The drive out of Rome to reach my rural destination today is just under two hours. The car swerves down soft verdant curves in the heart of the Etruscan Tuscia, a vast area of northern Lazio.
As the car pulls into a dirt road, all worries and thoughts escape the mind and muscles magically start to relax. Despite being nestled on a hill surrounded by lush countryside and undulant pastures, the farm is not visible from the dirt path. Ther’s only sheep grazing, a few scattered goats nibbling under the shade of a large oak, and an occasional waving farmhand. The owner’s family tends to 1500 sheep, a small herd of goats, plus cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits and bees. Four among brothers and sisters peacefully manage the family estate, working in perfect harmony. The octagenarian father still drives his pick-up truck to check on his herds at dawn and sunset. Mamma is at the helm of the agriturismo. Beautiful people.
As I alight my dusty vehicle, I am welcomed by a tall, smiling man who is holding a snow-white baby lamb in his arms. He introduces himself as Giuseppe, the middle brother, and shows me around. He walks with a spring in his step to the pens where the newborns and their mothers are resting and feeding. He’s anxious to show me the newest addition to the flock, a young ewe has just given birth and is nuzzling a bleating ball of white fleece.
As we stroll past the stables and other covered buildings on the property, my host talks about his family’s history and the traditional farming methods that are still being used. I am charmed by his calm, beaming smiles and his relaxed demeanor. It teaches me about hard work and the beautiful rhythms of life in the country. As he explains, his voice is soft and he speaks slowly, betraying the great love for his profession.
The 200-hectare farm produces cheese, milk, lamb meat, cured pork meats, honey, seasonal fruit and vegetables, cereals (mostly farro, or spelt) and jams. The farm is certified organic and under the raw milk regimen, so strictly pesticide-, antibiotic- and artificial feed-free.
After checking out the property’s teaching farm, I am fitted with a sterile lab coat, slippers and hair net and left in the hands of his brother Tonino and younger sister Piera. I close the screen door behind me and I step in the cheese making facility where the milk extracted in the morning is being made into cheese. The siblings are joking while they press whey out of the hot curds with their bare hands, adding leaves of snappy arugula, pitted olives and crushed walnuts in the mix. I watch as the freshly extracted milk is transformed into finished product right before my eyes. I’ve seen cheese been made many times, it’s always a miracle to witness.
We take a small break before Piera and Tonino go back to make ricotta and taste some of the cheeses produced on the farm. We sit at a rustic table in the shade, the patio overlooks the rolling valley below. Before taking off (milk awaits no one) he pours me a glass of wine and we savor the cheese. I hear cicada song and I close my eyes.
But life on a farm does not leave much room for rest. In fact, there’s a person in a full beekeeper suit walking towards the table. It’s yet another family member offering to take me to see the beehives. I squeeze into my protective gear and jump in her jeep. The inside of the car smells of incense and honey. We drive for ten minutes on a bumpy off-road trail that ends in a vast open clearing surrounded by tall acacia trees. She switches off the engine and motions me to listen. The buzzing sound betrays we are close to the beehives.
The ritual is conducted in slow motion. After distancing the bees with puffs of incense, my beekeper friend opens the hive and delicately extracts a wax encrusted frame dripping with honey. She hums a light tune as she respectfully closes the beehive. Just as we gingerly approached, we slowly walk back to the vehicle. I manage to mask my fear of stingers as I climb back in the car, making sure there are no stray bees in it. I also keep close watch on the wax frame. I have to taste that honey!
We drive past the stables and park the jeep in front of a large barn. From different parts of the property, family members mill in as if beckoned by a silent signal. We all walk in at the same time to find that the table is set in the family’s agriturismo restaurant built out of an old barn. The shepherd, the cheesemakers and the beekeeper are all there, milling around a beautifully set table, catching up on each other’s morning chores and updates. Their mother walks up to us and proudly looks at her children. She takes my hand and ushers me to the kitchen, her realm. On the large stove are pots bubbling with sauce. A young daughter-in-law is hand-stretching fresh pasta. Her kids scurry in and steal a biscuit from a heaped plate. In both the womens’s eyes are stories of sacrifice and hard work, but also of immense pride, loyalty and satisfaction. I even get some free recipe advice, while I dip small chunks of bread in the simmering sauce.
Meanwhile in the dining room the entire family has gathered for the midday meal. Wine is being poured from jug- shaped litre bottles. The bread is warm form the oven. The sound of laughter and playful banter accompanies the meal. I am made to feel completely welcome, like family. Conversation is pleasant, unhurried and spans from farm life and future projects to literature and music.
The drive home is not rushed. I want to let my thoughts linger on the colors, textures, flavors, sounds and aromas experienced today. I delay my return to city life intentionally keeping the the tempo of this day slow, just as nature intended.
Contact us if you’re interested in living a similar excursion in a farm or vineyard in the outskirts of Rome.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.