I am by nature a city girl. I may grow some herbs and a few tomatoes, but more serious gardening is beyond me. I remember my Italian grandfather's vegetable garden in New York, and the taste of his fresh tomatoes and wax beans, but I figure that's why Mother Nature invented grower's markets - to give me the flavor without all the work. But a week on an agriturismo in southern Tuscany had me reconsidering - perhaps I had a bit of farm girl in me after all. I actually caught myself humming the theme song to "Green Acres" at one point, and that must mean something.
Agriturismi (that would be the plural of the Italian word agriturismo) sprang up in the 1980s as the Italian government began subsidizing farmers who worked their land and hosted visitors on their property. The goal was to encourage farmers to continue agricultural work while developing an additional source of income. One of the first agriturismi in the Val d'Orcia was Agriturismo Cretaiole. The vision of its owner, Luciano Moricciani, was revolutionary at the time when locals (and even his own father) questioned if any tourist would really want to stay on a farm. But Luciano persisted, turning a run-down farmhouse into a place with charm and tons of local character. Today, Cretaiole is a magical spot, part working farm and part vacation destination.
What makes Cretaiole so special? To start, it’s the Moricciani family – Luciano, son Carlo and daughter-in-law Isabella, along with their "right-hand woman," Carlotta. They are warm and welcoming, eager to share the history of their land, along with their knowledge of local customs and cuisine. Isabella expertly guides visitors to the special places of southern Tuscany - hill towns, restaurants, wineries, scenic drives - and also teaches the making of pici, the local pasta specialty. Carlo runs the vineyard, supervises the olive harvest and shares his considerable expertise about olive oil. Then there is Luciano, the padrone of the family. Luciano runs the family farm in Pienza, works with the grapes and olives, and finds time to visit with guests in the evening, arriving with wine, limoncello, grappa and music. Dancing with Luciano late into a warm Italian evening makes you feel like you really, truly belong to Italy. Essential to the team is the magic of Carlotta, who manages the day-to day needs of the visitors; whatever you need, Carlotta smiles and makes it happen. This is a hands-on family operation and that's a big part of what makes it special.
As an agriturismo, the heart of Cretaiole is the beautiful stone farm complex, which has been converted to apartments ranging from studios to three-bedroom units. There are courtyards and open spaces with views over the Val d’Orcia and of Pienza a short distance away. The large lawn is dotted with swings, lounge chairs, and comfy spots for reading, daydreaming, mingling, or just gazing at the surrounding beauty. The apartments are rustic Italian style (our front door opened with a big skeleton key) but with all the modern conveniences, including fully equipped kitchens, great bathrooms, and comfortable beds with lovely linens. Our kitchen was stocked with local products, including meats, cheeses, fruit, a bottle of wine (all part of the “dolce vita” package) along with other kitchen basics (coffee, olive oil, sugar, etc). The garden was planted with tomatoes, lettuce, fennel, zucchini, cucumbers, and onions - feel free to pick what you need! We cooked a memorable dinner with fresh pasta purchased in Pienza, a sauce made of onions and fennel and a salad made from garden ingredients. How do you say YUM in Italian? Che buono! It isn’t just about guest quarters though. The property is also a place of work with a vineyard and olive trees. If you are lucky enough to be there during the vendemmia (grape harvest) in October, or the olive harvest in November, be sure to lend a hand!
The location of Cretaiole, about 10 minutes outside of Pienza, makes it an ideal spot for exploring the many hill towns of southern Tuscany. Pienza itself is a delight. It’s a short drive from Cretaiole to Montepulciano, Montalcino, Monticchielo, and San Querico d’Orcia. A car is a necessity, but the driving is easy, the scenery spectacular, and Isabella provides great driving directions. Should you get lost, just call Carlotta on the cell phone provided to guests.
If I close my eyes I can still picture it: a cozy fire in the big open fireplace warming a chilly morning, windows open to stunning views of the Tuscan countryside, the scent of good Italian coffee brewing in a Moka on the stove, grapes ripening in the fall sun, and a garden just waiting for me to pick plump ripe tomatoes for the night’s meal. Cretaiole really was my perfect Tuscan farm home, if only for one week. - post by JMB
Not to be missed: a visit to the nearby La Foce gardens, hiking down to the Etruscan ruins on the Moricciani property, a massage under the olive trees, pici making with Isabella, tasting Cretaiole’s olive oil, wine and prosciutto along with a local pecorino cheese, sharing a limoncello with Luciano, a visit to Monticchielo with lunch at La Porta, tasting Brunello wines in Montalcino.