Between the Alps and the small herd of sheep left in my care unfurl the slopes of the Langhe, a rolling patchwork of pasture, vine and orchard nestled above the Italian Riviera. Here and there a winery pokes out from behind a hill, its metal tanks gleaming amidst the folds of the valley, but otherwise the few farms stand isolated atop ridges. Added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2014 for the “authenticity of the landscape”, the area retains both a strong sense of community and a certain wildness.
The sheep belong to Mario and Lisa, proprietors of the farm I've been staying at for the past fortnight, Cascina del Finocchio Verde. In exchange for food and accommodation, volunteers help out with the animals or the hazelnut harvest or whatever the season may call for. Guidelines suggest six hours of work per day as appropriate, although here it seems to depend more on the curiosity of the sheep. We soon learn that less is more as far as their supervision is concerned, and that we ought not to worry too much if our counterproductive sheepdog Poppy (or perhaps Puppy, for the two are fairly indistinguishable beneath a thick accent) should happen to drive away half of the herd in a moment of exuberance, since they tend to wander back anyway.
As well as sheep, the farm houses pigs, free-range chickens (i.e. the alarm clock comes to you), bees, a pair of surly donkeys and a small vegetable garden. Through some arcane Italian sorcery the little patch beside the beehives provides enough food to feed the entire house, and is supplemented by the other produce effortlessly prepared by our hosts. A quail egg omelet, garnished copiously with slices of black truffle, appears with no more fanfare than the turnip soup, which is admittedly the least worst rendition of turnip I've ever had. Unlabeled, but excellent bottles of wine are unfailingly sourced from various cupboards in and around the kitchen, and at one point we taste five kinds of olive oil just to see if we can note the differences (both English and Italian rather lack words capable of describing their distinctions).
Unsurprisingly, an eclectic group sits around the table: Mirella, a reclusive illustrator, shrugs sheepishly at most of the dialogue around her, occasionally interjecting at extreme and tangential length in flowery Italian; Fabio, a naval engineer, appears to have worked in every European country with a coastline and speaks effortlessly about all of them; Giorgio, a Sicilian, garbles his words not just for his dialect but for the mouthfuls of bread that inevitably interrupt the entertaining and contradicting tales of his upbringing; my own contributions are mostly inappropriate or grammatically flawed. Common amongst all, though, is a love of food and the surrounding hills.
It ought to be said that this isn't a holiday – the wake-up calls are early and the hot water isn't exactly uninterrupted. But standing on the hillside come evening, with the sheep patiently grazing under the apple trees, or emerging from the forest and happening upon a pair of deer in a clearing you never knew existed, or sat bleary-eyed at the breakfast table, assuaged by spoonfuls from the large pot of honey made only a day earlier, you may just find you rather like it here.
Cascina del Finocchio Verde: