The bus continued enroute to Anghiari and the now infamous (in my eyes) Bar Cocomero. Darkness fell soon after leaving Arezzo and it was hard to see anything on the side of the road. We made numerous stops in what seemed like the middle of nowhere but at each stop one or two of the riders left for destinations unknown. It was obvious I was on the commuter run as every five minutes we stopped to drop off someone at either a driveway marking someone’s house with a mailbox along the side of the pavement or to a waiting car ready to take them back to their cozy homes after a hard day of work. We went in and out of small villages for almost an hour. Each would be dotted with a few businesses, usually a bar (bars in Italy are coffee bars) and a few visible homes loaded with the charisma of the Tuscan country with lights in the window beckoning you to enter to the quaintness. The bus continued the winding road until in one small village the driver sent back word that this was the location of Bar Cocomero. I unloaded my luggage from the first seat where I had been instructed to stow it and off I was headed on my new adventure.
There was a public phone right where the bus driver had deposited me and the streets were fairly populated with people milling about in the early evening hours. Bar Cocomero was right there with folks standing and chatting at the outside entrance and several tables with patrons on the sidewalk. I decided to test for another skill set and headed to the public phone. With my trusty flashlight in hand I read through the directions which some were loosely, and I mean very loosely, translated into English. It never said how much the fee was for making a call and as a well dressed gentleman passed, I inquired to him how much it cost to use a phone (in my butchered Ital-Spang-Lish). He laughed at my attempts and understood the question despite the vagueness of words and told me 1 Euro (equal to about $1.40 at the current exchange rate) and proceeded to show me how to use the foreign apparatus. My Euro jammed in the phone and he made elaborate gestures to wait. He ran across the road to his car and I see him returning with his cell phone in hand and a broad smile on his face. I handed him the sheet with the number and told him I was headed to Priello, Valle di Mezzo, capras (goats) and Brent Zimmerman, dropping as many names as I could in hopes that one would be familiar. I guess Brent Zimmerman rang a bell as his face lit up and he exclaimed “Brent”. He started to dial the number on his cell when Brent came walking up the sidewalk and the elaborate handshaking began. Apparently of all people to stop on the street, this gentleman was purchasing a buck from Valle di Mezzo and they were well acquainted.
There are just those times in a person’s life the stars are in the right order, the universe is at peace and some things are fate to happen. This trip has been one of those times. Never in my lifetime would I have imagined such a great adventure. Brent made introductions and we headed to his car. The ride to the farm, Valle de Mezzo (translated as Valley in the Middle), was about 10 minutes and arriving under the darkness it was difficult to see my surroundings. The road was winding up and down hills and last I saw a small sign directing those off the main road to “formaggio” and Valle di Mezzo. We turned up the road and a few minutes later we emerged to a driveway with stone buildings. I was escorted to the most quaint guest house with exposed hand hewn wood rafters with a center beam across that was a solid 12 x 12 and at least 30′ long. The guest house had a small living area, galley type kitchen, bath and bedroom down and another one with a splendid view with bath upstairs. These folks don’t believe in excessive heat as the Americans and it took a few days to get used to really bundling up as the temps were dropping. It reminded me of my home in West Virginia in autumn with the turning leaves and moderate days but frigid nights. As the sun would drop over the adjoining mountain each evening, so would the temperature. I thanked my lucky stars more than once that I had purchased that heavy wool coat at the thrift store prior to departure.
Excitedly I went to the barn early that first morning to take a look around before I saw my host. The goats were actively eating what looked to be a grass/alfalfa mix hay that had been torn from a large round bale sitting in the middle of the barn. The barn was roughly 100 feet long and spanned about 50 feet wide. Well over half of the barn was devoted to the pen for the goats and one end was storage for many of those same round bales stacked some five deep and four high. It was fed in large half cylinders on the outside of the pen where the goats could easily access and there was room for every goat to belly up to the buffet and then room to spare. Mentally I am storing away ideas for my barn as I explore the European way of farming. The lambars (communal milk buckets used to feed baby goats) were stacked in the corner and were made from a double sided bucket that would fit on a fence rail rather than mine which are made from round buckets. Two stalls were off to the side which I surmised were for the kids or kidding pens. The entire penning area was a u-shaped congregate facility with an area down the center for feeding and two bucks were intermingled with the ladies. They have just stopped milking and working on impregnating those who still may remain open (not pregnant). Their kidding season in February will be busy as there are at least 50 does in the pen. The penning area opens to an outside paddock and the goats freely walk to both areas. Many of the goats wore bells as they take them almost daily to different pastoral settings to allow them to eat and get some exercise. I came to expect the constant dinging in the barn as a comforting noise knowing they were chewing their cud and enjoying being goats. On the second day I saw Valerio, the Romanian farm helper, herding the goats down the road with Boner the Great Pyrenees guard dog skirting the perimeter on duty for any lurking predators. I can’t imagine my goats staying together in one tight herd as these goats did but I guess it is training and repetition of daily jaunts in the countryside. Later I learned that even though Valle di Mezzo is a 75 acre farm, the goats have run of the local area as neighbors enjoy the goats trimming the dense undergrowth of their properties. Valerio carried a shepherd’s walking stick and would hastily bark commands to any who strayed from the pack. A car coming up the hill stopped and allowed the caprine parade to pass. You could hear the bells as the herd proceeded off out of sight down the winding road. (Note to self – my ladies need bells!).
Brent Zimmerman, a disillusioned banker who went from Manhattan to Kuwait, opted to relocate to Italy almost twenty years ago and change his profession to official farmer. He learned to make cheese back in the States but honed his skills learning from the elderly ladies in the area of their first home, Priello. Priello is now a tourist home and hosts various groups in the summers and the occasional long term renter. Originally from Michigan and from a family farming background of cattle, but not goats, his talents as an organized farmer show in the home they call Valle di Mezzo. His partner, Alessandro, an Italian native is the half who makes things happen for the farm, from having a small car converted to a refrigerated subcompact for hauling cheese, to juggling paperwork, documents and the various pushing of paper that falls on one individual of a relationship. The road for Brent has been hard with having to learn a new language, being accepted as an Italian cheese maker when American blood runs through the veins and adapting to a new life, new friends and new customs. Now he speaks fluent Italian, is quite the host and runs the farm while Alessandro works in Milan, coming home for weekends. Alessandro is an accomplished cook providing a gorgeous tasty frittata the first morning he arrived back at the farm for his weekend as well as tasty pasta and sauce through the weekend.
The first day involved delivering a buck to a farm with a magnificent view, stopping for groceries and a trip to the hardware store to purchase stainless steel containers for the olive oil. It gave Brent, my host, and I an opportunity to get to know each other as we spent time driving in the car and making the obligatory stops. The first day involved delivering a buck to a farm with a magnificent view, stopping for groceries and a trip to the hardware store to purchase stainless steel containers for the olive oil. In Italy you don’t just load up the animal and head on over to the new home, I soon found out. Due to the constraints after the European Mad Cow outbreak almost a decade prior, there is a ton of paperwork at the ministry of agriculture that has to be handled prior to even readying the buck for transport. We arrived early to the agriculture office and were shuttled from one office to the other getting the appropriate permissions. If you didn’t speak the language I think it would have been dismal results. Brent carried on, even getting permission to transport the buck himself. They even have regulations in Italy that prevent you from hauling your own animals unless it is a minor haul less than 60 km. It reminded me of the fear of National Animal Identification Systems (NAIS) that has been in the forefront of US livestock industry the last few years and how restrictive farm life would be if it passed. Finally after papers were signed, eternal gratitude was extended, the obligatory “ciaos” were exchanged, and we were off with the precious pink documentation papers in hand which gave permission for the buck to begin his new life at a neighboring farm. The trip to the hardware store was like any in the US with a plethora of doorknobs, screws, paint, plumbing pieces with the exception that our US stores don’t often carry olive oil containers, olive nets and various regional pieces. You don’t just get “helped” but you take a number and have to self serve yourself until your number is called. The little old ladies drift in with their scant height and bent backs to cut the line like ten year olds coming in from recess to the water fountain. The unwritten rule is to never say a word and peace remains in the hardware store.
Boner, the Great Pyrenees guard dog for the farm had been suffering a skin condition. On Friday we loaded him into his best friend, the Ford 150 truck, and took him into town to see the local vet. The dog loves to bask in the sun in the truck and is quite reluctant to leave the bed he has claimed for his own. After he was examined and blood drawn, we paced the waiting room while blood tests were run to access the extent of his condition. Apparently his guarding also has exposed him to the blood parasites carried by the cinghiali (pronounced chin – ghee – alley and means wild pig) and they are present in his blood. Only time will tell how rooted they have become in his system. One more stop at the other local hardware store, which included a visit downstairs in the cavernous storeroom while Brent and the store clerk chatted about olives, farm life and vague other subjects I can only imagine one would speak about in a hardware warehouse, and we returned to Valle di Mezzo with a new olive net in hand. Back at the farm, I spent the afternoon soaking under the Tuscan sun (I always wanted to use that in a blog) with the old nets spread on the ground as I mended holes from previous years. The surreal view of surrounding mountains, five hundred year old homes and the turning leaves of autumn was enriching to the soul.
While the milking was over for the year, Brent was good to answer all questions I may have had in regards to making cheese. Sometimes picking a brain with the “what ifs” is just as valuable as hands on experience. The following day we spent the day picking olives instead of the cheese room but it was a welcome experience. How many Americans can boost of participating in the Tuscan olive harvest? The day was beautiful and sunny and the view while picking was spectacular. Homes here are easily hundreds of years old – the guest house I was staying in was 500 years old – and if your house was build in the last two centuries it is considered new by their standards.
Sunday brought the rain and the cheese room was on the agenda. We cleaned molds, I inspected equipment and probably ran him crazy taking notes, asked questions and patiently digested the answers. After a few hours we took off for the day of rest and I took the opportunity to grab an afternoon catnap. Late that evening a couple ladies from England who were traveling Europe in a conversion van arrived as scheduled to assist with the olive harvest that week. A former museum curator and police department employee, they had rented their “flat” back in England and hit the roads in search of adventure and seeing the world, one farm at a time. Laura was a slight lady, with wire rimmed glasses who had the most adorable accent. Her partner Alex was a delightful lady who enjoyed automotive work as a hobby and was kind to answer my questions about their travels. As they settled in the second bedroom of the guest house, I fixed a simple dinner and enjoyed hearing about their travels while we dined.
Monday was rainy again and to my joy, we went to the cheese room. The final molds were cleaned and I spent hours washing rounds of cheese. It felt so earthy to have the big rounds in my arms and allow the aromas of aging cheese to permeate my nostrils. The smell was heavenly and I could only caress the rounds like small babies waiting to erupt on many plates bringing joy to needy mouths. For hours I inspected cheeses and tasted nibbles of some cheese he cut for samples. One that had been infused with a blue cheese mold was so creamy and white and the taste was very smooth. There was a slight aftertaste of the mold that wasn’t undesirable but made you want to experience the flavor again. I have to say that was my favorite but it were too fresh for me to bring any home. It is only permitted to bring cheeses aged over 60 days to the US and the last thing I need is to be busted for cheese smuggling! Oh my, would the Florida Department of Agriculture have a hay day with that one. Another college aged girl arrived that afternoon from Australia and the evening was spent enjoying the international company and stories of their different experiences as they traveled about in the work/travel network.. We ate heartily a wonderful spicy pasta for lunch that Brent’s partner, Alessandro prepared. The spices and tastes of pasta here is about as varied as one can imagine.
The farm sources any additional help through an online network called HelpX. It pairs helpers with farms or people who need help in exchange for room and board. Some pay a small stipend plus room and board for a full day of work or others work just a part day in exchange for the accommodations and board. The girls shared stories of their best and their worst “employers” along the way. Some activities ranged from rehabbing homes, building strawbale hottubs to babysitting for busy parents. I packed that evening as it was the last night of my adventure at the goat farm. Last pictures were made and I slipped to the barn and said my goodbyes to Valentina, the herd queen who had decided I wasn’t the bad American the second day and allowed me to scratch her ears, and the rest of the caprines I had enjoyed as my surrogate herd in Italy.
Next to follow - Anghiari to Arezzo – my last days in Italy