Hours on the Farm

The Farm

The theme of the trip is pigs. For the flu, maybe, which is on every television screen we pass. But mostly for the ones on the agritourism farm in Istria, Croatia, which we visit on a day full of cloudy skies and cold rain. A day on which we are supposed to hunt for truffles on the same farm, but because of the rain, we don’t.

On this day, the truffle dogs shift in their houses, poking their heads out, restless, while the house dog barks—a yipping little thing with stickup hair—at our shifting ankles, mocking our poor thwarted plans.

The farm is called Agriturismo Toncic, and you need a car to get there from Pula or from Rovinj, but I would say that it makes a car worth getting, even in the rain. If you can drive one, which I can’t. But on this particular day, I am happy for company and a van that is driven by someone who understands the street signs, who is not me. I am happy just to go.

But thankfully for us, this farm does more than truffles. Probably, given the finicky nature of truffles, thankfully for them, too.

We see the prosciutto first, moldy and pungent-smelling on hooks in a cool back room that also contains glimmering aluminum wine tanks. The legs are beautiful, seasoned with nothing but pepper, drying in the air, less fatty than Italian prosciutto, and just different. Less greasy. Lighter.

The farm is family-run, and the son shows us around—first the older legs and then the younger ones in a different room, which hang on the same kinds of hooks, but beside other sausages and pigstuffs. Perched above the door is an animal skull with a delicate rack of antlers. Butchering equipment sits on shelves, at the ready. The son wears bright blue work coveralls that stand out against the colorless day and describes the family business—some olive oil, some wine, some prosciutto—in a way that makes it seem humdrum and everyday, but all of us city folk drool, a little bit, envious. We want farms. We want to know where everything goes.

I put up my hand. Ask a Dumb Tourist question.

“Do they use all the parts of the pig?”

The son laughs. They use everything.

Even on a rainy day, the land surrounding the tiny farm is a blinding green, the buildings red and white. They take us out to show us the pigs.

The pen that houses them is spotless and warm and animal-y smelling, and they squeal and oink as we enter, pressing their rubbery noses against the walls. There is something weirdly elegant about them, the taught layer of fat across their backs, the division and order of the tough little hairs that cover it, parted precisely down the middle—all the hairs on one side going one way. They are pink and squirming and floppy-eared like cartoon pigs, like what artists dream of when they go to draw cartoon pigs. They scramble on little hoofs when the son throws them feed. And these are small ones—about 200 pounds each—about half of what they should be when it’s time to butcher them, to hang their legs on racks in the next spotless room. (The prosciutto, we are told, are hung and organized differently depending on whether they’re front or back legs.)

Someone in our party even suggests that they be given toys—something, anything—to give them a quality of life. And I almost see what she means, admiring their alert eyes, their splendid color. (It is a creamy, uniform kind of pink. Like Pepto Bismol.) But these are prosciutto pigs. And, to continue with our piggy theme, if you’re going to eat the prosciutto, you should see the thing that it comes from, look it in the eye.

We are then ushered inside to a dining room filled with long wooden tables and a tiled fireplace on one side. Someone has built a fire and we fight for the spots in front of it, holding our chilly hands up.

Dinner is served by the daughter and cooked with the mother, who remains in the kitchen for the duration of our visit. But this is how it goes in every place we visit. Mom in the kitchen. Dad in the fishing boat. Son with the butcher knife. Daughter serving, explaining, cleaning, welcoming. It’s cozy at the table, the bunch of us in front of the fire. The dinner starts with the family’s wine, the same stuff in the tanks outside.

Before dinner is served, Kerrin sneaks off into the kitchen to say hello to Mamma, to snap photos of the magic behind the scenes. She comes out with a satisfied smile, holding a basket of sooty black truffles, one of them halved to reveal its pure white core. These aren’t white truffles, which are extraordinarily valuable, but they are beautiful and still costly. We are promised truffles with our meal—and we get them.

Lunch is noodles with shaved black truffles and ravioli with two kinds of cheese—one cow, one sheep—with the delicately flavored spring asparagus that’s in season. The main dish is roasted lamb, pungent with olive oil and spices, roasted potatoes, and a light salad. We groan under the weight of it, silent except for the sound of our munching. And there is, of course, dessert too. A sugar-sprinkled cookie with a hole in the center. Another cookie, a coiled spiral of dough with cinnamon. And a cake with a cream layer.

We are told afterwards that there is accommodation available too. That you can sleep, eat, hunt for truffles, all for not very much money. All in one place, against green rolling hills and amidst little medieval towns and the yelps of the truffle dogs. And really, what you can see is how a family lives, how food grows, and how your vacation is really just a glimpse into a system that works. A system that’s always there, whether it’s on a farm in Istria, Croatia, or one in your town or state. And if you go to relax or to eat or to hunt for those elusive truffles, you will be able to draw the line. Pig. Prosciutto. Dinner. Food. Sustenance. Livelihood.

Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.

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