Don't worry, loyal readers, I haven't given up on the blog. I've just been doing a lot of work-related travelling lately and haven't managed to get much written.
My fears of gulag-style labour in blizzard conditions turned out to be unfounded; in fact we got the first real scent of spring in Cumiana, Piedmont, about 30km from Turin and 60km from the French border, where Laura and I spent a week in March doing WWOOF volunteering with the Zaro family: Bruno, Milena, Simone and Matteo.
A common but vital strategy for back-to-the-land migration involves the diversification of economic activities. I've seen this put into practice in various ways, but Bruno's family offers the must successful example that I've been able to document so far. Bruno and Milena both lived and worked in Turin until the start of the 1990s, when they decided to uproot to the local countryside. Both were tired of the time restrictions imposed by their regimented work cycles, and put faith in the idea that a rural relocation would offer greater personal freedom.
The donkeys of Cascina dei Frutasé: Ettore, Fillipo, Chan and Bierba
They began growing wheat, spelt and lesser-known grains traditional to the Alps, milling the cereals themselves and baking bread for retail at the farmers' markets of Pinerolo and Turin. This was their primary activity for about 10 years until they purchased Cascina dei Frutasé, a former fruit orchard that had fallen into neglect. Here they began to diversify their operations, designing terraces for growing leafy plants such as lettuce, cabbage, radicchio and valerian, as well as onions, garlic and other vegetables. At the top of the hill on which their house sits is a vegetable patch (known in Italy as an orto), where Laura helped plant this year's crop of onions and peas.
She can't train her husband, but Laura sure can train a hedge
Few of these vegetables find their way to local markets, however, as most get used by the family and in the restaurant they built as part of the house. Only open on weekends, the family prepares (with just a little outside help) a fixed-price menu, usually consisting of salad, antipasti, pasta or rice, meat, cheese and desert. They aim to offer mostly organic meals, with as much as possible grown on the property. On the Saturday night that Laura and I stayed there we were treated to the same food given to paying customers, all of which demonstrated the best of rich Piemontese cuisine. I think we ate something like a ridiculous 10 courses (all of them small, but we still had to call it quits before Milena started making crepes for us) but I remember being particularly blown away by the gallantina of rabbit and a warm local tomino topped with chestnut honey. Tomini are small rounds of cheese, usually drizzled with a light sauce or strong honey. The one Milena served was produced by a friend of theirs, and had a similar if less stringy texture to fresh mozzarella. Like mozzarella it had a very thin skin, and when punctured it oozed a soft, gooey interior. Simplicity and indulgence, perfectly harmonised.
synergistic' agriculture, where Bruno is currently experimenting with wheat, spinach and onions.
Rising dough in the bakery / workshop
A workshop sits next to the house where grain is milled and dough produced for the 80 loaves of bread that are baked every week in a traditional wood-fired bread oven. There are three types of bread – wheat, spelt and another Piemontese grain – all hand-produced and looking very much the traditional artisan loaf. A lot of work goes into the baking, but it seems to result in a good payoff.
Bruno and Simone, preparing the loaves
On Friday afternoons Simone takes the bread to Turin, where an organic food shop buys about 20 loaves and a GAS group (a self-organised buying collective, more on which some other time...) takes a similar amount. The remaining loaves go to markets in Turin and Pinerolo, where Bruno also sells his eggs, preserves, and occasionally any excess fruit or vegetables. As I've been told repeatedly by several farmers in Italy, though, the money is in trasformazione – processing the raw materials into a more consumer-friendly package, such as jams, spreads or baked goods.
Some finished rounds, minutes out of the oven
Sunday farmers' market in Turin
Finally, the family uses what spare space they have to offer bed and breakfast hospitality.
The Zaros have all these bases covered in a more comprehensive way than I've seen at any other farm. They still operate with a spirit of experimentation and optimism, but have also found a formula which allows them to extract maximum value from a small piece of land. My next WWOOFing dispatch will show what can be achieved on an even smaller patch of ground, and within a densely populated area.