Student Blogger Study Abroad

Soaking up the Tuscan Sun

View of the street from Castello Sonnino

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Anna Kate Stephenson is HECUA’s student blogger for the Italy: Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice program this fall. Anna Kate is a student at The University of California, Berkeley majoring in Environmental Science. Read on for her first post!

Ciao from Italia! It’s week four and the twelve of us finally feel like we can exhale after a jam-packed month of introductions, class, and touring Tuscany. Though very busy, it’s difficult to be stressed with a set-up like ours. Imagine each morning waking up to rolling hills of cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves extending out to the horizon. After you wipe your eyes and walk down the stairs of your stucco villa, you look around your big country kitchen for your espresso maker and spark up the stove. Soon, it’s class time and you gaze up at the castle’s walls towering over you on your daily commute.

living room inside Castello Sonnino, mural painting of natural landscape
Inside the inside of Castello Sonnino. This mural was commissioned in the 19th century by the Sonnino family to showcase biodiversity from around the world. Photo credit, Anna Kate Stephenson.

The town of Montespertoli is equally calming. It holds a small and sleepy charm all within walking distance. Though I can’t speak Italian yet, I figure that little could go on here without the whole town knowing. To escape to something a bit more fast paced, the cultural epicenter of Florence is only a bus ride away.

As an environmental science major and food systems minor, this program completely piqued my interest, after I saw it on an Instagram ad. Living on a Tuscan vineyard in a 16th century castle seemed unreal (literally), so I had to inquire further. Not only did this turn out to be true, but the program also has a very hands-on curriculum in environmental economics and agroecology in contemporary Europe. We focus on the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), resource management, and the importance of sustainable development.

The program gets rid of the typical classroom model and throws you right into working on local farms and tasting the fresh, organic difference. This set-up pushed me to apply so that I could test the waters and see if this field is something I’d like to pursue in the future.

view of rolling hills and vineyards outside the classroom window
Morning view from the classroom window. Photo credit, Anna Kate Stephenson

Our first taste of Italy began the night of our arrival with Filippo, Riccardo and the rest of the Castello Sonnino staff. Though we were jet-lagged, the pesto, red wine, and adrenaline got us all excited about the three and a half months that we have ahead of us. We asked for recommendations on what to do and where to go during the entire dinner. The most authentic Italian food is right outside the Florence city center, and the creamiest gelato is only a half mile away. When Liv (who is on her school’s cross country team) asked where to run, Filippo responded simply by pointing in every direction. Pro tip, ask any Italian native to the area for their favorite spots and, trust me, you will not be disappointed.

In the days following our arrival, we toured the town, weaved through Florence’s ornate architecture, and visited our potential internship sites. Each of us seemed to find our niche when touring the gelateria, school, and all the farms for our internships. One farm even treated us to the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. It was light and fluffy, making it easy to shove a whole piece into my mouth at once. Plus, the crust had potato in it. I ate eleven pieces.

We kicked off class on a great note as well, with lots of passionate participation and high-energy Italian with Giovanni and Elena. Our adventures and academics inspire us beyond class hours to explore Italian cuisine and culture. Back at the Farmhouse, we take full advantage of our kitchen every night. With the help of our food stipend, we cook a different pasta, meat or pizza dish we’ve seen or tasted thus far. On most nights, dinner is paired with a new bottle of Chianti, the region’s local wine.

TLDR: this study abroad program is Tuscany in full force.

Now, we have just returned from a week (and extended weekend) trip in Maremma, a coastal region in Southern Tuscany. We visited rice and dairy farms and met the infamous butteri. Butteri, the cowboys of Maremma, wrangle and rear the region’s indigenous horse and cattle. Historically, Mamemma’s low-lying land was a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Because of this, only a few mammalian species could survive in the area. But the horse and cattle that thrived are both much bigger than their counterparts, and the cattle feature long and pointy horns jutting from either side of their heads.

We were able to get a head-start on the CAP project we have for Riccardo’s class, in which we interview local farmers to see how the policy affects their business. So far, we’ve seen that the outdated regulation may make it harder for small, organic farms to make money, but that reform is on the horizon. Learning about this layer firsthand is more influential than learning about it through a textbook. Personally, it inspires me to take more initiative in helping small farmers, which in turns gives me motivation in the classroom.

Maremmo Horses. Photo credit, Alyssa Geddis.
group of twelve people at the beach
Enjoying fun times at the beach in Maremma Regional Park. Photo credit, Riccardo Simoncini

We got in a little more swimming in the agrotourismo’s pool before barbequing with Filippo, Riccardo and the rest of the staff. We ate way too much bread and cheese and drank the red wine each person showcased. Dinner was yet another example of being immersed in Tuscan food culture; all ingredients were local, we ate slow and savored each bite, and the food we ate incited endless conversation. All of this being the epitome of Italy’s Slow Food Movement.

Group of students eating dinner together and drinking wine
Dinner in Maremma, sampling barbecue and local wines

This week, we have been focusing more on starting our semester-long projects. It began with meetings with Riccardo about our Independent Study Project (ISP), where you can pick any associated topic to research. Given such a prime location, and an interest in winemaking, I decided to hone my research in on the differences between conventional, organic and biodynamic cultivation practices. (A note to future students: I highly recommend going to Filippo and Riccardo to ask for contacts of people to reach out to for your project. Both of them have a ton of connections in the agrofood and sustainability industries in Italy. For example, Riccardo told me he could connect me with the *president* of biodynamic farming (AIAB) in Italy.) We also began discussing English for Pasta, a volunteer program in which you can teach English to an Italian student for one hour in exchange for a cooking lesson and dinner with the rest of their family. During dinner, the conversation shifts to Italian, giving you a chance to practice your language skills in a local setting. It also allows you to observe Tuscan food culture and potentially collect some traditional recipes to bring back and show off.  Let me tell you, everyone is psyched about beginning the program this next week. Some (including myself) even signed up for double shifts. Honestly, everyone is excited about the rest of this semester entirely. With trips around the continent booked, impending internships as sheepherders or viticulturists, and free, homemade Italian dinners promised at least once a week, it’s hard not to be excited.


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