Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

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The Humble Art of the Nativity Crèche in Umbria

Welcome to the last monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable of 2016 (thank goodness…let’s turn the page on this year)! The theme this month is “Home”, so take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our holiday table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

PS: I wrote a little ditty about “home” years ago for Gloria, so if you want a strict interpretation of this month’s theme, feel free to take a look. Today, I am going with a more loose interpretation of the theme. It is what it is.

Christmas nativity scene Assisi Umbria Italy

Nothing says home to me more than where you spend the holidays, gathered with the people you love, eating and chatting and generally being reminded of why you both love and irritate the dickens out of each other. In all my homes over the years, this has been done beneath the Christmas tree, but most Umbrian homes–and businesses, churches, and public spaces—are adorned during the holiday season with the traditional Nativity scene or crèche. Some are a simple crib including the Holy Family, perhaps beneath a thatched roof with an ox and ass thrown in, but much more often they are sprawling, elaborate scale models representing village and country life, often with tens–if not hundreds–of figurines, moving mechanical parts, small glowing “fires” and running fountains, and artistic lighting.

Christmas Nativity scene Assisi Italy

A secondary countryside portion of the sprawling Nativity scene at Rivotorto. The empty rectangular boxes will have fields of wheat planted in them come Christmas. Oh, and there will be snow on the hilltops.

You can hardly take a step during the month of December in Umbria without coming across a Nativity scene tucked in the most unlikely of places (there was one next to my bank teller’s window this morning), but perhaps even more delightful than the finished product is watching the painstaking labor behind the construction and assembly of one of these humble and transient works of art.

Nativity scene Assisi

Enzo, Franco, and Alberto: the Three Wise Guys behind Rivotorto’s historic Nativity scene. I made them pose for the camera. Can you tell?

Just ask Franco, Alberto, and Enzo. This winning threesome has been the creative and logistical team behind the massive Nativity scene which fills the area around Rivotorto’s Tugurio shrine for the last thirty-eight years. The first home of Saint Francis and his disciples, the Sacro Tugurio (or sacred shed) was occupied by Francis and his followers from 1208-1211, where they lived and worshipped in this rough stone hut and here began organizing what would become Francis’ order. In 1211, the group was granted use of the nearby Porziuncola in Santa Maria degli Angeli from the Benedictines, and the Sacro Tugurio was abandoned only to become a site of pilgrimage in the following centuries.

Christmas creche assisi

A complex Nativity scene is peppered with dozens of little vignettes tucked into nooks and corners.

And guess what? It’s also the perfectly picturesque backdrop to one of the area’s most lovely Nativity scenes every year. I stopped by one morning to see how work was moving along, and was able to watch the “artists” at work and chat about good old times. Times when the Nativity scene was actually outside—this before the threesome were retired—so work went on in rain and snow, beginning after dinner and going late into the night. The time about 15 years ago when the creche mysteriously caught fire (cryptic mentions of competing Nativity scene teams and significant looks are exchanged here), and the parish priest kicked them back outside for a couple of years. The year of the earthquake, when the whole church was closed for the season. That one year that Franco didn’t work on the creche because of (as the three will sheepishly admit if you press them) irreconcilable creative differences. But he was back on board the following Christmas.

Christmas Assisi

Much time and labor regarding the Nativity scene seems to be dedicated to the creative process.

Nativity scene rivotorto assisi

More creative process.

Christmas scene assisi

A bit of work. Quickly followed by creative process and a coffee break.

Work begins at the end of November and proceeds with due ponderance and frequent coffee breaks for about a month (the creche is open to the public from 24 December through the first week of January). The threesome work without a master plan, beginning with the central Nativity crib—emphatically underlined by all three as the most important and beautiful section of the creche—and gradually moving towards the outside of the surrounding model countryside. All the buildings are made by hand, and new elements are added each year; the oldest piece is a terra-cotta team of oxen with a plowing farmer, which is over 40 years old. The scene is built up with moss and life greenery, sand and gravel roads, dozens of wooden buildings and structures, water elements and fields of sod and wheat.

christmas assisi umbria

A water element. Since a short caused a fire about 15 years ago, the team keeps water and electricity as far from each other as possible.

christmas umbria

The B-list characters are the last to make a cameo appearance, filling in any holes during the final retouches.

After the holidays, the team breaks the scene down again, repairs and packs away the pieces, and begins laboring over new buildings and elements for the following year, when they will meet up, have a leisurely caffè, and start work all over again.

presepe assisi umbria

These oxen and their farmer have been in the Rivotorto Nativity scene since the beginning. They are older than I am.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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From Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

After our annual August break, we’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “From Farm to Table”, and we have a new member to welcome…Georgette Jupe from Girl in Florence in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy! Our roundtable has grown, but don’t forget to take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our long banquet table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Remember in high school when you would go to Blockbuster on Saturday night? You would wander the aisles crowded with hundreds of VHS covers lined up at attention on the shelves for an hour, undecided…maybe I should get all intellectual, you’d think, and rent a French movie. Or retro and grab a Cary Grant classic. Or Film Study and watch “Citizen Kane”. Perhaps now’s the time to see the entire Bond canon, or every movie Jack Nicholson ever made.

And, finally, exhausted with the endless options, you would say, “Fuck it,” grab a copy of “The Princess Bride” for the 14th time, and thoroughly enjoy every minute. Sometimes the obvious solution is also the most satisfying.

That’s what I felt like about this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable theme. “From farm to table” seems tailor-made for this rural region of Umbria, where pretty much everything on your table has come from a farm…yours or someone else’s. To mix things up a bit, I toyed with a bunch of crazy interpretations of the theme (one discussing my older son’s eye-opening trip to New York City this summer, during which he went from his Umbrian farm diet to sampling more world cuisines in 15 days than he had in his previous 15 years of life), but after wandering the aisles of my mind for hours, I finally came to the conclusion that the obvious solution was also the most satisfying. So, ladies and gentlemen, I offer up “The Princess Bride” of blog posts…a quick guide to how to sample Umbria’s farm bounty during your next visit.

 Umbria farm tour

 

Agriturismo (Farm Holiday)

You can’t get more farm to table than an agriturismo, which is a working farm which also offers accommodations and/or meals to travelers. Umbria has one of the most dense concentrations of agriturismi in Italy, which is hardly surprising given its rural history and culture here and thriving tourist economy.

A caveat, however: the more posh the farm, the less likely you will be sampling anything beyond their olive oil or perhaps wine. An agriturismo can be classified as such as long as it produces at least one agricultural product, which means that alongside the small, traditional family farm (which generally includes stock, an olive grove, a small vineyard, a kitchen garden, an orchard, courtyard animals, cultivated fields, and woods), you also have large, wealthy estates which have hectares of olive trees or vines from which they produce their label of oil or wine, but nothing else. If you are looking for an upscale relais with a spa and paved parking lot, this is where you should head. If you are looking for a mamma in the kitchen who is cooking up hand-rolled tagliatelle with goose sauce featuring a fat lady you heard honking out back just yesterday, choose a simpler, more rustic agriturismo.

Many agriturismi also offer casual cooking lessons with the family, which is a great way to both sample the farm products and learn some tricks for reproducing the simple yet unforgettable flavors of the Umbrian countryside in your kitchen back home. Very few, however, will allow guests to participate in the farm work (they’ll tell you that it’s for insurance reasons, but the truth is that nothing throws a wrench into the works like well-intentioned city folk who don’t know what they’re doing) aside from simple tasks like picking olives or grapes, but most let you pick your own produce from the home garden, gather eggs, and sample the house preserves, charcuterie, cheese, and other goodies.

farm tour umbria

 

Farm Visits

Even if you prefer to stay in town rather than an agriturismo in the countryside, you can work in a farm visit or two to your itinerary. Umbria is blanketed with farms, large and small, though most are not set up for visits…and even those which are open to the public are quite informal, so don’t expect a White House tour. Here are some good options:

Wineries

Remember, a cantina (or winery) is a farm…it’s just specialized in a single product. My favorite area for winery visits is around Montefalco, home of Umbria’s flagship Sagrantino wine. Try the Di Filippo or Scacciadiavoli wineries, which have a good balance between down-home, family hospitality and organized wine tours.

Umbria’s wineries also have two open houses a year: Cantine Aperte in May and Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia in September. Things can get a little crazy during Cantine Aperte, but it’s also a great way to enjoy a day in the vineyards with music, food, tastings, and tours.

Olive Oil Mills

A mill (or frantoio) is really only interesting to visit during the fall and early winter when the harvest is coming in; the rest of the year, things are pretty quiet and your “tour” will consist of standing in a silent mill to gaze at machinery. That said, if you are visiting from October to December, it’s fun to stop by a frantoio buzzing with tractors pulling up to unload bales of olives and local farmers lounging around as their harvest is milled. Most have a small fireplace to grill bruschetta, so the newly-pressed oil can be sampled seconds after it drips out of the press.

For a list of olive oil farms and mills open to the public, take a look here. There is also an annual open house, Frantoi Aperti, each November with tastings and events.

Truffle Reserves

Ok, truffles aren’t really “farmed” in the strict sense, but the precious patches of woods where trufflers and their dogs forage for these buried treasures are certainly cultivated with as much care as fields of grain. A truffle hunt, followed by a cooking lesson and meal, is an unforgettable way to experience Umbria’s rural countryside and cuisine…especially for families with kids.

My favorite truffle producers who organize hunts and meals are Bianconi near Città di Castello and San Pietro a Pettine near Trevi.

Meat Farms

Umbria is the Iowa of Italy, a land where pork reigns supreme and the charcuterie is among the best in the world. I love visiting Peppe Fausti’s farm near Norcia, where he raises his pigs free-range (they come when he whistles…you can see it here at 2m 50s.) For locally-raised Chianina beef, heirloom Cinta Senesi pork, lamb, poultry, and game, there’s no better stop than Fattoria Lucchetti, which raises the stock and sells cuts from their farm butcher shop in Collazzone.

Cheese Farms

Some of Umbria’s best artisan cheeses are made by Rita and Francesco Rossi near Cascia, but I have recently fallen in love with Diego Calcabrina’s goat cheese, made with his tiny herd at the foot of Montefalco. Il Secondo Altopiano outside of Orvieto is also known for its amazing artisan goat cheeses, and Walter Facchini near Sigillo in the Monte Cucco Park has a variety of wonderful pecorino sheep cheeses.

Herbs, Jams, Saffron, and Other Special Things

A special mention to one of my favorite farms in Umbria, Zafferano e Dintorni, in the breathtaking Valnerina along the Nera river. Marta and her family (21m 30s) began with an orchard, then added saffron and medicinal herbs, and now have a number of excellent jams and preserves, herbal teas, and other goodies available to taste and purchase at their family farm right next to the San Felice di Narco church.

 

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Farm Tours

So, yes, you can definitely go commando and just show up at the farms listed above for a walk around and tastings. That said, many of these spots are not easy to find, the hosts speak little if any English, and they don’t have a staff…so if they are busy with chores or simply not home, you may be out of luck.

By far the best way to tour Umbria’s farms are with a local guide on a farm tour. This solves all of the logistical hitches in one fell swoop: you don’t have to worry about navigating the confusing country roads, you have a translator and interpreter by your side, and your visit is arranged in advance, so the family knows you are coming and can spend some time showing you around. You can also often have a farm meal during your visit, or a cooking demonstration or lesson.

Two of the best farm tours around are those offered by Alessandra at Discovering Umbria and Jennifer at Life…Italian Style. I have been sending guests to both for years, and everyone has come away raving about their wonderful experience.

farm tours umbria

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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