Transforming Tuscany: The Origo Family in the Val D’Orcia

Italian-American, Iris Origo and her husband, Antonio Origo, illegitimate son of the Marchese Origo in Florence bought an enormous estate in Valley of the Orcia River in the 1920s and transformed the area. Their daughters, Donata and Benedetta, still live at La Foce and La Chiarentana, making outstanding organic olive oil and offering parts of the estate for vacation rentals.

The family villa, La Foce, had originally been built in the 15th century as a rest stop for pilgrims on the Francigena, the route from Canterbury, England to Rome. When the young couple arrived in 1924, it was run down and abandoned, but they were not deterred. They were eager to get out of Florence where Iris’s mother, Lady Cybil Cutting, lived in the Villa Di Medici in Fiesole and Antonio’s family was part of the aristocratic establishment.

They eventually constructed 35 new farmhouses for their tenant farmers, along with a school, a hospital, a store and a community gathering spot, Dopo Lavoro (meaning “After Work”), which is now a charming trattoria. And then, there is the Renaissance style garden, designed by Cecil Pinsent.

Iris’s mother, Lady Cybil, had been one of Pinsent’s first clients when she moved to Fiesole after the death of her husband. She met Pinsent through Bernard Berenson, whom she had an affair with and whose secretary, Geoffrey Scott, she eventually married. (They divorced over Scott’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, who was a novelist, garden designer and most famously, the lover of Virginia Woolf.)

The gardens at La Foce are laid out with fruit trees, herbs and flowers closer to the house and the most formal par terre looking out toward the Val D’Orcia and the Monte Amiata. It is possible to visit the gardens for a guided tour on certain days.

Benedetta, daughter of Iris and Antonio, manages vacation rentals at the villa and at La Chiarentana, the part of the estate owned by her sister, Donata. The heart of La Chiarentana is a courtyard surrounded by seven homes that once housed tenant farmers.

And now beautifully restored and decorated.

The highlight of a visit to La Chiarentana is the olive oil. I was there in the fall during the harvest when fresh olives were being brought in to be pressed. (Did you know that black olives are green olives that have fully matured?)

In this video, Donata explains how important it is to get the olives directly into the press to prevent any oxidization.

Here, Donata explains how the press works.

The freshly pressed oil goes into stainless steel containers before being bottled.

After seeing the oil passing operation, Donata led a tasting of all seven of her organic olive oils from trees her parents planted on the estate. There are different cultivars (varieties) with different characteristics.

Each has distinctive fragrances and tastes but all share the pepperiness that is the sign of quality in olive oil. Read more about  tasting olive oil. At the end of the tasting, Donata brought in fresh oil that had just been pressed that was a bright green color.

Iris Origo was a writer, who first wrote about the loss of her eldest child, then, went on to write a number of biographies as well as the story of War in the Val D’Orcia, a history of the dark days of 1943-44. During that time of fighting among the Allies and resistance fighters and the Germans, she and Antonio harbored English soldiers, resistance fighters, escaped prisoners and refugee children from northern cities. The book conveys the difficulty of making day to day decisions without knowing what was going on, who might be an informer, etc..

 

Sources: The Florentine, New York Times, War in the Val D’Orcia

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