Agritourismo is holidaying on a working farm and its popularity, especially in Italy, is on the rise. Usually the focus is culinary. And the food couldn’t be more “real.” The cheese, meats, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, wheat (for bread and pasta), and wine that grace the table is churned, reared, grown, pressed, milled or fermented nearby or on site—sometimes within feet of the house.
For the hardworking locals that farm these estates, the philosophy of field-to-table (and vineyard-to-bottle) isn’t a locavore trend, but a way of life. With that first nibble of fresh pecorino, slice of grainy bread or thin-crust pizza, silky noodle, bit of fresh fennel, or quaff of zippy wine, you’re bound to love these folks’ connection to the land.
Agrotourismo lodgings range from the rustic to deluxe. Villa Pipistrelli, definitely the latter, is situated on Montestigliano, a 2,475-acre estate that was once a tenant farm, about 8 mi (15 km) from the town of Siena and 50 mi (80 km) from Florence. The Donati Family, who own and run the entire domain, has painstakingly restored the centuries’ old villa. It’s a family affair: Massimo, head of the farm and wild boar hunter extraordinaire, oversees production of the estate’s own olive oil. Luisa, our bubbly host, takes care of communication and events with a fine detail (and a fine command of English). Damiano and Marta crunch the numbers and ensure guests feel at home. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Virginia, an architect, had input into the villa’s restoration and renovation.
This is the Life!
It’s 7 a.m. the first morning of our stay.
I unbolt the shutters and throw open the window. The sweet aroma of sage and the misty view of hills, ochre-hued stone and spring-greened shrubbery roust me from a deep slumber.
Tough as it is to toss back the layers of embroidered bedspread, feathery comforter and crisp linens, I force myself out of my super-comfy bed. I take my time about it, finally lured by much needed, eye-opening Italian roast coffee and the tantalizing spread of locally-made prosciutto, pecorino (sheep) cheese, hard-cooked eggs and sweet homemade crostata that await in the kitchen.
Villa Pipistrelli is my kind of indulgence—posh yet rustic. Exposed wood, stone, tile, hearth, art and artifacts are in keeping the Tuscan landscape. Massimo’s wife, an interior designer, did a marvelous job with the villa. Bedrooms are pure luxury, but devoid of kitsch and clutter. The villa kitchen, kitted out with top-notch appliances, tableware, and (of course!) large lovely wine glasses, is a bonus for those who wish to self-cater. However, many guests prefer to let the estate’s private chef, Anna, handle the hearth.
I and another guest choose to stay in the annex, a two-bedroom “cottage” just steps from the main house. A winding staircase descends to a sitting room, well-equipped galley kitchen and laundry room. French doors open onto the private patio. I covet the red leather love seat by the fireplace and find time each afternoon to sink into it, pour myself a glass of wine and read Bill Buford’s Heat. (Much of this New York Times author’s delightful memoir of writer-turned-butcher takes place the Tuscan hills. And, while I am not swayed to follow a similar pursuit, it’s the perfect read for my surroundings.)
More modest but no less accommodating are the flats filled this holiday weekend with other guests in the Montestigliano hamlet, a 10-minute stroll from the villa. We meet and mingle over an al fresco lunch of bruschetta, fennel salad and grilled sausages. The next evening it’s handmade wood fired pizzas washed down with Chianti Colli Senese in the Estate’s former granary-turned-social room, accompanied by much song and laughter. Brimming with fruit and spice notes, the wine from vineyards around Siena is as boisterous as its imbibers.
Tasting the Fruit of the Field
By 9 a.m. (and several cups of coffee later), I’m on a brisk, woodsy walk with my friends to the estate’s olive grove. Our host, Luisa, leads the way.
Brother Massimo Donati is already at the grove ready to walk and talk us through the process of making of really good olive oil, not the so-called brands of extra virgin olive oil but the first-pressed oil from gently gathered olives. Aldo the grove keeper pantomimes gathering the fruit. He rustles the branches with a broom-like machine with long slender “fingers,” which loosens the olives. The ripe fruit tumbles to the ground where it’s collected and sorted. Following the picking demonstration, it’s off to the granary’s drying room where Massimo talks and tastes us through oils from big brands to small batch artisan and the delicate process of making his own.
No need to guess which oil is our favorite. The estate’s olive oil, viscous, fruity, with an agreeable bitterness, is the perfect finishing oil. I lightly drizzle it on everything from bread and salad to pasta and pizza to cheese. Given the chance, I think I would have even trickled it over vanilla gelato.
Cinta Sinese Pork
Spannocchia is another estate of artisans who strive to maintain the biodiversity of this idyllic landscape that we visit a couple of days into our stay. The owners strived successfully to save and preserve the Cinta Senesi pigs, a heritage breed that’s highly regarded for its succulent, tender flesh.
These pampered piggies enjoy a life of grazing in the grass on this 12th century estate before they become pepper-flecked salami, prosciutto, capicolla, melt-on-the-tongue lardo, or the Tuscan version of sopressata, more like headcheese than dried cured meat.
Our porcine platter served at Bottega di Stigliano, a market/deli-cum-restaurant that sells Spanocchia’s wares and other regional products, is washed down with the estate’s own vino rosso (red wine).
Off to Siena
Luisa has arranged an afternoon in Siena for us. I slip away to the side streets and hit upon a wine grotto. I could spend hours here scouting the cramped space that’s crammed with fine Chianti and Brunello wines. I also find a hole-in-the wall pizzeria and gelateria and I return to the bustling square with an excellent coffee gelato in tow.
It’s a good thing I also didn’t go for a slab of pizza because this evening’s fare is a BBQ Italian style. A harvest table is festooned with herb-and olive oil anointed chicken, cheese-stuffed pasta shells (lumache), grilled veggies, fresh greens, and, of course, more wine.
Our last evening is warm enough to eat outside under Pipistrelli’s tiled eaves. It’s a family affair and everybody shows up. Anna and crew juggle the rolling, sauteing, grinding and grilling. The result once again is spectacular– gnocchi, crostini, various meats and salads, and wine. We sip and linger with the family until long after dark while candles burn down slowly.
Montestigliano has fed my body and soul. I’ve loved visiting producers, the hours’ long convivial meals, the laughter and chit-chat. I’ve also had time for respite, a quiet wood or garden stroll and the rare opportunity for an uninterrupted read. And all in only three and a half days. Next time, I want a couple of weeks during harvest—and let me loose in the kitchen! – Story and photos (unless otherwise credited) by Julie Pegg, Wine & Spirits Editor
In my next story on Italy, I’ll take you to Palazzo Donati, the family “home” in Mercatello sul Matauro, a tiny village nestled between Tuscany and Emiglia-Romana in the Le Marche. Stay tuned.
Montestigliano apartments and Villa Pipistrelli