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This was a real down-to-earth vacation

Peach juice was running in rivulets down our arms and dripping off the table. I could feel the sticky nectar trickling between my toes.

By Melanie PlatzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003


We bonded in the bean patch, Armelle and I. She was a young French student attending agricultural college in Clermont-Ferrand, and I was a young-at-heart Canadian traveler living close to the land.

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We'd both arrived in Italy to learn about organic farming, and so, one bright morning in late July, we found ourselves picking bush beans in a quiet field near Serra di Capriglio, a tiny hilltop village in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.

"Tranquillité," murmured Armelle. And peaceful it was. Aside from the soft chatter of birds and the faint rustle of leaves, only the rise and fall of our voices broke through the stillness.

In time I'd call this place the hidden field, removed from the road as it was by a long, narrow drive, and shielded by a fringe of acacia and poplar trees.

The hidden field was one of two small plots of land in the valley below Serra di Capriglio used by our farm hosts, Raffaella Firpo and Pierro Perazzi, for growing vegetables. A third parcel adjacent to their farmhouse in the village was the site of a fruit orchard and a smaller kitchen garden.

Despite the rising heat, the beans felt cool to the touch. Large, heart-shaped leaves shielded them from the sun. They shared the field with cucumbers and basil, squash and corn. Not to mention horsetail, an ancient, water- loving plant thriving in the presence of an underground spring.

For two hours we picked the slim, velvety pods, our stories lapsing into periods of easy silence. We filled five flats and one wicker basket to overflowing, then placed the teetering golden mounds in the car and drove cautiously up the hill.

Sixteen years ago, Raffaella and Pierro traded their hectic city lives in nearby Turin for a more peaceful existence in the country. They bought a rundown farmhouse with three acres of land and taught themselves to farm organically. Today, their renovated farmhouse serves as an agriturismo, a working farm where guests can come to stay or eat.

Running an organic farm is labor-intensive, and Raffaella and Pierro welcome volunteers in exchange for room and board. They are members of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international association dedicated to providing curious travelers with opportunities to learn about organic farming firsthand.

Back at the farmhouse, Armelle and I settled down to clean the beans. A vine-draped portico offered refuge from the burning sun. Seated at a table for eight, which accommodates family, friends, and WWOOFers (as volunteers are called) for long, lazy lunches, we snapped the ends off hundreds of pods, filling every bowl and sieve we could find.

Cleaning the last of the beans, Armelle laughed quietly to herself. She started at the farm when the harvest was almost ready and had picked beans every day since. "I haven't dreamed of beans, yet," she mused, "but I will."

I, on the other hand, caught the end of the harvest, never picking another pod. The last of the beans were blanched and canned shortly after I arrived.

Pierro and Raffaella have a shiny commercial kitchen where they make organic preserves. Rows of jars labeled Mostarda d'uva, Peperoncini farciti,Pere Madernassa al Moscato, and a dozen other lyrical names, line their storeroom shelves. They produce 15 varieties of preserves in season, stocking local stores and markets and selling from the farm.

When we weren't making bruschetta piccante or zucchini in agrodolce using vats of olive oil, we were harvesting eggplants, potting basil, and weeding melons. Daniel, a student from New York City, rounded out our WWOOFing team. Raffaella and Pierro, who have two teenage children of their own, "adopt" their WWOOFers. We three became extended family during our stay.