running la faula
To describe what 2013 was like for Luca at La Faula, requires a little background. La Faula was Luca’s dad’s hobby farm. As a child Luca lived some years at La Faula with his family but then they moved to Udine. As a teenager, Luca spent a number of summers on a farm in Herefordshire to improve his English and he eventually studied and graduated from the University of Stirling in Scotland. He then decided to stay in the United Kingdom which he found preferable to the chaotic and non meritocratic nature of Italy. It is true to say that if Luca had not met me he would most probably still be living in the UK.
Following the Second World War, Italy embarked on a consumption led rave fed by Marshall fund monies, financial support during the cold war by both the United States and Soviet Union, wholesale printing of the Lira, multiple devaluations of the Lira and, ultimately, borrowed money. Silvio Berlusconi was wholly accurate when he said that in countries with a lower public debt than Italy most of the debt was held by private citizens whereas in Italy, where private debt was historically low and savings and wealth high, the debt was held by the State. Effectively the citizens had the cash and the State held the debt that represented that cash. The Italian “festa” reached its peak in the 1980’s. Waves of strikes allowed workers to appropriate ever more of the (declining) wealth of the nation, businesses evaded taxes and exporters benefited from devaluations of the Lira. State workers didn’t work. Productivity was generally low. Disposable income was high. Working conditions were ever more generous. Of course the apotheosis of the good times in Italy was also the inflection point into decline but to Anglo Saxons who had suffered the disorienting and sometimes wrenching economic restructuring represented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan it seemed as if Italians had discovered the secret of the perpetual perfect life. And not only the perfect life but in an undeniably beautiful country with a great climate, a riveting history and delicious cuisine. It naturally followed that there were in the 1990’s an explosion of books such as “Under the Tuscan Sun”, “Italian Neighbours” etc. in which english speaking people recounted the wonderful adventures of inserting themselves into and sharing this Italian reality in which the foibles of the Italians were presented as charming and attractively exotic!
So it was that when Luca’s dad, who was coming up to retirement, asked Luca and his sister, who was married and living in Spain, whether they wanted to do anything with La Faula they both said no but I said to Luca “you must be nuts. Your dad is offering to give you a farmhouse with vineyard in a beautiful corner of Italy and you’re going to turn it down.” And Luca said “Look, you don’t know what Italy is like. You don’t know what the people are like. It’s not a country to live in. To go there would be a big mistake”. But I’m a pushy so-and-so and my idea that we should go to La Faula and see what we could do there prevailed and we went.
It is true to say that the Italian way of being which includes slyness, mendacity, corruption, influence peddling, nepotism (obviously), obfuscation, gratuitous desire to see others done down, malice and envy amongst other things impacts profoundly on Luca in a way that it doesn’t on myself, a foreigner who sees the Italians as another (and stranger) people. But Luca loves the outdoors, the countryside, animals and birds, gardening and growing things so the agricultural side of La Faula was to his complete pleasure.
La Faula consists of two independent activities: grape growing and winemaking and hospitality. As for all businesses in Italy, at La Faula Luca and I may only undertake those activities for which we are licensed and overarching our particular licences are the rules applicable to our type of business imposed by national and regional laws. When the Agriturismo sector was being developed in Italy, it was strongly resisted by the hotel sector which saw Agriturismi as a competitive threat. To hobble Agriturismi and blunt their threat to hotels, it was decided that Agricultural tourism would be a secondary activity to agriculture and so the majority of the earnings of a farm containing an agriturismo must come from Agriculture and the time invested in hospitality must always be less than the time invested in farming. Failure to respect these rules risks fines, declassification as a farm and suspension or cancellation of the business’s licence.
The problem facing Agriturismi is that the rigidity of the regulatory matrix conflicts with economic and factual reality. In Italy, the high costs of production, labour and bureaucratic compliance in a globally competitive market is forcing wineries to grow, increase production and constantly improve their quality. Growing good grapes, making great wine and then selling it is a laborious and capital intensive business that requires high levels of agricultural and oenological skills, constant positive cash flow and a dedication and commitment that is more than full time. Likewise, offering hospitality that is more than just holiday bungalows, requires accommodation stock of the highest quality, cooking skills, computer and internet skills, cutting edge organisation, long hours and dedication to keeping guests happy and satisfied.
When we came to La Faula I felt that Luca and I had no advantages at all in the winemaking business and so we should focus on hospitality where our lack of experience was less of a disadvantage and where the combination of our experience and language skills and the striking beauty of La Faula would give us a competitive advantage in the market. My idea was to create a kind of charm hotel in the Italian countryside of the type that I had stayed in in France. Of course this was not to be as the land of La Faula was zoned exclusively for farming and there was no concept in Friuli of hotels in the countryside and so there was no law which would allow such an activity to take place using farm buildings on farmland. What there was, however, was a new law creating Agriturismi which allowed for derogations from the laws and restrictions regarding zoning and land and buildings use. An Agriturismo licence allowed farm buildings to be used for accommodation and the cooking and serving of food therein and so there was no other choice than to become an Agriturismo.
The problem that La Faula faces is that both the Agriturismo and the winery, as they develop, are requiring increased dedication of time and constant improvement but because of the way the law and our licence are structured we are unable to reduce the amount of vineyard we have, which would be the logical thing to do, to more manageable levels. Thus, we find ourselves with more vineyard than we want or need but, notwithstanding this, when we grow grapes they still have to be good and improving and when we make wine it still has to be good and improving - and saleable - and the Agriturismo must offer guests an exceptional experience without exception. The heaviest burden falls on Luca, who principally follows the vineyard at La Faula, as the vineyard requires a massive dedication of time and resources in Spring-Summer and this is the time that the Agriturismo is also at its peak.
So 2013 was for Luca a wonderful year because he had a partial respite in the vineyard. One of our neighbours needed top quality grapes for his top quality wines. He agreed with Luca that he would harvest the 2013 grapes but he wanted to be sure that the grapes were up to his standards so he undertook all the vineyard work except for spraying the grapes with copper sulphate which Luca did with our bulldozer. For the first time in years Luca was able to enjoy the summer in the Agriturismo without the pressure of summer pruning of the vines, cutting of the grass in the vineyard and on the banks, plucking the leaves from around the bunches of grapes and the numerous other jobs that a vineyard requires during its growing season.
in a quiet moment, Todd gets his birthday cake!
Maritza’s sister’s daughters first communion celebration (Maritza cleans and maintains the rooms at La Faula).
So far in my review of 2013 at La Faula, I have considered the volunteers and the guests. So this leaves, to visit, the dogs, Luca, Maritza, the lady who does the cleaning and, finally, but probably most decisively, Italy in whose web of structures, permissions, prohibitions and taxes, La Faula is permitted to operate.
I am writing this in the “fogolar” room, the small room that was formerly dedicated to an open hearth for cooking and heating surmounted by a large decorated hood into which the smoke rose and exited through a chimney at the top. The “fogolar” while subject to much romantic Friulano folklore, was the miserable way to harness fire by a poor and metal-scarce people. Old people who experienced the fogolar as children have only disagreeable memories of smoke and soot. Luca and I also had long experience of the fogolar, which we would, in shared moments with friends, light and sit beside. Smoky rooms, smoky clothes, doors and windows open on freezing nights were inevitably the result so last year we inserted a fine Jotul wood stove that permits me to sit beside a crackling fire with the head of Annie the border collie on my lap.
When Luca and I arrived at La Faula we determined that having dogs would be a part of our experience here. First, we had the large white maremmano dogs, Minnie, Barty and Spotty. When they got older we got the border collies, Nellie and Hector and although Nellie is dead we live with three of her and Hector’s offspring: Anna, Fritz and Rett. It is all too easy to anthropomorphize the dogs we live with and see in them traits that we identify with as humans. But I think that at La Faula we see things differently. It all started with the maremmano dogs. This breed of dog, that is the same as the Pyrenean sheep dog, is one of the original European sheepdogs. In Italy they were used to protect sheep from the wolves. In central Italy humans have always coexisted with wolves and they still do. Shepherds were poor and before the early 20th century, without rifles or shotguns. In the face of a wolf attack the shepherd could do little but retreat to a hut leaving the maremmano dogs to defend the sheep and drive off the wolves. Thus maremmani dogs were selected for their reliability and capacity to act independently of their human master. They are amazing dogs because they only recognise a pack hierarchy consisting of other maremmano dogs. Human beings, are never their masters, but can be their equals if the humans are respected.
We didn’t know all this when we got Minerva, our first maremmano dog, and mother, eventually, to Spotty and Barty. We wanted a maremmano because we had seen these great, white dogs with the sheep during holidays in the Apennine mountains of central Italy. We got Minerva and while she was just out of being a puppy she sliced off the top of the ear of my young niece who had just seconds before arrived to visit us for Christmas with her parents, my cousin and his wife. I think that it was our second year at La Faula, we were remaking the kitchen, everything was dusty with masonry dust and disorganised and my poor niece was in the pediatric ward after having the top of her ear (cleaned of masonry dust) reattached by a specialist surgeon. Then there was the wait of 10 or so days to see if the ear had taken (it did, luckily), the notification by the hospital of the dog attack to the local public veterinary service, holding the dog in quarantine in case she had rabies and deciding if the dog was a menace needing to be destroyed. It wasn’t a very good start to the dogs at La Faula!
In the end the dog wasn’t destroyed because she was eating her dinner when in the confusion of the family’s arrival the child approached her. She hadn’t bitten my niece but had spun her head around with her mouth open and a sharp tooth had cut clean through the soft tissue at the top of the ear. At this point we didn’t have the Agriturismo but had a little winery bar where we sold wine by the glass to the locals. We loved Minerva, the dog, and realised that we would have to get a grip on the situation. Reading about these dogs, I understood that Minerva would not automatically defer to me as a kind of top dog but that I would have to engender respect in her and make her understand that certain behaviour, such as biting was a no-no! When one is younger, everything seems possible and that with will one’s ends can be achieved. I set about training Minerva to accept that if she let someone remove a wonderful, cooked, pigs trotter from her bowl she would get it back plus a treat for her good behaviour. With strength of force, I made the dog understand that I would not defer to her, that I would be persistent and unremitting and that aggression would not be accepted. I taught her that she had not to fear but to accept sudden movements and being manhandled. It did take time. As I write this I remember that the very first thing that I had to do was make her obey me and this involved getting her to come when she was called. At the beginning, coming to me when I called her was considered a complete optional by Minerva and so the two of us spent hours where I would call her, she would stay placidly sitting, then eventually I would pick up her 65 kilos and carry her to where I had been standing. It was only when Minerva accepted that her impassivity would not win-out that she began to respond to me and to my commands.
And so it was that our relationship with our first dog, Minerva, developed into one where the dog had to respect certain rules but was otherwise a free member of the La Faula team. This was crucial to keeping a rustic dog, bred for open spaces, in an environment with lots of people coming and going. Minerva, who died of old age, never harmed another person and she gave birth to the wonderful dogs, Spotty and Barty who were an integral part of La Faula, the Agriturismo, for the first 12 or so years.
As the Maremmano dogs aged we started thinking about succession and realised that we were getting older and having 65 kilo dogs wasn’t such a good idea, especially when they had to be taken to the vets or looked after when ill. So we got Nellie the border collie, and then some time after, her mate, Hector. Nellie had five puppies and we kept three of them: Anna, Fritz and Rett. Border collies, of course, are a completely different kind of dog to the Maremmano. Border collies come genetically primed to be trained and are ready to take instructions from their master. But the same training regime applied. The dogs had to be trustworthy even when out of our sight. By the time we had the border collies we had many families with small children at La Faula and so we had to be sure that the dogs would not bite. As the border collies are small and can be victims of cruel or thoughtless behaviour on the part of children, we encouraged them to show aggression by snarling and showing their teeth when they were being harassed but again biting was a no-no and it proved quite easy to train them to move away from situations that were bad for them.
So it is that the dogs of La Faula are dogs and not people. But they are a key part of the La Faula team. We only see them occasionally during the day when the Agriturismo is in full swing as they pass their time with the guests. Many guests bring the dogs little treats so Anna, Fritz and Rett associate people staying at La Faula with food, caresses and, sometimes, kisses (the big test as to a dog’s trustworthiness).
In 2013 the four dogs that we have fulfilled their function of Faula canine hosts in fine form. They were friendly, played with the kids and showed loyalty to those who return and who they now recognise as friends. It couldn’t have been any better.
To be continued!
a falcon sits on a cypress tree at La Faula!
I wrote at the beginning of my review of 2013 at La Faula, that what makes La Faula are the place, the volunteers, the guests, the dogs and Luca and myself. With the volunteers of 2013 we couldn’t have been luckier. And also with the guests.
We started the Agriturismo season, as ever, with Nichole and Nello from France. They have been coming to La Faula every spring and autumn since the year 2000. We commence every season of the Agriturismo with them and we close every season with them likewise. Of course, over the years we have become friends and we have shared life’s ups and downs together. They are older than us and we have learnt from them the undeniably positive message that it is possible, even as one ages, to stay alert and interested and to find interest in the lives of others. From this springs empathy. And we have benefitted from their experience and wisdom as they have illuminated, from their own experience, some of the twists and turns that probably will await us as we proceed down the road of life!
In fact, as we look back, for Luca and I began this Agriturismo in 2000, we realise just how much we owe people who came to stay at La Faula and who gave us more than we could have hoped to have been given. The guests who showed patience, forbearance and humour at the beginning of the Agriturismo’s life when we we utterly overwhelmed by the enormity of running a small hotel, and a vineyard, and tending cattle and making wine. There was a period when running the La Faula kitchen followed on from a day of Luca and I working in the vineyard. Guests knew where dinner was going to be served but never when! Here I must mention a time when the first course was eventually served at 9.30 p.m. but we found the guests at their tables hilariously drunk at they had imbibed freely of the wine while they waited! Another time when a group of guests went for a long walk and found themselves followed by our then young maremmani dogs Minnie, Spotty and Barty. As part of the walk was along a road, the men in the group removed their belts to make improvised leashes! As I write this I think of so many wonderful guests and times that we have shared with them. The great rabbit escape comes to mind when Luca’s rabbits escaped and Corbinian and Johanna tracked them down and caught them all over the garden and put them back in the cage only for them to escape again through an almost imperceptible hole. There are so many, from the guest who designed the images of the dogs we use on the aprons and table mats to Franca, a girl from Wiesbaden who sends the dogs a Christmas package and a card that remembers those dogs who have passed on.
Having a place like La Faula, it is very hard to be cynical about human nature when we see, every year, so many wonderful and generous spirited people. People who have patiently tolerated our experiments in ways of managing and operating La Faula. People with small businesses of their own who have shared their own experiences with us and allowed us to attain strength through the commonality of shared experiences. Guests who have told us what we could change and improve. It is true to say that La Faula as it is today carries the hue of the people who have stayed in it!
And so it was that 2013 saw a wonderful collection of La Faula guests. As I have written, during the wet spring, everyone made the most of what there was and this positivity lifted the place up and in some way made the stay worthwhile even though the sun was hiding! And then the perfect Italian summer arrived and the openness and friendliness of the couples and families staying at La Faula made something that was intrinsically pretty good even better. Luca and I work like dogs at La Faula. But when things are going well La Faula is a little bit of paradise. And to call a bit of paradise, even a little bit, home, is great fortune indeed! So for those of you who are reading this because you have stayed at La Faula: Thank You!