Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Agriturismo – the Good, the Bad and the not necessarily Ugly

Last year, for a change from the annual summer pilgrimage to the beach, we decided to treat our children to a taste of the ‘good life’ – a week’s stay in a Tuscan agriturismo.  I didn’t do my homework properly and what we got wasn’t exactly a hands-on experience of life in a working Italian farmstead – what an agriturismo should provide – but rather, five days in a characterless apartment two kilometres up a dirt track away from what was supposed to be the main farm but was in fact an excuse for a restaurant during the day and an abandoned building at night. The Dutch couple in the apartment next to ours didn’t seem to mind – just living on a hill must have been novelty enough for them.

 “Don’t let your children throw things in the pool”, the owner said, as he gave us the guided tour. “If you want breakfast you’ll have to order it a day in advance so I can notify the bakery. The restaurant’s only open for lunch and do feel free to use whatever you want from the vegetable garden”. Then, just before leaving, he handed us his mobile contact number and one final piece of advice: “remember, nothing in the pool”!

As it turned out the Italian family that stayed in the apartment before us had harvested everything remotely edible from the narrow strip of an excuse for a vegetable garden. I assume that they too had felt cheated and were seeking compensation in whatever way they could find. We ate once at the restaurant and the food was reasonably good. However, it was over-priced and nothing that was on offer was produced on the non-existent farm. As it happens, even the prettily packaged artisan conserves sold on site were actually made off site. Although there was a pool and a Jacuzzi (which, incidentally, didn’t work), there was no sign of a working farm – indeed there was very little evidence even of the farmer – he lived in a house on the other side of the valley. After 5 days we’d had enough and left. That’s the Bad.

There are an estimated 20,000 agriturismi in Italy. In the past 10 years their number has almost doubled (up by 90%), with Tuscany leading the way with over 4,000, followed by Alto Adige. Despite Italy’s economic woes, every indication suggests the trend is set to continue. When I arrived in Castell’Arquato 7 years ago I knew of one agriturismo situated 10 kilometres from my door in the town of Vernasca. Today there are as many as 10 within a five minute drive. 

The idea of coupling farming and tourism originated as a response to the decline in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s in small scale farming. As profits eroded, farmers abandoned their holdings and took flight to the cities in search of work. In 1985, in an attempt to halt the trend, a law was passed which enabled farmers to supplement their income with tourism. The law saw the birth of the agriturismo.

Intended as a means to reunite city dwellers with the countryside whilst at the same time providing a financial incentive to safeguard traditional agricultural practices that were in danger of being lost, no one could argue with the spirit of the law. City folk could pick fruit, tend to the animals, help in a country kitchen, learn how to make cheese or water the vegetable patch, knowing that by doing so they’d not only be having a good time, they’d also be helping to foster organic farming practices, help preserve indigenous breeds of livestock, antique varieties of fruit and vegetables and support artisan cheese and salami makers. That’s the Good, and sometimes the Ugly.

When the law was first passed in 1985 to allow farmers to open their doors to tourists, government grants were awarded as an incentive to do so. Herein lay the problem. Some farm owners saw this as an opportunity to cash in. In short, tourism was the primary motivating factor and the farm was maintained (if even that) merely as a façade to disguise what is nothing more than a glorified restaurant. In one case I’ve even heard that the proprietor used the grant allocated to refurbish a dilapidated ancestral family home. He then registered the business in the Yellow Pages, as was the law, and promptly told anyone that happened to call that the establishment was booked solid for the foreseeable future. After 3 months few people bothered calling anymore!

So how do you separate the fraudsters from the genuine article?  How do you tell from the Good, the Bad and the not necessarily Ugly?

  • As for the latter, it’s important to point out that an agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm. Appearances can be deceptive and it’s not necessarily the case that mud and manure equates to a Bad agriturismo. It may be Ugly (and smell a little), but that’s often a good sign that the farmer is following the letter of the law. So the first rule is choose a farm where the given agricultural activity is actually visible and that activity, whatever it may be, is run by the farmer and his family.

  • True farmers are passionate, knowledgeable and proud of what they do and most will appreciate any interest that is shown. Most will also be more than happy to demonstrate their skills and experience. And all genuine farmers, from my experience, tend actually to live on the farm!

  • A further clue is always on the menu. Ask if any of the dishes are based on ingredients grown or produced on the farm? Ask if they bake their own bread, make their own conserves, grow their own vegetables, rear their own meat, make their own cheese, hams, sausages or salami? Check also that dishes are seasonal and local – if the restaurant is only cooking Barilla pasta covered in a jar of sauce, then there’s something wrong. Not that I have anything against Barilla, but if I want a bowl of dried pasta, I’ll make it at home. 

  • Finally ask the farmer about what recreational activities the farm has to offer. A wandering donkey is not evidence of a working farm and although a pool might offer welcome respite from the Summer sun, if that’s all they can offer, find a hotel!
I’d be most interested in hearing your stories, your experiences – whether good, bad or ugly! In the mean time, the owner of one good agriturismo that I had the fortune to stay in once gave me a great piece of advice. To separate the wheat from the chaff, ask if they bake their own bread or make home made cakes for breakfast? If they do, it’s always a sign that you are on the right track. So here’s the recipe for an Italian country classic.

Country ring cake
Ciambella Rustica

I’ve eaten some great meals at true agriturismi in and around the country and the menu always differs depending on where you happen to be. However, one thing that I’ve found is that most good agriturismi will often prepare a cake or tart of sorts for breakfast. The three most common are the ciambella rustica, the crostata or the torta di frutta (the fruit depending on whatever’s in season). Simple to prepare, in the countryside a slice of ciambella or tart is often eaten as an alternative to brioche. Ciambella tends to be dry and when eaten for breakfast is usually accompanied with a caffelatte.  It’s also eaten at the end of a meal, most often on Sunday’s with a glass of white wine, or as a mid-afternoon snack for the children after school.

Makes 1 26cm ring cake
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 40-45 minutes

400g self raising flour
180g caster sugar
160g unsalted butter at room temperature
3 free-range eggs
150ml tepid milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

This cake is simplicity itself… just throw all the ingredients into a large bowl and whisk together well!  Grease and dust a ring-shaped baking tin with flour and add the cake mix.  Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for 40-45 minutes.  If you wish, you can decorate the top of the cake with sugar sprinkles or chocolate drops; simply sprinkle these on top of the cake before baking. Once cooked, allow to cool on a baking rack.


  1. This made me laugh so much! The image of the wondering donkey sums it all up. A great idea that many take advantage of, human nature really.

    1. Unfortunately that's the case Paula. But there are great agriturismi out there and what a pleasure when you find one! Genuine food in a genuine environment with genuine people - and the odd donkey to boot!

  2. My family and I haven't had any experiences staying in agriturismi Mario, just eating at them for dinner! It does seem that there are a lot of them, and I believe that a certain number of them were set up because of the tax breaks that were possible.

  3. I've never stayed anywhere like this. I'd love to though just for the ambiance. Great ring cake recipe. I just want to reach in the screen and grab a piece right out of the pan.

  4. The closest I've come to staying at an Agriturismo is watching a Rick Steve's episode about it. I believe in was in Sicily.

    That cake looks wonderful!!

  5. I really believe in agriturism as we're really those who prefer walking bare feet in wet mud :) I really enjoy your post and can't wait to take my kid out this weekend looking for something similar :)

  6. Hi, Mario, thank you for the great post. I happened to visit several agriturismi in Abruzzo region. They were very real. They produced honey, olive oil, vine, jam etc. I liked very much a donkey agriturismo. They raise donkeys and guests can ride them. But the smell was very strong!

  7. This is too funny! (I'm sure not for you at the time). We were in the Abruzzo region a few years ago and it's true what you said about having to pre-order breakfast. We were staying in a hotel and there was only one restaurant in the village ~ We had to order dinner the night before.

  8. Ugh, sorry about your experience last summer. But thanks for sharing this marvelous ring cake...it sounds quite tasty!

  9. Oh, Mario! What a funny story! Sounds like you made the best of it though, and I'm glad you posted as I've never heard of this sort of holiday. It's something I would love! Well...at a different one I think. And cake for breakfast? Well, that would be just fine too!

  10. Mario, I nominated you for a storytelling award. Check it out in my page!