A Visit to the Vatican Farm

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“There are 64 head of cattle on the farm, with 26 in production, giving anything between 450 and 600 liters [120 to 160 gallons] of milk each day,” Bellapadrona says, as the cows in question thrust their gentle noses through the metal bars toward us. Not even the pope is immune from difficult neighbors, however: To avoid complaints about smell and noise, the animals are kept in a spruce shed rather than left to wander the fields, “which would be so much more fitting,” the farm director muses. The cows are fed a diet of local hay, certain grasses and clovers, and nothing treated or processed, he explains, according to the stringent rules of the official Parmesan-producing consortium in northern Italy—a model standard even for farms elsewhere, like this one, that do not themselves participate.

The milking parlor, like the rooms containing the pasteurizing and packing unit, is tiled in a restful, old-fashioned shade of lavender blue; the gleaming equipment, on the other hand, looks efficient and modern. The same dichotomy is visible down in the cellar, where each year the pope’s olives are crushed the age-old way, in a wide, shallow basin with two immense stone wheels standing on end, rotating over the fruit. In the adjoining room, however, stainless-steel tubes funnel the annual yield of some 320 gallons of olive oil to large steel vats in a dark back room, where it’s bottled as needed and dispatched to the Vatican.

Continuing an 80-year practice of supplying the Vatican kitchens is clearly a source of pride at Castel Gandolfo. It is also an evolving tradition. As we survey the vegetable garden terraces, Bellapadrona is thinking ahead. In the summer months, when the staff in Rome is off on vacation, the Vatican store is quiet, he reports, and sometimes it’s difficult to find buyers for the perishable produce from this part of the farm.

“So I’m putting vines on this level: white grapes along this way and red on the other side,” he says, gesturing toward the freshly tilled earth. With fruit trees on the upper levels, gorgeous mounds of gray-green artichoke plants at each end, and fragrant herbs straggling up the banks, the vineyards will fit perfectly into this rustic garden. And in time, the Castel Gandolfo wine will be the finishing touch on the tables of the papal household.

Anne Hanley has lived in Italy for more than 25 years—first in Rome and now in the Umbrian countryside. Hanley writes occasionally on travel for The Telegraph and has edited several Time Out guides to Italian cities. Her main occupation is designing gardens.

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