The Roman Countryside
After an hour in early morning Roman traffic and 15 minutes of country roads, I was delighted to see Giuseppe and his friendly Jack Russell puppy waiting to meet us in front of their picture-perfect property, La Cucina Sabina. They specialize in all-inclusive custom culinary vacations and luxury holiday rentals, even offering yoga retreats. We came for a one-day olive oil harvest and tasting experience, but it was so much more than that! Giuseppe welcomed us inside with a big smile and in his endearing Italian-accented English he offered us fresh hot coffee and delicious homemade crostata. Welcome to Sabina in the heart of the Roman countryside. It’s a very special place; Saint Francis started his spiritual journey a mere ten minutes from here!
While we enjoyed our seconda colazione (second breakfast), Giuseppe gave us an interesting local history lesson and then what we came to hear - how to know and buy good olive oil! Well at least we know how good the olive oil is that comes from the olives grown on their property. We all brought back bottles and large tins of extra virgin olive oil, with strict instructions to store them in cool dark corners.
The olive trees which produce Cucina Sabina’s extra virgin olive oil were either planted about 30 years ago or transplanted from nearby ancient groves. Sabina is the oldest region of organized olive oil production in Italy and home to the first planted olive tree which is now 2,700 years old! Giuseppe’s eyes lit up just telling us about it and he gladly took us to visit Augusto Spagnoli’s olive grove, whose family has been based here for 15 generations. Set among the various groves, we traipsed through the most ancient olive grove in Italy and probably Europe. There are only 118 ancient trees, planted here by ancient Romans with the purpose of making olive oil for the emperor and nobility of Rome. Hence, its olive oil is precious! I was overawed, especially after finding out that the Spagnoli family donates rather than sells the oil produced from these particular olive trees. It has to be experienced to appreciate the magic of this place.
A short drive later we were back at the Cucina Sabina homestead and ready to enjoy a sumptuous lunch made by “Nonna” Carla, who has been with the villa for eight years. She grew up in Rome, moved to the countryside 25 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. I can understand why! After she spoilt us with her lasagna, meatballs, home-grown broccoli and Roman style baked potatoes, it was near impossible for us to wave goodbye that afternoon to our elegant surroundings among the olive trees and return to the chaos of Rome. We ended our trip to Sabina with a visit to the local olive oil consortium where local growers wait about an hour to see their olives (picked that day) turned into liquid gold! After processing, Giuseppe leaves some of his oil here for testing in order to gain the highly prized DOC certification. No more Tuscan olive oil for me; I'll be buying local!
I’m already planning to go back to Sabina for a cooking retreat. After spending the day with Giuseppe and talking at length to his business partner Mike, I know that anyone who stays for one of their cooking vacations is in for a real treat. The property’s first chef is Rome-based Barbara Marie Borasio who trained under Heinz Beck at the 3-Michelin star restaurant La Pergola in Rome!
Giuseppe goes out of his way to not only showcase the beauty and history of this stunning piece of Italian countryside but also happily uses his many local contacts to create unique itineraries for guests, as you would do when only your best friends visit. That’s how I felt, after less than 24 hours. If you stay longer, you can expect to enjoy local treasures such as private tours inside Palombara Castle, with its 360 degree view you can see as far as Tivoli and Rome, and Castello Savelli’s prison and torture chamber! Add in an artisanal beer brewery in the mountains near Rieti or a half-day retreat at the thermal springs in Viterbo. I can just imagine coming here with a large family or group of friends and letting Giuseppe and Mike take care of all the details from the minute you arrive in Rome. It’s only 40 minutes from Rome’s main airport. When you arrive, how involved you are in the culinary side of things is up to you and if you’d like to pick up some Italian while you’re here, be sure to stick close to Nonna Carla. She’s very kind and encouraging, and her lasagna and baked potatoes are out of this world! If cooking isn’t your thing, let Carla take care of the food while you sit back, relax and enjoy the fresh country air. The property boasts a large swimming pool for summer and a fireplace to curl up beside during winter. I think I’ve found my new retreat spot from Rome!