We arrive late on a wet and blustery Friday night, a glorious Italian summer having abruptly shifted gears into November’s unwelcome autumn chill. Il Fontanaro’s Lucia Pinelli meets us in the driveway, barely pausing for small talk before ushering us, shivering, inside a 1890s stone cottage pre-warmed to perfection by a blazing chimenea.
Our spirits lift further as we set eyes upon a hamper of fresh farm produce: free-range eggs, wildflower honey, quince jam and organic Sangiovese wine, much of it grown, gathered or made by Lucia herself. Grinning like Cheshire cats, we settle in for a hearty midnight feast beside the crackling fire as the wind rattles the windows in their frames.
Our stay at Il Fontanaro – an organic farm and culinary school located in Italy’s “green heart” region of Umbria, 2.5hrs north of Rome – is off to a cracking start. The sprawling 40-hectare property is owned and run by Lucia, who started the whole affair decades ago when she bought a nearby 100-tree olive grove as a wedding present for her husband, Alessandro.
The pair met in Africa before joining the rat race in Rome, but dreamed of a simpler, slower life in the country. Together, they gradually coaxed their then-barren landscape into a lush organic farm, and restored an abandoned two-storey stone farmhouse into an elegant country home. “We bought this place without having the money for it and not expecting any revenue from it,” Lucia recalls. “We just had a dream. It was really just a work of art and love.”
The Leccino villa we’re calling home for two nights was once Lucia and Alessandro’s greenhouse, the library beside our enormous bedroom once their garage. Alessandro built a wine cellar beneath it all in 2000, and the following year began constructing a little solarpowered oil mill further down the hill to extract the liquid gold from their ecologically grown trees.
The olives are milled within mere hours of being picked to best preserve their flavour and quality, and the resulting extra virgin oil – named Olio della Pace or “peace oil” – is golden, smooth and rich (we’re invited to taste it via the little bottle left as a gift in our kitchen), nothing like the bland stuff you might buy off supermarket shelves in Australia. Little wonder it’s picked up awards in London and New York.
At first, Lucia and Alessandro invited visitors to their slice of heaven simply to help cover the farm’s enormous running costs. But they soon realised foreigners were just as enamoured with this slow country life, delighting in picking fresh strawberries straight from the garden to pop atop their brekkie, or strolling the brilliantly coloured natural landscape, just as beautiful as its famous neighbour Tuscany, yet lesser known, lesser explored. “All of this, which was my dream, has become something important for our guests,” Lucia says.
Il Fontanaro’s location has proven perfect for visitors who like to wander, too, as we soon discover: five minutes away is the charming little town of Paciano, built in the 1300s, and a little further along is Panicale, home to the tiny 1600s Caporali Theatre, which seats just 154 people. Drive about 45 minutes northeast and you happen upon the stunning medieval hill town Montepulciano, famed worldwide for the grape variety of the same name and a great place to quaff top drops.
Gradually, Lucia and Alessandro took advantage of this bounty by adding more luxury villas to their fold – up to 50 people can be accommodated now – and welcoming holidaymakers as well as visitors keen on lending a hand in the garden or during the annual olive harvest.
Then, in 2010, tragedy struck. Just as the pair was due to move out to Il Fontanaro permanently, Alessandro was hit by a scooter in Rome and killed. The grand dream the couple had worked for a lifetime to achieve might have ended there, had it not have been for their daughter Alina, who stepped in to help. A professionally trained chef, she now lives on the property with her mother and runs authentic Italian cooking classes from Lucia’s kitchen, teaching eager guests timeworn secrets behind the perfect homemade tagliatelle or tiramisù.
Mother usually makes herself scarce while daughter is cooking, but with Alina away, Lucia invites us to her dining table for an exquisite feast of tortiglioni pasta with romanesco broccoli, caponata (a Sicilian-style eggplant stew) and a huge tomato salad, all picked fresh from her garden.
We roll out into the crisp autumn air, bellies bulging, and for just a moment it seems we’ve stepped inside one of those movies that so idolise Italian country living. To which Lucia simply replies: “We are not a postcard – this experience is the true way of life.”