La Cucina Sabina; a culinary adventure in the cradle of culture

La Cucina Sabina; a culinary adventure in the cradle of culture

Louis Boshoff

As far as holiday making is concerned, the revival of the ‘tailor made itinerary’ has not only become more popular but also more affordable. Bespoke is the new black where the luxury of an informed guide is a must for travellers who prefer to get the most value from their visits. Sure, it’s not easy trusting someone with your vacation investment, and there’s certainly no guarantee of a good time had even if the ratings show everyone else did. Yet, even if the hit-and-miss approach seems a tad daunting, there are still some that take the responsibility of your holiday happiness seriously. One of these travel experiences I had the pleasure to partake in, is created with the team from Art in Voyage and the Italian villa destination La Cucina Sabina. The result is a tantalising trip through the culinary-rich countryside of Rome; an adventure which includes not only the guided visits of the city and surrounding towns but also a hands-on cooking course. Mikael Audebert, founder and CEO of Art in Voyage created a relaxing week of events all centred around the Sabine area of the Italian province of Lazio, with the conveniently located modern Villa Tartaruga Sabina as headquarters for their ‘Equality Cooking Vacations’ aimed at the LGBT-minded traveller. As an alternative and safe option to ‘cruisey’ group getaways, I embraced the opportunity to marry a few of my other favourites; cooking and culture, which Italy naturally has ample supply of.

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Like all good vacation rentals, the villa with its 8 elegantly appointed suites caters to all the needs of those who simply want to sample the countryside from a serviced base and at their own leisure, however La Cucina Sabina also has the benefit of an informed team of locals who can arrange such activities as cooking lessons with a trained Italian chef, visits to local wine makers, markets and olive farms in addition to the cultural or historic places of interest in the area. This is after all the store house of imperial Rome, the Tiber Valley.

The villa is designed in a modernist vein, with large verandahs making the most of every season and the heart of it is, as can be expected, the kitchen and dining area. The personalised living areas with its art collection and books provide a homely feel, while their large proportions maintain an atmosphere of grand informality; giving equal opportunity for an intimate conversation as much as for a crowd.

The sense of understanding Italian cooking starts with La Cucina Sabina’s own D.O.P. certified olive oil, which one not only uses in the cooking classes but also gets to appreciate at the tasting led by the grandson of the original builder of the villa; the energetic and instructive Giuseppe Micheletta. Having been brought up on the stuff, it was clearly no surprise when he, at a local restaurant in Palombara, excitedly realised we were served a local freshly pressed batch of lime coloured oil and insisted that we all sample it immediately; ‘the oil is the opposite of wine, the fresher, the better’ he said while wiping it from his chin. We continued this impromptu tasting with a combination of an ancient Roman pasta recipe of walnuts, pepper and parmesan followed by a delightful rack of lamb. His passion for olive oil is unbelievable, and all the way to the olive farm later in the week, we were treated to a highly informative tirade of the lesser known facts of the fruit. The destination; a bio-organic olive farm is a reasonably sized grove consisting, for the most part of ancient trees planted as much as 2500 years ago, a lot of cats and the proud owner, Augusto. Giuseppe took us through the harvest and press process passionately when about an hour later, a thin stream of liquid started flowing. Cathartic might be too strong a word, but in light of the delightfully animated cooking lessons of Barbara, the cheffette, it struck a rather poignant note. Three dinners and one lunch became part of our teaching programme, but it’s clear that this was flexible and depended on our choices for the day. I must state candidly that I really appreciate this kind of consideration from a holiday itinerary since one is never really certain about which aspects you’ll enjoy and which could run late; one evening we simply had delightfully home made pizza from the outdoor pizza oven due to such time constraints.

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Our lunches and dinners not spent at local eateries were either made by the ‘nonna’ of the villa, the imitable Carla, or by ourselves. These cooking classes consisted of a proper traditional four-course Italian meal; antipasti, primi and secondi piatti naturally followed by dolce and espresso. Most ingredients came from the local market or the garden, and gratefully the recipes were light on challenge and high on yield, for example, a tasty melanzane parmeggiano and risotto Milanese followed by saltimbocca and home made ice-cream. Nothing about cooking with Barabara was in any way arduous, in fact, the opposite, it was fruitful fun for the most part with some Italian household secrets thrown in; perfectly effortless and particularly enjoyable paired with our host, Mike Di Girolamo’s suggestions of local wines. Engaging with the other guests in such a pseudo-domestic situation certainly promotes a more sincere social scenario in which to participate and enjoy meals, everybody’s got to eat after all. Surprisingly so many cooks did not manage to spoil the broth and instead made for a rather entertaining and insightful experience while forging new friendships along the way.

Speaking of surprises; when visiting the historically rich old castle (one of many in the district), we were unexpectedly treated to an ensemble of choice local cheeses including a mouthwateringly fresh pecorino, honey and Prosecco to enjoy the picturesque sunset across the landscape with. It’s these decadent little touches which in my experience separates the generally pleasant from the extraordinary.

Besides all the colloquial tales and interesting background information, we managed to fit in a day of shopping and sightseeing in the capital itself, guided by the inimitable Gastone, who with his passion for art and architecture led us through lesser-known parts of the city in an animated storyteller’s style. Casually strolling through the eternal city with Gastone excitedly pointing out unexpected details vividly annotated with his enormous frame of reference, felt a bit like the ‘grand tour’ revisited. We concluded the evening with a delicious Roman dinner at a private rooftop villa which, overlooking the city immediately made one feel part of the landscape. It is a different kind of luxury, the luxury of personal attention and care. The very same Gastone took us on an equally informative walk-about through his birthplace, the nearby and older city of Tivoli with it’s jewel the villa and gardens of Villa d’Este. I was amazed not only at his tales of running through the neglected gardens as a youth but also by his thoughts about the current political climate in Italy, something one could only pick up from an informed local. These insights are what illuminates the context way beyond any travel agent’s brochure and entertains the ‘Nosey Parker’ in me.

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange

Another day excursion took us to the delightful and award-winning winery of Mazziotti with its breath-taking view over the largest volcanic lake in Europe. A walk through the winery was complimented by a talkative tasting of their excellent selection of vintages, including a magnificent Merlot, followed by a traditional home cooked meal. This family owned establishment is one of the local secrets that formed part of the itinerary of La Cucina Sabina and although a bit further away on the border with Umbria, the scenic drive made the trip worthwhile. The agenda also made provision for a relaxing time at a nearby thermal spa, something that the area has been well known for since Roman times. With a choice of hydro treatments and massages, the remainder of the afternoon was spent lazying around the sulphur pools and needless to say the sunset trip back to the Villa Sabina passed quickly and quietly with most of the passengers inadvertently nodding off.

The beauty of this type of intelligent planning by the host and travel consultant is that there is a notable comfort and pace, not too much, just enough. One gets a general feel and genuine affection for the area without becoming exhausted or overwhelmed. Of course, they could turn it up or tone it down as one requires, but I learned how important it is to trust their opinions and suggestions: something quite important if you’re not into being out of your depth in a foreign place. I believe Villa Sabina is such a refuge, where one can rest assured with family, friends and even strangers, while a well thought through program allows one to experience a unique landscape and make it your own.

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