Italy – September
Before we even arrived in Italy it was like a collective sigh began to rattle around our family. Italy marked the end of sightseeing and playing tourist (which we all did rather begrudgingly) and marked the start of the bigger picture – getting down and dirty and getting our farmer on. Until we started to smell the mountain air and feel the dirty under our fingers (and the cow poo on our clothes), I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how much we’d all been waiting for the opportunity to get on with this bit of our journey.
I think by the time we arrived in Italy we were well and truly ready to settle into a bit of a routine and make one place ‘home’ for a while, after moving endlessly for the past three months. When it comes to rooting yourself in routine AND getting your farmer on is there any better way than milking cows and goats twice a day?!
Our first two weeks in Italy were spent WWOOFing at Fattoria Monte Pelpi, a picturesque little dairy overlooking the rural market town of Bedonia, which is nestled in the mountains between Parma and Cestra Levanti on the Italian Riviera (an area which conveniently happens to be home to two of my favorite foods; parmesan cheese and porccini mushrooms).
WWOOFing is something we’ve heard about and considered for some time but never actually acted on. The general deal is you work for a set number of hours each day (the norm is about 30 hours per week) in return for food and accommodation. Work can be anything from plaiting onion bunches to mucking out cow barns – pretty much what ever needs doing. We were both excited and nervous about what the experience would bring, particularly as we are “old people” with three extra little bodies tagging along with us and most WWOOFers are spring chickens on their Gap year or looking to pad out their University studies. Our concerns were unfounded and everyone settled into the routine nicely within a day or two.
We arrived on Sunday evening and as tradition would have it, it was dark and raining and everyone was tired and grumpy from the long day of driving. The thought of starting work before sun up the next morning made me feel a bit wobbly and I have to be honest I was starting to think sightseeing for the entire six months might have been a better plan. But as is often the was with these things everyone was feeling much more robust and positive in the morning, despite having to claw our way out of bed (a full twelve hours before cocktail hour) and stumble around in the dark trying to find clothes and boots, muttering about whose stupid idea it was to do such a stupid thing that required us to get up at stupid o’clock to start work!!
Our hosts at Monte Pelpi were Marco and his English partner Cassie who together own and run their small farm which is home to three cows, a calf, twelve goats, several dozen chickens, barn cats and a dog so gorgeous we wanted to put him in our van and bring him home forever. They produce a range of boutique cheeses, butter and yogurt from the dairy that is also on their farm, which they sell from the farm gate and at local markets.
As WWOOFers our main responsibility was to help with the morning and afternoon milking of both the cows and the goats. Given Wally had milked a goat once or twice before (thirty years ago) he quickly nominated himself on goat milking duty, thinking the learning curve wouldn’t be too steep. By natural attrition that left me with the cows, which to be honest absolutely petrified me. I’ve always had rather a soft spot for cows, their big eyes, their cute curled up ears, their gentle natures….. but holy smokes, up close those girls are freaking massive… and whilst udders look pretty inconsequential from a distance there’s something a bit icky about touching one (especially one caked in dried cow crap) for the first time!
So each day we rose before the sun, snuck out leaving the girls still sleeping and headed down to meet the happiest morning person on the planet at the milking parlor. There’s nothing like being greeted by a happy, smiling Italian to get your day off to a good start!! About an hour later we’d head back in for breakfast (fresh raw milk on your weeties anyone?!) and then the rest of the day we would take it in turns to take the goats out to pasture, muck out the barn, weed or prepare the vegetable beds, collect eggs, Wally helped with some building work, I helped with the cooking, we both spent a bit of time in the dairy helping out with the seemingly endless pile of washing up of cheese molds and we’d sneak in a bit of school work between kitten training and bean picking! In the evenings the girls would come into the milking parlor with us and brush the cows or help feed the goats. Our days quickly settled into a lovely gentle rhythm of purposeful work and time outside in the beautiful mountain air or keeping the economy of Bedonia robust by purchasing copious amounts of gelato and espresso!
Our time at Monte Pelpi allowed us to experience rural Italy up close and personal. It provided us with the opportunity to learn and exchange ideas about micro business and micro farming with people who are doing it successfully. It’s shown us first hand how much commitment is involved in dairy farming (even on such a small scale) and perhaps made us slightly rethink our original house cow plan! It required us (well, me) to face my fears, learn a new skill and day by day become more confident and proficient at it with practice; something our ‘i need to be perfect first time’ child got immeasurable benefit from watching.
Cassie and Marco gave us the gift of their time and knowledge, their home and their friendship. It was a fortnight where we could unravel and unfurl and lose some of our inner city inhibitions about space and independence and cow poo.
It will make my heart sing for a long time when I see Pea in my minds eye, standing in the barn doorway each morning, fully dressed, gum boots on, stick in hand, ready to heard the cows down to the pasture with her dad and Marco (a difficult rocky journey down hill and up with four massive cows with VERY big horns following close behind). It will make me laugh to remember Peach getting “dressed” to come to the milking shed in the evenings to brush and talk to the cows in a frilly purple princess dress and secretively licking her plate clean of ‘Tirami-soup’. And watching my big girl find such quiet joy in being still and making connections with animals makes me feel quietly confident that our decision to become farmers will be the right one for her. And us.