Friday, July 6, 2012

WWOOFing* on a Sheep Cheese Farm in Italy

Jema Patterson
 (The lamb is wearing a sweater vest made of wool to protect it from the chilly springtime.)

* What is a WWOOF?!

WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms.  Farmers in countries all around the world employ volunteers (WWOOFers) who live and work at the farm for periods of time, gaining first hand experience in organic growing methods and other aspects of rural life.

It sounds like fun, doesn't it?  Well, apparently, it is.  Jema Patterson and her partner, Patrick Suchor have been WWOOFing since 2010.  Their most interesting job (at least to us) so far has been their stint on a sheep farm in southern Italy (Lecce) where they helped make cheese:

Jema  returning from mucking out the barn (done daily in the a.m.)

How did you become a WWOOFer?

I had heard about WWOOFing for several years.  Some countries have their own websites, others are part of a collective.  My partner and I joined the WWOOF New Zealand organization when we were in NZ last year.  When we came to Europe, we joined the Italian WWOOF organization, which also gives us access to WWOOF Independents - an umbrella for countries without their own office or enough willing farms to have a WWOOF program.

Caro, a German WWOOFer removing dried oregano leaves and crushing them

Did you and your partner meet WWOOFing?

We met acting in a play when we were teenagers.  After brief mutual crushes, we were friends for ten years before we started dating.

Caro and Patrick (Jema's partner) at the lunch table

Do you spend the whole year doing it?

We WWOOFed in New Zealand for a year, but worked, traveled, and backpacked in between.  We sort of WWOOFed in Thailand - we helped a guy build an earthbag house.  It wasn't organized through WWOOF, but it was the same set up - meals and accommodation in exchange for labor.

Now, we're WWOOFing at a farm in the Italian Alps.  They are just getting started.  We've been installing the structure for a berry patch all week.  It involves digging massive holes for posts and anchors.  They also have a medicinal herb garden, kitchen garden, potato field, and are almost finished building their house out of all bio-materials.  We chose this WWOOF site because we'd like to have a farm in the U.S. and will probably be dealing with a similar elevation - 4,000 feet.+

Neruda, a falcon one of the farm owners is training to protect the farm from other birds

Patrick making pizza with one of the farm owners

Do you have a home base?

No.  We cancelled our rent contract, sold all our possessions, and set off to see the world.  Our kind families are storing a few boxes of mementos, favorite kitchen devices, and professional clothing, shall we ever return.

Jema heading out for the afternoon milking

What was your job in Italy?

On the sheep farm, I milked, made cheese, harvested capers, weeded the garden, killed chickens, collected eggs, cleaned the milking area and stables, cleaned the chicken coop, washed milking equipment and dairy (my partner often did shepherding duties as well as the latter).

Capers Jema picked.  "They dry them for 10 days in salt which removes the bitterness,
changing the salt at five days. Then they are stored in a jar covered in salt
and used in cooking starting a month later.  Amazing flavor!"

Patrick shepherding

How many sheep did you milk?

We milked about 60 sheep twice a day (4:30am and 3:45am) and made cheese immediately after.

The sheep at milking time

Patrick milking

Domenico, the pro and Jema, the novice milking the sheep
What kind of cheeses did you make?

The first winter cheese is sold at three different stages: Formaggio Primo Sale ("cheese before salt" sold at two days), Pecorino Stagionato ("Sheep Seasons?"  Stagione is the word for season - like summer, spring, fall, winter.  Stagionato implies that it is aged "through the season"), and Pecorino Duro ("sheep hard" when the cheese is harder and more rich - more likely to be used for pasta, etc.).  The second winter cheese is Ricotta.  The summer cheese - I will check my notes, but I think it's called CacioRicotta.

I arrived just in time for the last day of winter cheese making - they make two types of cheese in the winter.  For the rest of the time I helped make summer cheese each day.

The sheep/cheese master, Domenico, stirring the curds for the summer cheese

Jema skimming out the whey

Domenico gently forming a dome on the mold and carefully packing in the curds

Turning the summer cheese after it has drained for a few minutes

The cart where the cheese drains for two days before being put in refrigeration

The aging room

Where do they sell the cheese?

At first, from the farm.  Just recently they received their farm/food identification number that allows their cheese to be sold in commercial outlets.  Now they sell it to customers who order from the farm and in a few local shops in the nearest bigger city.

After you left the farm, where did you go?

We've been to two other farms since I first contacted you.  No more cheese making though.  One was outside of Rome about 40 minutes in a little village called Corese Terra.  The next, was outside a small medieval Tuscan hill-town called Seggiano, a few hours south of Florence.  We're headed to the alps next week to help some young farmers who are rehabilitating abandoned land.

Sunrise on their last day at the farm

What WWOOFing organization should folks contact if they want to do it?

In countries (and sometimes even states) where WWOOFing is very popular, there are individual organizations.  Best to google "WWOOF _______(destination/country/state)______."  There is an organization called WWOOF Independents - the umbrella for many countries both European and otherwise that covers farms who want to participate but aren't located in a place that has its own organization.

Two of the four sheep dogs at the farm

Check out these related posts at Jema's blog:

1 comment:

Jessica said...

That would be so cool to be a WWOOFer!