Stone archways, cobbled lanes and steps edged with scarlet geraniums link the tightly packed houses of Montecchio, Umbria. As we soon realise during our holiday here – a foodie homestay trip based at Casa Jole, a cosy and welcoming property just outside the village – Montecchio is the prettiest of the many stone-built medieval villages that dot the wooded hillsides south of Orvieto where mushrooms, truffles and chestnuts grow.
Wine and olives too, of course. The village is within the Colli Orvietani PDO olive oil zone (it also belongs to Italy’s Città dell’Olio network of olive oil-producing locations) and the Orvieto Classico wine area and is surrounded by vines.
Wine has always played a fundamental role in the local economy: the Etruscans invented an ingenious system for wine-making in Orvieto, digging three levels down into the tall spur of yellow tufa-stone which serves as a pedestal for the city, treading the grapes on the first floor, allowing the juice to flow down a level where it fermented in vats before being transferred to the lower floor for ageing.
Centuries later Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli’s contract to paint a fresco cycle in the city’s glorious cathedral included 1,000 litres of wine per year. Whether it was down to the liquid inspiration or pure talent, the result is stunning.
In the early 1960s a dam installed on the Tiber for hydro-electric power created Lake Corbara, a lovely expanse of water reflecting the dense woodland and rocky outcrops above. A happy side-effect of the dam is the modified climate, with evening mists and autumnal afternoon heat creating perfect vineyard conditions for the Botrytis Cinerea fungus, an important component in the production of a special variety of sweet wine, Muffa Nobile (noble rot) similar to French Sauternes.
Casa Jole, our base, is a cosy and welcoming home, in the middle of its own olive grove, owned by local food-lover Cristina. Although brought up in Rome, Cristina spent childhood summers at Casa Jole with her family; fifteen years ago her long-term dream of moving here permanently finally came true.
After a day of sightseeing coming back to the house, with its fresh white walls, terracotta floors and wooden furniture, really feels like coming home. In winter there’s a big open fire in the living area. Outside there’s a barbecue, hammocks slung between the trees and, next to the orchard, a wood-oven where Cristina organises pizza evenings.
The real star feature of Casa Jole, however is the veranda. Breakfasting here on Cristina’s fresh fruit, her fragrant fruit tarts or simple jam and toast whilst watching the mist rise from the valley, with the honey scent of buddleia and an echoing chorus of birdsong, is truly idyllic. As is sitting here at the end of the day sipping a glass of the Svìnnere wild-cherry wine invented by her great-aunt and still made in Orvieto, while watching the stars and darting glow-worms.
Indeed, while there are plenty of attractions to warrant a stay (for a start the house sits halfway down a track that leads to an incredibly well-preserved 7th century BC Etruscan necropolis and overlooks the Tiber river valley to the mountains beyond) food is one of the most compelling.
Cristina loves taking guests out to discover the Umbrian countryside, stopping at villages ignored by most guide-books, such as Alviano and Guardea. On the way she’ll pop in to say hello to friends and pick up some veg, a few eggs or a bottle of wine for dinner. Money isn’t involved: theirs is a kind of micro-economy based on exchange – Cristina ‘pays’ for her supplies with the exquisite peach, fig or plum jams she makes with fruit from her orchard, a bottle of her olive oil or an Ayurvedic massage, which she also offers guests.
Luciano and Carla, who live just up the hill, are some of Cristina’s nearest neighbours – and main sources of fresh produce. Luciano takes care of Cristina’s pretty garden as well as their own half-hectare, where crops include tomatoes, courgettes, chickpeas, beans, and grapes for homemade wine. His chicken, pork and guinea fowl are some of the tastiest around.
Cristina has always enjoyed cooking and she’s happy to share her recipes or even let guests take over the kitchen to experiment with the results of foraging trips. She adores the local ombrichelli pasta, a kind of thick spaghetti, serving it with the traditional arrabbiata sauce (tomato, chilli-pepper, parsley and garlic) and also the hearty wild-boar stews that feature on every menu in this area.
If you want to eat out, Cristina is also a generous sharer of tips on local restaurants. One of her favourite places to try that wild boar stew is La Locanda del Melograno in Baschi. A tiny restaurant with a beamed ceiling and stone walls it also specialises in gallina ‘mbriaca, a local chicken dish cooked with wine and herbs. Or there’s Le Casette, a working farm just outside Montecchio where almost everything is homemade, homegrown or home-reared including the goose with pappardelle pasta.
For a really special meal, Cristina recommends Casa Vissani. Set on the banks of Lake Corbara it is run by double Michelin-starred Giancarlo Vissani, one of Italy’s top chefs. The house wine, Luigi e Giovanna (an exceptional Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC), is made just up the hill at the organic vegan Cantine Barberani winery, almost entirely with Grechetto grapes and aged for 24 months in oak.
Among their other wines, the Barberanis make an excellent full-bodied and fruity Lago di Corbara DOC red and a selection of sweet wines including Muffa Nobile and a prize-winning Moscato.
Among the honey-coloured tufa-stone buildings of Orvieto (capital of the international network of Slow Towns) the place to go for aromatic local truffle dishes is the historic Trattoria La Palomba. Here, jovial host Giampiero Cinti serves bruschetta and ombrichelli pasta with abundant shavings of truffle, grated at your table. Another must-eat here is palomba alla leccarda, pigeon casserole with wine and olives, a dish which recalls the ancient custom, particularly when the city was under siege, of keeping pigeons in the caves below each building.
One of the best gourmet experiences in the region, however, is right on the doorstep. Almost opposite the track leading down to Casa Jole is the Bartolomei olive mill, Al Vecchio Frantoio. The area’s first, dating back to 1890, this is where Cristina takes her olives to be pressed each autumn. An on-site museum gives a fascinating insight into the local olive culture (don’t miss the 17th century wooden olive press) but visitors can also see the modern working mill where state-of-the-art equipment goes so far as to transform the olive stones into pellets for heating.
If you happen to be visiting during the November harvest you can join the olive-picking and witness the mill in action. But all year round you can taste the delicious nutty-flavoured Colli Orvietani extra-virgin olive oil on bruschetta toasted over an open-fire in the mill-room itself.
Written by Sarah Lane, July 2016