There are some firsts you never forget. Your first kiss (Bubba, fifth grade) and your first heartbreak (same kid). Your first hiring (Gino’s Italian Deli) and your first firing (same job). Your first drive (1982 Dodge Colt) and your first accident (same car). And, in my case, the first time I ever tasted truffles (June, 1986).
I was a high school exchange student staying with a marvelous family in Assisi and during my first week there my “host sister” told me, “Mamma has prepared something special for lunch!” We all sat down at the table, where steaming plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti dressed with just a few drops of golden-green Umbrian olive oil waited. I watched as the family’s mother reverently pulled out what looked to my midwestern American eyes like a clump of dirt and began to grate it over each individual dish. I started to panic. (I had just recovered the previous day from the shock upon hearing that Umbrians regularly ate mice. Only after much elaborate gesticulating and explaining did I realize that what I had understood from the heavily accented English to be the small rodent was actually the word “maize”. Much to my relief.)
I could see no way of diplomatically refusing to eat the soil-covered pasta, and while all eyes around the table were fixed on me, I took my first bite. It was an epiphany.
Nothing can describe the penetrating, earthy (no, it’s not dirt, but its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) taste of the world’s most precious tuber. Grated over pasta, mixed in sauces and patès, simply wrapped overnight in a soft towel along with fresh farm eggs for a truffle-infused frittata the next day…these divine delicacies–the Romans believed that truffles were the fruit of the sacred thunderbolt of Jove—are one of the staples of Umbrian cuisine.
Their ubiquitous presence on menus across this central Italian region belies the fact that they are not that easy to come by. They require a precise microclimate at medium-high altitudes, calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks.
They also require a nose—a good nose. These elusive fungi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t good enough to roust them out. You need the nose of a dog, and I don’t mean in the figurative sense: a real truffle dog. Dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and used by professional and amateur truffle hunters across the region to locate their woodland treasures. After years of passively eating truffles, I was ready to switch to the active side of the equation and participate in a truffle hunt myself.
When pondering truffles in Umbria, the town of Norcia in the far southeast corner of the region, bordering on The Marches, inevitably comes to mind. Truffles are to Norcia what bicycles are to Beijing and sin is to Vegas, so much so that the common name of the dark Tuber Melanosporum Vitt is Norcia Nero or Norcia’s Black Gold and the town holds an important truffle fair and festival every year in late February. But to participate in an actual hunt, I crossed to the opposite corner of the region and ended up on the upper northwest border with Tuscany among the picturesque wooded rolling hills of the Upper Tiber Valley.
I met up with the delightful couple, Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, of Tartufi Bianconi located in the small town of Città di Castello. In the truffle business since 1990, for the past decade the Bianconis have opened their doors to travellers and gourmands from all over the world to share their love of the local history, culture, and cuisine—all of which are closely intertwined with this delicacy. I immediately headed out with the affable Saverio, whose knowledge of the Upper Tiber Valley was exhaustive and enthusiasm infective, to a nearby truffle reserve where we met up with two local foragers and their professional canine colleagues: Asia and Sandy.
The dogs were literally trembling with excitement as I got kitted out with my “bisaccia”, or traditional leather truffle bag, and headed into the woods. As soon as they were let free and given the command, they began zigzagging through undergrowth, nose to ground, sniffing for buried treasure. Not three minutes had passed when Asia began circling a spot, and delicately pawing her way through the dried leaf cover and damp humus underneath. Score! A pair of lovely black truffles, about as big as walnuts, were about two inches underground, and I was as proud of her hunting prowess as if she had been by my own. Less than an hour later, with a warm thank you and goodbye to our two “tartufai” truffle hunters and their dogs, I set off with Saverio to his home and business to have our booty weighed and sorted.
Once at Tartufi Bianconi, I discovered Saverio’s tiny private truffle museum–floor to ceiling packed with charming and quirky truffle hunting tools, memorabilia, and an educational display with various samples of local and foreign tuber varieties and curiosities. His lighthearted explanation included wily tricks local foragers use to sell their finds at the highest price (including packing the truffles’ warty skin with pebbles and dirt to make them heavier, thus more valuable, and passing off truffle-shaped stones as the real thing) and to keep the best foraging areas a secret (one local “tartufaio” regularly goes out in drag, so he won’t be recognized and followed to the woods by competitors). Afterwards, I had a peek in their processing rooms, where they weigh, sort, clean and prepare the truffles—drying, deep freezing, or chopping them for patè, sauces, and infused olive oil.
Saverio’s wife, Gabriella, then welcomed me into her homey kitchen and led me through a tasting of the four main truffle varieties found locally: the delicate white truffle (I was there just as the white truffle season opened, and was lucky to be able to sample this rare treat fresh from the woods) sliced paper thin and served raw with lightly salted butter, the stronger summer white truffle, or Bianchetto, which was stored minced and frozen and now served with just a drop of olive oil, the local black truffle (Gabriella had me first taste it raw, then gently warmed in olive oil to demonstrate how this brings out the aroma), and the strong Norcia black truffle, again warmed in olive oil to accentuate the flavor. After 25 years of enjoying truffles, I felt I had finally discovered how to distinguish between them and use each variety to its best advantage—knowledge I will be using to my best advantage at future dinner parties!
We finished our day in the best possible way: cooking and eating our bounty. With Gabriella as instructor, and using all local ingredients and products prepared by the Bianconis, we prepared a pecorino flan with honey and truffles, egg tagliatelle dressed in fresh truffle, a juicy beef roast with truffle sauce, and finished with a wonderful traditional dessert–zuppa inglese–made with custard and sponge cake. We chatted, laughed, and swapped stories from the first bite of antipasto through the last sip of smoky-sweet vin santo made by a micro-vintner down the road. In this day of discoveries, the biggest one was this: truffles are not about food, but about people. The history of people who have foraged for them for millenia, the culture of people who keep this history alive, the passion of people who pass down this culture in the kitchen, the stories of people who are passionate about this breathtaking valley and its bounty.
A special thank you to Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi for a wonderful day!
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
There seem to be few things as polarizing as contemporary art, especially contemporary art inserted into unlikely places. Case in point: the new Tenuta Castelbuono winery building near Bevagna. This massive work, called “Il Carapace”, by contemporary Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, was completed after six years of work in 2012 and straddles the fence between sculpture and architecture.
I’m going to immediately stick my neck out to say that I like “Il Carapace”. Or, to be even more polemic, I love it. Saturated with symbolism, this copper dome-shaped structure is modelled on a giant tortoise shell—representing “stability and longevity”—and the low, rounded shape blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape of rolling vineyard-covered hills, an echo of the “union of earth and sky”.
Being from Chicago, I am no newcomer to Pomodoro; a number of his works are displayed in the city, including the campuses of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. I am also no newcomer to livable sculpture…from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago has a proud tradition of revolutionary buildings which blur the line between art and architecture. But contemporary architecture in a modern city is expected; contemporary architecture juxtaposed against the backdrop of this region so steeped in the Middle Ages that one would hardly blink an eye if Saint Francis himself were to come around the corner is riskier.
It was a risk well-taken, as Il Carapace has been met with much praise. Commissioned by the Lunelli family–which primarily produces spumante in Trento under the Ferrari label—to mark their foray into Umbria’s Sagrantino country, the winery building has been getting more press than the wines produced there. It’s easy to see why, as the tasting room inside Il Carapace’s dome is spectacularly distracting, with its soaring rib-like arches and plate-glass walls framing the dreamy vineyards outside, as is the cantina, with its spiral shape and disconsonant sky-blue walls, giving you a moment of vertigo as you try to remember if you’re above or below ground.
Photo courtesy of Umbriabeecoming
Both times I visited Il Carapace were for special events; lit up in the evening by flickering torches and soft lights and animated by live music and the clinking of hundreds of glasses, Pomodoro’s work becomes both more dramatic and more intimate—though hard to photograph.
Tenuta Castelbuono offers tours and tastings; for more information, visit their website. Pomodoro was so successful in blending his “living sculpture” into the scenery that it’s not easy to spot the winery from afar. Keep watch for the red, dart-shaped structure that stands at the entrance, towering above the hills like the shaft of an immense arrow shot into the earth, both a complement and an antithesis to the harmony of Il Carapace itself.
Late last year I reviewed the delightful “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in which author Elizabeth Wholey takes readers on an absorbing journey through the history and culture of the Upper Tiber Valley, passing by way of the area’s farms and their stocked pantries.
To illustrate and enliven her narrative, she includes a number of simple, traditional dishes taken from the well-worn recipe cards of country housewives from the four regions which meet in the Alta Valle del Tevere: Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.
As a further homage to this excellent little book, I decided to try out one of these recipes for this month’s Italy Roundtable, as nothing can better illustrate authenticity in Umbria (or Italy as a whole) than its traditional cuisine. I immediately knew which to choose; I had just had a conversation with a visiting friend about one of our winter staples: fennel. Along with greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, this crisp, anise-flavoured, celery-like vegetable is omnipresent at our table during the colder months, but besides simply slicing it and dressing it with a bit of salt and olive oil or, if we are feeling posh, mixing it with thinly sliced oranges and either black olives or pomegranate seeds to form a colorful salad, I’m not particularly creative with how to serve it.
So when I spotted Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro—billed as “Angiolina’s Thrice Cooked Fennel with Tomato Sauce”—I knew that was the one.
Here it is:
3 Tbs olive oil
500 g ripe, flavorful tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 350 g Ortobono pomarola, or canned Italian tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
250 ml water
1 lt oil for frying
400 g all-purpose flour for dredging
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
To make the tomato sauce: in a 2 lt heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, heat the chopped garlic in the oil until its aroma is just released (do not overcook), the add the chopped tomatoes or pomarola sauce, water, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes; remove from heat and set aside.
Heat the frying oil to 180° in a deep, heavy saucepan. In a separate pot, bring to boil 2 lt of salted water. Prepare a large bowl with flour for dredging.
Thinly slice the fennel bulbs, wash, and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook for five minutes [I found that this was too long…I would cook just until fork-tender; about three minutes], then remove and dry them on a clean towel.
When they are cool, dredge them in the flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until they are a golden color. Lift them out and place in the pot with the pre-prepared tomato sauce.
[We got into a little trouble here, having discovered that fried fennel is pretty darn good just all by itself. Mostly because pretty much any food is pretty darn good if deep-fried. But we managed to quit snacking on them and got most of the fried fennel slices in the pot of sauce.]
When all the fried fennel is in the pot of sauce, cover it and cook on the stovetop for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding additional water to prevent sticking. When the sauce has become thickened and creamy, transfer the fennel with the sauce to a warm serving dish and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
A special thanks to Elizabeth Wholey for allowing me to reproduce her recipe here!
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Olivia and Gabriele and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.
Four takes on this most traditional of Umbrian dishes (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?
Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!
Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!
So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…
I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.
(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)
My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.
My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.
The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt
Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt
Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt
Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.
I have made many gastronomic discoveries during my years living in Umbria. Mostly, I’ve discovered Food. Having grown up in a major American city during the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t see much of Food. We saw a lot of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Marshmallow Fluff, Froot Loops, and Kool-Aid, but real honest to goodness Food didn’t really start showing up on my plate until I moved to Italy.
Olive groves cover hillsides across Umbria.
One of the foundations of Italian food, at least from central Italy and continuing south, is olive oil. Each region has its signature oil, and Umbria is no exception. One of this area’s most prestigious products, olive oil from the millions of trees cultivated on the hillsides across Umbria is interwoven with the region’s cuisine, landscape, agriculture, and many of its folk traditions.
One of the most unique places to visit in Umbria is one of its many olive mills during pressing—late October through December, most years—where you get to see how this “liquid gold” is produced and sample one of the joys of the world’s gastronomy: freshly pressed olive oil.
This is what oil looks like hot (actually, cold) off the presses. Check out that color…finger-lickin’ good.
Bright green, pungent, knock-your-socks-off peppery, and thick as molasses, olio nuovo should be on everyone’s bucket list of Foods to Try Before I Die. Its flavour is too strong to use as a condiment to dress salads or vegetables; it’s best tasted liberally poured over freshly toasted bread (saltless Umbrian bread works like a charm) or to perk up a winter legume soup.
The color of the oil turns golden and becomes transparent as the weeks pass. The top oil is about two weeks old and the bottom oil about four weeks.
Unfortunately, the unmistakable zing of freshly pressed oil softens quickly as the oil matures. In just a few short weeks the taste mutes into the well-balanced grassy-fruity flavour which works well as a base for more complex dishes. If you love fresh olive oil as much as I do, however, there is a trick: you can freeze a small amount and use it through the summer. It consolidates into an easily spreadable paste, which melts as soon as it comes in contact with hot bread or soup. So come those chilly days in March you can still have some soul-satisfying bruschetta.
How new oil is meant to be relished…
A special thanks to Lucia Olivi and Alessandra Mallozzi for their delish pics!
There is no greater joy than receiving a book in the mail. Unless, of course, it turns out to be such a gem of a read that you find yourself thinking two things: 1. I wish I had written this book; and 2. I can’t wait to share this book.
And so it happened last week that I found Elizabeth Wholey’s new “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in my mailbox. I’ve known Elizabeth “virtually” for more than a decade; she’s a fellow American expat who has lived in Umbria for more or less the same amount of time I have and our paths crossed years ago on the then embryonic Slow Travel forum. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with Elizabeth, as she seems to share my same delicate mix of delight and affection for our adopted home tempered with straighforward pragmatism. We are, neither of us, either bucolically Under the Sun nor bitterly Burnt by the Sun.
That said, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elizabeth’s new book. Umbria being a small place, I had heard through the grapevine (the grapevine being one of her neighbors, Saverio Bianconi, who is mentioned with much warmth in “Sustenance”) that she was writing a socio-gastronomic history of the Upper Tiber Valley, an expanse of land where the four regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche meet. Beginning at the source of the Tiber River on Monte Fumaiolo, the Alta Valle del Tevere extends south to Umbertide, traveling through rugged mountains, rolling hills and finally to the fertile river valley, passing a number of Roman and Medieval towns along its meandering journey.
It is the area that Elizabeth calls home and knows well, and as both a Slow Food and International Association of Culinary Professionals member, she is more than qualified to to research and publish a thorough academic study of the agricultural and culinary history of the valley. And with that in mind, it goes without saying that I “put it aside for later”.
Luckily for me, that “later” was cut short by a bout of insomnia just the next night. I sighed, switched on the light, and picked the first book from the stack next to my bed which seemed dry enough that it would be likely to put me sleep quickly. Yes, “Sustenance”.
How wrong I was. I found myself staying up to the wee hours reading this delightful, engaging guide from cover to cover. Part history, part journal, part travel guide, and peppered throughout with tempting recipes for preparing the rustic, genuine dishes which characterize the local peasant cuisine, “Sustenance” tells the story of this land and its people by highlighting sixteen local, contemporary farmers and food producers who turn out everything from eggs to honey, from olive oil to heirloom fruit.
In its pages, Elizabeth weaves a fascinating historical and social narrative, reconnecting these modern agricultural and culinary hold-outs with the peasant culture and traditions which preceded them (and are in danger of vanishing) and their continued belief in and defence of the exceptional quality and variety of foods still found in this valley. But she also goes one step beyond, making her subjects and their food accessible to readers (and, one hopes, travelers) through both sharing their simple, homey recipes and providing practical instructions to seek them out and sample their food as one should: in the land and with the people who have put their heart and soul into bringing it to the table.
To make it even easier to explore the Upper Tiber Valley, Elizabeth has divided the chapters of “Sustenance” into carefully curated itineraries, organizing farmers and products geographically, highlighting nearby sites and monuments to visit, and listing local markets and annual festivals and fairs.
Richer than a cook book, lighter than a historical tome, more compelling than a travel guide, I can’t sing the praises of this small but important book highly enough. “Sustenance” is must-read for anyone–traveler or settler–who wants to discover the Upper Tiber Valley, its history, its people, and—of course—its food.
My sons hate getting their hair cut. Hate it. They wail and protest, gnash their teeth and rent their garments, and generally cause so much mayhem that I don’t insist until I honestly can’t see the whites of their eyes. But every once in awhile—if the carrot is tempting enough—they go to the gallows with the serene resignation of sheep to slaughter. Or, at least, sheep to shearing.
Which is why I was so sure I had it in the bag this month, because I was offering up the Mother of All Carrots: an afternoon making chocolate creations at Perugina’s Scuola del Cioccolato.
The deal had to be finessed, of course. “Hey, guys, I thought it would be fun to go cook some stuff at the chocolate school this afternoon! Whaddya think? Cool, huh?” When the cheering died down, I slipped in, “We just have to make a quick stop first. Nothing important. It’ll just take a sec.” There was a suspicious silence. They’ve heard that before.
We got through their haircuts with a level of haggling and negotiation that would give Kofi Annan pause (my older son is on his fourth year of drum lessons and intent on cultivating an appropriate rock coiffure and my younger son is profoundly vain of his golden locks in this Mediterranean country of olive skin and dark curls) but without a major diplomatic incident, and were soon off to the Perugina factory on the outskirts of Perugia.
We were met by the kind staff of the Casa del Cioccolato–which includes their museum, factory tour, and cooking school–and our Maestro, Chef Alberto. (Ladies, a side note: Chef Alberto is just about as yummy as the chocolate he cooks up. But you didn’t hear it from me.) My fear that they might not be set up to handle kids was quickly put to rest, as the staff engaged them immediately in friendly banter (my little devils demanded the secret recipe to Perugina’s signature Baci chocolates so “we can make a lot of money”. Yes, those are the values I’ve been raising them with.) and asked about any special requests (they prefer milk chocolate, which turned out to be no problem).
We were sent to wash our hands and don our spiffy Scuola del Cioccolato aprons (just part of the swag we got to take home) and Chef Alberto (who, as it turns out, is not only one handsome specimen but also fitted out with the patience and good-nature of a saint. Whoever the patron saint of chocolate-mess-making seven-year-olds may be. I’ll have to google it.) got down to business, announcing that we would be making Easter eggs! Super fun, and a perfect project for kids (and—ahem—their grown-ups).
After explaining to us the importance of tempering chocolate, we were set to doing it ourselves. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the deft Chef Alberto makes it look, and our aprons were quickly proving their worth. All I could think of was how happy I was that I wasn’t responsible for mopping up the floor after we left.
But it was great fun…I mean, what isn’t fun about pouring a bowl of melted chocolate onto a flat surface and messing around in it with a couple of spatulas for 15 minutes?…and we were soon ready to pour our chocolate into the egg and base molds and make our little heart-shaped chocolates that would be the “surprise” inside our hollow eggs.
Chef Alberto did a fabulous job keeping everyone busy, working at their own pace, and engaged in the demonstration, which isn’t a small feat with a group of such a range of ages. He is obviously passionate about his job and very much a “people person”—an apt combination for these chocolate lessons aimed not at professional chefs but simply amateur cooks looking to pick up tips for making some eye-popping creations at home.
Once our chocolate had cooled and hardened, we were able to pop them out of the molds, assemble the two egg halves with our little hearts tucked inside, mount them on their chocolate base, and decorate with white chocolate and sugar flowers—all under the careful eye and guidance of Chef Alberto. When we were done with our decorating, we packaged our works of art in plastic boxes provided by the school and were presented with our certificates pronouncing us Artista del Gusto. I’m not so sure about Artista, but we sure became hardcore fans of the Scuola del Cioccolato. And the biggest surprise: a copy of Perugina’s secret Baci recipe! (I’m waiting for the money to start rolling in. It’s time these kids start paying their own way…they are seven and ten, after all.)
The verdict from my sons? “That was worth getting our hair cut!” Well, there’s no higher praise than that.
Otherwise, the Chocolate School holds courses open to the public most Saturdays, or private classes for groups–this is a great activity for families, groups of travellers, or corporate events– can be arranged during the week. You can view a calendar here (in Italian) and request more information and/or sign up for a class on their website here or by calling 800 800 907.
Classes range in price from €30-€65/person…a fantastic bargain given the length of the class, fun quotient, and swag! As the staff told us, these courses are offered with the spirit of spreading Perugina’s passion for chocolate and thus accessible to every budget.
Nothing brings out the kid in you like a visit to a chocolate factory. Maybe it’s the recollection of Curious George’s shennanigans when he stopped by with the man with the yellow hat. Maybe it’s that classic episode of “I Love Lucy”, which flashes through your mind any time you see a conveyor belt in motion. Maybe it’s the image in Willy Wonka of the majestic chocolate river and mixing waterfall (never touched by human hands!). Maybe it’s simply that irresistible scent that seeps into your clothes and hair and skin and follows you around for the rest of the day.
Whatever it is, it’s right up there with bubbles and foosball and lawn sprinklers as far as the power to channel your inner child. And, given that I’m a big believer in the restorative properties of an occasional date with my inner child, the Perugina chocolate factory and museum (officially known as the Casa del Cioccolato) outside of Perugia is one of my favorite places to visit.
Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) was founded in Perugia proper in 1907, though didn’t begin producing its signature “Bacio” (kiss) chocolates until 1922. Brainchild of Luisa Spagnoli, wife of one of the company’s four founders (you know what they say about who is behind every successful man…), this chocolate and hazelnut treat (a sphere of gianduja, topped by a whole hazelnut and glazed with a layer of dark chocolate) was originally called “Cazzotto” (punch) because of its irregular fist shape. Luisa may have been a brilliant chocolatier, but marketer? Not so much. Fortunately, the other partners stepped in to both rename the product and add the tiny slips of paper printed with pithy romantic aphorisms which make the chocolates so distinct…and such a huge commercial success.
Perugina’s Bacio chocolates, as well as their other chocolate and candy products, are still made in their sprawling modern factory on the outskirts of Perugia. A visit begins with a brief tour of their small museum, where there are sections dedicated to the history of the company, the techniques used in their chocolate production, and—perhaps my favorite—a collection of their advertising posters and marketing materials over the past century. Akin to the historic Coca-Cola ads, the progression of Perugina’s advertising images parallels the evolution of modern popular art in Italy, and, under the art direction of the great Federico Seneca, some of the Futurism-school images used to promote the company at the beginning of the century are both iconic and timeless.
Before entering the factory itself, visitors are shown a short video explaining the production (yes, okay, it’s an infomercial. But guess what. They placate you with a free sampling of their chocolates before it starts. I find that I sell my soul disconcertingly easily when chocolate is on the table.). Afterwards, the group is led by a guide into a suspended catwalk over the production floor, where the scent of roasting cocoa beans washes over you like a chocolate tide. The tour is worth it for that alone. The guide sportingly attempts to describe what is going on below, fighting a losing battle against the roar of the machinery (this is why you should pay attention to the video) and the glazed-eye distraction the intoxicating aroma produces, but it’s fun to see actual chocolates being whizzed around on actual conveyor belts and packed into actual boxes by actual white coat-and-hairnet-clad ladies. It’s just like the movies.
A little side note: I actually have a friend who works for Perugina, and when I learned that enticing bit of information I grabbed her by the elbow, steered her into a corner of the room, and asked with the urgent intensity of a drug addict having found a new source, “Can you eat the chocolates?” Well, yes and no. Employees have an all-you-can-eat policy while at work, but aren’t allowed to take anything out of the factory. Which means, according to my friend, that almost everyone overdoses the first few weeks they work there, and then go off of chocolate pretty much forever. I know. Shocking, but true.
After seeing the roasting machines, mixing vats, pouring and molding equipment, and packaging belts (What products you will actually see made depends upon the season; Baci are made all year round, but many other products only specifically for Easter or Christmas. Production also slows dramatically in summer.), visitors end in the small gift shop, where you can pick up fun Perugina memoribilia and—of course—chocolates.
Don’t let the lack of an English version of their website deter you (Really?!? C’mon Perugina. You sell in 75 countries on 5 continents and your website isn’t translated?); it is both possible and easy to reserve an English speaking tour by calling their toll-free number at 800 800 907. Opening days and hours vary by season depending upon the production cycle and pre-booking is a must if you want an English speaking guide. The factory is located in San Sisto (a suburb of Perugia), so make sure you map it out before you go.
–Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the factory (Corporate espionage is just like in the movies, too.). The photos here are used with kind permission from Perugina–
The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate the beauty of Umbria. (I know, it seems like a hard sell—but it’s the truth.) And the more I travel Umbria, the more I appreciate the beauty of Assisi. Sure, there are other areas of Umbria which I hold particularly dear (the largely undiscovered Valnerina, for example), but Assisi is—despite the tourists, despite the souvenir shops, despite the glaring lack of stellar restaurants—simply, gloriously, lovely.
One of the features which makes this iconic hilltown remarkable is the lack of modern development ringing its historic center, which means that it has both remained stunningly picturesque from afar and a perfect base for walkers and hikers, who can literally step out of the city gates and in minutes find themselves meandering in bucolic solitude the surrounding undulating landscape.
The wines produced on the hillsides and valley surrounding Assisi—using primarily Trebbiano, Grechetto, Sangiovese, and Merlot grapes to make their whites, red, and rosato—are perfect walking wines: light and clean, pairing well with a simple dejeuner sur l’herbe spread, and not picky about temperatures and oxidation. These are wines to be tossed into your shopping basket alongside your marinated olives and artichokes, cheese and salame, bread and apples, and uncorked on a hillside, under an olive tree, with the sun shining on your upturned face.
Mount Subasio Park
This extensive regional park–which includes the Assisi DOC producing towns of Assisi and Spello (and the lesser known Nocera Umbra and Valtopina), a number of tiny hamlets, four country churches, three abbeys, the Topino and Tescio rivers (criss-crossed with medieval stone bridges), and a network of hiking and walking trails (you’ll need to pick up a CAI trail map at a local bookstore)–centers around the hulking Mount Subasio.
It’s worth the trek to the softly rolling peak of this mountain (often full of wildflowers and grazing horses), which offers amazing views from over the Umbrian Valley to the south and the Appennine foothills (you can spot the craggy peaks of the Appennines themselves in the distance on a clear day) to the north. I especially love the Franciscan Trail (CAI n. 51) from Assisi to Nocera Umbra, which traces the last journey of a dying Saint Francis, and the itineraries suggested by Via di Francesco.
The Bosco di San Francesco
The newly inaugurated San Francesco Woodland, adjacent to the imposing Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, is a restoration project spearheaded by the Italian National Trust, which cleared more than 30 tons of waste, cut back undergrowth and replanted native species of trees and shrubs, opened over 3 kilometers of walking paths, and restored the 13th century Santa Croce Benedictine convent and mill, (now used as a visitors’ center) over a 12 acre area of wooded land which had been neglected for centuries.
The woodland’s walking paths and corresponding explanatory notes, an audioguide, and mobile app are grouped into three thematic routes: the landscape route illustrates the history of the rural landscape in Italy; the historical route recounts the area’s historic architecture; and the spiritual route invites walkers to reflect on the relationship between nature and mankind. The Saint Francis Woodland also holds Michelangelo Pistoletto’s piece of landscape art Terzo Paradiso, using the mathematical symbol for infinity to comment on the unsustainability of the model of modern development and the union of heaven and earth.
Don’t want to muck around with trail maps and packing picnics? Saio Winery just outside of Assisi’s historic center has a pretty walking trail through its vineyards and can provide a picnic (which they drop off at one of the shady spots along the trail for you).
If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!