I’ve done nothing but eat since I arrived in Italy. I should be size of a house – okay, slight exaggeration – but surprisingly I’m not. I’m very grateful because for the past couple of months I have been eating with such reckless abandon and not once have contemplated the consequences. It is a myth that Italians eat large at lunch and prefer something light for dinner, they each large ALL the time. Pasta and bread, pasta and bread, pasta and bread. Italy is carbohydrate hell. Damn it, I wish I hated either, or had some sort of gluten intolerance, but the truth is I love them which makes it virtually impossible to say no.
I’ve been very fortunate to have access to fabulous fresh produce everywhere I’ve been. From my uncle’s garden in the mountains to the one here on the Sicilian farm where I am volunteering, it has been wonderful to pick what I need straight from the garden. I’ve been cooking daily and have learnt to make some local dishes. I’ve also made a few stir fries and they’ve been very well received, even the chili, but how do you tell an Italian that you’re not supposed to eat bread and salad with Asia food?
One of last week’s tasks was to make pesto. We made 18 jars and between the two of us – Maurizio (a friend of the farm) and I – the work took most of the day. From harvesting the basil, to separating the leaves, shelling the freshly blanched almonds that were donated from someone’s tree and peeling the organic garlic that was harvested earlier this year. We were of course rewarded with a fabulous lunch of fresh pesto pasta and local wine, which to my delight you can buy in recycled plastic water bottles straight from the barrel. God it was delicious!
Working on a farm is hardly work at all when the tasks involve food. These past weeks I’ve been mostly helping with the olive harvest. Daria, who is the manager here, only has a few trees but they are very large and produce a lot of fruit. I’ve spent a lot of time sorting olives, marinating them, turning them out daily and drying them in the sun. I’ve picked up some new techniques (actually my old olive-preserving techniques sucked) that I hope to utilise when I get home and raid the olive trees in my apartment block.
I’ve especially enjoyed using my hands and have loved getting away from the city and back to nature. I feel contentedly connected to the land, and even if only just a miniscule amount, a bit earthy, but I know my clean clothes and painted toenails tell another story. Daria did tell me the other day that she was worried, because of my age, that I was going to turn out to be a princess and has been pleasantly surprised that I haven’t balked at any of the tasks she’s given me. I’m not sure if she noticed the day I conveniently disappeared when it was time to muck out the chook pen.
This week we killed the goose. I actually didn’t do anything and hid behind a wall when the deed was to be done. I wanted to watch, but I couldn’t – I’m really not quite country yet am I? Daria’s friend Lorenzo, a well dressed, cigar-smoking retired chef helped her clean the goose and returned the following day to cook it. From the bird he made a stock, a ragu to accompany the freshly made pasta we’d made that morning, and slow roasted the best bits with some potatoes to die for. While the goose wasn’t quite as good as I’d expected, sharing a meal at the large table outside in the sunshine was a definite highlight and something that I’d always dreamed of doing.
I couldn’t write a post about food without talking about cheese. There are so many varieties here that I haven’t even scratched the surface but you know that in the coming months I will certainly try. I thought all my Christmases had come at once when I discovered that you could buy the sweetest, softest mozzarella balls individually packaged in the cold section of the supermarket. So run of the mill here, they rival the buffalo balls I was paying a fortune for at the Queen Vic Market. This new-found delight, accompanied by vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh basil were the staples of many lunches in during my time in Catania.
I was quite happy cruising along in my mozzarella euphoria until I met the ‘Cheeseman’. He comes to the farm twice a week and from his boot he sells us fresh ricotta he has made only that morning. Each time I get it back to the kitchen I can’t help scooping off a few mouthfuls while it is still warm. It is so divine and has just the right amount of salt. This fantastic local service reminds me of Giuseppe, a man who used to visit my father every couple of weeks when I was a teenager. From the boot of his 1970s pale blue Valliant he would house a small Italian delicatessen. I was always quite embarrassed at the thought of my Australian friends riding by on their bikes and seeing Giuseppe and his smelly boot full of weird ‘wog’ food. Today I can only hope there is someone out there like him servicing small communities with fresh, local produce. Maybe there’s a business venture in the making… I’ve always wanted to own an old Valliant.
My tube of Vegemite sits largely untouched in my bag but I’m not surprised as the flavours here far surpass the processed black substance that I used to eat daily. I’m sure there will be a time for it soon, a moment in the future when I’m feeling a bit homesick and can actually find a toaster.