Sunday, November 12, 2006

Umbrian Agriturismo

“Ahh, Umbria,” was the simple answer to my question. And exactly the type of reaction I was seeking to help me decide where to travel during my children’s spring break. Eager to shed the long cold winter of northern Italy, along with its cumbersome coats, hats, and mittens, I’d been leaning heavily toward warm and sunny Sicily as our April getaway. However, I was also intrigued by a post on the Celiac List about an agriturismo in the central Italian region of Umbria that could provide gluten free meals. I knew in my heart that such a vacation, where I didn’t have to plan and think about food, was something I needed even more than a sun-drenched island. To affirm this, I turned to the locals, asking every Italian with whom I could actually communicate, where they would prefer to go. To the person, each voted with their sighs that Umbria was a gem not to be missed.

Umbria is the introverted little sister to popular and pretty Tuscany. Situated southeast of Tuscany and landlocked by the even lesser known region of Le Marche to the east, and to the south by Lazio, the region in which Rome is located, Umbria is often overlooked. Every bit as charming as Tuscany, but more subtle, Umbria offers wine roads, artistic sights, and medieval hilltop towns that rival those of its famous big sister. It seemed like the perfect setting for an agriturismo retreat.

The word agriturismo is a blend of the Italian words for “agriculture” and “tourism,” and refers to a farm business that also provides accommodations to travelers. The trend started as a way for farmers to generate additional income from their land, thus enabling them to stay on the land to retain the time-honored traditions of small-scale production. The guests of an agriturismo, in turn, gain an opportunity learn about conventional Italian rural life. I am told that Umbria has close to 600 such businesses. Not all remain working farms, but all offer meals prepared with local products, and accommodations running the gamut from rustic to regal.

I learned all of this from Marjatta. She is from Finland, and is married to Pasquale, who is Italian. His family was originally from the Italian island of Sardinia, but Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, in the heart of Umbria, is now the family farm. This is where Marjatta and Pasquale live and work, raising their three children and tending their Sardinian milking sheep. It’s an organic farm that produces pecorino and ricotta cheese from the sheep’s milk, extra-virgin olive oil, and hand-woven textiles. Prompted by a friend’s diagnosis with celiac disease, Marjatta became a member of the Italian Celiac Association and now provides gluten free meals to guests upon request.

The farm sits atop a ridge overlooking the small town of Valfabbrica, about a half-hour northeast of the region’s capital of Perugia. We got lost on our drive there, missing a turnoff sign and ending up on a different narrow hilltop that had its very own castle. When we finally found our way, we were greeted by Marjatta and her family, and shown the three-room self-catering apartment we would occupy for the next few days. Situated on the ground floor of the refurbished barn, it was rustic, but clean and comfortable, and decorated in a style called arte povera, or, poor art.

With a fully equipped kitchen in each of the three separate apartments, many guests opt to prepare their own meals. Alternately, breakfast and dinner are obtainable in the farm restaurant. We chose a mix of dining options, fixing our own breakfast most mornings, including toast for me thanks to the toaster kept exclusively for celiac guests. We also checked out the farm breakfast one morning, and for 4 Euro per person, we were served bread and rice cakes (both gluten free for me) with butter and marmalade, homemade sugar-sprinkled pastries that were filled with ricotta cheese and honey (again, mine was gluten free), yogurt, pecorino cheese, juice, and coffee served with a steaming pot of fresh sheep’s milk. Our lunch was usually a picnic somewhere in the Umbrian countryside, and for dinner we ate either at restaurants in towns we were touring, or at Ca’Mazzetto, where Sardinian and Umbrian cuisines were featured.

The first night we dined on the farm, but only after an exploratory walk of the grounds and a portion of the nearby Franciscan Trail. As it was only early spring, the air was still chilly and darkness fell early over the Umbrian hills. Wildflowers were just beginning to show their colors in the fields where lambs and ewes softly called to each other. I could picture a return to this area in the summer, when I am told the weather is pleasantly hot, but not humid, and Ca’Mazzetto’s swimming pool inviting.

We were joined at the dinner table by another family also staying on the farm, and learned they were half-way through a two-week holiday at the agriturismo. Loving every minute of their stay by relaxing, hiking, and birding, they’d hardly been out to the see the sights and didn’t feel any rush. They had a difficult time comprehending we were staying for only four days, and shook their heads in pity as we discussed the differences between the short amount of vacation time American employees must earn, and the automatic six-weeks of time-off that nearly every employed European is entitled to. He was British, she German, along with their 10-year old son, who every morning after knocked on our door to ask if our boys could come out to play soccer. When Marjatta and Pasquale’s children joined in, it was a true international game.

Our meals at Ca’Mazzetto were served Italian style, meaning in courses. Bread and cheese were served first, followed by a pasta first course, salad, a second course, and then dessert. Noting that my gluten free bread was always covered, my pasta cooked first, and that a sign over one of the kitchen counters read “Gluten Free Food Only,” I knew that Marjatta understood the issue of cross-contamination. One night we were served a traditional Sardinian stew prepared with dried cod, potatoes, and vegetables. Another night we enjoyed roast lamb, but that was only after consoling my nine-year old when he made the connection between the lambs frolicking in the grass and the lamb on his plate.

As we didn’t have a two-week holiday like our fellow agriturismo guests, we set out most days around mid-morning, hoping to experience for ourselves some of the aura of Umbria that others had found. We drove north to the medieval town of Gubbio, where our children danced in the ruins of a 1st-century AD Roman amphitheater, ate gelato in the shadow of a 13th-century palazzo, and videotaped our ascent up the mountain side in a two-person basket. Another day we followed La Strada del Sagrantino, or the Sagrantino Wine Road, around the 16,000 hilly hectares where this native vine is grown, stopping for samples at both wineries and restaurants around the tiny town of Montefalco. Lunch that day was a risotto dish made with this local dry red wine. Later, we found ourselves on a self-guided walking tour of the Umbrian hill-town of Spoleto, half-way across its most famous landmark, a late 14th-century aqueduct, as evening fell and lightning forewarned of an approaching storm.

The most medieval of Umbria’s towns is also its most visited, Assisi, which we approached by way of the small town of Spello. A desination in its own right, we had walked the narrow cobblestone streets of this hilltop town, sampled local olive oil (poured onto bread for my husband, and a whopping spoonful minus the bread for me), and stepped into a local church to view a fresco cycle completed around 1500. We then purchased produce at a small local shop and drove up the hairpin turns of Monte Subasio for a picnic lunch. It was peaceful, and seemed to put us in the right frame of mind for visiting Assisi, and specifically the Basilica di San Francesco, a pilgrimage site for many travelers paying homage to St. Francis. An 11th century friar who challenged the materialism of society and the church, he advocated a simple lifestyle and respect for the environment. It is a message that many in Italy take to heart and which we witnessed first-hand at Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto. It is the message that I now understand translates simply as, “Ahh, Umbria.” (April 2006)

Helpful Information

Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, loc. Coccorano, 06029 Valfabbrica (PG), We paid 65 Euro per night, plus heating fuel costs, for our 3-room apartment in April 2006. Prices are higher in the summer. Dinner with wine cost 18 Euro per person. Breakfast costs 4 Euro per person.

Other restaurants visited:
Ringhiera Umbra, Via G. Mameli 18/20, Montefalco.
Pizzeira/Trattoira dal Carro, Vicolo di Nepis 2b, Assisi.

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