“Oooh! What are you doing that for??”
Was the common response I got after telling people my ‘holiday’ to Tuscany was in fact a solo mission to work on an organic farm in the middle of nowhere. I’ll admit, before I left I was dubious (I am neither a budding farmer nor the I-go-where-the-wind-blows-me sort), but now I would strongly recommend trying WWOOFING (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
What better way to truly experience the Tuscan lifestyle than spending ten days living and eating with an Italian family?
Essentially I exchanged four hours of my time a day for food and board at Il Meletto: an eight hectare organic farm housing of a family of five, an array of animals from bees to horses, an olive grove, a lavender field, a huge vegetable patch, a natural swimming pool, four guest apartments, and one restaurant. All surrounded by an incredible view of the rolling Tuscan hills and rust-coloured houses.
The work was tougher than I expected. ‘Weeding’ suggests conquering something that’s powerless, without hope against human strength. I was very wrong. Gigantic weeds, some a metre high, by day 3 got the better of me. My back ached, my strength waned. Many survived.
But, farming does work up a healthy appetite. Once the morning was over we were rewarded with a delicious lunch followed by a long afternoon of exploring the neighbouring towns, reading, swimming, and otherwise enjoying the languorous pace of life before a late family dinner.
Whilst I enjoyed the peace, my hosts, Irene and Luca, worked tirelessly from dawn till dusk hosting guests and finishing building work. Once an abandoned monastery, Il Meletto is now a flourishing agritourism business.
Agriturismo is a fabulous Italian tradition. Small farms across Italy let out rooms to tourists and cater for them using only local ingredients and recipes. It is a clever alternative way of generating money through farming, and has both boosted rural economies and increased the number of organic small-holdings. As a tourist, it’s a great way to authentically experience the food of different regions in Italy.
Not only do they serve homemade local dishes, most of the ingredients are either grown on site or grown on a neighbouring farm.
The olive grove provides an endless flow of the delicious golden oil through their kitchen. One thing’s for sure, Italians do not hold back on covering everything in olive oil, a habit I’d highly recommend adopting.
Aperitivos are often picked straight from the garden. Crudites are a staple: spicy radishes, spring onions and fennel were amongst other spring vegetables. To balance them out (my personal favourite): deep-fried courgette flowers and sage leaves. All served alongside baked ricotta, cured meats, pecorino, jam, and nuts.
When he was cooking to impress, Luca followed aperitivos with an elegant small plate of courgette pasta (the warm up act), and then traditionally cooked meat, often pork, with potatoes. Once he got out his bow and arrow and shot two of his ducks to roast for dinner.
Once a week they fire up the wood burning pizza oven. Spoiler alert: Italians know how to make excellent pizza. Gigantic, crispy yet with a puffy crust, smothered in homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage meat and, unusually, homegrown grated courgettes.
On weeknights, we mainly ate simple vegetable based meals. Courgettes are a popular ingredient, roughly chopped, fried in lots of olive oil, and served with pasta or risotto, sometimes with pesto, and sometimes in a frittata. Lentils or rice with caramelised fennel, onions and carrots is another staple.
The best bit is that everything comes to the table: bowls of whole lettuce leaves, chunks of raw fennel, spring onions, whole radishes with their leaves, hunks of ginger, unpeeled boiled beetroots, raw broad beans in their pods, artichokes, whole cloves of garlic, pots of seeds, bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and numerous other things.
It was DIY at mealtimes, and they’re definitely on to a winner: less kitchen prep, more fun at the table, and your plate exactly the way you want it. From the way the kids were fighting over the last beetroot, enthusiastically grating garlic onto their toast and adding the final touches of olive oil or salt to their meal, I think there’s a strong link between this and getting children to engage with different (and healthy) types of food.
Do it. WOOF. Travel, meet new people and experience their way of life. It sounds cliché, but it’s a very good (and cost effective) way of broadening your horizons.