Rustic stay in an Apennines farmhouse
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.absolutelyabruzzo.com www.atlastravel.com.au
Le Magnolie, contrada Fiorano 83, Loreto Aprutino, Italy. +39 08 5828 9804; www.lemagnolie.com. 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