Pamela Sheldon Johns lives at Poggio Etrusco, an organic farm and bed & breakfast in southern Tuscany, and produces an extra-virgin olive oil called “Pace da Poggio Etrusco.” Pamela’s small artisanal olive oil production represents and gives credibility to what she says and does, “… making a high-quality organic extra-virgin olive oil from 800 trees with 5 traditional Tuscan cultivars: leccino, moraiolo, correggiolo, frantoiana, and pendolino”. In early November, nets are spread under the trees, baskets tied around the waists, and each olive is handpicked. No rakes, no bruising machines beating the trees, just healthy olives that make an oil that is extremely fresh.
Manual olive harvest at Poggio Etrusco in Montepulciano, Tuscany.
Pamela is the author of seventeen cookbooks specializing in Italian traditional and regional ingredients and she is a formidable and knowledgeable cook. From her farm in Montepulciano, she teaches and preaches quintessential Tuscan foodways to a wide range of clients from school teachers, computer techs, and accountants to some “Hollywood figures” and professional chefs like Bryan Voltaggio, and Evan Kleiman.
This is an extract from a short interview I had with Pamela in the last days.
Livio: Please tell us about your farm’s visitors and client base?
Pamela: Our clients are our guests from all over the world who stay at our agriturismo and, in late October, often participate in the olive harvest in our Tree-to-Table workshop. We also ship in the few months after the harvest when the weather is still cool. I am grateful that we already have a system of shipping the oil, as I don’t expect many guests until next year.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
P: I was in Venezia for Carnevale when the news of numerous cases started breaking, and when I got home on Feb 24th, there was still a lot we didn’t know. A few days after I got back we went to an inauguration of a friend’s new winery. I posted photos on Facebook, saying, Do you think we’re all holed up in our houses? No way!
I have since eaten those words several times over. As soon as I understood the situation and the fact that I had been in the red zone, I self-quarantined for two weeks. Then everyone got locked down.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
P: Let me say first that I and my husband Johnny feel lucky to be on our farm as there are places worse than Poggio Etrusco to be quarantined! We have fresh air and our fields to work and walk in. Since we can’t hire anyone this year, all the fieldwork is up to us, actually work I love and never get to do. We won’t fertilize this year, and will only manage to do one pruning, but the trees are strong and healthy. Our current effort has been hanging bottles in each tree with an organic formula of protein to attract the fly that has been plaguing the olives since 2014.
Pamela in her kitchen reign getting ready for a cooking class…
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
P: We have been through several crises that have stopped tourism in our 20 years here; the first was 9/11, then Mad Cow disease, followed by the 2003 US intervention in Iraq, the economic crisis in 2008. We’ve had floods, droughts, insects… we should be experts at this by now. But this is different. We are looking at a year without income. We are currently waiting to hear from our bank regarding a government-guaranteed low-interest loan. This should pay the basic expenses of the business until we start having clients again.
The olive oil is our only commodity right now… that, and writing so, in the meantime, I’m filling my indoor time with working on some articles to submit, cooking, and trying to find time to create a little online shop with some of our specialties and my husband Johnny Johns’ artwork to help sustain us and keep our daughter in university in Rome.
L: What do you foresee in the future?
P: I think that andrá tutto bene, everything will be OK. It might just take a while longer.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
P: I weep every day over the number of deaths in our tiny country, but accept the gifts that have come to me as a result… pondering that this could be a kind of global reset where we think about priorities, family relationships, the environment, and the meaning of money…the possibility of resetting the entire picture. I needed this filter. And the time to work it out. Perhaps we can come out of this with more peace, self-sustainability, and a less frenetic run to ‘do it all’.
Pamela and her magic food tools and products during one of her’s training session…
L: What have you learned from this experience?
P: Never deny in any way and for any reason who you are and what you have chosen to be. The first few weeks of the quarantine were a daze, the slow realization that we would be without guests for a full year. What would we need to keep our farm/inn/cooking school on her feet for a year with no income? How would we pay the mortgage? So I started looking where I could cut back. We live so simply, there wasn’t much fat to cut. I decided that one big expense had to go… my organic certification. I thought about it over and over, I tried to convince myself why I didn’t need it, and finally, without other recourse I submitted my cancellation. That night I didn’t sleep. I woke up, crying, with the realization of how much that certification meant to me. It was fundamental to my identity. The loss was tangible. The next morning was full of regrets. Even if my farming practices would not change, how could I continue to teach and preach organic if I, myself, was not certified? How could I just stop doing something I have done and loved for 17 years? I called and asked to cancel my cancellation. “You can’t,” I was told, “it’s in the system.” The formal document of withdrawal came in the mail. The blow was hard. I made more calls, left messages. Everyone was working from home on limited hours. I knew that the longer this took to resolve, the less likely I could find a way back in where I left off. Depression set in… until, finally, I got in touch with someone who said they would look into it. The next day, I got word that I could reinstate my certification. I was whole again.
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
P: I will tell you that we are very proud of our proactive government and hard-working healthcare, grateful that they have this system in place, and humbled by the kindness and generosity of our neighbors. We have two deliveries a week, one from an organic farmer and one from our friends at Podere il Casale in Pienza who produce organic sheep and goat cheeses. There is a strong sense of community, even in this isolation. Our government has been amazing, is helping people who don’t have food, and many initiatives to support financial losses to the working class.
Pamela’s husband Johnny receiving organic produce delivery.
Pamela’s country style free ranged grille chicken and vegetables with herbs.
L: Finally please nominate or suggest a person that you would like to see us interview.
P: Massimo Spigaroli, Antica Corte Pallavicina
Luciano Catellani, Antica Corte delle Vacche Rosse
Filippo Drago, Mulini del Ponte
Michele Manelli, Salcheto