TRAVEL: Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, S.Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo

by - March 08, 2014

I absolutely HATE hotels, so being "creative" with holiday accommodation, we've stayed in unusual choices from vintage steam railway carriages to huts on Zanzibar beach. But for our "luna di miele" I wanted something really special, so we stayed in, yes, a former ghost village. The obvious choice, I know.

Abruzzo, post-war, is formerly one of the poorest areas of Italy with whole villages being abandoned as people went in search of a better life. One of these crumbling villages was San Stefano di Sessanio. It now features a very interesting concept, the diffusion hotel, with rooms being scattered around the village in various buildings, with beautiful, rustic dilapidation surrounding them.

These buildings have been lovingly and sensitively restored, yet the essence and style (and blackened walls from centuries of soot) from that abandoned time retained, just with the addition of luxury bathrooms, hidden electricity and beautiful touches like handmade rosemary soap, hand blown modern glass lamps, ceramics from Castelli, saffron-dyed bedspreads and hand stuffed mattresses. Everything, as you may have guessed, is either an antique find or made by hand using long-forgotten methods and techniques.

The hotel features a communal cantina and Liquorificio in different buildings in the village. It also has a fantastic restaurant with only a set daily menu with no choices based on the historic Abruzzo cucina-povera ("cooking of the poor" or peasant cooking). Whereas the poor of that time would have been lucky with one plate of food, the meal offered follows the classic antipasto, soup, pasta primo, meat secondo and a dessert all with wine and liqueurs (50 euros). 50% of all the produce used in the kitchen is grown by the hotel, with a view to making it 100% self-sufficient in the near future. San Stefano di Sessano is famous for its tiny brown lentils, chickpeas and saffron, their USP being the mineral-rich mountain spring waters that naturally feed the crops, so it's a fantastic place for food.

Before we dig into the food, let's firstly have a look at the interior of the restaurant. At night it's really dark and moody with flickering amber candles. Amazing and hopelessly romantic! All of the plates are made and painted locally which was a nice touch.

The antipasto was a taster plate of little bits and pieces; a rather good zucchini omelette, a little roast potato, fresh (not the usual dried) pecorino... Gave me lots of ideas on how to spice up my antipasto at home from the usual items.

Minestra: Although not much to look at, especially with the dark lighting - hence the flash, this was an incredible dish of grano (much like farro) in red wine with lots of pecorino, some speck I believe, and a deep, intense stock. Gorgeous texture and rich flavour.

Pasta: Fettucini with ragu. Mr. Graphic Foodie commented on how al dente the pasta had been on this trip. Yup and I loved it. There was no Michelin* starred wafer-like nonsense with this plate of pasta. This was like my mum makes it. Thick, heavy and richly coated in sauce.

Secondo: These sausages were made by a local chap and we were very lucky indeed to sample them as he only delivers to the hotel every few weeks. They look like your average banger but the texture and flavour was very, very Italian as you will find them typically much denser, heavier and simply spiced. Oven roasting coarse sausages like this brings out the best in them. The roast potatoes with rosemary, swimming in glossy olive oil was the perfect accompaniment.

Italians are not famous for their desserts and in a cucina-povera, very few families would have had the luxury of a dessert. This nut tart however, was lovely and surprisingly light.

**Update** The chef on the night, Rosella Madonna, after seeing this post, has informed me via email that the nut tart was a recipe of her grandmothers, written on 23rd July 1914. Isn't that sweet?

The home-brewed liquors were brought out at the end of the meal, a common occurrence in this neck of the woods, my own family home-brew lots and just a few shots will render your legs useless. These ones luckily were rather more refined and were all the classic liquors of the region:

Genziana (the gold one): My dad swears by a shot of this after a really heavy meal to "aid" digestion. Made with the roots of a local herb.

Ratafia (the almost black one): A cherry liquor made with the fruit and leaves of the tree. A hit with the ladies - it's the local version of sherry.

Ortica (the green one): Made with stinging nettles and tastes like it too. Yerk.

The only one I didn't try (as I had to navigate the crumbling cobbles back to the room!) was the reddish one that I believe was Rosa Canina. This is made with rose hips.

So as you can see the restaurant is well worth seeking out, even if not staying at the hotel.

Breakfast is an event in itself. In yet another building, a banquet table awaits you lined with home baked crostatas, lingue di gatti, pastries, cakes, home made yoghurt, savoury pies, cured meats all served by the sweetest Italian woman you will ever meet in your life. Local honey, preserves and freshly baked bread are all laid out on your tables.

When you leave, as you hand back your 7 inch iron room key, they even give you a bottle of their olive oil. This is a real foodie paradise.

It is worth mentioning that sadly, the iconic tower in the top picture had fallen down in the recent L'Aquila earthquakes and we saw a lot of heartbreaking damage in the village and surrounding areas as well as the temporary accommodation chalets for local people whose homes have been destroyed. Abruzzo has never been like the manicured tourist areas of Italy but rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. The real deal. Although parts are now scaffolded up and restoration is in progress, the beauty of the region still shines through. The damage may still put off visitors but this area could do with as much money as possible from tourism. I say go and support it and see and taste what Italy is really about.

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso
Via Principe Umberto
67020 Santo Stefano di Sessanio AQ, Italia

(You can read more about food travel in Italy at which also includes a little article I've written about regional food across Italy.)

*Although saying that, the head chef, Niko Romito, does own the Michelin starred Ristorante Reale in nearby Rivisondoli.

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