2012 Olive Oil is Here!

Last week I was invited on an impromptu visit in the Tuscan countryside. i was in the process of moving, I was just recovering from a bad cold and I was the only one who could drive a manual transmission. But I knew this was one of those opportunities that one has to take and I wanted to check out the infamous number two.In Italy number one is and always will be wine…really good wine. A close second has to be olives. In the past few months I have learned more about olive oil than I ever imagined. I learned that the oil is best when it is fresh and the new harvest oils have the strongest flavor; bitter and green and spicy. i learned that bitter, green and spicy is something you seek in an oil and there are regions and varieties that speak to these notes more than others. I have grown to love olive oil and have an appreciation for this beautiful golden- green liquid, i never gave thought to before.So, Tuscany. I was invited to attend an olive harvest at the home of my classmate Francesco. Three of us drove the 5 hours south to their beautiful farm just outside Florence. Exhausted, I was welcomed with a roaring fire, bean and kale soup and a roast pork. Falling asleep at the table, I was soon-after tucked into a massive bed, buried under three duvets and woke eleven hours later to begin my lessons in oil.

The process is simple. Place an enormous net under your tree. Your tree will most likely be on a steep slope so use sticks and what-nots to keep the olives from rolling down the hill. Use a ladder or climb your tree to reach the higher branches and use your hands or a handheld rake to reach the lower ones. Collect your olives in your net, dump them in the baskets and move your net to the next tree…Do this for 2-3 hours and stop for a massive lunch, several bottles of wine and a three hour nap..wait that was just me.

When I awoke at five that evening, it was time to take our harvest to the mill, before the olives began to oxidize. Francesco took us to a small mill that continues to press olives with a traditional open air method. The producer allowed me to stick my finger in the fresh oil to taste it. I had never seen the actual production of olive oil before. The air was heady with the aromas of crushed olive. We then went to a slightly more modern mill where the oil is not introduced to the air until the last moment. i watched this cloudy green liquid pour out of the spigot and was mesmerized…it was beautiful.So in less than 12 hours, I took an olive from the tree to my bread and experienced the wonders of the new olive oil harvest, I had only heard about in lecture. 2012 oil is a good year! I got myself three liters. My flat mates and I put it on everything! Thank you Francesco!

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Bosnia or Bust

I find that as my time in Italy races forward, the more I live in the moments presented and spend less time writing about them. I know I am going to regret this if I don’t get my thoughts down for future reference.

A few weeks ago I went on my fourth stage and my first stage outside of Italy.  I traveled to Bosnia and Croatia to study how ethnobiology in these regions was affected  by war. As we loaded onto our small gold bus, no one really knew quite what to expect, including our professor.  We covered 4500 kilometers in 6 days, crossed 5 borders, acquired a stigmata, stayed in a Croatian campground, 2 Bosnian homes and on a remote island about a three hour boat ride from the mainland. It was mind-bending. I never would have taken this trip on my own. I was barely becoming an adult when the war in Bosnia began. I remember thinking that it sounded horrible but seemed out of my sphere. I knew nothing about Bosnia really. And years later, I was here.

To reach my first residence in Martin Brod, we had to cross a bridge that had been blown up and replaced…sort of. Bosnia is beautiful with forested mountains and rivers crossing and falling down sides of wild landscape. It was hard to imagine how brutal the war was here. We were forbidden to wander off the roads because there are still several minefields, yet in many places, I would watch young children running across fields to school. I hoped they knew more than I did.

While being hosted by a group of women in Bosnia, we learned about what it meant to survive.  Of the 80 women in this support group, 30 of them had lost children. The majority of them lost their husbands. They fled from their homes and foraged for sustenance to feed their families.

After the war, there was nothing left but to pick up the pieces and move forward. Many people didn’t know how to do this. How do you come home to a land that has been violently turned upside down? Without the support of each other, many of the women we met returned alone and broken. To create a community, these women gathered and began working on tactile projects; they began preserving and weaving and cooking. They also began to heal, slowly. I had to honor of looking into their eyes while they told me their stories. How could I not be moved?

The bus was small and we had lots of rain and mud. However, I am here to learn what I can and have been given these moments to take what I want. I am choosing to take  a little bit of humble grace and gratitude.  I am also the happy owner of a small hand woven rug, knit from old clothing.

We All Deserve to Live With a Soundtrack

Have you ever been to a place that is so beautiful it breaks your heart? There have been a few places in my life that makes me introspective and a little melancholy because it is too much good. I have felt this way in small quiet places around the world. In my hometown of Olympia, in the back country of Montana, on the west coast of Ireland and now in the mountains of Abruzzo. Listening to a lot of My Morning Jacket, Black Keys, Spoon, and Wilco this time around, watching the windy little mountain roads where the scenery goes from lush green to stark stone, I feel home.   As I am writing this, I realize 3 things…I am exhausted. If you are still with me, you might be as well. And lastly, I am really damn fortunate. Don’t for a minute think that I forget these moments are to be savored.The producers, farmers and fishermen I am meeting here, make all of this real. It sounds like a fantasy world but we are really just being allowed to catch of glimpse of their daily lives and I am honored to share in it for even a few moments.

And if i ever feel overwhelmed by it all my friends will delight me with the chicken dance.

The High Highs and the Low Lows

Day 6 began 1200 meters up to learn about lentils. We parked the bus and ventured down a dirt road to see wild pea and lentil crops and learn about the ancient agriculture of the region. Back on the bus we wound our way up into the mountains to explore incredible vistas and watch nomadic sheep herders bring their flocks into the high valleys.  And eat meat…lots of meat. On sticks.  That we got to grill ourselves…sweet!  Bikers, RV’s,  travelers from around the world and families from the region all converged on this odd little place to eat meat. Meat brings people together, indeed. Arrosticini is the traditional mutton skewers eaten in this region. The place we stopped had rows of narrow grills, dishes of salt and lots of hot coals. Off to the side was a local farmer who brought in fresh peaches, figs and watermelon…grilled meat, beer and fruit… I felt like I celebrated the Fourth of July on the Sixth and it was worth the wait.

After spending a week traveling through lush landscapes, eating beautiful foods prepared by the best chefs of the region, we visited L’Aquila, the ancient capital of the Abruzzo region and the epicenter of a tragic earthquake three years ago.

To be able to witness this remarkable contrast, made our week a most profound experience.  As our tutor Elenora told us on the way, “It is important to see this face because this is Italy and these are its people who lost everything in one night”. 308 people died and over 65,000 people were displaced. I vividly remember watching the footage on BBC and the stunned faces of those who wandered their streets in disbelieve. Watching it on tv made it feel worlds away. We stepped off the bus and walked down the main street toward the old city center.

There was a smattering of small bars open, Aha was playing “Take On Me”. As we continued walking, things got quieter. Ancient buildings were literally being held up  by thousands of metal support girders. Side streets were fenced off and military tanks were stationed to keep the curious out, three years later. The devastation is extensive. Thousands of years of history and family and tradition has been lost.

Seeing it on tv did not carry the weight that I felt while walking through this city.  It is an honor to see this place in person after such an extravagant week. I am a student here and my education really is entirely round.  photos brought to you by the most talented, Charlotte Maberly…thanks love.

Saffron and Not Eating Like a Monk, in the Monastery

Day 5. Never thinking it can get better, it usually does. We began our day with a drive through the mountains to http://www.nikoromitoformazione.it/ a 2 star Michelin restaurant and cookery school situated in a refurbished monastery.  Niko and his sister don’t have any backers, they purchased the property and have paid for everything themselves. The cookery school accepts 15 students a term. Niko mentioned that he is looking less for traditional cooking skills and more for those who have that creative knack. After a tour in what felt like Architecture Digest, we were treated to a 4 course lunch that began with cod foam and potato dumplings with olive puree and ended with deliciously cool servings of Saffron Creme Brulee…

….which transitioned beautifully into an afternoon learning about the local saffron industry. The saffron in this region is one of the most intense varieties in existence and is not only used for cooking but in all sorts of medicinal remedies. They use Saffron for everything from indigestion to birth control. We were taken down the road to a small farm to dig up a few saffron bulbs.

The amount of labor it takes to harvest the saffron absolutely justifies the price. It is still meticulously done by hand, around the family table by everyone, including the children.

That evening we went cross-country on an old dirt road (in the bus) up the side of a mountain to eat at a Slowfood restaurant http://www.saporidicampagna.com/.  Never have I ever tasted a better gnocchi and chick pea stew in my life! I want to eat it every day. We also got to watch a massive thunder and lightning storm roll in over the mountains. As for the photos…my camera broke down at Nikos and never recovered so thank you Daniel Chia for sharing your photographs with me! They are beautiful. My blog posts would be so dull without the images, i think.

Stars, Black Piggies and Olive Oil

Continuing the stage of Abruzzo, we began our day with a visit to a beautiful oil mill, followed by lunch at http://www.villamaiella.it/, a Michelin star restaurant. We are still swooning over the perfectly prepared pasta and faro soup.

After lunch we visited http://www.masciarelli.it/ winery with a tasting at the local Castello…seriously.

We ended our day with a visit to the farm where Villa Maiella possibly raises the happiest free range black pigs I’ve ever seen! After poking at the pigs, we bellied up to a table of cured pork and a few bottles of wine.Some may balk at the idea of eating these succulent piggy morsels while playing with the piglets, but this is life…it is the full circle and it makes sense to me. It makes more sense to me in many ways than being unaware of where my food is coming from. This is the way people have lived here in this place for a thousand years…I am simply a guest.  Again I know that I am where I need to be in this moment. The pigs told me.

Get On the Bus

4 hours into a 10 hour bus ride…driving across the country of Italy. Thankfully the bus is air-conditioned while temperatures sore over 38+ outside. We brace for the push of heat as we step off the bus for a quick break at the truck stop…a sandwich, some water guns, and back on the road again. For some this might be hell, but for me, I am in love with this bus adventure, with these people and with my rubber pig Douglas. We are setting off for 7 days of intensive eating, tasting, drinking and little sleep in the region of Abruzzo on the east coast of Italy. All the while, the sun beats down. Our first stop is the town of Pescara where we stopped seaside to watch the Italy-Spain match and swim. After 10 hours on a bus the water felt wonderful…the game was tragic.

many sad Italians

We woke early the next morning to take one last dip in the sea before heading out to visit Fattoria la Valentina and Cantina Sociale Frentana wineries. The wines here are wonderful and distinct. The Montepulciano is deep purple red and full of big fruit. The Pecorinos and Rose’ are light and easy to drink in the oppressive heat of the day.

We spent our afternoon with the local fishermen, auctioning off their catch of the day.

After tasting fresh raw phantom shrimp, we hopped back on the bus and headed to sea…literally. Walking down the beach, we ended our day with a fresh seafood dinner on “the machine”. The machine, or Trabocchi,  consisted of a fishing platform supported by stilts and a series of nets. Used as far back as the 16th century,  seven of these platforms have been refurbished with gourmet kitchens to host events. I just wanted to set up camp and live there for a summer. Our evening consisted of enormous clay pots of fresh shellfish, squid, octopus and all sort of fish. The air was thick and salty with a heavy breeze pushing in over the water. It was one of the most heady nights thus far.

…to be continued…