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.
SERRA DI CAPRIGLIO, ITALY — 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.
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.
My farming companions made for lighthearted company. Armelle could laugh herself to tears. Daniel was a connoisseur of things audible and edible. For him, making music was a passion and eating was an art.
Each day, we learned by observing - and by doing. There is no substitute for making your own batch of pesto - a dash of this, a splash of that - or for getting down on your hands and knees to distinguish a vegetable from a weed.
In culinary matters, Raffaella could teach any chef a thing or two. I watched her accept last-minute reservations for large families and groups of friends with barely a shrug.
She would hang up the phone and rally the troops - six of us including her husband and children - in their cavernous family kitchen. Then she would divvy up the jobs: slice the eggplant, make the pastry, peel the garlic, strip the rosemary, dice the peaches. Armelle and I specialized in dicing peaches.
Late July and early August is peach season in northern Italy, and Raffaella likes to work with foods in season. Unable to provide enough fruit from their own orchard, they purchase peaches from local, organic sources, such as their neighbor Sergio next door. A short, bespectacled man with rough hands and a gentle disposition, Sergio appeared quietly at the gate bearing trays of peaches picked ripe from his trees.
Dicing fruit seemed to be a task for late morning. Seated at the outdoor table shaded by a clay tile roof, Armelle and I would work our way through trays of peaches, falling into a rhythm.
Accustomed to peeling her fruit before she eats it, Armelle would nick the skin and strip her peach before I'd barely started.
Then, while I fumbled with the slippery pieces on a garlic-scented cutting board, she'd hold them over the pot and dice them up in seconds, mounds of velvety skin piling up nearby.
One day, after an hour of peeling and dicing, Armelle leaned forward and whispered, "I want to test." She popped a coral sliver in her mouth and released an audible sigh of pleasure. "Très bon," she appraised. "Juteuse." (Juicy!)
The juice was, in fact, running in rivulets down our arms and dripping off the table. I could feel the sticky nectar trickling between my toes. It was fragrant, heady work - the sweet bouquet of fresh peaches like the scent of summer days.
Raffaella slipped past us from the kitchen to the shed. She returned a minute later with her apron bulging, fashioning a pocket from the fabric around her waist. As she passed, she leaned toward me, revealing purple and white onions nestled in the fold.
"I want to cry some more," she laughed, her gray eyes lively. Then she disappeared through a fringe of grape leaves into the scorching, midday sun.
The throaty ring of the village church bell chimed one as Raffaella and Pierro's daughter, Federica, arrived with a sack of sugar. It was almost time for lunch. She tipped the sack over the slippery mountain of fruit, the sugar forming a white-capped peak. I thought of making snow angels, lying on a bank of cool white flakes taking refuge from the heat.
A party of 10 was due any minute for a leisurely lunch in the country. They'd be having peaches for dessert. I looked at Armelle, still coated in juice, and smiled. "Have you dreamed of peaches yet?" I asked.
"No," she she answered with a laugh. "But I will."