Rarely before have I spent a weekend asking myself and those around me, “Is this real?” in true disbelief. Then again, these past two days have been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
I’m taking the legendary Dr. K’s food studies course this semester, and this weekend was our class field study in Tuscany wherein we ate our way through the countryside while getting to know the producers and how/why they do this delicious work. The main events: wine and olive oil insights and tastings with a delicious lunch at a vineyard in Casanova, then truffle hunting and a truffle-based lunch at an Agriturismo farm in Volterra. Agriturismo is a farm that opens to tourists who can come and spend some time learning about the processes and how to cook, etc. The whole time, I didn’t feel too much like a tourist (even with my camera). Instead, I felt comfortable and welcomed, as though I was supposed to be there. My ideas of countryside living changed drastically over the course of the trip as I inhaled clean air and learned how to tell good quality olive oil from the opposite (among wines and certain foods).
A main goal of this field study was to understand the culture and practice of the producers firsthand. Living in the valleys of Tuscany is their life, and there, they make excellent wine and olive oil as well as hunt for truffle mushrooms, all of which is sold to consumers and chefs around Italy and the world. We briefly visited a dairy farm, run by a nonna who also has her own flour mill. Seeing this all right in front of me, the first level of production and the families whose lives center on the idea of high quality food and wine, gave me an incredible perspective on the entire realm of Tuscan/Italian food culture. Sure, I’ve been eating magnificent Italian food in the Eternal City. But in the mountains, it was different. I could see the care and effort that went into everything I ate in the eyes of the people who prepared it. It was different from eating in a restaurant because of the smaller scale and, to be completely honest, the lack of big-city stresses.
Tuscany was another world. Each of the towns and villages that we visited were each their own little worlds within Tuscany. At every glance onto the horizon and the rolling green hills in front of it, I gaped in disbelief that this is the same Earth that my hometowns in America share. I couldn’t even believe that Rome was in the same country because it was so different – and such clean air. Dr. K told us as we took our first steps in Casanova that this should be a stress-free weekend, and to consciously breathe the clean air while forgetting about anything outside of our surroundings and class. I took this to heart and truly cleared my mind (while filling my stomach and knowledge with food) throughout the weekend.
Following our Saturday of tastings in Casanova (including tasting the San Giovese grapes straight from the vines and then tasting their wines), we spent the night in Peccioli, a medieval town overlooking the countryside and full of German-speaking people. I was too full from lunch to eat anything thereafter, except for a dessert at a small pizzeria. The night we were there, there was a festival with a DJ, which we all attended and enjoyed! There were people of all ages there from children to older generations dancing to American and Italian pop music. It was a town of contemporary art, as well. For example, there was a neon sign on the side of an old brick building atop the village reading “la felicità è una via” – happiness is a way of life.
On Sunday, we traveled down to Volterra (the hometown of Andrea Bocelli) for the truffle day. We met a truffle hunter and one of his dogs (Batto) who was trained from youth to sniff out the pungent, expensive mushrooms. They had been hunting earlier at 5:00am to no avail, but within the first thirty minutes with us, Batto found two truffles for us. Typically, truffle hunters use pigs or dogs to help them find the treasures, and they’ll bring along treats for the dogs as rewards for successful work. Batto, however, was trained with the happiness of his owner as a reward. I thought of the neon sign about happiness as a way of life in Peccioli, and felt like everything was in its right place here.
Thinking forward, I’m graduating next semester and haven’t made any concrete plans for what I’m going to do afterwards. Being here made me begin to strongly consider coming back to experience in more depth the lifestyle (and happiness) on farms and vineyards like this, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen myself doing before this trip. Before, I resented the idea of me living somewhere other than a large city. I’d love to learn all about the daily life and practices of these families and learn to love the work in the same ways that they do. I gained insight upon which I hope to build in my future in limbo. I only wish it could have been a week-long trip, so that we could have learned even more about the production and lifestyle in the context of our food studies course. For now, I’m just grateful that I had this chance to visit completely foreign-to-me spaces and learn about some of my favorite food-related things – and that I had the chance to buy some pecorino cheeses, wines, and truffle-based products directly from their producers (the former with an audience of the farm animals!).