I remember Sara Olocco’s phone call while I was sitting on the white couch in my Belleville apartment and the outside world was on a full lockdown: “Violi, I’m coming back to Italy, to my place in Sommariva del Bosco. Let’s catch up soon”. I knew something amazing was about to happen, and I knew Sara kept her word. We didn’t know each other well but we both worked in the food and wine industry in New York and shared common values. She was a Sommelier at a very renowned Brooklyn wine bar and later at a famous Manhattan Italian restaurant, I worked in the city’s main food & wine PR agency. We are both former expats who had to move to far places at a young age to understand what it is home, and found each other again when we both moved back to Italy.
Last summer she took care of her family’s farmhouse and found therapy in the hours spent working the vegetable garden that had been abandoned for over a decade. She started waking up around 5:30 am like her father, who produces poplars in the Roero area. In the blink of an eye, she found herself transplanted from one of the most dynamic cities in the world to the place where everything started: home. By going back to her roots, she allowed herself to realize what she had been missing and add her own experiences abroad to the local culture.
This choice and approach became Braja Farm. In the Piedmontese dialect, Braja means “to scream”, “to shout”. Originally the farm was the humblest area of estates which belonged to the noble family of Sommariva del Bosco, a small village at the door of the Roero. Sara made a screaming statement: “the land stands tall! I give value to farmers and to their tiring work that is so noble and high and that gives back such amazing results”. Maybe the Braja statement was already within her, but she was able to connect the dots when she found herself at the end of this circle: she left to come back in the best possible way. Today, every part of the experience retraces her places: it’s her childhood in Piedmont with an accent of her Sicilian roots, her passion for Middle Eastern cuisine with a touch of Brooklyn, where we met and we both lived. From the fennel to the tomato of Salina, to the pak choi and the multicolored carrots of New York cuisine, Braja and its vegetable garden are Sara’s own canvas, where she was able to give some space to other producers. Sara created a pantry, a Farmer’s Box, and made it a worldwide shipment service… pushing the project to a more “glocal” level.
Last September Sara and a team of 5 Italian specialists, including myself, started to brainstorm behind-the-scenes, thinking of what Braja would be: a 360 degree project dedicated to those who love to know and understand what they eat and drink, celebrate farmers, wine producers and artisans who share essential values such as biodiversity, environmental awareness, sustainability and small production. Almost all of us live or have lived abroad and are very aware of the importance of being able to bring back the good of our experiences in order to improve the quality of life here in Italy. The products at Braja come both from the farm’s garden, and from adjacent young agricultural and wine producers. At Braja, every agricultural history finds voice and space. The products bear witness to this, all full of precious cultural and gastronomic values, courageous and resilient stories. Every time I go to Braja, I take the experience as field research to learn more Italian native varieties – something Sara is really passionate about – and about the practices of the producers she works with. The values of the farm are entrenched with Sara’s knowledge and lifestyle, and every gesture, explanation and transparency on new ideas for the menu and on new niche wines for Braja’s cellar and for the pantry are the result of a research with a hint of good instinct.
Braja’s experimental vegetable garden, in-house aperitivi and other initiatives, such as Masterclasses & Wine Tastings, Sara’s work during her several years abroad, are replanted at a place of her own. Endless collaborations with special guests to host the experiences, or partnerships with institutions such as Cheese, the international biennial festival organized by Slow Food and dedicated to animal health and Italian cheeses, can be found at Braja.
There are plenty of lockdown stories that became admirable examples of resilience. Sara’s story resonated with me, not only because I know her, but because we have lived the same feelings and both decided to invest in Italy, a home we both left and found again in a brand new light. A place where we feel we are able to see uniqueness when it comes to culture, terroir and opportunities. When I think about Braja, Alice Walker’s quote from “The Color Purple” comes to my mind: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” I don’t know who we might piss off, what I know is that today, more than ever, we should look for beauty: the beauty of a blind piece of land that doesn’t care if it has been abandoned. It keeps giving back its fruits, and we receive the beauty of seeing the pieces of a project coming together after making big sacrifices, sleepless nights and early morning alarms. This is why, Braja is not just a farm, a pantry or a vegetable garden. It’s an extraordinary experience, a precious and authentic hymn to slow living, founded and managed by one of the most passionate and enterprising young female entrepreneurs. If Land Stands Tall, Sara’s positive mindset stands taller!