Report from the frontline of the olive harvest in Italy

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No Italian working day is complete without a four-hour gap in the middle, and the relaxed pace of life in Abruzzo leaves time for the kind of leisurely European lunch you can only dream about in England while bolting a hasty sandwich at your desk. I never fully understood the Italian tradition of having just a cappuccino and pastry for breakfast until I came here.

In fact, I ended up abandoning breakfast altogether (save for a cup of olive leaf tea, of course), to leave more space for the inevitable daily feast that begins around 12.30 and continues late into the afternoon, where everyone seems to know everyone else, the wine flows like water and you must remember that the pasta is only one-fifth of the meal.

Forget TripAdvisor: here, the best restaurants rely upon word of mouth, and make no concessions to fancy décor or pretention. Take La Villetta, just up the road from what can only be termed Italy’s answer to Petra: San Martino, a magnificent gigantic stone gorge in the mountains, the narrow passage of which leads cavernously and dramatically to a ruined tenth-century Benedictine monastery.

Here, we gorged (sorry) on a rustic but delicious array of uncomplicated dishes: ravioli with butter and chestnuts, rigatoni with olive oil, ricotta and fresh vegetables, braised lamb with potatoes, black olives and tomatoes, seared steak tagliata with parmesan and rocket.

By far our best meal, though, was a picturesque lunch in the olive groves cooked by the local ladies: succulent lamb chops from the butcher down the road grilled over an open fire, huge vats of homemade tagliatelle with ragu, and a crumbly, buttery cherry crostata were piled on the table alongside plates of local smoked cheese and baskets of bread, to be enjoyed against the backdrop of the olive groves. You don’t get much more quintessentially Italian than that.

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