One of the things I love about living in Italy is the ease with which you can come in contact with animals.
And I am not talking about the usual suspects like cats and dogs or pesky urban pets like lizards and mosquitoes. No, when I say ‘animals’ I mean proper livestock – anything from cows, donkeys and horses to goats, geese and lots of unruly hens.
Farms, big and small, are generously dotted all over Veneto. Several of them open their doors to the public and organise workshops for schoolkids teaching them about farming and its importance for our way of life. Many farmhouses, called agriturismo in Italian, also have bed and breakfast facilities and a restaurant attached to them, where the food served is seasonal and based around the farm produce.
Farms are easy to find and easy to visit. And when you can’t go to them, they come to you in the shape of fresh, local products sold both in dainty delicatessen shops and large supermarkets. And only a couple of months ago, farms from the surrounding area arrived in our current hometown of Vicenza for a long festival weekend and brought with them their machinery and livestock, too.
Campo Marzio – the big green between the old town and the railway station in Vicenza – was converted into a farmyard with a display of vintage farm machines (wooden combine harvester, anyone?!), enclosures with horses, calves, nanny goat and her six-day old baby goat Minu, and many different types of hens, roosters, geese and ducks.
For the children there was a large playground made entirely of bales of hay, so that they could jump, run and have fun to their little hearts’ content, irrespective of the fact that their hair and their clothes got covered with straw and dust.
It was a lot of fun!
The most important thing, though, was the chance for the children to meet the animals. Pet the horse and its long mane, see how protective mummy goat was of her little one, throw some seeds and kernels of corn to the chickens and watch them pick their food in between the blades of grass.
I thought it was great! Great because it brings the children in touch with real life. Instead of seeing cows and horses only in their little colourful books, the animals were right in front of them. They could pet them, feed them, develop an understanding that the animals are living and breathing creatures. Build a rapport with them.
Being Bulgarian, I found the eagerness with which Italians embraced their farming roots very interesting to observe. Up until the start of the 50’s of the 20th century, Bulgaria had been a primarily agricultural country with very well-established farming traditions.
This all changed after the Second World War when the agricultural land in Bulgaria was nationalised. It was a rather forceful and unpleasant period. If you refused to surrender your land, you were proclaimed an ‘enemy of the people’ and your family was not only shunned by the community, but you found it extremely hard to purchase basic goods and food, as the local bakeries and shops operated under the watchful eye of the government.
Almost overnight the myriad of small and large farms disappeared. Huge cooperatives took their place. Personal initiative was replaced by the economy of the five-year’s plans. At the same time, seduced by the quick industrialisation of the country, people started to migrate from the villages to the larger towns and cities where huge block of flats were built up quickly to accommodate the influx.
Soon, the intrinsic connection of the Bulgarians with their land was if not severed, at least deeply weakened. Suddenly, the words ‘village’ and ‘villager’ acquired a rather nasty connotation of being common and stupid. Even nowadays, one of the worst things you can call someone in Bulgarian is ‘peasant’ implying that he is backward and unevolved.
Quite sad, really, considering that the larger percentage of Bulgarians as such have their roots deep in the agricultural tradition of our country.
Visiting grandparents who still lived in their home villages for a long time was the only way for children to experience life as it had been – close to the land, following the seasonal rhythm of sowing and harvest. With the years passing though the disconnection between the city and the village became so acute, that city children were more likely to have seen a lion (at the local zoo), rather than a livestock animal.
In fact, one of my cousins went down in family folklore with the innocuous question: ‘Dad, have I seen a live cow?’.
And here I was in Vicenza, Italy, surrounded by parents encouraging their little ones to pet the horse, jump in the hay, pose for a picture in the vintage tractor.
This past Saturday, we drove a short distance outside Vicenza to spend a happy sunny morning at Agriturismo La Borina. There is a bit of Indian summer going on in our part of Italy at the moment. The sky is blue, the temperatures are skimming 20 degrees Celsius and the feeling I wake up with every day is that I want to be out in the open.
We found Agriturismo La Borina by pure chance online. Its website promised us a petting zoo, a picnic area, a large restaurant and that’s all we needed to help us make our minds.
We piled in our little red car and half an hour after leaving Vicenza we were driving down a long lane lined up with tall trees. Beyong them huge vineyards were stretching on both sides of the lane.
We parked the car and eagerly explored.
A big flock of geese were lording it in a large enclosure furnished with a pond.
Hens and roosters of different breeds were roaming the greens. Some were very cute, like this little chap.
Others had a very distinctive look, like these birds with featherless necks.
Lots of eggs were laying on the grass by the hen-coops – veritable little houses on legs.
A gaggle of tiny little goats made us swoon over them. They were so very sweet. Unfortunately, one of them was not in a great shape. We later found out that the resident donkey had sat by mistake on it.
We patted the horse and explored the herb patch and the vegetable garden, where we discovered dense strawberry, aubergine and pepper plants.
Then we had coffee which was served in china glasses and with a large plate of biscuits called ciambelline baked in a wood oven following an old family recipe.
The ciambelline were perfect for dipping in the hot cups of aromatic Italian coffee. Slightly hard, they didn’t disintegrate as you sunk them deeply in. Instead they absorbed as much coffee as they could, so that when you took a bite off, it was the perfect combination of still crunchy biscuit and hot liquid.
The sun was shining high above in the perfect autumn sky. The trees with bright yellow and deep red leaves around us were adorned with little lanterns swaying in the breeze. The white geese were gabble-gabbling in their pond. The little goats had disappeared in their shed ready for a little snooze. The hens and the roosters were still strolling up and down the greens.
As I took a bite off my biscuit, I looked around and I thought ‘This is the life!’.