In July I was fortunate to spend a week wwoofing on the farm ‘l’albero che cammina’ in the Marche region of central Italy; it was one of the best weeks of my year abroad. In my mind it is a tranquil place where only the simplest of things mattered and whenever I feel stressed it is the perfect mental escape. The farm is organic and run wholly by the couple who own it, Doretta and Nello. Their two youngest daughters still live at home and the family is almost completely self-sufficient; olive oil comes from their very own olive groves and the flour for their organic bread comes from their own wheat. The plums are from the orchard and the beans from the field. The concept of wwoofing is simple, you work on a farm in exchange for food, lodging and a cultural exchange. Living with the family really opened up my eyes to not only the diversity of the traditional Italian family but also the simple pleasures of growing your own produce. My main task was harvesting that year’s onion and garlic crop – the ground was so hard that I broke the pitchfork – and I clearly remember the stab of pain that I felt when Doretta gave away to the neighbours an onion and a clove of garlic that was received with a simple ‘thanks very much’. Where was the gushing praise? The pat on the back for my hard labour? It is extremely easy to forget and not appreciate the origins of the food we consume daily.
It wasn’t just edible delicacies that the farm produced, within the garden surrounding the hill top farmhouse a variety of plants and herbs flourished. Together we picked and packed lavender into jars filled with olive oil to be left in the sun for the rest of the summer to finally become aromatic lavender oil. ‘Iperico’ (hypericum or Saint John’s wort) was picked and hung from the wooden beams to dry, the bright yellow flowers turned into an oil have soothing medicinal properties. With the help of beeswax it can also be turned into a cream (see photo above) which is excellent for damaged or dry skin. I have to say however, that my favourite task was making honey. Obviously I didn’t actually make the honey, and I wouldn’t say that blood sweat and tears went into it, but some sweat and a couple of nasty bee stings certainly did. Once the trays containing the honey had been removed from the boxes in the garden, using smoke to make the bees drowsy, and the honey comb has been gently scraped away, they are added to a large container with a handle that makes the inside spin. This motion draws the honey from the trays where it gathers at the bottom. Pop it in a jar and voila, delicious! Every time that I taste it I am taken straight back to the garden nestled below the hilltop town of Arcevia.
I made a real connection with the family and I can’t wait to go back. Let’s be honest, the scorpions in my bedroom and the toad on my front step, all of the snails, and the snakes, the wild boar roaming the woods, and those giant black things that fly at you I could probably take or leave, however, the kindness and peacefulness that I experienced there will stay with me always.