There is a small road leading up into the mountains just past the point where the the motorway exit joins the road at Pontremoli. The road is narrow, and winds its way up through woods and past olive groves, vineyards and fields. Fortunately, the only vehicle I met was a tractor, which trundled into the undergrowth so that I could pass by. The signs to Podere Benelli continued to lead me up the mountain, until the road appeared to run out at the small church in Oppilo. On foot, I followed a sign that led me down a short alley and into to the courtyard of Podere Benelli with its beautiful stone buildings, red shutters and windows, and tumbling geraniums.
My journey to Podere Benelli began a couple of months earlier when I received an email from Mandy in Australia. Born in Lunigiana, Mandy asked if I could provide recipes of traditional dishes from the region. While my love for Lunigiana led me to set up Ciao Lunigiana, I am certainly not an expert. I could do my research, but I didn’t want to slavishly reproduce recipes I found on the internet. I knew that I would not recognise the nuances of local ingredients, which can vary from village to village, nor truly understand how the traditional cooking methods influence the flavours, or even why a recipe would be considered to be traditional. So I started looking for help.
The breakthrough came when I was contacted by Eleonora, an Italian from Milan whose father is from Pontremoli. Eleonora had read about La Via degli Abati on Ciao Lunigiana and, as a result, is planning to walk it this summer. When I explained my problem to her, she very kindly asked around, and told me that her grandfather’s cousin would be happy to help me. So on a sunny June afternoon, I set out to meet Orazio Benelli at his agriturismo, Podere Benelli. I had no idea of the amazing experience in store for me as I drove up that narrow road to Oppilo.
Orazio’s enthusiasm for slow food became obvious as he talked about the farm. Unbeknown to me before my arrival, he and his family were in the throes of preparing for a degustazione, a tasting of local, seasonal dishes from Lunigiana. All the ingredients used are traditional and, with the odd exception, came from Orazio’s farm and orto, his vegetable garden. If he doesn’t produce something himself, such as corn for corn flour, it is sourced from another local farm or mill. Never, never are ingredients bought in a supermarket. I was shown a room full of remarkable dishes prepared for the degustazione, including torte d’erbi made by Orazio’s wife from wild greens collected in the fields by Orazio that morning. No chard or spinach in those pies.
Having explored his mini-museum of ancient cooking appliances and utensils, Orazio led me to the cold room, where he stores his cheeses and salume. Shoulders of wild boar hung next to salami and proscuitto. Cheeses were maturing alongside lardo in a traditional marble bath from Colonnata. In the adjacent cellar were vats of the red and white wines produced from local grape varieties and grown in the traditional manner without chemicals. And, of course, Podere Benelli also makes its own organic olive oil.
When shown the dining room where the degustazione take place, I was not surprised to see numerous Slow Food awards, including one for the 2011 Testo d’Oro. Orazio is active in the Slow Food movement, hosting lectures and degustazione and there is a photo of him with Carlo Petrini, founder and president of the Slow Food movement, when Petrini visited the farm.
Podere Benelli offers self-catering accommodation, including a two bedroom apartment with stunning views down the valley to the Apuane Alps from its sunny terrace. Besides being privileged to be on such an amazing farm, the location offers excellent hiking, mountain biking and horse riding. Orazio jokes that his guests often suggest that he build a swimming pool. His reply? “Why would you want a swimming pool, when you could spend your time in the orto?”
Podere Benelli does not run a restaurant as such. The degustazione are by appointment only, normally require a minimum of 20 people, and several weeks notice is needed.
I hope to start publishing Orazio’s recipes soon, so do look out for them. One thing I can guarantee having visited Podere Benelli is that the recipes will most definitely be traditional and authentic.
Photo of the Apuane Alps courtesy of Podere Benelli.
The road to Oppilo and Podere Benelli appeared on Ciao Lunigiana on 24 June 2011. All rights reserved.