Sustainable Living in Paradise:
Biodynamic Farming in the Heart of Tuscany
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Tuscany, near the town of Montespertoli outside Florence, and the fat tagliatelle and preserved artichokes from lunch are settling in happily for the customary mid-day nap. I will rest until 2pm, when the “get-to-work” bell rings and Poggio Antico comes back to life, producing biodynamic cheeses, pasta, bread, fruits and vegetables with a nod to the traditions of the surrounding Chianti hills.
Not everyone gets such a golden opportunity to participate in the life and work of a self-sufficient farm. But those who discover World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF) are introduced to flavors and experiences that they might not have dreamed possible. For me, today, after a morning of shoveling earth in the pouring rain, the flavors I’m especially savoring are sore muscles, warm woolen socks, and tagliatelle con carciofi. All three are delicious, and all three are on offer at Poggio Antico.
The concept behind Poggio Antico’s success is that of cooperation. The farm is not so much a commune as a community in which members contribute time and energy to the biodynamic production of foods. At the moment, there are 8 families living here, and each has their own special niche to fill, whether it’s milking cows and goats, pulling weeds in the garden, baking bread, spinning sheep’s wool, or selling products at markets all over Tuscany.
It all started, unpredictably, in Venice. Two brothers, Gianni and Luccio, owned a bar together outside the Venice train station. After years of city life, serving drinks to the drunk and inhaling second-hand smoke for hours at a time, they were ready for a change. They had read the work of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, who advocated organic practices such as crop rotation and composting, in addition to the use of special plant, animal and mineral preparations, as well as (and perhaps most notably) the rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets and stars. Gianni, Luccio and their wives, Daniela and Sonia, were attracted to the philosophy of a self-sufficient farm in which “waste” begets abundance; in which spiritual and agricultural practices are in harmony; in which their young children would grow up acutely conscious of the seasons and eat the literal fruits of their labor. So in 1983, they sold the city bar and bought a country farm in the Chianti hills.
Despite having read widely on the subject of biodynamics, the two families had no practical experience when they arrived at Poggio Antico (which means “ancient hill”). “We had young children and had never been on a farm in our lives,” says Daniela. “We learned a lot in those years…and we made a lot of mistakes.” With time, their vegetable gardens and fruit orchards began to turn a profit. Then their vineyards. Then the grains, cheeses, breads, and jams. Friends would visit to join in the work, and eventually came to stay. After twenty five years, Poggio Antico is now host to eight families on 100 hectares. It boasts a small grocery shop, an organic wool and knits shop, a fully-outfitted dairy, a mill and a canning center. It has hosted visitors who want to join in the work since its inception, and Jacob and I were last in a long line of those who had tasted la dolce vita on a real Italian farm.
Fortunately for us, we arrived just as vendemmia, the grape harvest, was in full swing. Our first morning at Poggio Antico, I was worried that breakfast would be traditional Italian style: a few slices of bread with jam and a mug of warm milk. That is, in my opinion, not enough for harvesting fruit in 100-degree weather for the 6 hours leading up to lunch. To my surprise and pleasure, we were treated to yogurt, muesli, fruit, butter, bread, biscotti, caffe orzo and tea – nearly all homegrown and homemade. As I savored each bite of whole-milk yogurt (the real stuff: creamy and delectable) with hearty oats and juicy raisins, I thought about how each small element of my breakfast was either grown or produced within just a few feet of the house. How often in the United States had I been able to witness (and taste!) such an accomplishment? Probably never.
There were about 20 of us who worked the grape harvest, mostly residents of Poggio Antico. Although the grapes are the traditional varieties used in Tuscany’s world-famous Chianti, these grapes would be sold to make straight grape juice, non-alcoholic. From sunrise to sunset, the music of shears snipping, grape clusters falling, and conversation could be heard across the vineyards. There were, of course, many questions about what America is like, and we were happy to oblige as virtual tour guides while we worked. I learned a lot about our hosts, too, asking about sustainable farming practices in general and the mystery of biodynamics in particular. When the final grape fell into our baskets, we posed for a photo that I treasure as a reminder of the community we had there amongst the vines.
Our assignments as WWOOFers varied widely during our stay. For a few days, we harvested kilo upon kilo of ripe, red tomatoes for making passata, which is a sort of tomato sauce used widely in all Italian cuisine (most notably on pizzas). Unlike American canned tomato sauce, passata is thick, without spices, herbs, salt or preservatives of any kind. It is made by passing the tomatoes through water to clean them, checking for insects or cutting off the soft bits (these are, after all, completely organic!), boiling them in hot water for several minutes, eliminating seeds and skins, and passing them through a mill to liquefy the pulp. We helped to bottle the passata which would then be sold the next day in the shop, fresh as can be.
Probably the most active area on Poggio Antico is that of the latteria, or dairy. Three men awake every morning at 5:30 A.M. to milk the few dozen cows and goats, whose milk then goes to the dairy to create fresh yogurt, butter, or one of twenty types of cheese. The animals are pastured during the warmer seasons and eat hay from those same grasses throughout the colder months, so the cheeses have their own signature flavor that is uniquely Tuscan. What’s more, the milk is never pasteurized and the animals are never treated with antibiotics. This is in stark contrast to the United States where taste nearly always comes second to standardization, industrialization and sterilization. “If you taste a true Piave from the Veneto, it will taste very different from a cheese done in the exact same style from Tuscany,” says Luccio. “It’s a question of what the cows are eating: Veneto grasses or Tuscan grasses.” I watched as Daniela, Sonia, and Cristina made mozzarella from cow’s milk, draining the curds, melting them in hot water and forming the beautiful white globes by hand. I tasted it straight from the pot and nearly melted myself. I had previously formed the opinion that buffalo mozzarella from Campania was the Ferrari of mozzarellas, but this one was a Learjet.
As on any farm that values biodiversity, there was always a job to do, and only rarely did I find myself doing the same thing I’d done the day before. I harvested peperoncini that would wind up dried and chopped into spicy cheeses; apples, peaches, and pears that would end up as jams; squash that would end up as gnocchi with butter and sage on our plates that night; and beans that would be dried and conserved for use in the winter, when pickings would be slimmer. As I performed these small jobs across Poggio Antico’s production, the economy of self-sufficiency revealed itself more and more. Cream scraped off of fresh milk was the inspiration for homemade gelato. Tough rinds from cheese wheels were mixed into food for the cats and dogs. Tomato seeds and stems from the making of passata were thrown into the compost pile to enrich the soil for next year’s tomato crop. The sun’s bright autumnal rays supplied the energy to heat our water for showers.
It is easy to see why self-sufficient living is so often considered an ethical choice. There is something inherently right about working with the earth’s natural processes, rather than against them. To eat an untreated, unsprayed tomato in that bountiful month of September is to participate in the divine. To eat a greenish-pink “tomato” from under the fluorescent lights of the supermarket in February is a shame, which in Italian is peccato – the same word for a sin. Submission to the cycles of creation (and re-creation) might also inspire the kindness and gentleness I witnessed from Poggio Antico’s residents. As we sat at the table laughing and eating pizza from grains, cheeses, tomatoes and vegetables produced just a heartbeat from the table, I felt that surely there is nowhere else on earth that people are so keenly aware of the seasons and of their fellow human being.
While most people only ever visit Poggio Antico to see these processes from the outside, I had the ultimate pleasure of living there and participating in the work, thanks to WWOOF. Some argue that the greatest gift to be had from WWOOFing is the learning experience. Some says it’s the food. But for me, it was the sensation of being part of something ancient, sacred, clean, and true. No longer is sustainability a question of shopping in the right store, installing solar panels, or bicycling to work. These are potential parts of a whole that is so much more interesting and personal than playing that modern game of “greener than thou.” I will go home with a wider perspective and a fuller heart than any solar panel could ever supply.
Oh, and a bottle of passata for the road. Local is sometimes a frame of mind.