On a mountaintop in the rugged Italian region of Umbria, Letizia and her husband Ruurd run a B&B with a cooking school, Alla Madonna del Piatto. They love good, simple food. Fresh, seasonal dishes that can be made in a short time at the end of a busy day. And for 2013 they’ve added a new asset – a special space to be used as a writer’s retreat. I can’t wait to visit in October.
Umbria – a richly-textured landscape of deep valleys and moody peaks – has been somewhat overlooked by mass tourism (what a bonus) due to the attractions of its less vertiginous and comely neighbour, Tuscany. The landlocked region is sandwiched between Rome and Florence – and a short drive to both. Its most famous gastronomic contribution is the black truffle. But Letizia introduces cooking guests to less expensive, more accessible delights.
Hearty meat dishes are the most popular, but Letizia and her husband are also fond of beans in every possible way, for example in salads and soups. She also loves the versatile artichoke. At the moment they come from the south of Italy, but she makes them whenever possible.
And of course a crostata is never missing from an Umbrian table. She uses homemade jams which she also serves to guests for breakfast. Crostata is a pastry tart filled with jam, custard or ricotta and is found in all bakeries in Umbria and prepared frequently at home. The home version is definitely better than the bought one. The secret is a high proportion of real butter in the dough – not margarine! – and homemade jam.
“Umbrians love their crostata, their mums always make the best,”she says. “Sometimes they might even acknowledge that their wife makes a decent one. Any garden party will display at least 4 or 5 of these tarts. The competition among the local ladies is ruthless. Opinions are vigorously split among those who prefer more crust and just a dab of jam, those who want hardly any crust and only eat the jam, and everything in between.”
Umbria is quiet in the winter as it’s chilly and windy, with grey-violet skies hugging the mountaintops and soft snow pinwheeling down. The skiers are happy. But there’s plenty to be done for the coming season at the school. I’ll let Letizia do the talking:
“We live atop a mountain at 600 metres above sea level. The B&B is closed between November and March because of the weather and because we need some rest and time to do maintenance of our farmhouse. We tend to do everything ourselves, from administration and our web presence, to painting, restoring furniture, sewing, taking care of the fairly large grounds around the house and the olive trees.
“At the end of the season in November we have olive harvest which is an exciting event. We only produce a couple of hundred bottles which are immediately shipped to former guests all over the world. It’s unbelievable but we have a waiting list because it is so delicious and made with no chemicals. Last year the oil was shipped to Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. Most of our guests come from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and UK. We have a slowly increasing number of guests from Asia and a few from other European countries. We have some fantastic mornings when at every table (we only have six rooms) there is someone from a different corner of the world.
“For this coming season we have something new to offer to our guests. We have almost finished renovating a self-catering apartment for 2-4. We find it ideal not only as a holiday rental but as a writer’s retreat. It’s very quiet and bright and most of the rooms have the exceptionally beautiful views. We have salvaged and restored so many things for this apartment. We have been working in it for over a year, every single free moment! Old chestnut planks and wrought iron gates have become headboards. Vintage lights have been rewired. Vintage chairs have been glued, polished, painted. Old cabinets have been cleaned and waxed. Only the kitchen is spanking new and well equipped as we wanted people to be able to cook a real meal, not to camp as you do in many rentals.
“In addition we can now offer a sustainable house. We have a 10 kw photovoltaic system, so we produce all our electricity. We obtain warm water with a potent wood heater and solar panels. The wood comes from our own woods, a few hundred meters down the road. This has been a huge undertaking for us (and totally self financed) and we are quite proud of it.”
The farmhouse is off the beaten track – no public transport nearby so you have to drive there. More info on availability at the Alla Madonna de Piatto cooking school, click here
*All images supplied by Letizia and are her intellectual copyright. Thanks, Letizia, and I’ll see you soon! Don’t ask me if I’m brave enough to drive through Rome traffic from the airport to Umbria. I’m still thinking about that. It can’t be any worse than Athens traffic, and I drove in that from almost the first day I set foot in Greece…. could it?