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Vero Italiano AGRITURISMI

In the latest instalment of his series uncovering the secrets of Italian food, Mario Matassa heads out into the countryside to stay on an agriturismo, and discovers why these farm-stays can provide the perfect holidays for foodie travellers…

There are more than 18,000 agriturismi in Italy, half of which have sprung up recently – particularly in Tuscany and Alto Adige.

The idea of coupling farming and tourism originated as a response to the decline of small-scale farming since the 1950s. In 1985, in an attempt to halt the trend, a law was passed that enabled farmers to supplement their income with tourism.

In a nation that feared it was losing touch with the land, the agriturismo would reunite city dwellers with the countryside, while also providing an income to safeguard traditional practices that were in danger of being lost. Organic farming practices and initiatives to preserve indigenous breeds of livestock and plants would proliferate – and farmers would have an outlet to sell their produce, such as their cheese and salami, that they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to.

It was a savvy initiative, one that is now being replicated in France. However, as so often happens, the spirit and the letter of the law are not always the same. In short, there are good agriturismi and there are bad ones. And, over the years, I have had the fortune/ misfortune to stay in both sorts. The key is to know how to distinguish between them. The problem is that it isn’t always that easy.

“Ask them if they bake their own bread,” was Andrea Bertoletti’s advice to me when I visited his organic agriturismo, Il Tondino, in the hills overlooking Parma. Andrea’s farm epitomises the positive spirit of the intention behind agriturismi. Visitors play second fiddle to his primary goal, which is running a traditional organic farm and raising semi-wild pigs (the rare Black Pig of Parma). After all, a true agriturismo should first and foremost have ‘a farm on its shoulders’.

Last year, I stayed at an ‘agriturismo’ in Tuscany.

Upon arrival I was presented with a glossy brochure listing its many facilities. From a swimming pool to a jacuzzi, there was everything – except, that is, any meaningful sign that I was staying on a farm. The lawns were carefully manicured but the closest it came to actually growing anything edible was a pitiful vegetable patch that made the Sahara look fertile. There was a meticulously groomed dog, but farm animals were notable by their absence. As indeed was the proprietor, who gave me his contact number before leaving for home – which was a house some five miles away on the other side of the valley. Just before doing so, he turned and asked me if I’d need any bread in the morning as he would need to let the bakery know. Politely, I declined.

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About Italia!

Our writers have travelled around Italy this month to bring you inspiration for your next adventures in 'il bel paese'. Lake Garda is our starting point, an ever-popular destination where quieter corners still remain – if you know where to go. We also head to the hills in Tuscany’s Casentino Forest (whose trees provided the wood for scaffolding to build Brunelleschi’s dome), and if you want to get fit, a healthy spa break in Puglia could be just what you’re looking for.