Apprenticing at Spannocchia: A Tuscan Farm with a Maine Flavor
Maine's Seat at La Tavola (The Place Where You Dine)
During my conversation with Silvia Pigozzo, program director of Spannocchia, an 1,100-acre estate and working organic farm in Tuscany, Italy, all I want to do is talk with food in my mouth.
I imagine spending the end-of-day hours breaking bread with my closest friends and family, staining my lips with sips of deep red wine, and dropping thin, salty pinches of buttery prosciutto into my mouth between words.
That is how strong the connection between food and community is for the Italians.
“I am not actually a farmer, but I live here on the farm at Spannocchia and have grown up here,” Pigozzo tells me, although I immediately suspect she knows much more about farming than she will let on at the moment. After all, how can you grow up at a place like Spannocchia and not have farming in your blood? In fact, Silvia’s father is the farm’s norcino, the Italian word for the person who cures meat, Spannocchia’s main production.
The butcher apprenticeship is one of three educational programs offered at Spannocchia that highlight how to capitalize on regionality to more effectively market food products based on Italy’s rich food culture and history of landscape development. The other two programs are internships, including a farming program, which offers three sessions per year occurring in spring, summer, and fall, and a winter internship during what is considered a quieter time of year. During the winter program, participants focus on animal care and the upkeep of the estate’s vineyards and olive groves. This experience, lasting from December to February, is referred to as tuttofare, to do it all.
“Many of the members who visit Spannocchia to participate in these educational programs are actually from Maine,” says Justine Carlisle, executive director of Spannocchia and a Maine resident herself. This is because the estate’s headquarters for membership and giving—donations that help preserve the estate and keep Spannocchia’s educational programs running—is located in Portland.
Carlisle says that there has always been a strong American-Italian connection at Spannocchia, beginning with the estate’s purchase in 1925 by the Florentine writer, Delfino Cinelli, and his American wife, continuing on with Delfino’s American-born granddaughter, Francesca, who met her husband Randall while he was visiting her family property in 1981 for an architecture program. In 1992 the couple (and current estate owners) moved to Spannocchia with their budding family and the promise of restoration, a farming revival, and the addition of educational programs that paid homage to the past while also incorporating organic and sustainable methods that have influenced not only the Italian farm, but our own local farming operations in Maine.
This should come as no surprise. “There are so many similarities between New England and Tuscany in terms of the food history and the role that small farming plays in the development of the local agricultural economies,” says Erin Cinelli, former executive director of Friends of Spannocchia and the niece of Francesca and Randall.
“Landscape development, food culture and history, and regionality are played out very specifically in Italy, especially around the slow food movement,” she says, noting the thing we may associate most with Italy: wine. This emphasis on cultivating food and drink that is specific to and representative of its geographical location is reflected in Maine as well, says Cinelli, naming maple syrup as “a specific product that has benefitted from the distinct mark that its location places on it.”
Cinelli’s husband, Ben Slayton, owner of Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales and The Farm Stand in South Portland, learned how to butcher and developed his entire focus on how he wanted to serve his clientele here in Maine while he was living and working at Spannocchia, a clear representation of how the two locations’ philosophies have been shared across intercontinental lines.
“He realized that supporting a local butchering and livestock production connection in Maine is vital to preserving and encouraging small diversified farms and that there was a niche for a small butcher to work with small farmers to help them get their product to market effectively.”
The butcher (macellaio) program at Spannocchia allows apprentices from all over the world to stay at the farm for just under three months with sessions running from September to June, where they follow the norcino and learn all phases of the butchering process, from slaughtering Spannocchia’s unique heritage pigs to curing the meat. This education pulls from Tuscan tradition and a time before preservation equipment such as fridge and freezer were available, Pigozzo says.
“Tuscan families needed a way to preserve their meat, which consisted of one to two pigs, to keep them fed throughout the long cold winters,” she says. This history flavors the way meat is aged at Spannocchia today.
Day one of the slaughter yields sausage, which is cooked and consumed right afterward. From there, several curing processes are performed on the rest of the meat. Salame usually requires three months of aging and the lardo can sit on the brine for three weeks before it’s vacuum sealed for another couple months. Then there’s the rigatino, which is similar to bacon but it’s not smoked the same way. This needs a couple months to cure. The most delicate meat, prosciutto, takes the longest, aging for up to two years before consumption. This timeframe is ideal considering the type of pigs raised at Spannocchia, called Cinta Senese, a heritage breed native to Tuscany that was nearly extinct before the farm started breeding them.
Almost all of the food produced at Spannocchia is served internally at an on-site restaurant and to feed interns, educational program participants, some resident staff and family, and any other guests who want to join the group, which gathers each night around 7 or 7:30 at la tavola.
“You might guess that tavola means table,” says Pigozzo, “but that’s tavolo. Tavola is the place where you dine. It’s how your parents used to call for you when it was time to eat; it’s like an order, to come and eat together.”
“There’s a strong family feeling to the property during dinners at Spannocchia; it’s not like staying at an Airbnb or a hotel. Almost everyone gets a chance to meet the owners and connect with other interns,” says Carlisle.
In addition to the nonprofit’s internship programs, visitors are welcome to vacation at Spannocchia as well, or enjoy an artistic retreat, says Carlisle. You can choose from seven different farmhouses on the property that have been restored over the years, but that maintain their original, rustic character. Anyone who stays here can enjoy hiking, exposure to the farm, and a Community Supported Agriculture basket delivered to your door each night for cooking Tuscan style.
Carlisle explains that Spannocchia isn’t so concerned with producing the largest yield of any crop, but more about how it can put these products in harmony with the land and how it can teach people to try new things. This connection largely drives economy in both Italy and Maine, says Cinelli.
“Our landscape and the seasons in Maine really make it necessary to use a lot of farming traditions and with technology there’s opportunity to grow beyond just the traditional way of doing things but in a way that is sustainable and respects the land,” she says.
This pull between tradition and technology is felt constantly at Spannocchia as well, and Pigozzo says they’ve been fortunate to find a balance that works for them.
“The real challenge of Spannocchia is the conservation of the place’s tradition that tries to keep up with our desire and requirement to also move forward. I think what people find unique about Spannocchia is this struggle and the result of the struggle. We don’t want to change the place too much, but we also want to make it sustainable and economical.”
I think back to my introduction to Pigozzo. When I told her we were experiencing our first big blizzard of the season, she told me it “seemed impossible to imagine snow in Italy.” She had just returned from a three-week trip to Asia, where it was summertime. Her rendition of the phrase “I can’t imagine” sits with me for a while, and I decide that I like Pigozzo’s semantics better; a statement that acknowledges our reluctance to accept change, while still leaving room for forward motion.
“Let me think...spring. The spring starts slowly at Spannocchia, crop-wise. We harvest the last winter crops such as kale, cabbages, broccoli, and Radicchio (a bitter type of salad) and while we wait for the spring crops to be ready there is a lot of wild herb foraging in the local tradition. Our fields, starting from April, are full of dandelions, borage (fried is the best!), stridoli (Silene vulgaris), poppy leaves, and calendula that are all used in the traditional cuisine: to make pasta sauces, ravioli stuffing or savory sformato. One of the crops that Tuscan people really look forward in the spring is fresh fava beans. You are supposed to shell them directly at the table and to eat them along with a fresh pecorino cheese, which also becomes available again in spring after the winter lambing (Baccelli e Pecorino).