As Franco Rondini stands on a ladder, picking cherries, I ask him if he is harvesting them for tonight's dessert. "No," he says, with a signature shrug of his shoulders, "just eating lunch." I laugh, grab a few cherries for myself, and saunter through the field to our apartment. Franco may be busy running his Umbrian agriturismo with his wife Bozena, but he epitomizes the Italian view of life in taking time to stop and literally enjoy the fruits of his harvest.
Umbria, Tuscany's lesser-known neighbour, is known as the green heart of Italy. What better way to see it than by staying on a farm? In order to encourage small farmers to stay on their land, Italy has created a system of agriturismi, or agriculture tourism. Working farmers may augment their income by hosting guests, allowing tourists to experience life on an Italian farm and sample locally grown food. Agriturismi can vary from hobby farms with a full-scale hotel, to large farm operations with a few rooms rented out.
We stayed at Casa Rondini, on the western edge of Umbria. The Rondinis harvest saffron, olives and grapes, all three of which they use to create locally sold products. They also have almond, fig, cherry, and kiwi trees on the property, from which Bozena creates the most delicious desserts and jams.
Our self-catering apartment, one of five on their property, makes the perfect location for a month-long visit to the area. Our two children love the garden and the animals — a lazy cat, pet rabbits, chickens, and Gilda the donkey, who brays if Franco doesn't pay her enough attention.
The farm feels remote — the view from our porch is of poppy fields and olive groves. Yet we are only a seven-minute drive from the freeway, making it a great spot from which to explore the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany. After a morning spent doing schoolwork with the children, jogging through the nearby dirt roads and farms, collecting eggs or patting Gilda, we hop into our car and head off to discover a new town.
Montepulciano, in Tuscany, charms us with its Etruscan wine caves, complete with medieval cannons and suits of armour. We devour the local pecorino cheese, made from sheep's milk. Sunset in Assisi, after a rainstorm, brings out the contrast between the white and brown stones of its architecture. Next time we'll be sure to arrive earlier, to fully enjoy Giotto's frescos in the basilica.
We make three trips to Orvieto, a charming town built on a mesa of volcanic rock. On one visit we watch a parade of locals dressed in medieval costume weave through the narrow streets. Each quarter of the town decorates its streets and door fronts in its colours, adding to the pageantry. On another day we watch a live chess match in front of the gold-gilt Duomo. The players, once again dressed in medieval finery, move according to the directions of a jester. Though we can't understand his jokes it's clear it is very funny, as the Italian audience roars with laughter.
After an afternoon of touring, we return to the farm for the real highlights of our stay — the people and the food. Three nights a week Franco and Bozena host a group dinner in the locanda, a converted farmhouse. The dinners are a gathering of everyone staying at the farm, a chance to meet the neighbours and talk to our hosts. We enjoy saffron night and pizza night, but the real must-attend dinner for our family is pasta night.
The guests stand around the 20-foot table to make the pasta. With our hands, we mix one egg, 100 grams of flour and a pinch of salt, while Franco and Bozena wander around and give tips. "Cover the egg with the flour first so it isn't too sticky on your fingers," Bozena says with her big smile as my daughter holds up gooey hands. Franco sidles up to me and whispers, almost apologetically, "Push the dough with your fist into the bowl to pick up the flour, rather than squeezing it."
Once the dough is ready, we squish it through one of three hand-cranked pasta machines, then press out circles of dough to fold around a spinach ricotta mixture. Once the bits of pasta dough left over from our ravioli is re-rolled into taglietele, the guests are rewarded by a toast of Prosecco.
Bozena's tomato, garlic and olive oil bruschetta tastes so good I want to spoon it straight out of the serving bowl. Alas, I have to save room for the pasta — three different sauces each night. My favourite is the butter sage. My husband still dreams of the gorgonzola and pistachio sauce.
Dinner ends with one of Bozena's dessert creations, and Franco's limoncello, made with lemons shipped from his mother's home in Sicily. As we stumble around the corner to our apartment, bellies full, heads spinning and faces grinning, I swear to myself that, even if only in spirit, I'll bring this part of Italy home with me. n
Casa Rondini: www.casarondini.com
Italy Tourism- Official site: www.italia.it/en/discover-italy/umbria
Sara Leach is the author of several books for children, including the award-winning Count Me In. She and her family spent three months in Italy in the spring of 2013.