Updated: Jan 21
If there’s anything I’ve done more times during my month of WWOOFing than hug the Bernese mountain dogs or squint out at Florence in search of a tiny Santa Croce, it’s ask my hosts incessant questions. How long until these tomatoes are ready? What are your peacocks for? How do you say rascal in Italian? When did you learn everything that you know about farming?
My hosts would be the first people to say that running a farm, like anything in life, is a learning process and that they still have much knowledge to absorb. Still, I always find myself marveling at all of the stuff they know, like the capabilities of certain plants and the behaviors of local animals. It makes me think about all the different things we can learn, how many different types of “smart” people can be, and how wonderful it is to know the story behind the land you walk on every single day. Here are the random bits of knowledge that I am the happiest to have acquired while volunteering at Ca’Novae in Tuscany.
How to make passatelli in brodo: If you spend several rainy days with someone from the Emilia-Romagna region, you’re likely to try this worm-like pasta that is “passed” through a potato ricer and cooked in chicken broth. The recipe for the dough, which takes minutes to make, always includes breadcrumbs, eggs, and Parmigiano-Reggiano — and some people add lemon juice and nutmeg. Here’s a recipe for the traditional comfort food.
What walnuts look like when they’re young + how to make nocino: I kept confusing the apple trees with the walnut trees on my first few days at the farm. That’s because young walnuts — bright green, round, and golf- ball-sized — look a little bit like apples. They smell nothing like ready-to-eat walnuts, but like a soda if it were made with citrus and pine, and the nut inside is moist, soft, and a very pale brown. Like this, they’re about __ months away from being the firm, brown-shelled walnuts we know, but they’re at their prime for nocino, which is a traditional Italian liqueur made with the nuts, sugar, and warming spices like cinnamon and cloves.
Just as important as the recipe, which you can find here, is the story. At midnight on the night before Festa di San Giovanni, a June 24th holiday celebrating the patron saint John the Baptist, it’s traditional to do a barefoot gathering of young, magically protective walnuts at midnight while a bonfire blazes nearby. If this tradition sounds a little witchy, it’s because it is; St. John’s Day aligns with the midsummer period, so this tradition likely dates back to pre-Christian times. The next day, the walnuts are used to make nocino, which will be ready to enjoy in November for its protection against evil spirits and tastiness with cookies.
The existence of an unfamiliar fruit: Cherry plums, or marusticani in Italian. Ca’Novae has two cherry plum trees, one big one of lots of yellow cherry plums and a smaller with red ones. These are quarter-size, taut-skinned fruits that taste like Sour Patch Kids in reverse: sweet and then sour. The yellow ones are so tart that they’re better for a unique, mouth-puckering jam (we made ours with about the same weight in sugar, a little bit of honey and lemon juice, and fresh rosemary), while the red ones are sweeter and would be nice in baked desserts.
A great method for galette making: I’ve made sweet memories during all of the stone-fruit seasons of my life, mainly involving juicy peaches, but this summer has been particularly good because, for the first time ever, I was able to pick cherries and plums right from the tree. With the several kilograms of fruit we dangerously retrieved on ladders, I made a couple of galettes using this great rolling-pin method, where you roll sticks of butter into flat, flaky-making pieces.
You can use stone-fruit pits to make hand warmers: All of that galette fruit yielded a big bowl of pits, which I was delighted to learn can be cleaned, dehydrated, and then stuffed into a cloth bag to be used as a heating pad in the winter. Just stick the bag in the microwave for a couple of minutes, and it’s ready to soothe you.
Tomatoes and basil are best friends in more ways than one: My green-thumbed mom made this sound like common knowledge, but to me it is a revelation that tomatoes and basil not only go well together on pizza — they also help each other grow. Basil protects tomatoes from flies, mosquitoes, fungus, and more, and they conveniently have similar watering requirements.
Stuff goats like: Plant-loving goats will run, not walk, to your eager arms if you dangle even a tiny piece of fresh rosemary, wild fennel, or olive leaves in front of their snouts. If you ever find yourself visiting these creatures, bring something green, fragrant, and crunchy (nothing short of just-picked — they’re snobs and they can tell).
Peacocks, geese, and other loud birds are a farmer’s alarm system: After Ca’Novae had an unfortunate incident involving its chickens and a fox, they prioritized getting very loud birds to alert them of any intruders.
There’s a reason why some flavored honeys are so subtle: In some instances, the bar for honey to be considered mono-floral or single-flower (meaning that the honey has been made mainly with nectar from one specific flower) is pretty low. In the European Union, lavender honey, for example, only has to contain 15 to 20 percent pollen from lavender to be considered lavender honey. I haven’t been able to find what the U.S. standards are, but if they’re similar, that would explain why I’ve never tasted much orange blossom in the “orange blossom honeys” I’ve tried.
Wild boars are tuber lovers: I’d never really thought about how wild boars spend their free time until one morning when we walked our freshly mowed fields to find the grass punctuated by at least 10 six-inch-deep holes. “Cinghiali,” my host said. Wild boars. At night, these omnivores and acute sniffers use their snouts to detect and dig up lots of underground foods, like radishes and even moles and snails. Like their domesticated relatives, they’re also good at finding (and eating) truffles.