Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Gigi George is HECUA’s student blogger for Italy Fall 2021. Gigi is a student at Denison University, majoring in environmental studies. Read on to learn about Gigi’s stories and reflections on recent field visits.
During our semester, we have two weeklong field trips: one, at the beginning, to the coast in Maremma and one, at the end, to the mountains in Casentino and Mugello. This past week, we had our second trip to the highland region where we learned about the farming practices and food habits unique to the mountainous, northern region of Tuscany.
Our trip started at a farm with Calvana cattle—a breed indigenous to the mountains of Mugello and Calvana. At one point, this breed was close to extinction; however, the problem was tackled by public intervention and, eventually, economic intervention from the Italian Government. Only 19 farms rear Calvana cows now because it is not only an expensive undertaking, but the cows are also only suited to the sloping terrain and dry climate.
It was good to hear that the farmer, Paolo, chose to rear Calvana cows because of their intrinsic, or cultural, value despite limited economic support for its conservation. Paolo’s connection to the land and animals goes beyond consumer preference or cost-effectiveness. Like many Italian farmers we have met, Paolo inspires me to consider my values and their impact on my actions. Small, sustainable farmers like him give me hope in our future.
We also met with a group of researchers on the field trip, and I found their discussion on Italian wolf populations fascinating. Despite many negative connotations surrounding wolves, the researchers explained their importance to Italian ecosystems. Wolves ensure other species, like roe and fallow deer, maintain a healthy population, which, in turn, benefits other plants and animals. However, wolves can also be a threat to sheep and goat farmers. Thus, in order to protect their livestock, farmers in this region must use dogs to guard their property. These dogs, which are mostly Great Pyrenees, coexist with the livestock and have a natural instinct to protect them from any threat. In fact, when we walked by farms with livestock dogs, we were regularly barked at. What’s beautiful about all of this is that there are so many relationships involved—between the humans and the land, the wolves and the land, the wolves and the sheep, and the wolves and the humans. Ultimately, everything is connected, and we have to find the balance between it all.
Along with our usual visits to farms, we also went to the Sanctuary of La Verna—a very significant Saint Franciscan monastery in Tuscany where St. Francis once lived. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the Chiusi Della Verna valley, this religious refuge is surrounded by the Fondo Della Melosa forest which has been protected by the friars for years.
We began our visit by trekking through the woods where we saw the tallest indigenous tree species (European Silver Fir) in all of Italy. In order to fully experience the spirituality that exists within the area, we all found a spot in the forest where we sat in silence for ten minutes listening to the sounds of nature and feeling its energies. Following this, we toured the sanctuary and spoke with the friars living at the monastery. Although I have a different religious background than Catholicism, it was very fascinating to learn about the history of this place and the followers of St. Francis.
We spent our final day at a wheat farm where we saw the fields and processes that go into the cultivation of ancient grains and flour but also had the opportunity to make bread. With gentle hands, and the help of the bakers, we shaped the dough into circular loaves and sliced designs on top. After letting them rise for an hour, we put the loaves in a giant bread oven to bake for another hour. I never realized the amount of precision and patience that goes into bread making, and it’s given me a lot of respect for the people that do it every day. I will never take a slice of sourdough for granted ever again.
At each place, we were met with an immense amount of hospitality and food. In fact, the biggest lesson I learned this week is that there’s always room for another course. The second biggest lesson I learned is that there are an unlimited number of ways to eat chestnuts. In the mountainous regions of Tuscany, chestnuts have sustained generations of farmers and continue to be an important part of their food culture. During our one week field trip, we ate chestnuts almost every single day. From boiled chestnuts, to cooked chestnuts, to chestnut flour, to castagnaccio cake, and, of course, mont blanc dessert. While I feel like I’ve eaten enough chestnuts to last a lifetime, I enjoyed taking part in trying this traditional food. Our field trip to Mugello and Casentino showed me another side of Tuscan culture that we do not get in Chianti. It demonstrates just how localized everything is in the Italian countryside—something that I’ve cherished and will miss when I go back home.