I spent half the summer in Italy doing something I've always wanted to do - learn organic farming. I've been interested in sustainable living as far back as I remember. Buying a small plot of land and growing my own food has always been a part of my plan. When I finished studying, I'd researched organic farming opportunities with the organisation WWOOF. I was young and dumb and I chickened out - living with strangers in a new place, eating the things I grow? No thank you, I wasn't ready.
But after years of hectic city living, I yearned to live closer to the earth and I wanted to work with my hands. It's the very same stuff I was once terrified of that suddenly appealed to me.
I chose to use the website HelpX to find my farms over the dated WWOOF because there were pictures and references and I like knowing what I'm getting myself into. I chose Italy because I love the food - the produce, the charcuterie and cheese. I chose the farms I did because they specified that they turned their produce into products. I wanted to learn to grow and harvest things of course, but I also wanted to learn how to turn them into other wonderful things. Making makes me happy.
My first destination was small winery on a beautiful estate in Palombara Sabina, not far from Rome. And my second, a little terraced plot behind a bed and breakfast on the island of Ischia.
A typical day at a farm is typically untypical. My first morning, we set down nets and shook a mulberry tree with sticks. Berries fell like rain until our arms fell off turning us and our clothes purple. We washed them, dried them in the sun and turned them into the most wonderful jam to sell or smear on toast at breakfast.
Other days, I planted and replanted things - sunflowers between artichokes, all sorts of pumpkin seeds in little cups, long rows of beans until my knees gave way. I fed bunnies and pigs. I filled baskets of plums, picked zucchini and peppers and tomatoes and every other vegetable in season, combed the garden for errant eggs laid by clucky hens, dug out stubborn ferns and weeded for hours, found edible weeds and prepared salads.
Most mornings I picked capers and salted them. I picked enormous lemons with a claw and learnt how to make limoncello. I harvested walnuts for walnut liqueur (traditionally made on the 24th of June). I cracked hazelnuts, preserved stone fruit, made soft cheeses and learned to bake the densest, most delectable sourdough I've ever had the pleasure of eating.
I collected sticks to get the wood fired oven started. I dried cherry stems for tea and composted. I chased turkeys. I tied vines and watered gardens. Plus I swept, scrubbed, cleaned and organised things. I raked leaves and washed terraces. I bleached chairs with apple cider vinegar till I ran a fever. I helped with an organic dinner and movie night. I prepped breakfast for guests, looked after two naughty babies, I took a million photos for them, I built them a website.
On weekends, I ran a stall at the sweetest little farmer's market, the sole source of income for many families, although I spoke no Italian and the visitors spoke no English. It was the tiniest affair, a few tables set up in an olive grove, friendly locals peddling fruit and veg, homemade soaps, elderflower cordial, focaccia and pecorino. It became my favourite excursion. (There was a communal breakfast table with offerings from every farm.)
If you sign up to volunteer at an organic farm, know that most of the tasks you'll do aren't advertised or glamorous but you're likely to be embraced as part of a family and community and expected to work as hard as they do. Which is pretty damn hard - most days I was exhausted and tucked into bed by 11, hours before my city self even thinks of retiring.
In exchange for my efforts, I was rewarded daily with the freshest, most delicious organic meals - lentil soup with garlic and rosemary, arancini filled with mozzarella, beer battered zucchini blossoms, rabbit pâté, risotto al pomodoro and always fresh bread and extraordinary olive oil, parmigiano and prosciutto. Plus the table always overflowed with wine, delicious small batch organic wine.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.