It was at a small mama and papa refinery on a hillside in rural Italy where I finally worked out why some people go on and on (and on) about good extra virgin olive oil.
Freshly pressed from late-season olives grown for centuries in the region, the vibrant yellow-green oil had taste, fragrance and character – bitter and spicy.
The Ragoni family of Spello in the Umbrian countryside who produce the oil entertained the group of travel writers, showing us how the oil is pressed from olives grown on their own trees.
Mama Ragoni poured it onto toasted white bread, sprinkled with a touch of salt. It was simple and delicious. And we couldn’t get enough.
It put to shame the supermarket product I usually buy. Lesson learnt.
It’s not unusual for small family holdings to produce their own olive oil in regional Italy. The olive harvest can be a family and friend event, with hard work followed by food and wine and laughter.
Those who help the harvest are rewarded with a litre or so of the olio they helped produce.
The high regard Italians place in food – and the eating of it – is what makes the Italian cuisine so good, especially in the regional areas. And it’s one of the many things that makes a visit to this country such a magical experience.
The best Italian cuisine uses local, in-season produce, prepared simply but proudly and lovingly.
For Italians, food is not just fuel for the day. It’s for celebrating and being with family and friends.
Sundays, especially, are a day for long lunches with family and friends.
On this trip, our tour director Belinda Richardson – an Australian who has lived in Italy for decades – took us to a brilliant restaurant in the Umbrian township of Spello to dine like the Italians.
Sunday lunch at Il Molino in Spello – a tiny ancient fort town near Assisi where the housewives still sweep the cobblestone streets outside their homes – was a great place to take part in la dolce vita.
The 15-minute walk through the streets uphill to the restaurant is worth the effort, where our local guide entertains us with tales of past and present life in this town.
Inside the medieval stone building, a chef is hard at work at the open fireplace. In the kitchen out back, head chef Francesca is preparing the meal.
We start with a savoury flan, followed by pasta (with in season boar ragu), then a pork dish, then dessert. All dishes are made from the best ingredients. The entire, three-hour lunch is accompanied by delicious Italian wines and lots of laughter.
By the time we leave, it is hard to walk. But it ranks as one of the best meals of my life because the Italians are right – food needs to be about family, friends, fun and love.
Lunch at Il Molino is not the only food highlight of the tour.
In the city of Orivieta, we’re given a pasta making lesson by local celebrity chef Lorenzo “The Estrucan Chef” Polegri (one kilo of strong flour and all the eggs it wants, kneaded, rested, kneaded and rolled out to a thin sheet, then cut).
Every region has their cuisine specialties.
In Bologna, at Ristorante Zerocinquantuno we have “spaghetti bolognaise” – more accurately tagliatelli di ragu.
And it’s nothing like the spag bol our mums made. It’s not red, it’s not sweet and it’s not tomatoey.
It is, however, delicious, as is another local Bologna dish – tortellino di brodo.
In Venice, it’s less meat and more seafood. The food is lighter. And it’s worth a trip to the Rialto to check out the produce brought daily into the famed city. That’s how Italians eat – fresh, local, seasonal.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find – or want to eat at – international fast food restaurants. And even the service stations on the highways would rival our best delis for produce.
It would be remiss of me not to mention lunch with the count.
It took place at the Marchessi Mazzei estate of Castello di Fonterutol in Chianti.
Overlooking the Tuscan valley and a beautiful crisp autumn afternoon, the lunch was hosted by the ultimate Italian – a count, with a family dating back 600 years who was both charming and handsome.
It was gorgeous and romantic and the 27th marquis, who goes by the simple title of dottoro, was straight out of the guide book of Italian nobility – handsome and charming.
But much of Italy was just like that – gorgeous and charming, where the locals treated you like family.
IF YOU GO TO ITALY:
GETTING THERE: There are daily flights from Australia to Rome where the Insight Vacations Country Roads of Italy tour starts.
STAYING THERE: Insight Vacations Country Roads of Italy tour runs for 16-days at a cost of around $A5000. All accommodation is sorted and the coach has been specially laid-out to provide extra leg room.
PLAYING THERE: The Insight Vacation team will take into account the interests of guests. Some of the activities can include a cooking class with the Estruscan Chef Lorenzo Polegri; visiting the many medieval cathedrals; dining out; and eating gelato.
The writer travelled to Italy as a guest of Insight Vacations.