So lets begin with breakfast. It starts with home made bread, often warm which has been baked in the stone oven just outside the dinning room, under the covered terrace, where it is possible to eat in the summer. The bread is accompanied by home-made berry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, and of course coffee. There is usually also home-made apple pie on offer, in thin slices. It is more of a tart really, flat, full of soft, pungent winter apples and topped with shiny, light, home-made pastry. It is a simple Italian breakfast and just what you need to start you off on a walk through the hazelnut groves to the bubbling creek below, or to fortify you to climb straight up the hill to view the waterfall. For those who are really energetic, once you top the hill it is possible to keep walking until you hit a medieval hill-top town, over the next ridge and stop off for a coffee.
I have never wanted to range that far when I am at Le Belle Rane (The Beautiful Frogs) as I am afraid I won’t make it back in time for lunch. If you are eager and do happen to arrive ahead of time for lunch, there are always a couple of kilos of nuts in a wooden platter, on a long trestle table on the covered terrace, that you can stave your hunger off with while taking in the view over mountains, fields, and woods. Lunch always begins with green olives, tart and fleshy with the pips still in them, tiny squares of local sheep’s cheese (pecorino) and chewy, bite size portions of salami that tastes bloody (in a good way), fatty (in a you know its not good but it feels good anyway way), and are delicious. Combined with the home made bread, local red wine, these three antipasto delights whisk you away into a frenzy of sated, Tuscan type feelings, even though you are not in Tuscany.
And that is the thing I love most about Lazio. It isn’t Tuscany. Lazio, the province in which the B&B is in, is the province around Rome that circles it for about an hour or two in every direction. Its variety is about the same as the whole of Italy and spans rocky cliffs, snowy peaks, medieval hill-top towns, and natural hot water springs, waterfalls, spectacular views of olive groves, lakes, and beautiful seas. But its like the 100th beautiful woman in a harem. Surrounded by so much other beauty, one never quite gets to it. Most visitors are taken up by Rome, the entire time they are in Lazio, and when they think of Italian countryside they think of Tuscany and the Cinque Terra, at a push Umbria or the Amalfi coast. And I for one am glad. It means that Lazio remains cheap, under visited, and under populated and that I have snowy peaks, soft rolling hills covered in olive groves, deep forests, sparkling clean creeks to myself, or at most, with a handful of other Italians also seeking anonymity and tranquillity.
The Antipasto at Le Belle Rane is followed always by a pasta dish. Today it is a thick chewy spaghetti kind of pasta, called Tagliolini, coated in a soft, creamy texture that is like eating edible velvet, flavoured and punctuated with hazelnuts from their orchard. It is hot, pungent, and delicious. I guess if you are allergic to nuts you shouldn’t come here. Tagliolini alle noci is a timeless but finicky dish to make and I appreciate it as I would never, (could never), make it. Then comes the “secondo” or second dish. In Italian cuisine this is always the meat or fish dish, although it can be vegetarian also. Today it is a glazed meatloaf studded with rosemary and surrounded by tiny baked potatoes. The meat is mostly pork but some beef also. It is delicious and almost gamey. There could be some wild boar in it, our hosts tell me with a wink. Note to self and others, when walking around, make a lot of noise and be prepared to climb up a hazelnut tree quickly if any large, hog looking creatures should come running. Usually they will avoid you, but if scared of if they have babies they can charge.
A thin gravy at the bottom of the pan tops of the soft, meaty mixture, the potatoes are floury and hot. A salad is served for the vegetable dish, just some plain green and red lettuce mixed together. Oil and balsamic vinegar are on the table as is the bread and continuous, seemingly self filling pottery jugs of wine. In an Italian meal the vegetable is served separately to the meat or fish dish, sometimes at the same time, sometimes afterwards but always on a separate plate. Traditionally fruit and nuts would follow before a dessert, but in most cases these days, this dish is substituted for the dessert, or not served. Our dessert is served some time afterwards thank goodness, and is simple. Some plain but creamy yoghurt with a dollop of their home made berry jam in it.
Three days of this and I am ready to face Rome again. At Le Belle Rane the breakfasts are always the same, but the lunch and dinners change although they are always five courses. I sample a polenta with steamy, tangy tomatoes sauce and pork ribs, a BBQ of pork belly, tiny lamb chops and chicken thighs, ravioli, a vegetarian tart of spinach and ricotta and a vegetable called “cavolo nero”, or black cabbage. It is a black, long leafed cabbage, is found growing wild, and is a rare and wonderful experience. It grows for less than two months around Rome, and is the equivalent to taking a months worth of antibiotics. It is a “super food” with the highest amounts of vitamin C and concentrated vitamins in one plant possible. It is boiled and then “ripassato “, meaning cooked again with olive oil and garlic in a pan, sautéed lightly. Another dish that I find hard to prepare, let alone hard to find, I eat it continuously until there is none left.
I arrive back in Rome and spend the rest of the week dreaming of quiet hazelnut groves under a foot of water, rushing waterfalls, hills wreathed in mist, warm baths, wood smoke and hazelnuts. Just another weekend at Le Belle Rane.