One Italian Summer, published this month by Affirm Press, tells the story of the family’s adventures living and working on the farms of strangers. The following extract is from the chapter Tuscany (Repose).
WE’VE been so preoccupied with being good WWOOFers* that we barely noticed. His pale face and bile are my reproof – I never did remember to ask about eggs for his breakfast.
I put my arm around his shoulders and lead him down the path to the kitchen. I don’t know what I’ll feed him, but feed him I will. In the end it’s Ulrike who comes to the rescue. She’s just made an apple cake. Aidan eats two slices then bounds out of the kitchen, all smiles, to find Riley and Marta. This is his superpower; the physical and emotional insults of life just don’t stick to him. It’s not a trait he inherited from me.
I slide into a chair and let Ulrike cut me a thick wedge.
‘Sometimes Marta refuses to eat my bread, so when I go into the village I usually buy some white rolls,’ Ulrike says, walking over to a large wooden chest. She lifts the lid on her emergency stash. ‘Please, give to Aidan when you want.’
I feel less like a stranger.
The next day is Easter Sunday. No work, just feasting and a walk.
The family mostly eat vegetarian, but Ulrike has swapped some honey and potatoes for a goat from a nearby farm. It’s to be the centrepiece of an Easter feast that includes cake for breakfast and a chocolate egg hunt for the children. The tortellini with sage butter and crostini with pesto are a hit with Aidan and Riley, who eat more at this meal than in the entire first two days on the farm. But the goat is what we’re all waiting for. Having seen it enter the kitchen, head and little white tufted tail attached, we’re curious about how it will end up on our plates.
It comes out in pieces, nothing fancy. It’s not a ‘dish’ – deconstructed, reconstructed, ‘pulled’ or served with a suspicious looking ‘smear’ for presentation on social media. It’s food, real food, to be shared in real time. For this family, eating meat is a celebration, and we spend a surprising amount of time talking about the goat – its origins, its age, what it was fed. I think of how casually I’d throw a vacuum-sealed cut of meat into my shopping trolley back home, crossing my fingers it wasn’t fed with hormones, but in too much of a hurry to bother with the fine print.
‘Would you like to see where the goat came from?’ Stefan asks me.
‘Yes, we’d love too. Is it far?’
‘Not so far.’ He puts Amalie on his back and leads the way to a forest track.
Not far, he said. Two hours later, after much huffing, puffing and a fair bit of stopping ‘to look at the view’ (even when there was no view to look at), we arrive at a farm perched on the top of a ridge.
‘There is the daddy,’ says Stefan, pointing to a huge goat clearly intent on connecting its horns with anyone fool enough to come close to its enclosure.
‘Don’t tell him we just ate his kid,’ says Aidan. But it doesn’t translate, and only we laugh.
The farm is beautiful: only a few acres of land, with vegetables and goats and an old horse. Like Stefan and Ulrike, the owners probably have access to the chestnuts that grow throughout the forest, and I’d bet my life there’s an olive grove on the other side of the ridge.
‘We could do this,’ I whisper to Shannon.
‘I reckon we could,’ he whispers back.
‘And if we get goats, we could have our own milk as well as meat, and I could make goat’s cheese.’
He exaggerates a sour face.
‘You’d get used to it,’ I say.
‘If you can get used to waking at dawn to do the milking, I promise I’ll get used to goat’s milk.’
How will I do that without an alarm clock? I think.
The walk home is mostly downhill, and I have breath for conversation. This whole region is dotted with villages perched precariously on hillsides, all stone and slate and terracotta. I can imagine renting one of the stone houses – just me, a notebook and a pile of novels – having amusing misunderstandings with my neighbours and flirting with the young mechanic who fixes my moped after I break down in the narrow lane behind the olive grove. But the reality, according to Stefan, is rather less romantic. Many of these villages are being abandoned due to a lack of work and a move away from subsistence farming. As more and more families leave, the local schools are closing and only a few villages still have a post office and store.
‘They don’t look abandoned,’ I say.
‘No, city people buy the old houses and renovate them, but they don’t have time to stay in them, so usually they are empty.’
My moped mechanic disappears, and I realise I have imagined, more or less, the storyline of Under the Tuscan Sun.
This is an edited extract from One Italian Summer, by Pip Williams (Affirm Press), $24.99.
Pip Williams is a social scientist and co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia Today. She has also published travel articles and book reviews.
* WWOOFers stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms”. It’s a voluntary movement where people work on farms in exchange for food and accommodation.
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