Sunday, April 26, 2009

A metà strada

The internship ends one month from yesterday, and two months from today I will board a plane headed for home. Two months ago tomorrow, I was sitting in Detroit Metro airport wondering how the hell I had gotten myself into this all. Can I really be halfway done here, two-thirds of the way through at Spannocchia? Apparently.

The animales interns switched duties around as planned, so I have been taking care of the 28 pecore [sheep] and 10 agnelli [lambs] instead the maiali. It was a welcome change, but brought about new challenges of course. The learning curve with maiali was steep, but after working with them for five weeks I am confident enough to gauge most situations and deal with them appropriately. Our Cinta will, for the most part, follow anyone or anything with a grain bucket. The pecore, on the other hand, have an incredible herd instinct, which is great as long as they actually follow you.

The first morning after the switch, I had a plan:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Community and Place

“[T]o a great extent we are a de-placed people for whom our immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation, or sacred inspiration.”
— David Orr

William Vitek (1996) discusses “community and the virtue of necessity” in an article he wrote by the same name, from the anthology Rooted in the Land: essays on community and place. His assertion that “necessity leads inevitably to virtue for the individual and well-being for the community” makes a lot of sense when you consider the oftentimes selfish nature of humans. It serves as a reminder that, without necessity, we tend to live without regard for others or the Earth— until faced with some sort of catastrophe or day of reckoning.

I have been at Spannocchia now for five weeks and feel remarkably settled into life here. I enjoy waking up early, knowing that the animals are hungry and waiting for me. I enjoy spending my days outside, and really, many days I am outside for 12 hours. On the days when we only work in the morning and have class in the afternoons I feel restless, anxious to put my boots back on and get outdoors again. I have been working with one of the horses here, so after I finish evening chores [or class] I run down to the stable until it’s time for dinner. What a change from my life at home, and oh, how much I am going to miss it when I leave.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Quick Update

Many of you have probably read about the earthquake[s] in Italy that happened last night... if there were any tremors here I slept through them, and all the pigs were in their pens this morning so life is good! Buona notte!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Primi Tartufi

After what can really only be described as a hellish week, with the theme of inexplicably broken fences and escaped pigs and all things wrong that could go wrong continuing, I am coming to the end of a much-needed relaxing weekend. Yesterday we drove to Pienza, hometown of Pope Pius II and one of the first planned cities [in Italy? Ever? I’m not sure, but Pius was the one to do it back in the 1400s].

From there we headed to a really beautiful natural hot spring to soak our sore muscles away. The drive itself was worth the trip— the area where Spannocchia is located is very hilly [bordering on mountainous], rocky, and densely forested. As you head south-east-ish, the landscape is transformed into gently rolling hills, intensely green right now from a week of rain. Cipressi [cypress trees] are exclamation points against the sky, and large herds of sheep white out some of the hillsides. The clouds, too, are gorgeous every day, always changing. Oftentimes it doesn’t look real, resembling more closely the backdrop of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. If I haven’t mentioned the tramonti [sunsets] here yet it’s because it seems cliché, but they are the most beautiful I have ever seen, night after night. Sometimes, especially when I’m really tired after a long day of work, it feels like I’m beginning to take the beauty of the place around me for granted, but then I’ll look around and see olivi [olive trees] and ancient castelli [castles] and the sky against the surrounding mountains and it’s all new again.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


This week I was very lucky and privileged to spend two days in Spannocchia’s “transformation room,” where all the salumi and other meat products are made. I say lucky because butchering only takes place in the winter and spring in keeping with tradition, and the room is not climate-controlled and relies on nature’s air conditioning to maintain a safe temperature for processing carcasses.

The pigs raised here are Cinta Senese, an heirloom breed local to the Siena region. They are easily identified— black with a broad white stripe across their shoulders and down their front legs. Because the Cinta are an heirloom variety, they do not pack on weight quickly like many modern breeds, and are generally slaughtered at anywhere from 10 to 16 months of age (as opposed to the pigs commonly raised en masse in America who are slaughtered at little more than five months). The selected pigs are sent to a nearby slaughterhouse four at a time, for a total of twenty to thirty in a year, and the butchering of each group takes place every two weeks. As a testament to the intimate and local nature of the process, the pigs are transported on a Sunday and returned in halves the next morning, still warm.

From those halves come all the cuts of meat and various ingredients used to make the many types of salumi and pork products for which Spannocchia is known. After the meat has been prepared, the products, which require curing, are hung to dry a small, cool, humidity-controlled room. Prosciutto, which takes about as long to cure as it does to raise a Cinta to butchering age, has its own tightly climate-controlled room. It’s quite a production and requires an impressive amount of knowledge, finesse and patience to produce such high-quality meats.

On Monday as I did various chores around the farm, I walked by the transformation room and could see the halved carcasses hanging. By Tuesday morning when I showed up to work, the only pieces left intact were the hind legs, which become prosciutto. Another of the animales interns, Greg, and I suited up in long, white lab-type jackets, medieval-looking chain mail aprons and a chain mail glove to protect our non-cutting hands. While we got ready, the master butcher Pierro arrived. He is probably in his sixties, grandfatherly but stern, a man of few words and even fewer compliments. He only comes to the farm when there is butchering to be done. We were also working with Riccio who lives and works on the farm, and is the boss of my animales supervisor. Last but not least, Devin, a volunteer who has been working in the transformation room since November and was asked to stay on until the end of butchering season.

Pierro got right down to business, carving up the hind legs until they became recognizable as prosciutto. While he worked on that, Riccio and Devin continued to pare down the remaining parts, taking the good cuts to be used for various things. Greg and I were charged with cleaning up the leftover bones, cutting away all the leftover bits of meat to be used in salumi. The knife I used was easily the sharpest I have ever handled, sharp enough to leave slice-marks across the bones. Every so often Pierro would take the knife from me and expertly sharpen it on a whetstone. When I first started, Devin handed me a bone and told me to “get all the red.” Then Riccio came over and showed me how to cut with the grain of the meat, and they left me to work. When I had finished that one, Devin brought me two more bones and I set to work on them. At home I never cook with meat because I hate handling it, so this was a new experience for me. Apparently though, I passed the test— Riccio came over and inspected the bones, then patted me on the back and said I was “catching on” and doing a good job. He then showed the bones to Pierro who seemed to nod approvingly, although it was hard to tell for sure.