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The Return to Cascina Piola

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Cascina Piola: A welcome place for family and friends

Five years ago I took a similar trip to Europe to volunteer on organic farms. I was traveling alone and spent most of my time in Italy. My first three months were on a large cooperative in the Maremma, the coastal region of southern Tuscany. The beauty of the farm was unequaled, sitting halfway up on the slopes of Monte Amiata that rise from the sea valley below. Looking out from the fields at the Mediterranean we could see the island of Elba, and on especially clear days Corsica’s mountains just barely emerged from the sky around them, so distant that even the crystalline air allowed only a haze of their form to be seen.

The farm was run by a man named Antonio, a Neapolitan, whose vision for his farm was more political than agrarian: he liked the idea of having a cooperative, but didn’t pay much attention to what was happening day to day with his flock of 1000 sheep, 200 pigs, cattle, and vast fields of grain and olives. Animals were left vulnerable to disease and predators; sheep were eaten by dogs that were meant to protect them. The farm’s deficiencies eventually became too much and I left.

I was desperate to find a place to go and on a whim I called a farm named Cascina Piola in Piedmont, a region I knew little about. A woman named Raffa answered the phone and kindly agreed to let me come despite the short notice. At the time I thought it would only be a temporary stop until I decided on my next step. Without a fixed departure date I stayed on at Cascina Piola, working through the summer and fall. I became a part of the family, travelling with them to the farms and vineyards of their friends in Italy, France, and Germany. It wasn’t until six months later, just before the winter holidays, that I finally decided to return home to New York.

Now, five years later, Vanessa and I have finished our month in Spain and flown to northern Italy so that I can return to Cascina Piola and Vanessa can meet my extended, Italian family.

Cascina Piola is owned by Raffa along with her husband Piero, who, over twenty years ago, met as high school teachers in Torino. Soon after, they quit their jobs and purchased the farmhouse and a few surrounding acres not far from the city to become organic farmers. They have two children, Stefano and Federica, who were both born shortly after the move to the farm. Raffa and Piero grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables, most of which they cook in traditional methods and then jar and sell; the rest feeds the family and guests who stay and eat in their agritourism. Piero also makes a small production of wine from the barbera, dolcetto, and cortese grapes that he grows in his vineyard located about forty-five minutes away in Strevi, where his mother still lives. Vanessa and I are just in time for the dolcetto harvest, an event that brings back memories of the dolcetto harvest five years earlier, which took place on September 11, 2001.

For information on staying at Cascina Piola’s agritourism, where you can sample Piero’s wine and Raffa’s excellent cooking based firmly in the products from their land:

Cascina Piola
Fraz. Serra
Via Fontana, 2
14014 Capriglio (AT)
Tel/Fax: +39 0141 997 447

Tapas in Alpandeire

Manchego cheese, information pills two types of chorizo, and the outstanding Pata Negra Bellota ham.

Most of our eating on this trip is on the farms. With the farm products of such high quality, restaurant eating seems a weak second by comparison. Despite this, we felt it was our responsibility to eat at least some tapas while in Andalucia, this being the birthplace of the tapas tradition. Alpandeire is a very small town with only three hundred residents, so choices are few for dining out. Vanessa and I decided to try one of them, La Casa Grande Hotel-Restaurante, during an afternoon break. The Hotel was opened in 2005, in what was once Alpandeire’s Town Hall, tastefully restored to maintain the structure’s original features. It is almost surprising that a town as small as Alpandeire would have a hotel at all, let alone one of La Casa Grande’s caliber.

At the restaurant’s bar we ordered a couple glasses of a local white wine and a few plates to sample: a tasting of Andalucian Pata Negra Bellota ham, sweet and spicy chorizo, and manchego cheese, and a piquillo pepper stuffed with spinach and salt cod.

Pata Negra Bellota ham, also known as Jamon Iberico Bellota, may be the best cured ham on earth, at least of all the types I have eaten. Italy’s famous Prosciutto di Parma and San Daniele, even in their greatness, are no match. Jesús, the owner of La Casa Grande, is vigilant in stocking Pata Negra of the highest quality. He warned that it is common for companies to sell sub-quality, inauthentic hams under the name Pata Negra. At Pata Negra’s prices (easily running $80 per pound) that is a lot to pay for an impostor.

The true Pata Negra comes from a black-coated breed of pig native to the Iberian Peninsula called Cerdo Negro. The highest quality hams come from those pigs that are allowed to graze in cork oak groves, eating acorns, called bellotas in Spanish. When the pigs are raised in this manner they are referred to as Pata Negra Bellota. Because their diet largely consists of acorns, the fat on these pigs is different. It has a much lower melting point, turning translucent even at room temperature, and according to Jesús the fat melts at body temperature. He says that this makes the fat less harmful as it is mostly liquid when in the human body, reducing the risk of clogged arteries. I couldn’t confirm that, but according to the Wikipedia entry on Jamon Iberico, much of the fat is oleic acid due to the pigs’ acorn diet, which is a monounsaturated fatty acid that lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol. That means this may be one case in which pork fat is actually good for you (and may also be why Cristobol was so healthy at 87 years by eating a solid piece of cured Iberian pork jowl every morning for breakfast.)

Not only was the Pata Negra phenomenal (not to mention the sweet and spicy chorizo also made from Iberian Bellota pigs and the manchego cheese), but so were Jesús’ stuffed piquillo peppers. He fills them with a spinach and salt cod mixture, deep fries them, then tops with tomato sauce. He was generous enough to give instructions (you will have to use judgment on proportions):

Soak the salt cod overnight. Then remove from water and chop. Blanch the spinach in boiling salted water. Shock in ice water, then squeeze it dry and chop. Mince some garlic, sauté it in olive oil until fragrant but not brown, then add the salt cod and spinach. Cook together for a few minutes. Place this in a food processor and blend to a fine paste, adding a little cream to reach a good consistency.

His tomato sauce is simple. He cooks and seasons pureed tomatoes (canned are fine), which he then blends with cream.

To finish fill the piquillo peppers, which can be purchased in jars already cooked and peeled, with the spinach/salt cod puree, dust with flour, then dip in beaten eggs and deep fry. Top with sauce and serve.

If you are in the mountains of Andalucia near Ronda, La Casa Grande in Alpandeire is less than a half-hour drive away:
La Casa Grande Hotel-Restaurante
Calle Barranco, 76
29460 Alpandeire (Malaga)

Secrets of Old Age

Cristobol hitches an uphill ride on Guapa’s tail

Vanessa and I spend most days with Cristobol, psychiatrist Alonso’s 87 year-old grandfather. When Alonso works construction on weekdays, this web it is Cristobol who walks with us for half an hour to the almond orchards. On our first day in the orchard Cristobol took a long stick and began whacking the almond trees with it, sending the almonds down to the ground where Vanessa and I picked them up. We crawled around below looking for the almonds, camouflaged in the dry beige grass. I felt guilty that this old man was doing the hard work, but when I offered to take the stick he refused.


Eventually we reached an almond tree that was too tall to reach the top with the stick. Cristobol told me to climb it and shake the almonds down, warning me to be careful not to fall. I was glad to be more helpful: he may have been in great shape for an 87 year-old, but tree climbing was better done by someone younger.


When I finished I climbed out of the tree. As soon as my feet touched the ground I turned around and saw Cristobol hoisting himself up by the arms into another almond tree. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later and I am used to watching this amazing 87 year-old climb trees.
Cristobol in a tree

What’s his secret? There are obviously many factors that have kept him in such good shape for so long. First, Cristobol has that pure strength that comes from a life of physical labor. It is a type of strength that years spent working out at gyms will never give us urbanites. Second, clearly, he has some good luck and good genes. His diet, though, is the most interesting part. For breakfast Cristobol eats a one inch-thick slab of cured pork jowl–pure fat–cut the size of his palm with an equally thick slice of country bread, something he has done for as long as he can remember. The pork comes from a friend who raises Iberian pigs, and perhaps the quality of the meat has something to do with it. Even so, eating that much pork fat every day and being as healthy as Cristobol goes against every bit of nutritional science out there. Maybe he is a freak exception, or maybe we can look at Cristobol as a reminder of the complex relationship between food, its quality, and our lifestyle and their joint effects on our health.

Farm Fresh Eggs

A poached fresh-laid egg in a black bean soup, drug Andalucia

Access to truly fresh eggs is one of the great advantages of living on a farm. Every farm we have been on so far has chickens for the family’s use. They are easy to care for, eating leftovers and scraps from the kitchen, and take up little space even with ample room for them to roam. The occasional chicken can be slaughtered for meat, but on a daily basis they are far more valuable for their eggs.

A fresh-laid egg is far superior to anything found in a supermarket. First, by virtue of the chickens’ varied diet on these farms, the yolks are richer in color and flavor. The pale yellow most of us are used to in supermarket eggs can often reach a deep orange depending on the chicken’s diet. Second, egg shells are porous and the egg, which “breathes” by consuming oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, also takes on any odors from the air around it. An industrial egg that has been sitting for weeks or months in warehouses and supermarket shelves tastes stale and dull.

Eggs, which in terms of spoilage have an incredibly long shelf life, are very delicate in quality. The quality of an egg begins to degrade from the moment it is laid, partly as a result of a buildup of carbon dioxide that isn’t exhaled from the egg as it breathes. The yolk of a fresh laid egg is very round and tight. As the egg ages, the yolk begins to collapse and flatten. The egg whites experience a similar loss of tightness with age. The white of a fresh egg is cloudy in color and won’t run far from the yolk. With time though the white becomes translucent and increasingly loose and runny.

These changes in the egg’s characteristics have a direct effect on the ease of cooking. Older eggs are more difficult to fry or poach: the yolks are more likely to break and the whites spread far from the yolk. A few tricks like adding a dash of vinegar and salt to poaching water help to set the whites faster, but in the end an old egg will never poach as well. I used to have to poach hundreds of eggs every week at a restaurant where I worked. While I had mastered the technique well enough to poach most of the eggs successfully, there was always some loss: broken yolks, over-spread whites. A fresh egg, however, is incredibly easy to poach. Dropped into water at a light boil, the whites set perfectly around the yolk with almost no spreading. The result is a beautiful poached egg every time. It becomes almost impossible to err.

My personal rule is the fresher the egg, the less I generally like to cook it. When I have access to fresh eggs, my preference is to eat them either poached or soft-boiled. Poached eggs are great with toast, salads, or polenta. They are also perfect in hearty soups, poached first and added to the soup at the last minute. If I make an omelet, I stick to the traditional French method and leave the center runny. Scrambled eggs must be soft.

To poach an egg:

Add a small splash of vinegar and some salt to the water to speed up the setting of the whites. The idea isn’t to make the eggs taste like vinegar, so not too much. The water should be at a rapid simmer. If it is boiling too violently the eggs will spread too much in the water. Too slow of a simmer will lead to the egg settling on the bottom of the pot and the result will look something like a boiled sunny-side up egg. Just enough bubbling in the water will spin the egg and keep it off the bottom of the pot, but not break it up. It is necessary to constantly adjust the flame under the pot as you poach the eggs to keep the simmer where you want it. Crack the eggs, one at a time into a cup or saucer. If a yolk breaks, reserve the egg for another use. Lower the cup to the water and carefully slip the egg in. You should be able to poach at least two to four eggs at a time. Remove the egg with a slotted spoon after three or four minutes; the white should have set and the yolk should still be completely runny. Trim off any excess bits of white.

Falling off a Horse


On Guapa

Most days Vanessa and I go with Cristobol, pharmacy Alonso’s 87 year-old grandfather, shop to collect almonds in their orchard near Alpandeire. We take Guapa, Alonso’s horse, and his dog, Ula, with us. Both animals get some exercise on the half-hour walk to the orchard, then they run free while we harvest, and when we are done we tie the sack of almonds to Guapa’s back for the return trip to town. On our way to the orchard, either Vanessa or I ride Guapa bareback along the mountain paths.

Ula is one of the smartest dogs I have ever met. She knows a number of difficult commands and is able to fetch either Alonso’s or Cristobol’s hat depending on which one is requested. But Ula has a weakness: she is a German Shepherd and her herding instinct is extremely strong. As a result, she is fanatically obsessed with horses and loses any trace of her intelligence when near them. Around horses Ula cries, whimpers, and runs in circles and figure eights around and through the horse’s feet. Ula has actually been trampled by a horse before, and is so blinded by her attraction to them that she runs injured and bloodied back under their feet as if nothing has happened. It is nearly impossible to get her attention or have her obey a command when Ula–an otherwise obedient dog–is in the presence of a horse. The horses, as you can imagine, are irritated and easily spooked by Ula’s behavior.


Moments before it all goes downhill…

I rode Guapa today on our way to the orchard. The ride was smooth and Guapa, a sometimes temperamental horse, was obeying my commands despite Ula running under her feet the whole time. We crested a hill together and had just started to go down the other side when Ula finally became too much for Guapa to tolerate. Guapa bolted downhill in an effort to escape Ula. I bounced up once as Guapa took off and as I came down I could feel that I had been jolted to my left. Bareback and with nothing to solidly hold on to I bounced once more off Guapa, this time being thrown even more to the left and I knew for sure I wouldn’t stay on. As I fell I managed to rotate so that I landed on my left shoulder blade against some rocks embedded in the path. My main concern, aside from not breaking anything, was to not be caught under Guapa’s feet: as soon as I hit the ground, I rolled away from her. As I rolled I glimpsed Guapa, whose expression seemed to indicate that even she was surprised I had fallen off; she stopped right there beside me.

An embarrassed feeling had spread through me even before I hit the ground, and I popped up as quickly as I could to save face and show I wasn’t injured. Ula was the instigator, but still I was the one who fell off the horse. I don’t plan on riding Guapa bareback again; I feel lucky enough to have fallen off a horse and walked away from it with nothing more than some minor bruising and soreness. Besides, after eating her brethren, perhaps I deserved it.



Ingredients for Gazpacho before being pureed.

Gazpacho is among the most internationally famous Andalucian dishes. Countless variations of gazpacho exist, see the most famous being a pureed cold tomato and bread soup: a liquid salad to be enjoyed in hot weather. The ancestor of gazpacho predates the introduction of the tomato and pepper to Europe from the New World, capsule and was essentially a cold bread soup. Tomato-less gazpacho still exists, most often seen as Ajo Blanco, a puree of water, stale bread, almond flour, garlic (ajo in Spanish, the ingredient that gives its name to the dish), sherry vinegar, olive oil, and usually garnished with green grapes. Even when it has tomato as a primary ingredient, gazpacho isn’t always cold: hot gazpacho is the preferred preparation in winter.

In the dry summer heat, cold gazpacho is the only way to go, so Isabel taught me her recipe, taking advantage of the overabundance of ripe tomatoes and Spanish green peppers from the farm. Ripe tomatoes are necessary for success, and the flavors of oregano, cumin and sherry wine vinegar–all essential ingredients–should be present but not overwhelming.

Quantities are approximate, and can be changed according to taste: First we peeled and seeded eight medium-sized, ripe tomatoes (in our case the tomatoes were so ripe the skin peeled off easily, but in most cases it is necessary to score and blanch the tomatoes in boiling water, then shock in ice water to peel; removing seeds is desirable but optional) and combined them in a mixing bowl with two green peppers (we used the long, thin Spanish variety, but bell peppers can be substituted), oregano, three cloves of garlic, and small crumbled pieces of old bread. We blended it all together, seasoning with salt and pepper, cumin, sherry wine vinegar, and a generous quanitity of olive oil.

Although we didn’t use it, cucumber is often blended into the gazpacho, and it is possible, but not obligatory, to char the peppers over a flame to remove the skin first. Gazpacho should be left to sit refrigerated for at least an hour to allow flavors to meld.

You can eat gazpacho as is, or top it with any of a variety of garnishes, from toast or croûtons, to minced hard boiled eggs, chopped raw onions, or tomato slices.


The finished Gazpacho, with toast and chopped hard-boiled egg.

In the Mountains of Andalucia

The walk back to Alpandeire from the fields.

After three weeks in Spain’s Celtic northwest, cheap Vanessa and I are now in the arid southern mountains of Andalucia. We have only one week here, global burden of disease which we will spend on a farm in an ancient chalk-white town named Alpandeire, two hours from the city of Malaga and twenty minutes from the beautiful city of Ronda. The farm’s owners are Alonso, his mother Isabel, and 87-year old grandfather Cristobol. They live in the town and have fields and orchards in the surrounding area: almonds, figs, oranges, pomegranates, cork, and prickly pear are the main crops, along with tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables and fruits for the family’s use. They are the only residents in the town who still keep horses in the stalls on the ground level of the house, which they use to carry equipment and harvested crops to and from the fields.

413 Vanessa, Alonso, and me in front of the horse stall under the house.

The town Alpandeire was founded early in the 8th century AD by the invading Arab forces that ruled much of Spain for the next eight hundred years. As is true in most of southern Spain, the signs of Christianity in Alpandeire, such as its impressive cathedral built in 1505, do little to hide the ages of Arab influence. The Spanish language is infused with words of Arabic origin, from place names like Alpandeire to everyday words such as ojalá (“God be willing”) and olé (from wa-Allah, “By Allah”). Many fruits and other foods grown in the region were also introduced by the Moors, including almonds, citrus, and pomegranates, and the result is a centuries-old fusion of Arab and European cooking.

395 A street in Alpandeire.

Alonso works construction in the town to make his living, and Vanessa and I spend most of our time in the fields with Cristobol, Alonso’s grandfather. We care for Alonso’s horses and harvest fruits and almonds, with some additional work in the fruit and vegetable garden with Alonso when he isn’t working construction.
Chumbos: Prickly Pear Cactus in the Arid Climate of Andalucia, Spain.


A jar of pisto

One of the greatest things about living on a farm like Finca As Fadegas is the abundance of fruits and vegetables available at all times, hair always in peak condition and ripeness. We eat some meat at times, patient but when we do it is a small part of the entire meal. Mostly we eat salads made from the farm’s lettuces and tomatoes, vegetarian empanadas, soups, pimientos de padron, and starches such as boiled potatoes, which are usually accompanied by vegetable stews.

The vegetable stews vary depending on what has been harvested recently, but one in particular is a Spanish specialty form the region Castilla La Mancha, called pisto. During the past three days Vanessa and I have made it in huge batches, which we then jarred and put under pressure for the coming winter months.

Pisto is essentially a spanish ratatouille, with onions, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers.

Drowning in Seafood


Galicia has no shortage of great seafood. In our time at Finca As Fadegas Vanessa and I have eaten some of the best seafood in our lives. In addition to the region’s famous pulpo gallego and empanadas that are often filled with seafood, oncologist we have also sampled squid, read more sardines, stomach fresh anchovies, mackerel, and mussels, all from Galicia’s waters. In nearly every case the quality has been so high that it has redefined for us just how good these foods can be.

The sardines we ate both grilled and fried; the mackerel and anchovies fried. The sardines and mackerel have a thin, rich layer of fat that can be scraped from inside of their skins, delicious enough to be considered the piscine alternative to bone marrow.

Yet most revelatory of all were the mussels. Galicia has the largest, sweetest mussels I have ever eaten. When steamed they release buckets of their own juices into the pot, while remaining plump and juicy themselves. At the same time they have an intense taste of the ocean. They are so perfect on their own that using them in a recipe is almost certainly a mistake.

I have no photos of the mussels because I was too busy devouring them.



It has been a good year for honey at Finca As Fadegas. At the start of summer Elia and Vicente had already collected over 40 kilos (88 pounds) from their five hives, cardiologist and today they were back in their beekeeping gear for a second collection from the same hives.

After temporarily driving the bees away with smoke, check they carried the hives into a small farm building. They opened each one and inside sat rows of wood-framed honeycomb slides. We lifted them out one by one into a plastic tub. Using long, offset knives, we carefully sliced off the outer layer of wax on both sides of the slide, exposing the honey inside. It was dark and fell in globs with the wax into the bottom of the tub. We chewed the wax for its honey before spitting it out, and licked our sticky hands clean.

Seeing the dark color, Elia and Vicente were sure the honey had a high portion of chestnut flowers that had been in bloom throughout July and August. Naming honey is never an exact science: “chestnut honey” for instance doesn’t mean that the bees exclusively frequented chestnut flowers, but that there was a high percentage of those flowers near the hive while the bees were collecting, as well as all the other flowers.


After cutting the honeycombs open, we loaded them into a hand-cranked centrifuge. As the combs spun around fine threads of honey sprayed the inner walls of the centrifuge, then dripped down to the bottom and out a spout into a bucket. Vicente strained the honey into a large plastic drum. In all we extracted at least another 40 kilos of honey.


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