The [Umbrian] Hills are Alive ...

Paul didn’t come to Italy just to see me … it was also an opportunity for him to get his parents over to visit their parents’ native country. Proving himself to be a kind husband in addition to being a kind son, he agreed to write a post about one of their favorite days in Italy.

To get past the agricultural station at U.S. Customs, you have to say whether you’ve been on a farm while away.  Spending part of a day with the Chiacchiarini, a family of traditional sheep farmers in the green hills of Umbria, as my parents and I recently did, not only gives you something to talk about with the nice Customs agricultural officers, it also offers an authentic glimpse into real family life in the heart of Italy.

Although we started our visit with Francesca Chiacchiarini and her New Zealand-born husband Mac Ryde looking for wild asparagus in an olive orchard near the picturesque central Umbrian town of Montefalco, guests who visit them in warmer weather meet where the family and their 600 sheep spend the summer, in the cooler environs of the mountains across the valley from the town.

A gregarious guide whose English makes this experience completely accessible to Americans (except when he lapses momentarily into waxing about New Zealand rugby), Mac strolled with us through the olive grove, explaining the care and pruning of olive trees, some of which exceed a thousand years old; the mixture of olive varieties in the orchard, meant to ensure a balanced yield year in and year out; and the various picking methods used each fall – from hand-raking the branches, the method we’ve used on our own trees in Benano, to Mac’s preferred method of using a suction device to disengage the olives, to the ultimate purists’ somewhat anal-retentive technique of picking each olive one by one, to ensure that a little stem remains, preventing air from seeping in.

Well stocked with wild asparagus from our stroll thanks mostly to Francesca’s experienced eye, we went back to their home and were warmly received by the rest of her extended family, whose surname literally means “chatters” or, as she interprets it, “people who talk too much.” We watched as they turned that morning’s haul of sheep’s milk into authentic Umbrian pecorino, pitched in while they prepared lunch, and shared a feast of their homemade cheeses, pasta, frittata, greens, and bread, as well as a neighbor’s red wine.  Montefalco, by the way, is home to Sagrantino wine.

Karen has dedicated this blog to demystifying travel in the heart of Italy.  All in all, visiting with the hard-working Chiacchiarini family, strolling with them and their flock in the mountains, and then helping make, and sharing in, their midday meal is just about the perfect way to combine exquisite scenery with a glimpse into the real life of a working farm family in Umbria.