Following in the tradition of our two previous trips with Ben and Karen Barker (Terra Madre and Piedmonte, Italy 2006 and Northern Spain 2010) we again plunged into another food filled study, this time of Umbria. Why Umbria? Well it is very similar to Tuscany in scenery, food and wine but with fewer tourists. The food traditions are maybe more simple and a direct result of what is in season, we would find out.
A slightly different approach this time as we would stay in one central location and travel out by day. We wanted to have a place in a small hill town that we could return to in the evenings after the days adventures and big lunch. If we wanted we could fix some simple evening food from ingredients we might find in the markets or walk the town and find something but not have to drive in the dark. We found a nice apartment in the beautiful hill town of Spello on the slopes of Mt. Subasio which are covered with olive groves, it turned out to be exactly what we wanted.
We flew into Rome and in just over two hours we were in the heart of Umbria at our first lunch in the small town of Bevagna.
It was a perfect start, sitting outside on a sunny afternoon, with several great dishes including a farro dish with pistachios, several traditional pasta dishes and a desert so good that Karen was determined to figure out how to reproduce it at home.
We rolled the last few miles over to Spello and checked into our apartment and then made our first foray around town. First to the macellaria to procure some salumi for the house and then to the enoteca to make sure there was wine in the house. The Enoteca Properzio, run by the Angelini family, turned out to be almost a nightly visit as we tasted our way through the Umbrian wines that Ben wanted to try from research he had done at home.
The next day, well recovered from jet lag we mostly spent the day wandering around town
but did drive a few miles out to the valley town of Canarra for lunch at a small husband and wife run osteria, Perbacco. Canarra is known for its production of red onions and the menu featured them in many dishes.
Monday was the first of our markets to check out in the town of Marsciano, supposedly one of the biggest markets in Umbria it was mostly clothes and household items and not much food. We did start the practice of having a porchetta sandwich at each market we went to, think of it as the morning sausage biscuit but much better. Porchetta is an Umbrian specialty of a whole, herbed, roasted pig which is sliced onto thick rolls and there are porchetta trucks everywhere.
We did buy a few seeds to try and I was glad to see that our broccoli raab looked every bit as good as the stuff on display there did.
A word about markets in Italy. There is usually a weekly market in every small town, bigger towns may have a twice a week market. Most of the vendors have these special market vehicles with sides that open up and they move from town to town loading and unloading each day (unfortunately the produce also reflects this). Most of the produce is from Italy and labeled where it is from but there are very few local farmers. Over the years we have been seeing fewer and fewer local growers at these markets. Increasingly we are seeing special once or twice a month markets for local producers only, usually on Saturdays. We think that they are feeling the pressures of these bigger mobile market vendors and food more easily available from all over the European Union.
We moved on up the valley to Deruta, one of great pottery producing towns, especially for the brightly colored and intricate Majolica ware. This was a ceramic guitar made for Carlos Santana and the tiles were fantastic.
We ended up at the oldest producer, the Grazia family has been making pottery since the 1500’s and we got a personal tour by Ubaldo Grazia, the current head of the family.
Here in his office and museum.
We saw all areas of their production including their new kiln with the first firing of custom beer bottles for a local craft brewery. Ubaldo was very excited about this new product.
A fair lunch in Torgiano but the food and wine highlight of the day was a long relaxed evening down in the cellar of Enoteca Properzio. A slow rainy Monday evening allowed much personal attention from Irene, Lucca and Roberto the patriarch. Betsy was in her best Italian speaking form and once they found out we were chefs and farmers the plates of bruschetta, pecorino cheeses and prosciutto started coming along with “special” wines to be tasted. It was a memorable night.
Tuesday dawned clear as a bell, ideal for our drive up into the Mount Sibillini National Park. On the way through the mountains there were lots of freshly dug potatoes being sold on the roadside and we also passed several big trout farms. The lunch goal was the tiny hilltop town of Castelluccio perched on a small rise in the middle of the Piano Grande
a huge valley where they raise incredibly tiny lentils. This is a panarama of just half of the valley you can see the lentil fields below, you can click on it to make it really large.
Lentils, trout and sausages were mandatory.
After lunch we dropped back out of the mountains to the town of Norcia, the real goal for the day. Norcia is maybe the most famous town in Italy for it’s cured pork products and we loaded up with things to eat back in Spello and to bring back home.
Norcia is also the home of twin saints Benedict and his sister Scholastica.
Back home in Spello, we spent the end of a beautiful day out on the private patio overlooking the valley with large plates of all the charcuterie, cheese and fruits we had purchased.
Wednesday we started with the small market in Spello (and a porchetta sandwich), the highlight being the fresh fish truck and some of the very first olives of the season.
Our friend Jim Stock of the Haw River Wine Man had made connections for us to do a winery tour at Tabarrini vineyards.
Good wine and discussion and then onto lunch in Montefalco at L’Alchemista. The featured item here was the black celery grown in the area. Not really black but a really dark green because they hill the base up high which forces the plants to make extra chlorophyll in the leaves. We also had the some of the first olive oil pressed this season, incredibly green and flavorful.
Thursday was another rainy day but we were off to Orvieto, built up on top of a volcanic ash hill it is known both for it’s huge and beautiful duomo and it’s underground caves carved out of the volcanic material. Originally made by the Etruscans there is a fascinating tour you can take down into them showing how they lived and worked underground especially when under siege, most intriguing were the pigeon nest holes which was a main food source for them, they outlasted the Romans for two years this way.
The duomo is striking for both its black and white horizontal stripes but also it’s very ornate front façade.
It was also market day and this is where we saw more local growers than anywhere else the most interesting items being the wild greens and herb mixes.
Friday was our last day together and we had several things we wanted to get done. We had been told by several Italians that the best of all the olive oils were the first pressed from Spello and that they should begin pressing any day now. We (Betsy) asked all around town about were the mill was, finally we were walked out to a patio that overlooked the valley and the mill was pointed out to us at the bottom of the hill and sure enough we could see they were working. First thing this morning we drove down to the mill where we sampled the first oil of the season and then proceeded to buy more than a gallon each to take home.
That task done we headed north to Assisi to see the town and the bascilica of San Francisco (St. Francis).
Even in the shoulder season the town was full of tourists and pilgrims here to see the home of the saint and the namesake of the new Pope. A beautiful town and day we spent the morning wandering through it.
All week we had talked about how good the first meal in Bevagna was and we decided we needed to go back and eat at Trattoria di Oscar again. It turned out to be the best meal we had the whole trip. This tiny restaurant (five tables inside) is run by the chef husband and his wife. This day Filippo was actually the host and waited the tables as well as overseeing the kitchen. The first day they gave us a hand written daily menu in a notebook that had the past menus in it was well, it was fun to look at what was recently offered, today he just recited it to us.
We were fortunate to get one of the five tables as they turned people away. Once again when they learned that we were chefs and farmers the world opened in a different way. We came to realize that we are not the standard American tourists and that our personal stories are interesting to them as well. A great long meal with some new wines. Good pastas, pigeon, quail and lardo wrapped pork and more.
We headed back to Spello for one last sunset and a final visit to the Enoteca before packing up. It has been a great week.
We now joke that we will start an Italian food tour business. Karen will research the restaurants and other sites to see, Ben will choose the wines and drive, Alex will co-research markets, other places to visit and navigate and most importantly Betsy will speak the language for us to open the secret doors. I think we need to test drive the model a few more times before we take paying customers (wink).
Saturday we parted ways with the Barkers headed to Tuscany for a few days and we drove on up to Piedmonte to visit with our friends up there. Three days and nights full of family meals and visits in the different homes with the usual great food and conversations. The Piovannos have mostly cleaned up from the lightning strike fire that took out one of their barns this summer but still have to replace the tractors that were burned up.
Eventually we had to start the long trip home, after 22 hours we finally walked into our house, I think now the transit home is harder than the jet lag going over.