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Roll up your sleeves, get earthy
Seattle Times travel writer
Anyone who's trolled through the "Italian Agriturismo" listings posted by travelers on Rick Steves' Graffiti Wall (www.ricksteves.com) has probably noticed the buzz about a place called Italy Farm Stay, an organic family farm on the edge of Abruzzo National Park.
Most of the talk revolves around energetic Antonello Siragusa, 28. After earning a degree in English and Spanish literature, and working as a waiter in San Francisco's Castro District, he returned home to southern Italy wondering what he could do to make a living there.
That led to his idea to convert his family's farm into a different kind of agriturismo — not a resort or an inn that emphasizes gourmet meals, but a working farm where travelers can take a break from the cities and spend a few days hiking, learning to make pasta or just getting a taste of rural life.
The family makes or grows everything it serves — asparagus, beans, figs, honey; even the grapes Antonello's father, Giuseppe, uses to make his wine. Everything is organic, and student volunteers do much of the work in exchange a few weeks of R&R in the Italian countryside.
Farm Stay: www.italyfarmstay.comRates: $35 (single) and $50 (double) with breakfast and shared bath; $50 (single) and $62 (double) with private bath. Activities: (cooking lessons etc) around $8 per person. Optional dinner: $10.50.
Parco Nationale d'Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise (Abruzzo National Park): www.parcoabruzzo.it
Officially part of Lazio, the region that includes Rome, the Siragusa farm borders Abruzzo, a wilderness region unspoiled by industry and development, but relatively unknown to foreign tourists.
"This is not Tuscany," is how Antonello put it when we met. My husband, Tom, and I, along with our Ohio family members, had shown up to spend a couple of nights before driving on to Rome.
Sora, the closest town, is a lively commercial center with 19th-century buildings, wine bars and shops selling the local buffalo mozzarella. Surrounding it are the green forests and snowy peaks of the Apennine mountain range. Winding roads lead to hilltop monasteries and hill towns such as medieval Campoli Appennino, perched above a volcano and noted for its truffles.
"People look around at this land and see firewood," he said, gesturing to a wooded area where he plans to expand soon. "I see tourism."
He opened a year ago with three rooms for guests in his family's home, then three more in a converted cow barn and storage shed next door. The décor was flea market-meets-farmhouse, quirky but comfortable enough. Hanging in our room was a hammock strung up near a window that opened up to mountain views. There was an antique wardrobe in one corner, and one of the student volunteers had painted a forest scene on the wall above the bed.
Dinners — mostly simple soups and pasta and lots of Giuseppe's homemade white wine — were around the family's dining room table. In the morning, we awoke to the sounds of roosters, goats and chickens wandering a few feet from our door.
Stretch and roll
"Stretch and roll. Stretch and roll."
Antonello's mother, Maria, doesn't speak much English, but she's learning, and these are the three words she considers key to making homemade pasta.
My sister-in-law, Nancy, and I signed up for one of her cooking classes, and we spent a couple of hours in her kitchen one afternoon, cracking eggs laid by the chickens that morning, kneading dough and stretching and rolling it until it resembled a thin pizza crust.
Maria showed us how to fold the dough in layers, slice it and unravel it into long, flat strips. The noodle, enough for eight, and the ragu sauce cooking on her stovetop, became that night's dinner.
Giuseppe Siragusa started his farm as a hobby so his family could enjoy healthy food. Antonello's mission is to teach guests a little about where that food comes from and how it's produced.
On our last evening, he organized a walk to the home of Michele Baldessara, a local shepherd and cheese maker.
Michele, 50, was an electrician who turned to full time sheepherding after his father died and his 81-year-old mother, Antonia, was no longer able to handle the chores.
He makes cheese twice a day every day, using the milk from the family's 100 sheep and 50 goats to produce the fresh ricotta and aged pecorino that he sells to local villagers.
Each afternoon, Michele herds his sheep back from the field along a path behind the Siragusas' farm. We watched him pass by, waited an hour or so for him to finish his milking, then followed Antonello up the road to watch him make his cheese.
Heating the milk in an iron bucket over an open fire, he stirred it with a tree limb until it reached the right temperature, then separated the curds from the whey by adding a bit of rennet that he clipped from the stomach of a young lamb.
Michele and a helper grabbed wads of wet cheese from the bucket, squeezed it as if they were ringing out a rag, and stuffed it into plastic molds. This was the pecorino. It's supposed to age for six months, but he usually sells out before then.
He passed around samples and we drank a few sips of hot whey from paper cups. Then Michele turned back to the fire, boiling the rest of the whey to make the ricotta, and we walked back down the hill to Antonello's. Under my arm was a two-pound wheel of pecorino that would last the rest of our trip.
Next: A trulli wonderful time
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company