As much as food is culture in Italy, so is where it comes from.
Booking an Italian holiday browsing through websites is one way of finding accommodation, but there's a new way to experience Italy, it's been around since 1985, Agritourism.
A marriage of the words "agriculture" and "tourism", this style of vacation was made official due to an increase in rural desertification 60 years ago. Harsh economic times during the 1960s saw farming communities lose their families and heritage to cities where work was more easily found. Lands passed down through generations were simply abandoned with agricultural traditions along the way, until the European Union masterfully introduced agritourism. A unique style of tourism encouraging family-owned farms to open their doors and dining rooms to paying guests, sparked an advantageous situation for everyone: rural estates and traditional farms regained their financial status, tourism began to flourish and guests got to experience unparalleled hospitality, hosted by an undeniable love of the land.
This form of eco-tourism abides by strict laws stating that guests must stay on the property and food must be made using a percentage of the farm's produce. This ensures all agritourism cuisine is local, of-the-land and homemade. An agriturismo (in Italian) is essentially a family business with elder children typically serving food, aunties cooking in the kitchen and grandmothers foraging for erbette spontanee from nearby fields, one third of agriturismi in Italy are run by women.
With a significant move towards 0-kilometre, seasonal produce and an awareness of traceable food sources, it makes sustainable sense to sample rural hospitality. There's a lot of love, tradition and family pride that goes into this food, you can taste it in every forkful.
Provinces in Italy where agritourism features boldly for accommodation are Tuscany, Trentino-Alto Adige, Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto. That's not to say one can't experience rural life in Sicily or Puglia, but it may be named a 'farm-stay' instead of an 'agriturismo'. Italians consider agritourism the same way they would any other form of accommodation; for a city break, they'll look for a hotel or B&B, for a country holiday, they'll look for an agriturismo. But outside of Italy, this authentically Italian culture still seems rather unknown - hence this wonderfully informative blog post.
It's rare to find an agriturismo that doesn't serve lunch. Typically, their pride and joy beams through every dish placed before you and breakfasts are simply divine. Italians love a sweet start to the day so expect abbondante amounts of crostata (short-crust tarts), home-made preserves, cakes and jams from farm fruit trees, warm baked bread, farm butter and kitchen coffee. If you're a food-conscious tourist, a locavore or simply an Italian food lover (and honestly who isn't?) then truly this is the play to stay (and eat). Don't skip breakfast, or lunch or dinner for that matter...
Since the boom of agritourism culture, humble farm food has become unexpectedly sought-after and luxurious. I recently lunched at an old agriturismo-love and my, how it had changed. The predicted traditional Veneto dishes were there, soppressa, polenta, pasticcio but the presentation and sophistication of ingredients had substantially upped a notch or two.
The sopressa was melt-in-your-mouth (said Amerigo) and the fresh pasta of the pasticcio was creatively black in colour due to activated charcoal and shaped as a faggotino with a creamy, delicate filling of sciopetin foraged from the fields nearby and cleaned by the nonna.
My friend Alberto had the slow-cooked cappone (rooster) on polenta which fell from the bone in succulent chunks with erbe cotte (cooked greens) from the vegetable garden and dessert?
Well, Claudia Augusta Altinate has always been next-level when it comes to i dolci and once again, it didn't disappoint. My warm chocolate and hazelnut torte with star anise ice-cream was a joy before even lifting my spoon, Alberto had chocolate and mascarpone bombe with pineapple sorbet, both sublime from beginning to end.
Look deep into your chosen agriturismo offerings; there will be meats, cheeses, olives and oils from their land, animals are farmed for this purpose, kitchen gardens are nurtured and pickles are cured over time. This is slow food and good food and ethical, caring food.
If we are what we eat, we choose to eat here (and always opt for breakfast).
An agriturismo can opt to provide simple rooms sharing a bathroom, self-contained apartments or luxury suites with swimming pools. So popular, it now has categories! Choose an ecologically conscious, off-the-grid stay or a high-end wellness break with saunas, Turkish baths and massages as extras.
Mostly rural, many places are immersed in nature, just perfect for an outdoorsy who loves to hike, mountain bike or horse-ride. Some are close enough to cities to venture into (and then out of) at will and provide a welcome break from the hustle and bustle. There's something to be said after a weary day of piazzas and monuments, to head 'home' along a winding dirt track lined with cypresses through the sunflower fields, under a setting Tuscan sky. Rustling breeze and birdsong can do wonders for one's soul, together with the tantalising thought of Fiorentina steak and Chianti on for dinner.
Some of our lived and loved agriturismi are these:
Veneto - Agriturismo la Dolza (dine) for incredible spiedo (slow-cooked, traditional chunks of meat, roasted on a spit) backdropped against medieval Castel Brando with horses grazing in the garden near the pool.
Malga Agriturismo Valmenera (dine) for quintessential mountain food set in the rolling, high plains and green forests of Cansiglio, expect polenta, creamy cheeses, venison stew, gnocchi and locally-reared cured meats.
Toscana - Agriturismo Villa di Campolongo (stay) for stunning rustically luxurious rooms and the most memorable farm-made breakfast in the hills near Florence. Beautiful for a romantic weekend.
Liguria - Agriturismo Terra di Mare (dine and stay) for food glorious food, olive oil, wine and incredible hospitality, close enough to drive into the Cinque Terre, set atop a hill with budget rooms because of a power station in the valley.
Piemonte - Agriturismo La Luna Nera (dine) for never-ending banquets featuring the famous white truffle of Alba, sometimes on long tables set out in the garden.
Check what's on offer
To reap the most of your stay, enquire after tours, tastings and courses when booking. Even if your hosts aren't fluent in your language, they'll still endeavour to reply to your email. Most places will have a website, some still do not - these will be advertised through larger sites such as agriturismo.it but will always have an email address you can use. If your heart lies in the kitchen, seek out a place that offers cooking sessions or gastronomic experiences like wine or olive oil tastings. If not on the farm, they will be hosted nearby and promise to make an unforgettably tasty afternoon.
Excursions for canyoning, cliff-jumping or city-exploring aren't uncommon, depending on your surrounding area and what floats your boat, so always ask your host, they'll show you where to go.
If your stay does not offer lunch or dinner once again check where to go. Rather than Tripadvisor, these locals love their land, and their foods, and will proudly point you in the right direction (to their second cousin's trattoria down the road).
Ask about air-conditioning (and mosquito nets) in summer. Most Italian windows are equipped with nets if need be, but in case of allergies or anything else, do check. Same with Wi-fi.
Accurate information is often lost in google translate so double check anything you are not sure of; if you want your pool to be yours and yours alone or if you need access to laundry facilities, just ask. These people do this out of genuine love, they're happy to accommodate and happy to please. With stories and chatter to last well into the night, they'll gladly pull up a chair, fill the jug with wine and start a tale or two (a word of warning, only get talking if you have a lot of time to spare).
Expand the city break
Once upon a time you could only book a minimum stay of 3 nights, these days, after the tragic blow of Covid, single night and cancellable bookings are here to stay so consider hiring a car and residing out of the city. Parking is easy to find on google maps and getting to know the local area is always an added bonus, chances are it's breath-taking, as most of Italy is.
Driving past medieval hill-top villages, lush coast lines and Dolomite peaks on your way into town will make you wish you'd booked for longer. There's too much to explore in Italy, especially in terms of regional culture. Every area is unique with its own dishes, traditions, festivals and saints. Check with your host for any sagre (village feasts) or local festivals on, these are a true taste of the Italian way - the streets will fill with tables, music, wine, food and extremely loud chatter in chaotic harmony, it's hard to feel more Italian than this.
If you're planning an Apline Trentino holiday, you can search on redrooster.it
As mentioned before, Italy is a country of hospitality, not measurements, not when it comes to food or wine. There's not such thing as a 125ml or 175ml glass, it's by the litre or by the glass, same with food. Portions and personalities are large, so tuck in, hypothetically and realistically. Italians can talk the hind legs off a donkey, if you have an hour or so, get chatting, you'll notice speaking the language is not a prerequisite