Dates: November 9, 2019 - December 4, 2019
Work focus: picking summer crops and planting winter ones. Collecting olives and making oil. Prepping food for the restaurant and cleaning up afterwards. House stewardship. Deliveries.
Giuseppe owns thirty-something hectares of land. Most are for olive trees, but some are for garden vegetables which he either sells directly, uses for the restaurant, or preserves and sells later. Little goes to waste.
When I arrived in November Giuseppe was still harvesting olives. Usually this stops in October, but due to an unusually warm autumn and Giuseppe "having his mind on other things," we got started late. We used giant, air-powered "jazz hand clappers" to jiggle the olives off of the trees and onto large nets. You could either be a net-dragger or a clapper.
Yuri told me that the olives would only make virgin oil. The quality had been brought down by flies that lay their eggs in the olive fruits. The larvae turn the color of the olive flesh from green to a mealy brown. I looked through tens of olives and only found one without a hole in it. When I opened it, it was bright green.
Virgin oil fetches a low price compared to extra virgin oil, the latter having a lower acidity. Apparently some produces artificially lower the acidity to bring their oil into the extra-virgin range. "You have to be a chemist to succeed in this business," Giuseppe told me.
Giuseppe seems to only think a few days in advance. This leads to a lot of last-minute decision making. For example, we spent hours harvesting dried okra pods. Right now they're taking up space in the cantina and none of us have any idea what we're going to do with them. Plus, it seems like a fair amount of food goes to waste when crops are forgotten. But what is harvested is used.
Eugene showed us how to plant strawberries. Rip them out of the ground, trim off all but a tiny root bud, and shove them back in the ground. We were all doing this as a group, getting it done as fast as possible, joking that this might be the most ridiculous way to plant anything we'd ever seen in our lives.
The restaurant and kitchen
The restaurant is the crown jewel of Piccapane. It's all wood and gives a classy, homelike vibe. Giuseppe sells a vegan cooking experience only, I think due to the supposed health benefits. (I'd say ethical reasons too, but it you can easily find ethically-sourced eggs around here, and Giuseppe himself is not vegan.)
With the full menu costing 25 euros a head you'd think there would be a fresh meal made for each guest, but due to cost and time constraints we actually prepped a lot of the food a day or two before and froze it. This led to a few awkward moments where I had to fetch frozen food from the cantina (in another building) because we didn't bring enough to the kitchen. I tried to conceal the fact that I was carrying frozen ravioli and falafel past the paying customers. Some of the ravioli had fallen all over the inside of the freezer.
The food is good, but because we're so constrained with time and kitchen space the food often ends up having minor issues with presentation. As far as I can tell, though, customers seem pretty happy. But it's hard to know what they really think.
One of the high points of my trip to Piccapane was when I got called into the kitchen on a Saturday evening to help Giuseppe out with an unusually large booking. He was panicking. I cleaned for hours and hours while he cooked, making space wherever possible, frying the frozen falafel, and bringing water to the guests. I was sick with a cold that day, but for some reason, I didn't sneeze the whole time I was in the kitchen. Adrenaline, maybe. He (unexpectedly) offered me some money (that he didn't really have), and I politely handed it back.
I was stationed in the BnB by the restaurant, the other WWOOFers stayed in the main house. On my first night the WWOOFers Andy and Kristina were making pasta. Laura and I helped. Giuseppe had given them total freedom and even though the result was, let's say, imperfect, he gave constructive advice and his blessing to try again.
We would do a lot of that kind of experimental cooking over the month of November. Sometimes we'd get flooded with some vegetable, say peppers -- then we'd have to make something work with it. This led to a lot of learning and innovation. I learned to make a bechamel sauce pretty well.
The house is a bit disorganized, with lots of sentimental items taking up space. Giuseppe hates getting rid of things, but occasionally he'll release something in a grand display of letting-go. For example, he asked me to help him smash some statues he said "no longer represented who he was." One statue was of a man and the other was of a woman. He went outside and with the sharp edge of an axe smashed them both to pieces.
For Giuseppe, a chef, I was flabbergasted by how dysfunctional his home kitchen is. Half of his burners didn't work when I arrived. We managed to fix one of them ("I had been procrastinating for a decade," he told me) and now 3/4 of the burners on the fornello are somewhat operational. But it's still chaos. In the end, we would just do some creative shifting of pots and pans in order to make it all work out.