Tenuta di Spannocchia

I first heard about Tenuta di Spannocchia, an organic agrotourism farm in Tuscany, from two friends I met through a cookbook club in Brooklyn. They couldn’t stop gushing about their experience interning there and how idyllic the farm environment was. This immediately piqued my interest – I mean, who doesn’t want to spend their summer in the Italian countryside? But I certainly wasn’t ready to up and quit my cushy test kitchen job to be an unpaid intern at the ripe age of 29. 

Nevertheless, I started following the farm on Instagram and would marvel over the photos they posted of the rugged Tuscan landscape, wondering if and when I’d ever make my way over there. As luck would have it, I clicked on Instagram one day to see that they posted an open call for a culinary apprentice to come to live and work at the farm during the summer of 2020. As a trained chef with a Culinary Arts diploma from the Institute of Culinary Education, I’ve always been interested in our food systems and was yearning for an opportunity to learn more about farming in one of the most iconic agricultural countries in the world. 

I applied to the program in the fall of 2019 and was accepted in the spring of 2020, but of course, by then, COVID had started waging its war internationally. Over the next few weeks, all programming at the farm was officially canceled and I, like so many others, was holed up at home dreaming of an escape. I spent the next few weeks focused on my current job as a recipe developer at Blue Apron but stayed connected with the program director at Spannocchia as I was determined to make this fantasy a reality. 

Nothing changed until the following winter when I learned that the farm would be accepting WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteers for Spring 2021. I had heard of WWOOFing in the past and, after some research, learned that the organization acts as a global network that facilitates homestays on organic farms. Essentially, farms and volunteers from around the world trade labor for room and board for an agreed-upon amount of time which can range from weeks to up to several months. 

Though this program wouldn’t be as formal as the original culinary apprenticeship I applied for, I knew I had to seize this opportunity and get myself to Spannocchia in any way that I could. Fast forward to June of 2021 and I left my full-time job to spend the next 3 months in Italy. I didn’t have much information on what to expect at the farm or how the experience would be as the world was still very much dealing with the devastating effects of the virus. Although I was fully vaccinated at that point, international travel was still something that most Americans were avoiding as evidenced by the unusually affordable airfare. Even with all this uncertainty, I followed my gut and took a giant leap of faith as I left my secure surroundings and boarded a flight from New York City to Rome. 

Tenuta di Spannocchia is located about thirty minutes southwest of the medieval city of Siena, famed for its annual Palio horse race. At this time of year, Tuscany is bursting with fields of bright yellow sunflowers which were a welcome addition to its trademark rolling, green hills. Upon arriving at the farm, I was given a tour of the grounds and was overwhelmed by how large and beautiful the property was. Located on a nature reserve, the farm spans 1,100 acres and includes grape vines, olive trees, vegetable and herb gardens, beehives, fruit orchards, and animals (including Cinta Senese pigs). There is a tower on-premises that dates back to the 1200s along with several buildings denoted by thick, stone exterior walls, terracotta roof and floor tiles, and decorative wrought iron elements. 

For the duration of my stay, I lived in a simple bedroom in the shared volunteer housing, called “Pulcinelli”, with the other WWOOFers. At any given time, there were about five of us staying in the house as most volunteers would rotate in and out anywhere from one to three weeks at a time. One of the best parts of this experience was getting to connect with people from all over the world, including Italy, Austria, England, Australia, Norway, Israel, and Argentina, and learn about their diverse backgrounds. 

Each weekday morning started at “the wall” behind our house at 6:30 am to meet with the full-time staff and receive our work assignments for the day. We always had the daily tasks of lighting the caldaia (which provided the farm with hot water) and watering the flowers located throughout the property. Once finished, we would split into groups and move into our specific assignments. While each day was different, some of these tasks included pruning the grape vines, treating the hedges with butterfly larvae spray, emptying the trash, cleaning the pool, working in the orto (vegetable garden), bottling and labeling wine, building and removing pig fences, and loading wood into truck beds.

When we weren’t working, we cooked meals and drank wine together, swam in the pool or relaxed by the river, took trips into the nearby towns of Rosia and Brenna, hosted outdoor ping pong tournaments, watched the sunset each night, and spent time sharing our stories and experiences. I didn’t realize how much I was craving connection and creating new ties after such a long period of isolation back at home.

I chose to spend most of my time in the vegetable garden helping to prepare the land for planting fall crops. We did so by raking big rocks and debris away from the plant bed, tilling the soil, and laying freshly dug compost on top to help it soften and break down. We planted broccoli, cauliflower, radicchio, and fennel which involved lots of crouching and bending over to dig and plant each individual seed. We also spent a lot of time weeding the never-ending rows of crops, but the most rewarding part was harvesting the fresh summer produce that was constantly regenerating. The bounty included tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic, potatoes, peppers, herbs, leafy greens, celery, leeks, and fresh-cut flowers. I learned that only female zucchini produce fruit and eggplants are ripe when their purple color is “brilliant” and the leaves from the stem are only covering ten percent of the body. Everything is done on the farm with intention and we even saved trimmings from the garlic stems to place in the soil with the tomatoes.

I chose to spend most of my time in the vegetable garden helping to prepare the land for planting fall crops. We did so by raking big rocks and debris away from the plant bed, tilling the soil, and laying freshly dug compost on top to help it soften and break down. We planted broccoli, cauliflower, radicchio, and fennel which involved lots of crouching and bending over to dig and plant each individual seed. We also spent a lot of time weeding the never-ending rows of crops, but the most rewarding part was harvesting the fresh summer produce that was constantly regenerating. The bounty included tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic, potatoes, peppers, herbs, leafy greens, celery, leeks, and fresh-cut flowers. I learned that only female zucchini produce fruit and eggplants are ripe when their purple color is “brilliant” and the leaves from the stem are only covering ten percent of the body. Everything is done on the farm with intention and we even saved trimmings from the garlic stems to place in the soil with the tomatoes.

Thanks to my culinary background, I was also able to spend quite a bit of time working in the kitchen and the butchery. I worked with Chef Pietrina to prepare dinner service, which consisted of six courses including antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, insalata, and dolce. I assisted by washing and cutting vegetables, mixing and kneading doughs, fabricating meat such as pork ribs and fowl, and other tasks like setting the table and plating each course. Tuscan cuisine is nuanced but decidedly unfussy and I really enjoyed learning from Pietrina’s rustic preparation of each dish. I also worked with the butcher Riccio (an Italian nickname for his full head of curly hair) to treat the back pig legs that would eventually cure into prosciutto. Using our hands, we rubbed pastella (a mix of flour, lard, salt, and black pepper) all over the flesh side to prevent the meat from drying out too much. 

Life on a farm is constantly evolving but there’s something about breaking a sweat and working with your hands that makes each day feel truly rewarding. My time at Spannocchia was a reflection on my own personal journey with food and why I am so drawn to the Italian way of eating and connecting with the ingredients of each region. There is so much care and pride that goes into creating quality products, something I got to experience first-hand on the farm while pulling up my first Tropea onion from the soil. To understand the impact of what it feels like to grow food and then come full circle to enjoy the fruits of your labor is an experience I will never take for granted. WWOOFing helped me to build a deeper connection to regional agriculture and has inspired me to continue pursuing a career in the agriculture space back home.

Since returning to New York City, I’ve witnessed firsthand how the farming community has to work creatively to thrive in this unique, urban environment. I spent the summer of 2022 volunteering at various places including Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and Red Hook Community Farm, both located in Brooklyn. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to walk off the subway and onto a vegetable garden, finding a moment of zen in the midst of a bustling city, which has made me realize that farms are an available resource anywhere you look. I hope to continue visiting different organizations, both locally and abroad, and learning from the incredible people that keep them running so that one day I can start my own small hobby farm and open a cafe.

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