FARM & AWAY

Ju­dith Elen de­lights in the age-old rus­tic del­i­ca­cies of Italy’s re­mote and moun­tain­ous Abruzzo re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

AGRI­T­UR­ISMO is a cum­ber­some word for an in­spired idea. The gov­ern­ment plan is to keep Ital­ian fam­i­lies on the land, to sup­port tra­di­tional farms and stim­u­late re­gional cof­fers; it is also great for trav­ellers. Tax breaks sub­sidise work­ing farms to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion, some­times just two or three rooms. And there are strict pro­vi­sos: agri­cul­ture — cul­ti­vat­ing pro­duce, rais­ing an­i­mals — must re­main the farm’s pri­mary source of in­come; food served is largely pro­duced on the prop­erty and age-old meth­ods are main­tained.

The al­most in­ci­den­tal ef­fect is to give vis­i­tors easy ac­cess to Italy’s her­itage, and re­gional food, pro­duced and pre­pared lo­cally, is at the core of rural tra­di­tion here.

The per­fect spot to dis­cover the undis­cov­ered is Abruzzo, about 250km east of Rome, where towns are so­phis­ti­cated but move gen­tly and the rural past, some­times trace­able to the Ro­mans, is still firmly en­trenched.

This cen­tral Ital­ian re­gion ex­tends from the Adri­atic in the di­rec­tion of Rome. It en­com­passes the rugged Apen­nine Moun­tains, giv­ing it an air of in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Never in­un­dated with tourists, in or out of sea­son, its re­mote­ness keeps it pure.

Ital­ians think of Abruzzo as the green heart of the coun­try, not be­cause it’s lush and soft in the English way but be­cause it has vast tracts of un­touched na­tional park­land where even a few brown bears and wolves are still hold­ing out. Driv­ing the roads and visit­ing the towns of the re­gion, many of them me­dieval set­tle­ments cling­ing to rocky out­crops, I en­counter no road­side signs, no su­per­mar­kets, no dis­tract­ing ad­ver­tis­ing.

Abruzzese food — sheep’s milk pecorino cheese, fresh ri­cotta, home-cured hams, lush green veg­eta­bles and the sweet­est toma­toes I have tasted for years — are al­lur­ingly ac­ces­si­ble in the restau­rants and mar­kets of the towns. And the agri­t­ur­ismo farm­houses and vine­yards, as well as pro­vid­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, op­er­ate rus­tic restau­rants where vis­i­tors can sam­ple the spe­cial­ties, taste re­gional wines and olive oils, and even par­tic­i­pate in cook­ing classes.

Vine­yards and olive groves (more than 400,000 trees grow here) clothe the slopes, in­ter­spersed with grey lime­stone crags and shel­tered by the Apen­nine peaks on the near hori­zon. Sheep are the an­cient flocks of the land and shep­herds still drive them on their time-worn, sea­sonal trails. Goats travel with them, and many fam­i­lies raise their own pigs for the prosci­ut­tos and salamis that are hand­cured ev­ery­where. And, edg­ing the Adri­atic, Abruzzo also loves seafood.

Th­ese are the sta­ples, but saf­fron, grown here, ap­pears of­ten, as do dried chillis (the chilli tide­line starts around here, an in­flu­ence that in­creases as you move south).

I am in Abruzzo on an or­gan­ised tour that in­cludes vis­its to sev­eral agri­t­ur­ismo restau­rants and a farm­house stay. Our first stop is at Za’ Culetta di Ranieri Roberto (con­trada da Novella 1, Rocca S. Gio­vanni; +39 08 7262 0506), in the coun­try­side near the pro­vin­cial town of Lan­ciano.

Za’ Culetta, a com­mer­cial vine­yard with a farm­house restau­rant and a cou­ple of rooms to let, is an azienda agri­t­ur­is­tica ( agri­t­ur­ismo and azienda agri­t­ur­is­tica seem in­ter­change­able). We’re here for lunch along with a room full of lo­cals, fam­i­lies of all ages set­tling in for a long Sun­day af­ter­noon.

Za’ Culetta ma­tri­arch Lu­cia Ranieri is in the kitchen and her daugh­ter and son-in-law, Ni­co­letta and Roberto, wait ta­bles. We sit at a long ta­ble, in the rus­tic tra­di­tion, and Roberto brings us our primo, Lu­cia’s gnoc­chi­etti — lit­er­ally, ‘‘ dug out’’, small hand­made pasta made with the fin­gers — tossed with fresh green veg­eta­bles (ca­vatelli con le ver­dure). It looks and tastes like a bowl of spring­time, though it will soon be win­ter and the first snow fell last night on Gran Sasso, the Apen­nines’ high­est peak.

Our se­condo is a de­gus­ta­tion course ( de­gus­tazione e stuzzi­chini vari ). Ten­der, ro­bust pro­sciutto, which turns out to be a sta­ple of ev­ery meal we eat, is air-dried at the vine­yard, as it fre­quently is in the places we visit. Abruzzese spe­cial­ties: small rolled balls of cheese and bread­crumbs cooked in fresh tomato sauce, and tiny, fin­ger-sized zuc­chini filled with cheese and baked, melt on our tongues. We sip fra­grant lo­cal treb­biano and vel­vety mon­tepul­ciano wines and fin­ish with sea­sonal fruit.

There is a brochure in Ital­ian and English ex­plain­ing the Ranieri fam­ily’s ac­com­mo­da­tion: it ‘‘ of­fers both the op­por­tu­nity of ob­serv­ing and tak­ing part to the rural life’’ (par­tic­i­pa­tion in farm ac­tiv­i­ties at the olive and grape har­vests).

As the days pass, we eat vari­a­tions on the Abruzzese cui­sine, al­ways fo­cused on the sta­ples but each meal dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

At L’Enos­te­ria di Fat­to­ria Licia, on 12ha of treb­biano, mon­tepul­ciano and chardon­nay vine­yards near the River Foro at Vil­la­m­agna (via Val Di Foro, www.fat­to­ri­ali­cia.it.), we savour an­other long-ta­ble lunch, but here there is a small cor­ner room serv­ing as a shop. There are spices, in­clud­ing lo­cal saf­fron, oils, wines, ter­ra­cotta cook­ing pots, dried pasta, and chit­tara for sale.

I buy a chit­tara and later learn how to use it. It is a tra­di­tional wood frame, stringed (like an an­cient gui­tar) pasta maker.

Amalia and An­to­nio Vil­lani are oil pro­duc­ers, and their azienda agri­t­ur­is­tica , Il Vec­chio Moro at Tor­ri­cella Peligna (stazzo dei Cavalli, mo­bile +39 38 9672 7320), over­looks an­cient olive groves.

Here An­to­nio guides us through an in­struc­tive olive oil tast­ing, and we eat sop­pressa (pressed pork sausage the colour of dark blood), ven­tric­ina (sausage of pig in­tes­tine with chilli and fen­nel), and lonza (pork neck sausage). Fresh ri­cotta mixed with pow­dered saf­fron is driz­zled with lo­cal honey, one of the savoury dishes and surely in­her­ited from the Ro­mans, and fresh greens are cooked with grainy corn­meal. Then come plat­ters of lamb grilled over char­coal.

At Il Ca­so­lare di Finoc­chio Dea, in Loreto d’Aprutino (con­trada da Fio­rana 93, +39 08 5829 0263), af­ter an­tipasti, we eat lasagna with tomato sauce and bu­ca­tini with duck (bu­ca­tini all tresca­tora), a lo­cal dish tra­di­tion­ally made for the wheat har­vest in July, fol­lowed by owner Dea Finoc­chio’s ban­quet­wor­thy plat­ters of slow-roasted chicken, duck and rab­bit, pota­toes, gar­lic and rose­mary (free-range here does not mean out of a plas­tic pack).

Just when we think we’ve tri­umphed over an­other meal, plat­ters of sug­ary blush-pink peaches ar­rive on the ta­ble. They are round, peach-shaped sponge cakes soaked in liqueur and filled with cus­tard cream, dusted in sugar and im­pos­si­ble to re­sist.

With Abruzzo’s her­itage of sheep herd­ing, azienda agri­t­ur­is­tica Tho­los (con­trada Col­larso, Roc­camor­ice, www.agri­park­tho­los.it) makes a fi­nal mem­o­rable visit.

Gabriele Pavone and Maria Paola Mar­silii run ac­com­mo­da­tion and a restau­rant on the site of an an­cient shep­herds’ hut ( tho­los). Th­ese dry­s­tone shel­ters are scat­tered through the moun­tains, of­ten in ru­ins.

Here, an­tipasti — this time in­clud­ing pear and rocket salad, figs, frit­tata, chunks of lamb’s liver in a sauce, and baked spelt with veg­eta­bles — is fol­lowed by sheep’s milk ri­cotta can­nel­loni baked in a wood-fired oven and as fra­grant as a pizza, and lamb.

For cof­fee, we move to the white, bee­hive­like tho­los , where ta­bles have been set up in a square inside the dome. Dessert is par­rozzo abruzzese, an ap­pro­pri­ately dome-shaped cake of al­monds, semolina and lemon, cov­ered in dark choco­late.

We spend three nights at an agri­t­ur­ismo farm­house, the 17th-cen­tury Le Mag­no­lie (con­trada Fio­rano 83, Loreto d’Aprutino, www.le­mag­no­lie.com; down the road from Il Ca­so­lare), run for the past 12 years by Gabriella Di Minco and Mario Tortella.

The build­ings are ram­blingly aes­thetic and sur­rounded by flat farm­lands and the ev­er­p­re­sent moun­tains. Apart­ments dec­o­rated with rural an­tiques are self-cater­ing, but the kitchen din­ing room is the way to go. When we ar­rive, Di Minco’s mother, Olga Di Felice, is rolling pas­tries and the drain­ing board is piled with plump golden zuc­chini flow­ers, freshly picked.

Here we later learn how to use the chit­tara in a cook­ery class that is part of our tour and which in­volves danc­ing around the floury ta­ble ac­com­pa­nied by an ac­cor­dion­ist, singing in hon­our of tenor Lu­ciano Pavarotti, who has just died.

A cook­ing school is ex­pected to be up and run­ning at Le Mag­no­lie within the next 12 months. Mean­while, Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours is adding a ded­i­cated cook­ing pro­gram to its sched­ule in 2008, stay­ing at Le Mag­no­lie and in­clud­ing mar­ket vis­its with Di Felice and five lunch or din­ner cook­ing ses­sions. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours and At­las Travel Ser­vice.

Check­list

Abruzzo is about a 21/ hour drive from Rome, tak­ing the high­way. There are bus, rail and air con­nec­tions be­tween Rome and Pescara. Agri­t­ur­ismo vis­its are part of Aus­tralian-based Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours’ itin­er­ary; sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 13 and through­out 2008. Aus­tralian-based At­las Travel Ser­vice makes book­ings for Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours. www.ab­so­lutelyabruzzo.com www.at­las­travel.com.au www.agri­t­ur­ismo.abruzzo.it www.agri­t­ur­ist.it

Pic­tures: Ju­dith Elen

Fam­ily favourites: Dea Finoc­chio at Il Ca­so­lare, above; food stand at a mar­ket, left

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