep, weeding the orto (the vegetable garden run by Carmen that feeds 30-40 of us daily with fresh food), gathering chestnuts (yes, European chestnuts thrive), mending fences, and in the fall, gathering the grapes and olives–all the necessary work of a farm.
There are also nine farm interns here, typically from America, since the Cinelli family is now Italian-American through marriage. One of the fall interns is Rod Gingher of Greensboro. He works daily in the garden, loves it here and can be heard most evenings strumming his guitar. He and his cohorts stay for three month sessions, sort of like a trimester system, and work hard, play together, learn Italian, and travel or relax on weekends. I think Rod would say his life is idyllic.
Our room has been slept in for 900 years. Its tenants change, but its high ceilings and thick stone walls remain the same, only altered to receive modern wiring and glass panes. The window looks down on the large, rectangular farmyard that remains a workspace, even now. I think this needs to be in the past tense: In the old days, the workshops and animal stalls were on the first floor of the large, u-shaped yard. The workers lived on the second floor, the foreman and manager in adjoining separate apartments, and it if was an estate, as Spannochia was, the head of the family lived in a connected villa with formal gardens and its own entrance. Now the Cinellis occupy the former farm manager’s home and guests stay in the well-furnished villa bedrooms, seven in all.
A stout, medieval tower, once used for communications and defense, is now a favorite perch for a long, long view and beautiful sunsets. From it you can see the other villa towers or the day’s approaching storm. It is always visible from your place of work, a reminder of its former glory and power.
But the day’s business is work, and Debby assists Graziella in the kitchen. Graziella was born here. Her great-grandmother moved to Spannocchia as part of a share-cropping farm family. Each day she prepares a traditional, four-course Tuscan meal for 30-40 of us. We begin with wine on the terrace at 7pm with staff, family and guests talking together, and then it might go like this: an antipasto of sliced, raw porcini mushrooms with large flakes of parmesan cheese, lemon and olive oil; then, first course, hand-made lasagna with béchamel sauce; second course, venison with roasted fennel and potatoes; third course, salad; and finally, a sweet, perhaps chocolate and chestnut truffles. And, of course, the farm wine and olive oil. Debby is a good cook, but in this kitchen she takes notes, learns new techniques, and practices her Italian with Graziella.
Most of the food is grown in Carmen’s garden. Much is gathered from the forests: wild boar, deer, rabbit; mushrooms and chestnuts. How’s that for local and slow food?
How in the world did we get here? With a little luck and a little planning. Several years ago we began to learn Italian. Then we turned off the tourist track and joined WWOOF—Willing Workers On Organic Farms. For $35 you get a directory of 400 Italian organic farms that want volunteers. (WWOOF provides accident insurance.) Most Wwoofers are young; we are in our 50s. But few Wwoofers are as resolute as we were to find a place to settle into. Three years ago we first worked as Wwoofers at Spannocchia; we returned again and then again, and it became the place and community we sought.
It is easy to fall for Tuscany. What other place is so filled with such art, landscapes and wine? Everyone is falling over themselves to open their window to “la bella vista” or more hedonistically to live “la dolce vita.” So how do we do it? Are we one of those Americans that an Italian wrote sarcastically about in Too Much Tuscan Sun? We hope not.
We find that learning the language, our willingness to work, and hanging around for two months at a time opens a lot of doors. Eventually Carmen asked us over for dinner; Stefano, a talented baker and wine-maker, lent us his car for three weeks while he was on vacation; now I play the guitar and ping-pong with Riccio; and Daniela and Debby are planning to make a special liqueur out of “alloro”, an Italian bay leaf. Of course, what it really says is that our Italian friends are generous and kind, and they enjoy introducing their deep and rich culture to us. Our numerous mispronunciations are met with a kind correction, helpful to us.
Our life here is greatly simplified: no phone ringing (there is one downstairs for everyone), one computer (dial-up and shared by 20 others, as is the washing machine and clothesline), two meals a day prepared for us, no car and no shopping unless we get a ride into town. The regular staff has all the conveniences in their homes, if they want them; we don’t for these two months
I took on some responsibilities, however. I proposed to the staff that I restore their orchard that has fallen into disuse. So I am busy with soil tests, plant inventories, drip irrigation design, and integrating chickens and compost into the life of the orchard. Fun work for me since I do it in Greensboro. I move along quickly because I want to impress them with my gardening skills. Then one day Riccio stops me. “Charlie,” he says, “this land is old. It has been cultivated for 900 years. It has its own ways.”
Yes, I thought. 500 years before the Pilgrims, Spannocchia farmers tended this land, perhaps planted some fruit trees. “Piano, piano, Carlo.” Slow down, Charlie, I tell myself. You have much to learn.
Click here for the News and Record article with a photo of Rod Gingher.