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Christiane Wassmann
A Refuge in the Grove

Conscious Future

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  • Words Allison Reiber DiLiegro
  • Images Vivek Vadoliya

Christiane Wassmann doesn’t truly consider herself a local anywhere, but she gets as close as she can in Panicale.

Amid a life spent scattered across the world—she has lived in Nicaragua, the United States, Colombia, and Germany, to name a few—Wassmann chose this Umbrian village, surrounded by rich farmland and prolific olive groves, as the site of her first hotel, Rastrello. “My parents lived here for the past 25 years, I was married here, and my two girls had been coming here since they were born. This was always where we came. It was our refuge.”

Wassmann and her husband, Berny Silberwasser, come from the craft beverage business, with successful taprooms and specialty bars in Colombia and Panama. After years retreating and making olive oil in Panicale, an idea began to take shape: She imagined opening a B&B with a big backyard and a garden where she could serve breakfast.

“One day, Berny came home and said, ‘I found the perfect house.’ It was abandoned for, I think, 12 years and it was falling apart. The roof was crumbling, the tiles were coming down. The whole village was saying, ‘I wish somebody would renovate that house.’ And then I guess we bought it on a whim. It felt like the perfect opportunity.”

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The entrance to the 500-year old palazzo-turned-hotel

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A tender approach to the annual olive harvest with the Wassmann family

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Did the process work out as you expected?

I said to a girlfriend of mine, “I'm doing this tiny B&B” and she said, “what do you know about hotels?” And I was thinking, I’m in hospitality. We have bars! A guest is a guest! But my friend wasn’t so sure. So, the next day I enrolled in a hotel management program at Cornell and did that long-distance. And that was really eye-opening. And it gave me the confidence to know that I had the know-how.

 

Tell us how you first started going to Panicale.

My father was 100% German—he passed away in 2021—and my mom, Elida, is a strange American like me. She was born in Portugal and then she lived in the Azores, the Belgian Congo, the Caribbean, and then Nicaragua, where my sister and I were born. And then we moved to the United States during the revolution as refugees—they lost everything before they built themselves up again.

So as soon as they could retire, they were looking for a new place to settle. They went to Portugal, Germany, and Spain, but when they came to Panicale in 1995 they just fell in love with it. They sold everything in the U.S. and moved permanently to the farm here in 2000. And that’s when we first started picking olives.

 

Does your mother still live in that same house?

Yes, and it’s just a five-minute walk from here. She just came by to drop off some lettuce that she picked.

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Passing on the green thumb from mother to daughter

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Fresh produce from the Wassmann family's farm plays a key role in the Rastrello kitchen

She is a force on the farm, isn’t she?

Oh, for sure! She is Mother Earth. Even when we lived in Nicaragua, we had cows, geese, parrots—we had a sloth! And she has always had chickens. Every herb, plant, and flower that comes into the hotel comes from her. She designed the garden and she’s always here pruning and fixing it. We compost and reuse our old eggshells on the farm. We are organic and we have always had solar panels. All of that comes from her. She’s a huge part of who we are at Rastrello.

 

What are some of your early memories of the village?

I was living in Munich and would come down on the 12-hour train once a month to check on the construction. And wow, that was fun. It was like camping out there. We have such a nice bond with the village now, but at first, I was too shy to eat at a restaurant alone so I would just stay on the property and eat figs from our tree.

 

Tell us about your connection to the village now. Do you consider yourself a local?

We will always sort of be foreigners, but my family has never been locals anywhere. I think it works well for us because we don’t have that huge sense of “this is my culture.” But Panicale has a super special place in my heart, and I think that’s how we all feel there.

Especially in the summer, once it gets cool in the evenings, everyone goes to the piazza in the heart of the village. It’s a young and vibrant town and people have a strong sense of who they are. We have a school, an ATM, a post office, and a retirement home. Kids are running around. The village runs the whole gamut, and everyone comes to the piazza. And if you don’t go for a while, you’ll hear “I haven’t seen you in the piazza lately. Is everything okay?”

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“This was always where we came. It was our refuge.”

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Does Elida also manage the olive harvest?

The olive harvest is a full family affair. My sister comes, my cousins come, my mother helps, of course. Everyone! This year, four rooms have been taken over by my cousins from Vermont.

 

And I heard you became an olive oil sommelier as well?

Yes, olive oil was our first big thing here and I geeked out on that. And—I’m not trying to brag—but the first year we went into six international competitions and we got gold in each one. For me, that became the story of Rastrello. It’s such a symbol of the area.

 

How does the harvest work?

It’s always really fun. We have all educated ourselves and have vastly improved over the years. My mom used to paint the labels with a little watercolor tree and the year, and we would give them to friends…

But yes, we go to the grove and start picking early in the morning. One team lays out the nets and the other team picks. Then the nets team collects the nets, and we move to another area and do it again. Then we have a big communal lunch in the grove and hope that the sun comes out. Usually, we’ll have fresh bread that my mother bakes, and sometimes we still have some tomatoes, so we’ll pop those in a salad.

When we finish, we convoy to the mill and we wait for the olive oil. Then we filter it either that same night or early the next morning. At the end, we have a little bruschetta party to taste the fresh oil. And we do work really well together.

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The harvest lunches are a real family affair

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The fruits of the family's labor—Rastrello’s own extra virgin olive oil

Do you like working with family?

Oh, I love it. I used to work for my father before I got married and then Berny and I opened up our first brewery together. With the olive oil, it’s mostly my mom, my sister, and my cousins, as they also have farms here. We’re all super geeky about the olive oil. As for the hotel, it’s mainly my mother and me. We also have an incredible team of locals. I see how much they have taken to the project and identified with it, and that makes me so happy. My goal is to have us grow together. It's our dream to have team members who have been with us for 20 years. That’s beautiful.

 

How does your father’s story live on at Rastrello?

His big thing was that he liked to work in the grove. He loved the olive trees and would go on his daily walks. If you went with him, he would say “here comes my favorite tree.” Especially at the end when he couldn’t do very much, he dedicated himself to cutting the ivy off of the trees because the ivy can suffocate them. He would put on his knee pads and sit on a little bench and cut all the vines off.

It’s funny—we have these cypress trees that are over 100 years old. And just this morning, when I was in my grungy clothes and no one could see me, I was taking the ivy off of the cypress trees, just like him.

“Panicale has a super special place in my heart, and I think that’s how we all feel there.”

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