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San Clemente farmstay (plus, bonus queso fresco!)

We arrived at our farmstay - a small dairy farm outside of San Clemente - almost 10 days ago, and life has changed considerably from the polluted cacaphony of Santiago. Tiny one-lane dirt roads, lined with little family farms with cornfields, orchards, vineyards, cows, horses, chickens and sleeping dogs. We've a small room with a friendly family (Sergio, Pachy, Sofia and Ignacio); organic cheesemakers who've hosted plenty of volunteers, but seem to appreciate our farm skills and Piia's cheesemaking experience. Too, the amount of English they speak is perfect (just enough to get the most important points across), and it feels like we're learning steadily.

We split our time working between our host family and Gabriel, the hired farmer next door. He's slowly warmed to us (we think - he's a man of few words, and those few mostly indecipherable to us so far).

Mornings and evenings we bring in the seven cows (and five rambunctious calves) for milking, and days are spent cleaning the cheese plant, helping around the house, and learning how to make queso fresco (see below). Piia's teaching, too - the first batch of San Clemente halloumi is currently underway, and we're leaving behind carefully- translated instructions for making it, in case it catches on.

It's a Mediterranean kind of place here - dry and sunny plains, with little mountains in the west, and big Andes dominating the eastern horizon. Water arrives from the Andean side in a multitude of little canals, ditches, aqueducts, hoses and tubes, and turns what would be a dustbowl into one giant garden. The simplest irrigation system - inundation - involves a central aqueduct with little dead-end spurs at the top of each pasture. When a pasture gets dry, Gabriel shovels open the small earth dam at the end of the spur, and water seeps into the pasture for a day or two. It looks fun - like the little dams and rivulets kids make in the slush in early spring.

Life here's slow, in a way we're enjoying. Hot afternoons are a good time to take a break and talk with Sergio about life in Chile and life in Canada and Finland. Old campesinos in wide, flat-brimmed hats clop down the road on horseback or in carts. Every afternoon at 4:45, a man with a van full of bread (and, we've discovered, a secret stash of donuts) drives slowly down the dirt road, announcing his wares through a slowly-dying loudspeaker. We've taken to calling him the Pan Van Man. The boy next door runs over for high-fives and a hug (Tia! Tio!), then gets us to play the make-animal-noises game again. We're enjoying simple food - bread, cheese, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, fresh greens, roast chicken, instant coffee (okay, maybe not that - Chilean Nescafe is the worst). We're eating a lot less sugar than back home (except for the donuts), but not really missing it.

We found this place via, a website that links up potential volunteers with hosts that have various kinds of work they need doing, with the idea that a few hours of work would be traded for room and board. The theory sounded appealing - we were both keen for the combination of immersion and useful work - but neither of us knew just how it would turn out in reality. It's turned out more or less perfectly - Sergio and family are helpful, inquisitive and easy to get along with, and living here with them's been easier than we'd expected. Too, the amount of work is just right; there's always something useful and interesting to do, but without pressure to work until we drop (and indeed, I think we're doing more than is expected, which is fine, too). It's been really relaxing. We've also realized that it's the first time in a very long while that we've simply stopped using and thinking about money - we get up, do some work, eat with the family, talk and plan for the next day, and go to bed - a refreshingly simple way to be for a while. We'd do this kind of thing again.

We'd be remiss in talking about our time here without mentioning the plums. Trees around here are drippingly laden with tiny, jewel-like red and yellow plums that are far and away the best we've ever had (and might just be the best thing we've eaten so far on the trip - we'll keep a running tally of this, I expect).

We'll finish here soon, and begin the next phase of our trip - hiking the Greater Patagonia Trail. For now, though, we'll go and pick a few more plums, for the road.

Ciruelitas siempres!

Bonus - Making Chilean Queso Fresco (fresh cheese)

Sergio's farm, El Alba, produces delicious Chilean fresh cheese - a style that's hard to find in North America or Finland. It's cheese too soft to slice with a cheese slicer but too hard to spread with a knife. We eat slices of it with every meal with bread or just as a side dish. We were both excited to be part of the whole process of making this cheese, even once just by ourselves.

It starts with milking the cows and getting the milk back to the house and in the freezer. Every other day the collected milk is poured into a 150 l cheese maker and first pasteurized (because otherwise in Chile you can't sell the product). After adding the rennet, an enzyme that separates whey from the curds, the cheese rests and we have lunch.

To check if the big milk curd is ready you can press you hand gently on the surface; if your handprint stays and no milk is seen on your hand, it's usually ready. You can also check whether the curd separates from the container, and if it's strong enough to hold a matchstick upright. For cutting we used two grates (one vertical, one horizontal) to make little cubes of curd. Since the curds are very fragile, and break in your hands, great caution must be taken while stirring them. Luckily, they get stronger the more you stir and you can speed up, and also put your hands in.

Lastly you remove the whey and collect the curds into molds and let them rest overnight in a fridge. The next day you turn them and later that day, el queso está listo!

The last stage, of course, is to sell the cheese - in this case, immediately after setting up shop on the side of the road, to a minibus full of workers returning home from dam construction in the mountains nearby.

More correctly, as Sergio points out pragmatically, the last stage is not passing out the cheese, but in getting the money in return (and this cheese is sold cheap!).

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