OK! We had our Downton Abbazia momento, returning after five years to the captivating Agriturismo La Ghirlanda (“the Garland”).
Umbria, slowly stirring from a wet, cold winter, was put in sharp relief by the welcome greeting of house manager, Claudia. She settled us into the warmth and charm of this stylish country villa, a former hunting lodge on a 22o hectare/480 acre estate, with humor and a sincere recollection of our previous visit.
We’ve become accustomed (spoiled?) to often being the solo guests at rural accommodations early in the season. However, residing as the living focus of attention in this gracious residence fulfilled an unexpected fantasy that we didn’t realize we harbored. We were suddenly solo recipients, responsible for accepting and appreciating the fruits of a Great House complete with family portraits, books, paintings, refined antiques, and an immense silence.
Claudia, and the staff of three Romanians (cook, kitchen assistant/maid, waiter/“footman”) attended to our every care and comfort.
Centerpiece of our stay was each evening’s five-course candlelit dinners by a glowing fireplace. The staff was encouraged by any appreciative signal from us that each specially prepared plate met our lofty standards: mussels in light curry sauce; spinach and ricotta ravioli with oil and truffles; saltimbocca with sage.
We were well mannered, generous with compliments, humor, and personal recognition to our earnest staff. We worked hard to ensure they knew we appreciated their efforts. It is hard work being pampered; damn it! We bore up to our responsibilities as “master of the manor” with all the civil, managerial acumen we could muster. I even assisted the waiter/footman in attending the fire, although I feared I was crossing some unmarked line.
The menu, recipes, and interior design of La Ghirlanda is the creative expression of Amelia, who along with her patrician husband, own the long-held family property with its extensive vineyards, farmland, orchards, cattle (we delighted in spotting a day-old Chianina calf with its mother and small herd led by a bell clanging matron cow), lakes, and various historic structures (a Saracin tower).
Our personal breakfast buffet was an equal embarrassment of riches. Home-made cakes and tortes, yogurt, honeys, jams; local artisan cheeses and hams, fresh-cut fruits, breads, and juices, competed for our delight. Obviously, we followed the example, gleaned from Lord Gratham and Her Ladyship, in exercising polite discretion in an attempt to govern the potential for boundless gluttony.
Our daily constitutional (hiking, if you prefer) surveying the estate and lands, a bike-ride (pedal down hills – walk up ‘em) through neighboring farms and hill towns (Saragano), and gear shifting excursions in our Panda to the regional stone communities of Bevagna, Todi, Spello, and Gualdo Cattaneo, all contributed a healthy feeling of moderation and balance. Noblesse oblige!
Highlight of our stay was a personal cooking class that Amelia designed for us on the stormy day of our departure. We spent 5 hours in her custom-designed culinary teaching-kitchen in an adjacent farm building digesting her signature style of Italian cooking with emphasis on practical preparation of pasta sauces (pesto, fresh tomato, beef, eggplant) and a dolce of tiramisu. The challenge for us was to keep up with “Ama,” as she danced around her stainless cucina, moving from ingredient, to saucepan, to story, to recipe, to lovingly scolding her champagne-colored toy poodle Jolie, who just wanted to know when the scraps were coming her way.
What was exceptional was to engage with this amiable, sophisticated and talented woman and discover elements of her life: her travels, her careers (actress, Asian art collector, chef, restaurateur, TV host, and interior designer) and enthusiasms for life.
What we appreciated about Amelia, her knowledgeable, hard working husband, and their staff, was their vitality and passionate invitation for all to enjoy the refinements of a family still noble in character.
Lisa and I departed our fantasy existence at La Ghirlanda, with a down-to-earth appreciation of the life we have, and the privilege of visiting the abundant palettes of experience that travels offer.
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