PHOTOGRAPHY by CHRIS CHEN
WORDS & FARM PHOTOGRAPHY by MAGGIE SCARDIFIELD
DESIGN by HEATHER WHITLOCK
Last year I was lucky enough to spend 10 weeks travelling around Europe with my boyfriend Glenn. He’s a chef, so naturally we spent a good few weeks driving through fields of wild fennel, exploring and eating our way around the famous ‘boot’. I am not a chef. In fact, I’m extremely uncomfortable in a kitchen; but when the man you love tells you to eat a spleen burger roadside in Palermo, or that you’re off to a goat farm in Tuscany to make cheese at 5.00am – sometimes it pays not to argue or question why, but just to say yes.
Societa’ Agricola Podere Le Fornaci is an organic goat farm located in Greve in Chianti, Tuscany – about 10km from Panzano (home to Dario Cecchini’s world-famous butcher). A few years ago, the owners decided to rent two farmhouses and buy 33 hectares of land (8 hectares of pasture and the remainder forest) and there, they would rear a herd of 100 goats, all fed and cared for organically. The small, family run estate runs with the help of seasonal workers in peak periods, and it is the only organic farm in the region of its kind. Nigel Ward, owner and co-head chef at Darlinghurst’s Sagra Restaurant (opened October 2013) spent a month living at Le Fornaci in 2012 as part of a final stint around Italy before opening up his first restaurant back in Sydney. When Glenn and I told him we were headed to Italy for a month, he was adamant that a visit to his old stomping ground in Chianti was a must.
Le Fornaci’s main farming focus is the raising of dairy goats and the production of artisanal cheeses, which are then sold to restaurants and specialty shops in the area and at the main organic markets in Tuscany. Michele (the head cheese-maker at the farm) and his team of eleven, raise Camosciate Delle Alpi goats, a robust and strong breed originally from Switzerland. Medium sized and a dark red colour, they’re great mothers, wonderful foragers and generally quite affectionate animals who produce a sweet “non-goaty” tasting milk (according to Nigel).
There are 102 goats in total (100 females and 2 lucky boys, Mario and Elvis) that graze daily in the 8 hectares of pasture surrounding the homestead and repay the farm with a great effort of milk. “250 litres each day, about 2.5 per animal,” says Michele. “The animals are milked twice a day, first at around six am and again at six in the evening…in between, they’re free to roam about the pasture. The kids are raised on a diet of mother’s milk and certified organic feed, and treated with homeopathic medicines. They eat lots of fresh grass, hay made by us on the farm, and organic cereals when we’re milking. They’re a bit spoilt really…”
During our visit to Le Fornaci we got to experience some of this magic for ourselves. In the morning light of Greve, Michele handed us lab coats, a pair of white gumboots and some very good-looking hairnets. We were shown to a station to wash our hands, before being taken through a set of large stainless steel doors into the cheese room. I was nervous, incredibly so. I was once kicked out of science in high school for blowing something up without my safety goggles on and I’ve never felt at home in the kitchen. This kitchen looked like a laboratory, which didn’t exactly put me at ease.
We started by filling up buckets with the morning’s milk, transferring the warm liquid from a large vat, across the white tiled room and into a huge pot that was being heated on a cooker. It was a balancing act. The buckets were heavy and the pot tall, teetering on what looked like a slightly larger version of my old-mate the Bunsen burner. In my mind it was far too small to support the weight of the milk, but no one else seemed uneasy. Back and forth we marched until the pot was filled. The milk then heated until it reached 36degrees, when the cow rennet was added (1.5mL for every 10 litres of milk).
For the next hour while the curd began to form, we joined Hannah (a Californian “woofer” – Willing Worker on Organic Farms) to flip and salt the cheeses from yesterday’s intake that had been setting overnight. Glenn flipped and salted with ease. It was like a dance for him – working the salt gently into the flesh of the cheese, flipping and repeating. My dance was less fluid. I’d salt too hard – the roof of the cheese at times splitting. My flip was extremely awkward too, and the removal of the basket downright clumsy. I was momentarily teleported back to childhood summer’s on the south coast; sandy knees sitting across from my sister – flipping the bucket, tapping it twice and praying that the castle would stay put. Michele was breaking up the curd behind us and I was trying not to get too distracted. It looked fun, albeit messy. His elbows-deep in what could only be described as a chunky, white custard. Here, he would separate the whey from the curd by the bucket load and later in the day it would be made into ricotta.
Around 9.00am we stopped for breakfast – hanging our lab coats at the door and removing our hats and gloves to reveal clammy hands and hair. We were ushered back to the main house (Le Fornaci; the furnace, oven) – a large five-bedroom cottage with an old wrap-around deck. We kicked off our wellingtons and climbed the steep stairs in warm socks. In the kitchen we were met with a chorus of hello’s from three other woofers readying breakfast: yoghurt made fresh on the farm from goat’s whey, fruits picked from the orchard, house made breads and assorted aged cheeses. The smell was incredible (a goat’s cheese tart in the oven) and the room a warm yellow from the morning sun. Over breakfast we exchanged stories; how the woofers ended up at Le Fornaci, why Glenn and I were in Chianti and where we were headed to next. Michele sat at the head of the table in a pair of denim dungarees.
After our breakfast Glenn and I were given the choice of whether to return to making cheese or taking the goats out to the field. The day’s curd needed to be packed into molds, and given I was probably doing more harm then good with my flip method, I opted for a walk with the goats, leaving Glenn to do his thing in the cheese room.
After visiting the newborn kids and getting a brief tour of the milking station, I was warned about Mario, the older male responsible for siring every single kid in the heard. In one breeding season, usually in August/September, each goat will birth 1.6 kids. It’s a big job for poor Mario, so I wasn’t surprised that he was a little on edge. I was given a stick to herd together 100 goats and told not to look Mario in the eye (meanwhile, Glenn was making sandcastles in the lab, go figure).
There’s something pretty special about walking 101 goats through open fields in Tuscany. Looking up I felt worlds away from the city, when in realty we were only 30minutes away from Florence. In the surrounding forest, wild rabbit, fagiano, deer, grouse and wild herbs are plentiful. During the winter season those interested can take part in the farm’s “Adopt a Goat” program. A 100euro deposit will maintain an animal throughout the winter, and in exchange the adopted owners will receive 110 euros worth of goat’s milk and cheese across the course of the year. “With this money we pay the rent, we buy certified organic feed, and prepare the offspring for the new season”, Michele explains. “For us it is an important form of economic aid, but it is also something that works because of the relationship that is built with our customers.”
Reflecting on this experience now some twelve months later, I can see the huge influence that Le Fornaci has had on Nigel Ward, who opened Sagra Restaurant in October 2013 with one thing on his mind: a festival of the seasons. “The goats at Le Fornaci live a happy life, raised by farmers who grow the food they eat, and who sell their product directly to the local community at the market. When I returned from Italy to open Sagra, I wandered ‘why can’t there be a restaurant here in Sydney which adopts these principles of farm to plate in its purest form?’ Happy animals butchered on site, a market driven, daily changing menu and a general awareness of slowness in this fast paced world.”
Nigel has previously spent time working at Lucio’s Italian and Trullo in London, and originally met Glenn when he turned up for a job at Sydney institution, Sean’s Panaroma, with a bottle of home-made Limoncello in hand. Glenn went on after Sean’s to work at Skye Gyngell’s Petersham Nurseries and The River Café in London, before returning to Oz to join Nigel on Stanley Street. With the boys back together in the kitchen, Sagra is a place that celebrates the simplicity of Italian food – quality ingredients that speak for themselves, without the bells and whistles Sydney has become so accustomed to. You won’t find a million dollar fit out or an extensive cocktail menu, but you will find food on your plate that has been made with a kind of respect that would make Michele and the team at Le Fornaci proud. Perhaps an heirloom beetroot and grilled Jerusalem artichoke salad, or a house-made stracci with pine mushrooms. Both will keep you warm as the weather starts to cool, and both best knocked back with a glass of Sagra’s very own vintage of Sangiovese from the Margaret River.
“The most interesting thing you can do with food is to grow and make your own products, Le Fornaci reminded me of that,” continues Nigel. “At Sagra we’re making as many of our own products in house as possible… It’s a place where you can talk through the menu with the staff, learn about the suppliers and their ingredients, spill a glass of wine and have a good laugh. I want Sydney to experience our food in a way that is truely in line with Italy’s way of doing things, not Sydney’s version of Italy.”
A few weeks ago, Sagra hosted its first regional dinner celebrating Autumn: “a time of plenty before the frugality of Winter kicks in.” First region off the rank was Toscana ($50 per person, four courses) – with a menu that included braised Cinghiale (wild boar) as the centre piece. The regional dinners will continue on the first Wednesday of each month following the seasons from Emilia Romagna in June, Piemonte in July, Lombardia in August and the Veneto in September.
“At Le Fornaci the young goats were fed with their mother’s milk and grazed in open fields. It’s the goat farm you want to be a goat at… and I hope Sagra is a restaurant that the people of Chianti would want to eat at.”
62 Stanley Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney 2010
www.sagrasydney.com.au // @sagrasydney
Podere le Fornaci
Via Citille, 74, 50022 Greve in Chianti, Firenze