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A day trip to Iris Origo’s La Foce, DopoLavoro La Foce and Montepulciano

DopoLavoro La Foce is a restaurant, lodged in a building that formed part of the grounds of Anthony and Iris Origo‘s estate in Val D’Orcia. It was originally the place where their farm workers could gather after work, to share a glass of wine and play a game of bocce (bowls) in the shade of the lime trees.

In 1924, when the newly-wed couple bought the 3,500 acres of land that made up the estate, they were faced with an inhospitable volcanic landscape with 50 unhappy farmers trying to make a living out of it.

At that time, Italy was still working under the almost feudal Mezzadria system, through which the landowners paid for the farmers’ homes, equipment, and grain, but in return were entitled to half the profit made from their labour.
Not surprisingly, given the terrain, the incumbent farmers at La Foce were all desperately struggling to make a living out of it, and moreover, there was general discontent about the Mezzadria system.

The Origos must have been looking for a challenge, as they spent a lot of time searching for the right place, and actually chose this barren region, largely because they believed that it could be improved by a planned programme of intensive cultivation.
As well as the modern farming techniques introduced by her husband, Iris herself established a health centre and evening classes for the workers, plus a school for their 90 children, and a transport wagon to collect and return them to their homes every weekday.

Fortunately for them, at this time Benito Mussolini was a rather more socially reformist Dictator than the Fascist he became in WWII, and he had introduced a programme to help farmers on the many backward agricultural regions of Italy, in an attempt to prevent all the farmers abandoning their fields and fleeing into the cities.

Italy with a food shortage would indeed be a country in crisis!

After our morning visit to Pienza, shown here from the opposite hilltop in Monticchiello, our delightful driver, Jacobo, from Tuscany Car Tours, took us back to see Filippo Chiezzi and his team at DopoLavoro La Foce, where we had out lunch.
The restaurant was filled to the brim, mostly with Italians enjoying a Sunday family lunch, so it is just as well to book some time ahead.

Our delicious meal consisted of four apertivi, the main course of pasta & ragu, and a dessert, plus wine, water and finally a coffee for the coffee addicts. The various courses all looked so appetising we all took photos, and I was asked to name them all – so here they are below! NB – links below images are either to how the raw materials are made, or recipes!

Buon Appetito!

We were so excited, as well as running late, so I forgot to photograph our delicious strawberry pie or strawberry and cream desserts – but they were also sensational!

Finally, at 3pm, we went out into the beautiful gardens of La Foce, which had been originally designed by English Architect Cecil Pinsent, shown below on the left, who came back to La Foce in the 60s, breaking his retirement to help his friend, Iris Origo, rebuild her garden after the war.

The original courtyard looked very different in the 40’s to the cheery place that it is now! The entrance shown above would be to the left of me in Diane Sugalski’s photo below.

We spent an hour wandering through the gardens, which were very busy, but fortunately, because I have been so frequently I am allowed to take a small group by myself.

The gardens are beautiful. but the views from them are just sensational, especially this one of the cypress lined road, which looks as if it had been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, but was in fact planted out by the Origo’s along a road which, when created, led to nowhere further than the top of the hill!

We then went to Montepulciano along the twelve-mile route that Iris and Antonio were forced to trudge with 27 children, mostly orphans from already bombed out cities, some babes in arms, – all of them exhausted from a sleepless week before with bombers overhead and continuous changes of orders from the Germans preparing for a last stand, on their land!

The German Officers ordered them to leave on the morning of 22nd June 1944, with only small bags of hurriedly packed essentials. They told them to make their way to wherever they could find shelter.

The Origos chose Montepulciano because they had friends there, which was just as well.  By the time they had carried and half dragged these traumatised children to the bottom of the hill leading up to the city walls the enormous gates had been closed and the Germans were strictly maintaining their curfew.

Just as Iris was wondering how they were going to get into the city, a little group of Montepulciano citizens appeared. They had seen the struggling group from the ramparts, somehow persuaded the Germans to unlock the gates, and were coming down to meet them with open arms.

As Iris writes in her diary, now published as “War in Val D’Orcia“

“Never was there a more touching welcome. They shouldered the children and our packages, and in a triumphant procession, cheered by so much kindness, we climbed up the village street where more people came out to meet us, and the Montepulcianesi vied with each other in offering accommodation.”

Our thanks to the generous people of Montepulciano, was to visit a historic wine cellar, called Gatta Vecchia at the top of the hill and sample some of their excellent wine!

It seemed a fitting way to end our day!


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