Hello again everybody!
I can’t believe it’s been two weeks already (more, since I actually left the states) that I’ve been here on the farm. I think it’s probably been about a week since I wrote last and not a whole lot has happened, but I’ve steadily been learning a lot.
As is probably expected, I’ve been eating a lot of delicious food. The majority of it is fresh from either the local bakery or from the garden tended by nonno Alfredo. When I decided to do anthropological research in Italy, I was pretty excited because I was thinking as compared to other research done in the middle of the jungle or desert or something) at least there won’t be any crazy weird food that I’ll have to try to eat. Though the majority of the time this is true, I did have a couple experiences this last week where I had to put aside my own cultural conceptions of what’s okay to eat and just focus on chewing and swallowing. The first was at lunch a couple days ago. The day before, I had an interesting time at lunch because I was caught by surprise when nonna Maria set a pot on the table in front of nonno Alfredo and out of it he pulled a whole goat’s (or sheep’s) head and start pulling bits of meat out of it. I had to focus really hard on not looking at it, because its cloudy eyes were constantly looking at me. The next day I walked in the door at noon after getting off of work and saw the stove covered in pots. I helped set the table and nonna served me up some pasta and sauce from a bigger pot. I saw her pull some pieces of meat and bone and such out of the other pot sitting on the stove for nonno Alfredo and immediately I thought of the goat’s head and thought to myself “dear God, please don’t let that be the goat’s head.” My suspicions were heightened as I bit into some pasta and felt something hard between my teeth, only to find that it was a tiny tooth. I finished my pasta with a little bit of dread, knowing what was coming next. Nonna served me some of the meat, hanging on to random bones I know had been a skull and told me that I was to eat it with my hands, pulling the meat off with my fingers and teeth. Of course, they realized I was having issues with it and kept asking “ti piace?” or “do you like it?” I just nodded and said “si,si” all the while working past my mental block. Even after I got over the fact that it was the head of the animal on my plate, I had to get past the texture. Apparently, the heads of animals are very fatty and the meat is very slimy. I have this weird thing about the textures of foods; for this reason I don’t like things like scrambled eggs, bananas and slightly over-ripe apples.
My next surprise was a day or two later. As I said before (I think) there are three parts to the Italian lunch: the first (pasta and sometimes legumes); the second (protein, either meat or eggs); and the desert (which is fruit and sometimes a bread/cake). This particular day our second was eggs. When I walked in, I saw three partially-cooked sunny-side-up eggs sitting in a pan atop a bed of peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. I was pretty excited because this is sometimes a breakfast for me and I thought it was going to be yummy with their awesome bread. As we started lunch, I started to wonder when nonna was going to finish cooking them. At the last minute she covered them and let them simmer for a little bit. But not enough to cook them all the way through. So onto my plate fell a pretty-much-raw egg, the white oozing all over the plate. Of course, I was raised by the FDA ensuring that every egg is thouroughly cooked by their little warning lable. Even if the egg wasn’t cooked all the way through, the white certainly was. Only the yoke is allowed to be runny. So, again I had to attempt to get past my preconceptions of what is okay to eat and what is not. I know that their eggs are from their own little flock of chickens and they probably don’t have salmonella. Having my own flock, I’ve never really been worried about getting sick. It was, again, the texture. I was right, it was delicious with the bread, but I could get past the slimy transparent stuff sitting on my plate. So I just kind of pushed it aside and ate the veggies covered in yoke and the bread.
These experiences have taught me a couple things. The first is that I can never go to a place where they have strange food. No matter how much I want to explore new things and new foods, I don’t think I could do it. The more important thing though is just how much culture affects what we eat. For some reason, us people in the U.S. have really strange ideas of what’s okay to eat and what’s not. We only eat the “good” cuts of meat, yet we’ll eat things like chicken nuggets and hot dogs, where the meat is hardly recognizable (and hardly present). We can’t see that what we’re eating is from a real animal. Even though I know meat comes from a living thing, I can’t help but feel horrible when actually presented with that fact on my plate. It’s just something I was raised to think, as are a lot of Americans. Here, it’s just a known fact that you don’t waste any food, so obviously you eat every part of the animal that is available.
Why they don’t cook eggs all the way, I’m not really sure. It’s something I’ll have to look into.
Besides my food adventures, I’ve been learning more and more about how the farm is run and what I’ve been finding is quite interesting. Though the farm itself in its current state has only existed for 10 years (started by Giuseppe and his brother Alberto) the family has been living in the area, herding sheep and making cheese for about 2000 years, the secrets of the trade being passed down from father to son. Everything is done organically without pesticides. Hay is grown in a small field on their land, but the majority of the time the sheep are raised in the pastures of the surrounding mountains. The farm resides in Pollino National Park, which is the largest national park in Italy and named for its highest peak that I can see from the front door. I’m still trying to research what exactly it means to be a national park. It is home to many protected species I know, but it is obviously okay for people to raise livestock on the land. Once I figure that out, I will be posting. It’s something that really fascinates me. I wrote earlier that ricotta is sold to stores locally, made fresh almost every day, but at that point I wasn’t sure about the rest of the cheeses. Giuseppe told me that they do in fact sell all their cheeses in Calabria, and many of them in stores within the province of Cosenza.
There’s one main difference I have been noticing between the farm in the U.S. and the farm here. At the farm in the U.S. everything is about taking European traditional cheeses and adapting them to the American palate while maintaining the artisanal qualities. This can be seen in the way the buildings themselves at the farm are built in an Italian style and the fact that they use an old wooden European vat to make their hard cheese. The owner is even attempting to build a straw and clay cave to make aged cheeses in, a very traditional technique. It’s all about finding a better food culture amidst what is deemed crappy about the fast food culture. Here on the other hand, is almost the opposite. Though they are trying to maintain traditional methods as well, they are doing so in an attempt to maintain their traditional culture that has been that way for thousands of years. The inside of the caseificio (cheese-making building) looks much more industrial than a romantic American would think. Everything is sparkling clean and stainless steel. All the molds are plastic. The cheese is aged in large refrigerators with temperature and humidity controlled. Though it’s all very modernized in technology, the techniques are ancient and what they believe are the important qualities of cheese-making are being saved, if not improved. This way they are able to make their cheese safer and faster (with a modern vacuum milking system as well). The difference may not seem that different, but for me it’s fascinating. I am interested in finding out whether or not Giuseppe plans on teaching his son about the business or if he’s worried. The majority of the young people I’ve met have been going to universities at least an hour away, but I’m not sure if there’s a trend of people leaving the country here in Calabria. It’s something I have to find out and am very interesting in.
So that’s what I’ve been learning so far. In about 3 weeks some American kids with a program called People to People will be coming to learn about the farm and, of course, I’m going to be the tour guide/translator. This means that I have to learn all the “important” stuff about the farm, about Pollino, about Morano and how to make cheese, as I will be guiding them through making some hard cheese as well as ricotta. To prepare me for this, Giuseppe already walked me through the day and let me borrow a book entitled “il formaggio, raccontato ai bambini” or “Cheese, Recounted for Children.” It’s all in Italian, so I spent the better part of this morning reading it. It’s all about how to make cheese and, I would say, way too difficult for children. It not only goes through the whole process but it explains what milk is made of and how rennet and cultures work with lots of science concepts that in English I barely comprehend. But it’s been very interesting and a very good way for me to learn all the important cheese words in Italian.
Tomorrow I’m going into Morano with Giuseppe to get a book (written in English, yay!) about the history of Morano. At least, that’s how I understood it. I’m very excited to learn about the city and the people that have inhabited it for who knows how long. I still haven’t been able to completely comprehend the age of this place. It’s weird enough to be in a building in the U.S. that’s been around for 200 years. But here, everything is much older. It’s crazy to think about.
Anyway. That’s all for now! I took some pictures just with my phone of the place that I’m uploading. Hopefully I’ll be taking some real ones soon. I’m mostly waiting until July to do the majority of the hard core research so that I understand more of what’s going on and I can ask better.
So that’s that! I’ll be back soon with more to talk about, I’m sure.