The green grass of Rome Why Castelli Romani is a magnet for both artists and lovers of good food
You need only travel a mere 20km from the beating heart of Italy’s Eternal City to reach Castelli Romani, a bucolic cluster of hillside towns that have inspired artists and writers for centuries, and whose rich culinary traditions continue to draw food lovers to this day
‘The secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles,’ Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote in The Secret Garden. She could quite easily have been musing about Sforza Cesarini in Genzano. This sprawling green space hidden behind a wall next to the ducal palace, with its 100-year-old trees, overgrown grasses and exotic plants, teases visitors down to the shores of Lake Nemi, the path punctured with caves and glistening pools. It was created by Duke Lorenzo Sforza Cesarini in the 19th century as a wedding present for his wife Caroline Shirley, and the garden’s air of aristocracy, beauty and history sums up the spirit of Castelli Romani – it’s a place for the senses.
A pretty pocket of verdant hills and volcanic lakes 20km south-east of Rome, the Colli Albani (or Alban Hills) and their 17 towns (sometimes more, sometimes fewer, depending on who you speak to) are collectively known as the Castelli Romani. However vague the geographical boundaries, these towns have a historical, cultural and culinary identity as distinct as any other Italian region. Throughout the centuries, they have played many roles: home to the Latins (four centuries before Rome was founded), and later, nurturer, supplying the city with agricultural goods, muse to Romantic painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Carot and JMW Turner, and a refuge from the city for aristocratic families and the Pope. It was here that writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe declared he’d stumbled upon ‘paradise’, Henry James drew inspiration for his travel essays Italian Hours, and actress Elizabeth Taylor retreated in the early 1960s while filming Cleopatra. Besides palazzos, archaeological sites and cathedrals, you’ll find volcanic lakes, deep valleys and historic villages concentrated around two lakes: Albano and locals’ favourite, Nemi. Today, Romans still flock to the area on hot summer days for cooler climes, country air, and wild strawberries. And despite its proximity to the Eternal City, these hillside towns remain relatively untouched by tourists.
Every mile or two, there’s a roadside truck selling porchetta (a whole pig stuffed with herbs, spit-roasted then served sliced on bread), but it is the wine of Frascati which dominates the region. Historically prized by Roman senators and Renaissance Popes, this was one of the first wine regions to be awarded DOC status. It’s so treasured by locals that in the village of Marino, the white wine is piped through the plumbing system for their annual harvest festival in October, so that it flows out of the fountain in the centre of town, free for everyone. After suffering a knock to its reputation due to commercial success in the 1980s
and 1990s and, as one local tells me, ‘they were just producing too much of the stuff’, a new wave of wineries are making altogether more elegant bottles. Merumalia Wine Resort sits in the rolling hills overlooking Frascati, with Achille, the rescue dog, surveying the vineyards. ‘We’re quite new, 2013 was our first vintage,’ says Giulia Fusco, whose family brought the property 22 years ago. ‘Originally, we were enjoying this as our country house and, as there were already vineyards here, selling grapes – but that changed when my father retired.’ The boutique vineyard, which also has four apartments for guests to stay in (‘we didn’t want to lose that feeling of having friends over for the weekend,’ Fusco explains), now produces one red and six whites. ‘We’re sustainable, fully organic, and want to be natural,’ Fusco adds, with butterflies and wild birds dancing between the vines as if on cue. ‘We run everything manually so we can control every stage of the process. Women traditionally worked in the fields because they are more gentle and more focused on taste,’ she adds with a grin, ‘so we have local ladies coming to pick only the best grapes. It’s about protecting our Roman wine traditions but continuing to innovate, too.’
Continuity and tradition are all-important in Castelli Romani, and ingredients stand on their own merits. Perched dramatically above the cool waters of Lake Albano in Castel Gandolfo is the Pope’s summer residence. In the 1930s, Pius XI spruced up the sprawling property, adding a farm to supply fresh produce for Vatican tables. While you can enter the extraordinary 55ha grounds, with its immense parterres and shady holm oak parks, the farm shop makes for fascinating browsing. Swerve the guards – and the hefty cost of entering the garden – and join locals in picking up fresh milk, yoghurt and honey produced on the farm. The towns of Genzano and Lariano pride themselves on their award-winning homemade breads that have IGP and MCG status respectively, both the perfect vehicle for a porchetta sandwich. ‘I don’t have blood, I have flour and water,’ says Marco Bocchini, whose bakery, Sergio, has been in his family since the 19th century. Today Bocchini bakes over 500 loaves per day in a wood-fired oven built in 1945. With a spectacular chewy, slightly bitter crust and a cracked surface, as if a gentle earthquake has taken place, the pillowy soft interior is worth travelling for. The ultimate country bread, its tradition is celebrated every September with a festival dedicated to the loaves. And this is a theme throughout Castelli Romani: there is no food group too small to warrant a festival, from chestnuts to fragoline (wild strawberries), where you dine and drink elbow-to-elbow with locals.
All roads, they say, lead to Rome. But by reversing this age-old wisdom and following them out of the city, you can discover a green refuge steeped in history and full-bodied frascati wine.
‘Swerve the guards – and the hefty cost of entering the garden – and join locals in the shop, picking up fresh milk, yoghurt and honey produced on the farm of the Pope’s summer residence’
Above, from left: a deli stall in Albano Laziale market; pappardelle al ragù; Belvedere dal 1933 chefs Alain and Nelson Rosica; Villa Falconieri in Frascati; Primo wine at Merumalia; a tomato and prosciutto croquette at Belvedere dal 1933