I discovered the Villa Vallerosa by accident. On the recommendation of a Roman friend, I had driven north to the Sabine Hills in an attempt to escape the capital's sweltering heat. The intimate, innocent landscape came as a surprise: I was soon driving through rolling olive groves, fields of poppies and umbrella pines.To the north reared the purple hills of Umbria; to the east, the great crags of the Abruzzo and its ski glacier. To the south, I could make out the silhouette of St Peter's on the horizon.
I was 40 miles from Rome, yet there were no tourists to speak of. The only snag was the accommodation. Da Franco offered two-star, airless cells of Formica and darkly varnished wood. The five-star Borgo Paraelios offered a symphony of antiques, Parmesan nests and unctuous service.Either experience would have struck a false note. I had with me a b&b list picked up from a tourist office, so, without much confidence, I random ly dialled a number. An hour later I was pinching myself, sitting on an elevated terrace outside the family home of Luciana Pancera, embroiled in the story of a local architect who is building a house opposite his latest Inglesi clients. "They are talking of suing. Ma! What chance do they have, in Italy?" She is a former Alitalia air hostess and her English was faultless - as was the slice of fig crostata (tart) on a little hand-painted plate, forced upon me along with a glass of home-made sweet wine. It felt like dropping in on a friend. One got the sense that, all day, Luciana played court on her 18th-century villa terrace with its lavish, swooping views of Sabina, receiving visitors with dainty little trays of garden and kitchen produce. By the time we had moved on to slivers of goat's cheese (I could hear the animals below, plaintively waiting for supper) I had learnt that this, the ancestral home of her husband Luigi, was no mere b&b but contained seven self-catering apartments furnished with antiques, and a swimming pool. "As an air hostess I was always talking to people, and I realised they didn't want to be in hotels any more,'' she said. ''They wanted to be invited into the family a little bit." She shrugged, waved her rings. "I do it to maintain the property and pay a proper gardener. Because if I tell our contadino Gianni to take away the weeds, he takes away the plants as well." It was clear that she also did it for the sociability. Dutch, Americans and English were her bread and butter, but increasing numbers of discerning Romans were rolling up, too. The Villa Valle rosa is, essentially, a small medieval estate, with Luciana giving orders from the top and a hierarchy of underlings baking tarts, growing vegetables, feeding pigs, making wine and pruning bougainvillea. It is perhaps a less true version of rural Italy than the gloomy, modern farmhouses that sit like functional carbuncles on hill tops. Bu t it is this version - as fostered by the agriturismo scheme - that we tourists like. And why not? By every farm and estate cultivating paying guests there are scores of locals able to continue living off the land with some dignity and evident pleasure. It is just a pity about the name. Agriturismo - redolent of hand-held ploughs and sagging mattresses, and even worse when translated to "agritourism" in English - has managed to put off so many who would otherwise be enchanted. But perhaps the unfortunate label (a relic of the movement's idealistic birth in 1965) has been its best defence against mass tourism. If everyone knew about these hidden gems in the Italian countryside, the landscape would be crawling with tour buses; and perhaps, when I rang up the Villa Vallerosa to rebook, I wouldn't be able to get my usual suite, nor would there be a little basket of garden produce left for me in the kitchen. There just wouldn't be time for such personal touches - and it is these that make the experience such a joy. Let us see past the name. The agriturismo concept is friendly and elastic: essentially, you stay on a farm or smallholding (these days in some comfort), meet real Italians and sample some of the region's best home cooking, all in beautiful surroundings. The cost might be from $40-90 (€27-62) for a double room and about $ 20 (€ 14) for dinner.
A whitewashed farmhouse bedroom, a self-catering apartment with its own terrace, a gorgeously furnished private villa with a shared pool: there are many twists on the concept. An agriturismo might be simply a restaurant - without rooms - attached to a farm kitchen, where you will be guaranteed food straight from the surrounding fields, often cooked by mamma herself. Many, especially in Tuscany, are now as sought-after as a Relais & Ch'eaux hotel. But because of their deeply rural character these are not the sort of places you will chance upon in your hire car. They require research, phone calls, map reading. But, to me, the serendipitous (and occasionally chancy) nature of an agriturismo holiday only heightens the pleasure in discovering a gem. Luciana was one such lucky find. Passionate about the region, she has prepared a booklet of itineraries, favourite restaurants and artisan food producers. She also has a keen nose for other accommodation of a similar standard. Plenty get short shrift: "That woman - she just lets the villa and then says 'Bye bye'. There is no involvement with guests. And her hair! She should make more of an effort. Then there is that man up at Tarano . . . one day he is asking you into his house, the next he is chasing you off his grass." A despairing sigh.