Sabina, Italy: good food, wine and olive oil, stunning landscape.
Galenus, the Roman inventor of pharmacology, knew it already: in the 2nd Century AD he wrote that Sabina olive oil was the best in the ancient world. Not much has changed today: the green, rolling hills of Sabina are dotted with olive groves and still produce very special extra virgin olive, which is light but full of flavour at the same time. Sabina is a beautiful region of central Italy, very close to Rome yet completely unspoilt, which produces great cheeses, cured meats, organic fruit and vegetables, excellent wine and even ancient varieties of wheat and lentils.
Memories of Traditional Good Food.
Growing up in the city of Rome, Sabina was always a favorite nearby destination where my 'gourmand' parents could find their supply of fresh, good food directly from the producers, so we didn't have to rely on supermarkets. I have fond memories of sunday afternoons spent at a friend's estate in Sabina, having hot freshly baked bread topped with a slice of home-made prosciutto for snack, sitting outside at a big table in the warm spring sun, breathing in the clean air.
I also remember watching sheep milk cheese being prepared in front of me, then baskets of ricotta made for us to take home. My father and mother always sourced guanciale (cured pork cheek), essential for our amatriciana and carbonara and prosciutto plus capocollo (cured pork fillet) and then of course large containers of olive oil. All this food would keep nicely in our cellar in Rome but would not last for long, which was an excuse to return to Sabina again.
It was precisely these memories of food abundance and the lovely flavour and smell of good natural food, that eventually made me move from Rome to Sabina.
For over 2000 years people have been producing olive oil in this region. The largest olive tree in Europe, situated in the heart of Sabina (today a national monument), has been recently carbon-dated to the beginning of the Roman Empire and still produces plenty of olives. During the middle ages, olive oil production made the main local landowner, the Benedictine Monastery of Farfa, one of the most powerful city states in Italy, named 'Imperial Monastery' by Charlemagne in person.
Still today, ancient native varieties of olive trees are exclusively grown in Sabina (such as 'Olivastrone' and 'Raia'), which make Sabina olive oil unique. The olives are manually picked in November when they are half green half black, a time when they burst with flavour, antioxidants and vitamins. Then they are sent to the press within 24 hours of picking, to make sure that all the goodness contained in the olives is transferred into the oil. Today, the temperature at which the olives are pressed is monitored and it never touches 27 degrees Celsius: this is called 'cold pressing'.
The result of all this is extra virgin olive oil with a beautiful smell of freshly cut grass, clean, light taste and a blend of lightly bitter and peppery flavours, perfect as a condiment, on bruschetta or for cooking.
This is another great culinary tradition of Sabina. Guanciale, cured pork cheek, has become rare elsewhere, but it's still produced here and it's essential for the preparation of famous Roman pasta sauces, such us Carbonara and Amatriciana. Guanciale, pancetta, capocollo, and prosciutto are produced locally in small quantities and simply preserved with sea salt and black pepper. This tradition comes from a time when refrigeration was not available and curing was a way to keep meat for a long time. Still today, the curing process consists of hanging the salted fresh meats in a dry and cross-ventilated cellar for at least 3 to 4 months, while checking the meat from time to time.
Many people think that Pecorino is strong hard cheese suitable for grating. This is in fact only one type of pecorino, called 'pecorino romano'. Any cheese made of sheep's milk, from mild to extra mature, is called pecorino, here in Italy. In Sabina shepherds have been handed down their cheese making skills from their ancestors and produce the creamiest cheese I've ever had, firm but not hard in consistency, made with unpastorised milk (as it should be). Their pecorino is to die for, especially with pears, fresh figs, grapes and a glass of local red wine.
Sabina wine is not about quantity, but quality. As you get closer to the river Tiber, the soil becomes more volcanic, less rocky and with the right amount of clay and sand. This is where most winemakers of Sabina established themselves. One in particular has recently won many awards: Tenuta Santa Lucia. Their range of wines are based on native central Italian grapes such as Falanghina and Pecorino (yes, it sounds like the cheese but it's wine!) for the whites and Sangiovese and Montepulciano for the reds, which are aged in ancient oak barrels.
The way the landscape of Sabina is unspoilt is almost a miracle, considering its vicinity with a big city like Rome. The Sabine Hills are a mere 40 minutes from the outskirts of the Italian Capital, yet their landscape is similar to certain areas of Tuscany, such as Chianti or the Valdichiana near Arezzo, or Umbria. Despite this, Sabina has only been discovered by a small number of discerning travellers and I don't think will ever be spoiled by mass tourism. Visiting many ancient castles and monasteries take us back to the middle ages, while those into walking and hiking have a great choice of pathways along rivers, valleys and up hilltops. Sabina is a great place to live, but also to visit and nourish your senses and your soul.
*Guido Santi runs "Convivio Rome" with his wife Sally Ransom, offering cooking classes and culinary holidays in the medieval hilltop village of Toffia, Sabina (Italy).
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For more information on the Sabine Hills and Rome cooking classes in Sabina, please visit http://www.conviviorome.com