Castelluccio

A lentil’s throw from Rome is the tiny village of Castelluccio di Norcia.  Two and one half hours from Rome, on a route that is beautiful from start to finish, one hour from the Adriatic coast, and within walking distance of the Marche region.

Legume lovers know Castelluccio as the source of some of the world’s finest lentils, which you can buy from local farmers like Signora Teresa.

Her family has produced them for many generations.  They keep their shape when cooked, and have a wonderfully nutty, earthy quality.  Toss the cooked lentils with the flavors you want them to absorb: they’ll take on the perfume of herbs and spices, or aromatics such as garlic or celery leaves, and create a superbly satisfying result.

While in Castelluccio everyone’s lentils, grown at close to 5000 feet, are organic and taste roughly the same, very few other farmers have the patience and  time required to clean them with such fastidiousness, ensuring that not one little stone is left among the legumes.

Nathan Louis bonded with Castelluccio lentils (which he likes best with homemade country sausage.)  Isabel is suspicious of them.

The children were not at Castelluccio for the lentils.

Nature lovers come to Castelluccio because they want a base among some of Italy’s most dramatic, undiscovered natural beauty.   While our clients often request a stay in the Italian Dolomites, along the Swiss and Austrian borders, there is no need to venture that far north for comparable scenery.  Walking here – on flat, family suitable paths or challenging, well maintained trails – is superb.

On a midsummer’s day, Castelluccio’s limpid light and endlessly clear atmosphere made us think of the high altitude areas of the Rocky Mountain states.

While Italian cities were hot, here we wore sweaters throughout the mornings and evenings.

This would be a perfect June/July/August headquarters in between sightseeing days in urban Rome and Florence.

While the children were good walkers, and loved studying animal tracks, butterflies and gazing at the every changing patterns of the clouds..

It was not for the scenery that the children loved Castelluccio.

We have never in Italy seen such serious professional cameras in use, or such committed photographers.

Not that there was, in the peak period, for this area, much tourism at all.   Only at dinner time did we see crowds, which is to say that our small osteria (one of three in the town) had every seat taken.

Which is another reason to visit.  Eating in Castelluccio is superb.

At our favorite trattoria, eveyone arrived in a crowd at 8.  We all left at around 11. There was so much to enjoy.  The well priced wine list alone — with a strong focus on small local producers and on Umbrian wines — was already a reason to love Taverna Castelluccio.  So too was owner Beppe’s near-fanatic emphasis on buying only from local producers whom he personally knows for his ricotta, pecorino, lamb, beef, sausages, hams, olive oil, river trout, farro.  The lentils are naturally his own.  When I asked the waiter if the Taverna appeared in any Slow Food guidebooks, he responded with some puzzlement : “What is Slow Food “?

This osteria has no need to type itself with a definition.  Its very essence is Slow Food.

But the children — for all that they enjoyed the homemade ricotta tortelli and the farro soup — did not love Castelluccio for its cuisine.

Nor for the swallows.  We have never seen such beautiful, daredevil swallows.

Nor were the children much taken by the immediate proximity to Norcia, a lovely Roman town that is a food lover’s paradise, producing what many Italians consider the country’s most characterful hams, sausages and other pork products.

The town brought Italian its word for pork butcher, norcino.  Norcia is fragrant with prosciutto — but just as much truffles.  The town’s summer and autumn truffles are splendid, and the sort of truffle feast you can treat yourself to here would be prohibitively expensive anywhere else.  (We can arrange truffle hunts.)

For Nathan, and despite the irresistibility of prosciutto, we did not visit Castelluccio for the culinary joys of Norcia.

Isabel and Nathan deemed well suited for Insider’s Italy children our new hotel discovery, where we know so many of you will be happy.

Staff, rooms and location could not be nicer : this is one of our more charming luxury-level small hotels.   We will suggest it to our travelers who insist on high standards of comfort.

The staff could not have been nicer to the children.  A stay in a bedroom that any child would love, or an opportunity to be with the chef in his own town garden when he snips aromatics for the evening’s menu…

No, these were not the appeal of our visit to Castelluccio.

Wild Flowers !

The children were here for the wild flowers !

They were here to run, dance, skip, jump and sing in the wildflowers.

Italy’s best wildflowers, and what may be Europe’s single best wild flower display, carpets the six square miles of the Piano Grande di Castelluccio.  And each week the natural composition is different from the week before.

The time to enjoy it is between early May and late July, usually best in early June to early July.  Spring flowers, with delicate cyclamen, wild iris and crocus, start earlier, and the season ends with a brilliant show of purple and orange autumn bloom.

We urge you next year to include this area in your June and early July travels, and as did the children dance through fields that are a canvas

of yellows, white, blue, red, pink : poppies, broom, flowering lentil, malva, dagger flower, gentians, buttercups and daisies.

It was pleasing to consider that within a few months, the delicate flowering lentil, which with its white flower gives the contrast to the warm reds, blues and yellows, will soon be a delicious legume on lucky diners’ plates.

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