Rus­tic stay in an Apen­nines farm­house

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Ju­dith Elen

LE Mag­no­lie is a ram­bling, rus­tic 17th-cen­tury farm­house at Loreto Aprutino, in Italy’s cen­tral re­gion of Abruzzo, sur­rounded by flat farm­lands and the rugged Apen­nines. Op­er­ated by Gabriella Di Minco and Mario Tortella for the past 12 years, it is an agri­t­ur­ismo es­tab­lish­ment, which means it is reg­is­tered by the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion while main­tain­ing tra­di­tional farm­ing prac­tices. Agri­cul­ture must re­main the main in­come of the prop­erty.

Le Mag­no­lie’s web­site ex­plains that it op­er­ates on bi­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples. It re­spects tra­di­tion and the tra­di­tional means of pro­duc­ing food. Grapes are grown here, as are ki­wifruit and saf­fron, but olives and ex­tra vir­gin olive oil are the farm’s prin­ci­pal prod­ucts. (The win­dows of my apart­ment, framed by tall, heavy in­ter­nal wooden shut­ters that I leave half-open at night so I can see the trees, look out over the sil­very-grey groves.) Ce­re­als are also grown here for the breads and pasta made in the farm­house kitchen.

There are six self-cater­ing apart­ments in the main, orig­i­nal farm­house build­ing, dec­o­rated with rus­tic furniture and an­tique pieces. There are also two sep­a­rate small build­ings, one with a sin­gle apart­ment and the other with two, but the main house is the place to be. The prop­erty has gar­dens and wooded ar­eas and a swim­ming pool, and is sur­rounded by olive groves and looks out to­wards San Grasso, the high­est peak in the Apen­nines, and the moun­tains of the Maiella Na­tional Park. While I amhere in early Septem­ber, there is fresh snow on the peaks.

Ap­par­ta­mento Nonna, where I stay, has flagged floors, a bed­room with pe­riod twin beds, a large kitchen area with ta­ble, rush-seated chairs and a sofa, and its own heavy wooden farm­house door open­ing on to a small ter­race and steps that lead to the grounds. The bath­room is small and ba­sic, with a shower, toi­let and hand­basin and few ex­tras.

An in­ter­nal door opens on to a cor­ri­dor and stair­way to the kitchen and com­mu­nal din­ing ar­eas on a lower level and, out more ex­ter­nal doors, to gar­dens and ter­race. Le Mag­no­lie is full of me­an­der­ing cor­ri­dors, flights of stairs and orig­i­nal fea­tures, and is dec­o­rated and fur­nished with the kind of rus­tic pieces that fit per­fectly.

There is a ground-level sit­ting area with a fire­place, comfy lounges and arm­chairs and a television (there are DVDs and videos), and a roofed, vinecov­ered ter­race off the kitchen, with a ta­ble ten­nis ta­ble and an Ital­ian barstyle soc­cer ta­ble, and places to sit and read. But the evening I am at home here is spent in the kitchens.

Di Minco’s mother, Olga Di Felice, leads a spe­cially or­gan­ised cook­ing class that goes on for hours, blend­ing into a din­ner where we eat the food we’ve cre­ated. We mix and roll pasta, and learn to press it through the steel strings of the chi­tarra, a wood-framed pasta-maker that has been used in Abruzzo for cen­turies, pro­duc­ing fine, beau­ti­ful threads of spaghetti. The chi­tarra makes steel pasta ma­chines look very cum­ber­some. We make cheese and egg dumplings ( pal­lotte ca­cioeuova ) and Abruzzese waf­fles filled with grape jam (which has been made here, of course). But the deboned and stuffed duck is the piece de re­sis­tance. Di Felice shows us how it’s done and later we eat it, our only hands-on in­volve­ment with this dish.

There is flour ev­ery­where and we have spent nearly as much time singing and danc­ing around the ta­ble to live ac­cor­dion mu­sic as we have cook­ing. But fi­nally we eat, with the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of farm­house wines.

The cook­ing class is part of my Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo tour and our coleader, Michael Howard, con­trib­utes his beau­ti­ful tenor voice to the pro­ceed­ings. The tour group is adding a ded­i­cated cook­ing pro­gram to its 2008 sched­ule, with a stay at Le Mag­no­lie and in­clud­ing mar­ket vis­its with Di Felice and five lunch or din­ner cook­ing ses­sions. Le Mag­no­lie is also in the process of set­ting up a cook­ing school in a sep­a­rate an­nexe that is ex­pected to be func­tion­ing within the next 12 months. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Ab­so­lutely Abruzzo Tours and At­las Travel Ser­vice. www.ab­so­­las­


Le Mag­no­lie, con­trada Fio­rano 83, Loreto Aprutino, Italy. +39 08 5828 9804; www.le­mag­no­ Tar­iff: j100 ($157) to j150 a room, twin share, de­pend­ing on sea­son, break­fast in­cluded. Open mid-March to early De­cem­ber. Get­ting there: About 170km, four hours’ drive, from Rome. There is an air­port and rail­way ter­mi­nus at Pescara, 28km away on the Adri­atic coast. Check­ing in: Trav­ellers of the stylishly al­ter­na­tive variety from the rest of Europe and Bri­tain. Bed­time read­ing: TheI­tal­ian by Ann Rad­cliffe; TheAbruz­zoTril­ogy by Ig­nazio Silone (avail­able on Ama­zon). Step­ping out: Head down the road be­tween pen­cil pines, vine­yards and a clus­ter of vil­lage houses, to a shep­herds’ path that leads into the wilder­ness. Gran Sasso Na­tional Park is nearby, as are sites such as San Francesco d’As­sisi monastery dat­ing from the 13th cen­tury and the church of Santa Maria in Pi­ano, which has an ex­tra­or­di­nary fresco cy­cle (look for the 16th-cen­tury graf­fiti scratched into the wall). Le Mag­no­lie’s web­site in­cludes an ex­cel­lent il­lus­trated guide to the re­gion and its at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing gas­tron­omy and mar­kets. Brick­bats: Some ba­sics such as a good sup­ply of soap and toi­letries not pro­vided; hair dryer not in room but pro­vided on re­quest. Some rooms in ad­join­ing build­ings less de­sir­able than apart­ments in the main house. Farm dogs bark­ing in the wee hours (sug­gest earplugs). Bou­quets: Orig­i­nal build­ing in­trigu­ingly at­mo­spheric; apart­ments and com­mu­nal rooms dec­o­rated with rus­tic an­tiques.

Down on the farm: Le Mag­no­lie pro­duces grapes, ki­wifruit, saf­fron and olive oil

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