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Summer Harvest and Family Ties in Abruzzo, Italy

Doorway at the Villa Valsi, in Santo Stefano

Santo Stefano di Sessanio in mid-summer

An apartment at the Villa Valsi
[From Fall 2011] In a verdant valley tucked into the arid, high terrain of Italy’s Gran Sasso range, farmers in the medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio produce some of the best lentils in the world. Each year, in early September, Santo Stefano celebrates the land and the August harvest in Abruzzo with the Sagra delle Lenticchie (Festival of Lentils).

I first learned about Abruzzo’s lentil when visiting the area with my husband several summers ago. His grandparents – like so many farmers and shepherds from the region - had emigrated to America with their first child in the early 20th century, when both the land and the Italian economy could no longer support their growing family. That daughter, Nicolina, would return to Abruzzo as a young child, where she would live the rest of her life, have her own family and build a home just outside the medieval walls of Santo Stefano. That summer, we had arranged to visit Nicolina’s family, most of whom now live in L’Aquila, the capital city of Abruzzo.

As my husband reunited with some of his family over a bountiful midday meal - and my children and I met them for the first time - we talked of family and Santo Stefano and gobbled up dish after dish of tiny lentils in pure, golden olive oil. After lunch, we piled into our cars and made the looping, vertiginous drive from L’Aquila to Santo Stefano. It’s difficult to describe the surreal beauty of this region; photographs don’t do it justice. It is verdant and arid, haunting and bucolic. Abandoned medieval fortresses dot some of the ridges, ripe for a film location. In fact, the 1985 film, “Ladyhawke,” with a young Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer, was filmed near Santo Stefano. More recently, George Clooney’s “The American” was shot in nearby Castel del Monte.

Once in Santo Stefano, we climbed narrow stone stairways and ran through cobbled alleys inside the old walls. Outside the walls, we walked past the tiny stone home where my husband’s grandparents had lived, and then past the row of connected townhouses that Nicolina had built in the early 20th century. Nicolina’s granddaughter, Rita, talked of restoring the houses and opening a bed and breakfast. [Our visit pre-dated the devastating earthquake that struck Abruzzo in the spring of 2009. Fortunately, Santo Stefano was spared, and Rita was inspired to seriously set about her plan.]

Today, the Villa Valsi is an immaculate and affectionate gift to Rita's grandmother, Nicolina Valsi. Five apartments have been restored with period furnishings and traditions of the mountains of Abruzzo. Recently, Santo Stefano has gained more attention from Italians and international travelers, along with the development of an albergo diffuso within the old walls. Yet, the village retains its small population (less than 100 regular inhabitants) and its faraway feel.

But back to those lentils. Rita’s recipe for lenticchie is simple and I’ve included it below. If you really want to taste how good they are, you’ll have to travel to Abruzzo.

Rita Visioni’s Lenticchie
Approx 1/2 kilo of lentils (1 pound)
olive oil
bay leaves
- First you capi the lentils, which basically means you make sure there are no little stones or dirt and then you wash them in running water. Put the lentils in a pan and cover with water for about an inch (while cooking you can add water if needed). Add a quick pouring of olive oil, salt to taste, a couple of garlic cloves and a couple of bay leaves. Bring everything to an easy boil for approximately 20 minutes. Adjust with salt and olive oil (if necessary). You can add croutons or serve with spicy sausages and mashed potatoes.

If You Go
The VillaValsi is open year-round. Santo Stefano di Sessanio (in the Abruzzo region) is a 2-3 hour drive northeast of Rome. L’Aquila, the capital city of Abruzzo, is an interesting stopping point. For more information on life and travel in Abruzzo, go to Life in Abruzzo.

Photographs of the Villa Valsi courtesy of Rita Visioni. Story and photograph of Santo Stefano by Melissa Cicci.

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