Farm-to-table Meals in Italy and Israel

We’re just back from a month of traveling in Italy and Israel where a highlight of both places was the food, particularly the farm-to-table meals. On a weeklong village-to-village walk in the Sabine Hills north of Rome, we stayed three of our nights at farms that served amazing dinners and a fourth night enjoyed another wonderful dinner at a farm near our hotel. The most delightful of these agritourism farms was Le Mole Sul Farfa near Mompeo. In Israel, on a splendid visit with our niece, her husband and their daughter who live in Tel Aviv, we shared the best lunch of our trip at Goats With the Wind a goat farm and restaurant high in the hills above the Sea of Galilee. Enjoying the food of another country is a huge pleasure of traveling, and farms and farmers are the best source of this pleasure.

At Le Mole sul Farfa, dinners combined traditional Italian recipes with imaginative vegetarian cuisine prepared from the farm’s vegetable gardens. Our host Stefano Fassone introduced the meals by describing the source of the ingredients and their preparation. Highlights were homemade pappardelle topped with tomato sauce, black olives and a touch of lemon zest, thin slices of fried eggplant wrapped around mozzarella and baked, and thinly sliced beets topped with a tangle of arugula then sprinkled with walnuts from the tree outside and goat cheese from a neighboring farm. Dinner ended with glasses of Stefano’s homemade limoncello.

But while Le Mole sul Farfa’s lovely accommodations and amazing meals were more than enough to make it our favorite agritourism stay, the tour of its grove of ancient olive trees that produce the farm’s main crop made our visit here the highlight of our Italian travels.

Late in the afternoon, Stefano walked with us through his grove of olive trees, describing the extensive Roman villa that occupied the site 2000 years ago and provided olive oil for the expanding city of Rome. When Stefano bought the land local farmers told him that there were caves on the property, but as he investigated the “caves” he discovered that they were actually vaulted storage areas that were the basement of a villa, the first evidence of the villa that had occupied the site.

Stefano's vaultGiving us flashlights, Stefano took us into an ancient vault to see a further discovery that links his olive groves to the original Roman farmers: three large troughs connected by channels, one higher and one lower*. Standing in the dusky light, we listened as Stefano explained how ingenious Romans designed these troughs to separate oil from the water that resulted from crushing the olives. Today Stefano uses a centrifuge to separate oil from water but the olives remain the same, a crop that has been farmed and processed for centuries.

Returning to the grove, Stefano took us to several of his largest trees and told us botanists who conducted DNA studies on the trees determined that these trees were 1500 years old. Stefano thinks they may be even older, perhaps as old as the villa.

Stefano's trees trunksLooking at these gnarled, gray trunks topped by healthy leaves and a heavy crop of this year’s olives, it was hard to grasp what they represent. They carry this year’s crop of olives but they have been producing olives for centuries, as villas were established, abandoned, and slowly covered in earth. And here they are today tended by a 21st century farmer and producing a crop that sustains his family.

Stefano's grove

This sense of the past in the present was just as strong in Israel. On one of the many delightful food adventures our niece planned for us, we made our way from urban Tel Aviv to the Goats With the Wind farm and restaurant, driving from highways to smaller roads and eventually to a steep and rocky dirt road winding up a hillside. Soon we saw goats and then the entire flock passed by us surrounding the car on all sides and moving on. We continued to the farm, a collection of stone buildings with fancifully painted gates.

GWW stone wall

We felt like we’d entered another world and this sensation continued as our lovely host led us to a small pavilion surrounded by a wrought iron fence and topped with a rush roof. Kilim rugs covered the floor and pillows surrounded low tables topped with colorful cloths. Just being here was a visual feast but then the food began: a loaf of fresh whole wheat bread, a bowl of labaneh, a thick yogurt-like cheese topped with olive oil, and a plate of fresh ricotta fried in sumac, then large bowls of salad, one eggplant, one tomato, one red cabbage and cucumber, all fresh and flavorful. And finally our host, laughing at us as we cheered each time she appeared, brought a board of cheese, a sampling of all the goat cheeses the farm makes.

GWW lunchAnd we had wine, a lovely red also made at the farm. We ate slowly, savoring the food, the place and our time together, knowing we were in the present but feeling also that we’d been transported to an earlier time.

We thoroughly enjoyed the restaurant part of Goats With the Wind but it’s also a farm and we were welcome to tour it and the kitchen and to ask questions. As our host explained, the goats we saw on our drive in are milked daily and the milk is made into cheese. The goats in their stone enclosures or on the rocky hillsides around the farm were both the source of our delicious lunch and also part of the ancient landscape, something that has lived on the land for centuries, like the olive trees.

GWW kitchen

GWW goats

Now we are back home with photos and notes to help us recall our adventures and memories of flavors and preparations to inspire experiments in the kitchen. With my Italian and Middle Eastern cookbooks and the fall and winter vegetables flourishing in the kitchen garden, I’ll see what I can create to prolong the pleasures of our travels.

*For another story about Le Mole Sul Farfa that includes a photo of the olive oil tanks, go to this 2009 article by Sue Watt:

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