by Ashley Pardo
I would have never believed if someone had told me that the best food of my life was patiently waiting in 200-year-old stone farmhouses, or that my new best friends would be lawnmowers and weed whackers, or that I would soon be chasing goats and sheep in the mountain of Piedmont, Italy. In fact this became my reality, as I embarked on a life-changing experience; all thanks to an organization called WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF operates globally, allowing people to obtain a list of farms that need help in the country of their choice. It’s up to you at that point to contact and make an arrangement with the farm. Basically, you exchange your blood, sweat, and tears for food, housing, and an opportunity to living on a working organic farm.
My adventures commenced at a farm known as Petra, located in the village of Castino, under the care of a gracious couple named Maura and Maurizio. Before I could say buongiorno, my expectations of an eight-hour workday were hurled out the window. The morning was a series of interesting tasks: organizing, threading, and taming tumultuous Dolcetto and Moscato grape vines and applying organic treatments, packaging and labeling honeys for the farmers’ markets, planting, weeding, and harvesting (occasionally sampling) a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Afterwards, tired and famished, we fortified ourselves with a two-hour pranzo, followed by a two-hour break spent devouring Italian cookbooks, obsessively scribbling recipe notes, or hiking. After another four-hours of work, we’d sit down to cena and relax as a family. It took approximately five hours to adjust to this rhythm and pace of life.
My next visit to a cheese farm called Amaltea in the mountains of Mombarcaro, run by a young, talented, and widely renowned cheesemaker and shepherd named Alessandro Boasso. Our main task was milking his forty sheep and goats twice a day, and moving them to graze on different pastures. During my stay we made and gorged on the best formaggio of my life in il caseificio, even rivaling the cheeses I sampled in Ihsan Gurdal’s acclaimed cheese certification course at BU.
The meals I enjoyed while WWOOFing changed my view of food and cooking forever. We ate whatever vegetables were available from the garden, and meat from animals that were known, loved, and cared for. The most shocking revelation was that most meals (besides homemade pastas, pizzas, and farinata) took no more than 15 minutes to prepare. Meals were incomplete without il pane, the literal plate cleaner between courses. A wooden cheese tray with no less than five raw milk cheeses was always the grand finale: robiola, gorgonzola, pecorino, raschera, fontina, cacao cavallo, mozzarella, and fontina were the usual suspects. I prayed for each meal to last forever, as I soaked up the company, language, atmosphere, and copious amounts of Barolo and Barbaresco, homemade liquors, and grappa.
As my farm stays came to a close, I reflected on the richness and depth of my voyage. Not only is WWOOFing economical (in ten weeks, I spent ~150 euros, mainly on foodstuffs and wines to bring back to the US), but it also allows you to immerse yourself in a culture and its people in a real and genuine way. Something tourist travel doesn’t always allow you to do. I still keep in touch with Maura, Maurizio, and Alessandro, and I feel that they became la mia famiglia. These human connections are perhaps the most rewarding part of WWOOFing.
(If you are interested in WWOOFing at Petra, Maura and Maurizio’s farm, or Amaltea, Alessandro’s cheese heaven, they are both listed under the Piedmont region of WWOOF Italia, http://www.wwoof.it)
Ashley Pardo graduated from the Gastronomy program in 2012, focusing on the culinary arts, nutrition, and food writing. She is currently based in Miami, FL where she works as a personal chef, food educator, along with being involved in other culinary related entrepreneurial projects. You can follow her adventures on her food blog, www.thegrizzlykitchen.com.