A couple of months ago there was a big kerfluffle on facebook concerning an article that had appeared in a British paper. The report was about the fact that Sting was now inviting paying guests to stay at his home in Tuscany. The packaged trip was to take place in October so that guests could help with the the grape harvest.
And then all hell broke lose.
The loonies on facebook (and I must say they were encouraged by the tone the article took) were outraged that Sting would actually charge people to do the work of harvesting his grapes that he would then turn into wine and sell.
Their criticism was along the lines of:
- He should be hiring professional workers to pick his grapes, not getting tourists to do it.
- How can he charge people to do his farm labor?
- Isn’t it somehow against the law to have occasional workers help with your harvest?
Oh, give me a break.
Did they really think that a handful of guests staying in 5 star luxury were going to take away any work from the paid workers that were doing the real picking? It was part of a package deal folks, just relax. This kind of ‘farm experience’ has been going on in Italy for the last 15 years or so. Have they never heard of Agriturismi? Where you get the chance to stay on a working farm and help out if you’d like to? And there are plenty of packaged trips out there that include activities like learning to make cheese, picking olives and taking them to a mill, learning to butcher a pig and turn it into pancetta….I could go on and on.
I guess the the big mistake Sting made was being rich, successful and famous. Because what he was offering – a ‘come pick some grapes’ tourist package – happens everywhere from Chianti to Sonoma and is nothing new.
The real work of picking, believe me, gets done by people who are paid for their labor. Because labor it is. Even when the weather is gorgeous, and the setting is breathtaking, the work of gathering grapes to make wine is not the romp in the hills it would seem
I had the chance to take part a ‘harvest experience’ this past weekend at my friend Laura’s house. Laura’s vineyard surrounds her beautiful house in Umbria. Laura grows Sangiovese and Merlot and bottles her wine under the label Rosso 420 Podere Calzone. Her grape vines are set in some of the most beautiful landscape in Italy. Rolling hills, forests and views of picture perfect Umbrian towns surround her place. The day was beyond gorgeous with bright blue skies, a slight breeze and just enough fluffy clouds to make you think you were in a Renaissance painting.
I set out with my shears at 9:30, to join the 20 or so workers that were already filling up their crates and buckets with tight, dark purple bunches of juicy grapes.
I lasted about 25 minutes.
It was hot, it was sticky and my bucket – which I had to lug around as I progressed down the row – was heavy.
This work was harder than I had thought. Which, I think, is the point of the type of ‘paid farm experiences’ that was being so hotly criticized. These are learning experiences that people are paying for. And if they are learning (as I did, in about 10 minutes ) that the work that goes into cheese making, olive oil production and grape picking is in fact hard, they are learning to appreciate these facets of Italian culture all the more.
Like many of these types of experiences the harvest also involved food. So I soon turned in my garden shears for a wooden spoon and joined Paola in the kitchen. She had been there since 8am, busy preparing lunch for the twenty pickers who were busy working up an appetite.
Paola had dressed and put two huge geese in the oven, to roast their way to perfection. And since nothing ever goes to waste on a farm, the first course was Fettucine with Goose Ragu.
As Paola had cleaned the geese, she carefully set aside not only the liver, giblets and hearts, but also the neck, wing tips, feet and heads. These flavorful bits and pieces, along with carrots, onions and celery, were the basis for one of the best ragus I’ve ever had. The whole thing simmered away for about 3 hours, filling the house with an aroma I wish I could somehow translate here. Maybe the photos will give you an idea.
At lunch time the workers made their way from the field to the table, and they refueled on Paola’s cooking, rested and then went back to finish their picking.
At the end of the day they went home with a paycheck. And me? While I was Laura’s house guest and of course didn’t have to pay, the point is I would gladly have done so. I am extremely lucky enough to have friends like Laura who invite me not only to experience grape picking first hand, but to do other things like learn how to roast a goose and make ragu with Paola. Not everyone else is lucky enough to have friends like Laura. So if Sting wants to offer this experience, at a price of course, then I am all for it.
- Insides and bits and pieces from 1 large goose: these should include liver, giblet, heart as well as neck, head , wing tips and feet.
- 1 large onion
- 3 carrots
- 2 stalks celery
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ tsp salt
- 1 cup broth
- 8 cups crushed tomatoes
- 1 kilo fettucine
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Chop the carrot, onion and celery finely. Paola just whizzed everything up in a food processor.
- Pour olive oil into a sauce pan and heat over medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and salt, stir and let cook until softened, about 20 minutes. Do not let it brown.
- In the mean time chop the giblets, heart and liver finely, keeping the liver apart.
- Once the vegetables have softened add the chopped giblets and stir. Then add the feet, neck and head giving it another good stir and add the broth. Let this cook for about an hour or so, uncovered. If it seems like it’s drying out, add a bit of water.
- After an hour add the liver, stir and then add the tomatoes. Stir and let simmer for another two hours, uncovered, letting the sauce reduce by about a third. Once done, adjust for seasoning.
- When ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add fettuccine and cook until al dente.
- Using tongs, remove the neck, feet and head from the sauce. (if anyone wants to pick at them, they are very tasty bits), and warm the sauce if it has cooled down.
- Toss the drained pasta with the sauce, and top each plate with some grated parmesan cheese.