Way, way up: A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road. We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes. Lots of overgrown vegetation all around. More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each
This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean. I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles. How much farther? I was nervous. Did we miss it?
Alas, a small sign. “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua. Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian. Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy. In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.
Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed us to our rooms. My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance. Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views. Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.
We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons. A group was celebrating a birthday. I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me. “I think I know you. Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”? Yes. We sat with Wayne and his wife Valerie, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago. It was Valerie who told me about this agriturismo. They have a farm nearby.
Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain. The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.
We were hoping to see farm animals. Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits. I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful. I hated to think of their future.
Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here. Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged. The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally.
Food is a big attraction at agriturismi. Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast. Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes: Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med. This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade. Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert: a strawberry tarte. Plus, a bottle of Rossese.
Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking. Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees. Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited. They only sell to guests and a few local clients.
“People are happy here,” said Marinella. She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow. Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said. In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit. Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities. However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy. In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.
In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times. Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village. What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?
According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops. Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?
Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture. I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian.
“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained. In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes … a bit like Italian drivers.
Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.
AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.;
http://www.oasidelrossese.it Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.
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