Critic's Notebook: Urban Chestnut's Andrew Fair on WWOOFing in Tuscany
I first learned of WWOOF when chatting with Nate and Victoria Weber of the Libertine about their time spent on an Oregon goat farm. During a conversation with Urban Chestnut's (4465 Manchester Avenue; 314-222-0143) chef Andy Fair, WWOOF came up again. Fair was more than willing to tell me all about the funny-sounding organization -- and wax poetically about his time on a Tuscan vineyard.
WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that connects wouldbe volunteers with opportunities to work all over the world. As Fair explains, it can be as simple as a means to travel inexpensively and learn some things along the way, or it can be a chance to dig in and learn anything from cheesemaking to viticulture.
All that is required of a WWOOF volunteer is that he or she works a minimum of 30 hours a week for two weeks. In exchange, WWOOFers get room, board and a small meal stipend.
Fair's WWOOF experience led him to Tuscany -- specifically, a small town named San Miniato between Florence and Pisa. He spent a year on a bio-dynamic vineyard, learning everything there is to know about winemaking. "I was there the entire season, so I saw the entire cycle. I did everything, from tending the vines, to managing the grapes to processing," he says. "I was also there for the olive harvest. I was just a farm hand, but they treated me like family."
In his downtime, Fair soaked up all he could about Italian cooking ("I sneak it in at Urban Chestnut every now and then," he says). I asked what impressed him the most, and he does not hesitate. "They just care so much about everything they put into their bodies," he says. "You go to a grocery store and grab and espresso, and it's the best espresso you've ever had. I've had great meals at gas stations. They just take food very seriously."
Some of Fair's best memories of his time as a WWOOFer in Tuscany are the huge barbecues he and his colleagues would have in the middle of the field. "The guy who drove the tractor on the vineyard welded together this huge grill that had wheels. We'd wheel it out into the field and grill everything you can think of: pork belly, liver, heart, pork ribs, beef short ribs. We don't grill short ribs in the States, but it's fantastic." One of the things that "blew his mind," was that the Italians eat raw sausage. "They would throw crusty bread directly on the coals -- that's where the term bruschetta comes from -- and they would spread it with raw sausage," Fair recalls. "I remember thinking 'Don't do it!' It went against everything I know. The thing is, they know where everything they make comes from, so it was fine. It was amazing."
He hopes to inspire someone who may be considering doing something like WWOOF to take the chance. "It's really easy to do. You just go to the website, send in a photo and an application, and you get your card," he explains. "Once you get that, you can find a place almost anywhere."
"Some people just use WWOOF as a way to travel, and that's fine, but if you really want to get the most out of it, it's best to totally immerse yourself somewhere," Fair says. "Whatever your reason, though, just do it. It's life changing."