Vegetarian paradise

Scrumptious vegetarian food and great sight seeing high in the Umbrian hills of northern Italy. Could be worse.

Italian view 311 (photo credit: Alex Deutcsh)
Italian view 311
(photo credit: Alex Deutcsh)
When the waiters bring in the food at Montali, the first thing the guests do is to take out their cameras and photograph it. The award-winning country house, set high in the Umbrian hills of northern Italy, serves gourmet vegetarian food of such high quality that it has become a mecca for non-carnivores from all over the world. Presentation at Montali is every bit as important as taste – hence the cameras. After a week spent in this dreamy retreat, all misconceptions about vegetarian food are swept away – it can be delicious, satisfying and very elegant.
The place is ideal for kashrut observers for whom, unfortunately, food is often the least important part of the holiday. Unless you are going on a tour or cruise which provides kosher food, eating usually takes a back seat to all the other attractions of foreign travel, and we have all learned to survive on canned tuna, cheese triangles and, for the really gourmet occasions, some vacuum-packed salami.
That was until we heard about the Country House Montali, run for the past 15 years by a husband-and-wife team, Alberto Musacchio and Malu Simoes. Their dream was to create not just a gourmet paradise but a peaceful retreat where the guests could get away from the stresses of daily life and enjoy the calm, rustic atmosphere of a genteel country home, with solicitous service, comfortable rooms and a view of the surrounding hills and Lake Trasimeno below, which lifts the heart every time you look out the window.
We booked a week at Montali through the Internet after hearing about it from friends who had been there twice. We felt that any place that people return to has got to be worth looking into.
We rented a car in Rome and took half a day driving leisurely to the area, following Musacchio’s instructions very closely. The place is completely off the beaten track and without detailed directions – “Enter a green woodland and pass a tall oak tree on your right, then a small well on your left” – you would get hopelessly lost.
Musacchio is there to greet us, a tall, slender man always impeccably dressed in Italian designer clothes which, just like the food, change every day. It’s almost as much fun seeing what Musacchio is going to be wearing as anticipating the exquisite dishes that emerge from the kitchen. He plays the role of host to perfection, and even before we are shown our rooms we are sipping white wine in the ivy-covered pergola outside the dining room, where dinner will be served a few hours later.
He tells us his place is very popular with kashrut observers and has many visitors from Israel. He’s well-known in the Netherlands, where he has been featured numerous times on television, and in Britain, where the BBC has done a documentary on Montali and its ethos.
Not surprisingly the other guests were mainly Dutch or British.
THERE ARE ONLY 10 rooms and it’s not a hotel set-up: The rooms are chalets out in the beautiful grounds, decorated in rustic style with comfortable, wide beds, teak country furniture and well-equipped separate bathrooms.
There is no air-conditioning and until the week before we arrived one had to rely on finding a fan for some relief from the heat.
Then, luckily for us, Musacchio decided to install ceiling fans in all the rooms, which was just right for the bearable temperatures up in the hills.
And surprisingly, it is possible to live without television for a week, as there are none at Montali.
It is inexpressibly wonderful to get away from the mind-numbing horrors of the daily news and pretend nothing is happening half a world away.
The day at Montali starts with an elegant breakfast served in the brick-and-wood-decorated dining room. No eggs on toast here, but freshly baked croissants, marvelous ciabatta with butter and a dish emerging from the kitchen that varies every day, whether homemade granola and yogurt or buckwheat pancakes with raspberry syrup.
The high point of the day is dinner, served at eight in the evening. The guests meet outside under the pergola for an aperitif and to chat until Musacchio rings the bell for dinner.
The choosing of the wine and the opening of the bottles is a long, drawn out ceremony in itself, while we all wait patiently to see what wonders Malu has created in the kitchen. She rarely emerges, but in compensation is considered to be one of the best vegetarian chefs in the world. Musacchio is the front man, interacting with the guests in his Gucci shoes and casual Armani clothes.
He takes the platters brought in by the wait staff and lays them lovingly in front of the diners, explaining what they are about to eat.
“This is timballo alla teramana,” he murmurs conspiratorially. “It is constructed of five layers of crespelles and four succulent vegetables.”
Before we demolish it, the dish is documented for posterity as the cameras click away.
Three savory courses and one dessert ensure that one gets up fully satisfied, and often slightly woozy, from the dining table.
The entire day, between breakfast and dinner, can be devoted to touring, and the location is ideal for reaching many beautiful Italian towns, all with their medieval, walled cities and magnificent cathedrals. One can spend all day being a tourist and subsisting on a salad, knowing one of Musacchio and Simoes’s great meals awaits you at the end of the day.
One town that is a must to visit is Pitigliano, situated about 45 kilometers from Montali.
There has been a continuous Jewish presence there for 2,000 years and the old ghetto and synagogue are open to the public. Here, in the area known as “Little Jerusalem,” you can see a record of Jewish life in Italy in the well-displayed exhibition, inspect the rooms that served as ritual bath, abattoir and study rooms and visit the beautifully restored synagogue.
You can meet one of the three remaining Jews in the village and hear how they survived the Holocaust by being hidden in the surrounding farms.
Montali is an ideal place to spend a restful Shabbat. Musacchio will provide lunch if required and the place is even quieter and more peaceful than usual. With all the other guests off on their travels, you can sit by the pool and read, walk around the 25-acre grounds and just chill out, waiting for sundown and another great gourmet experience.