FARM & AWAY
Judith Elen delights in the age-old rustic delicacies of Italy’s remote and mountainous Abruzzo region
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.
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
Family favourites: Dea Finocchio at Il Casolare, above; food stand at a market, left