The green grass of Rome Why Castelli Ro­mani is a mag­net for both artists and lovers of good food

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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

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